Thursday, June 4, 2020

Breaching the Levee of Rage

It’s hard to write this week. And yet, I composed something: a raw draft of my thoughts after returning from a peaceful vigil at the Montana State Capitol on Sunday. This is a departure from the usual book conversation on this blog, but now, I think, is the time to take a break from the everyday comfort of our lives and to read something that makes us shift in our seat.

Breaching the Levee of Rage

An acquaintance, someone you don’t know personally, emails you an invitation to attend a peaceful protest and vigil for George Floyd, the middle-aged man who died in Minneapolis after a cop knelt on his neck for eight minutes.

You share that invitation with your wife, who is in another part of your small apartment, on her own laptop reading news stories about protests in other cities (“Listen to this: they’re even protesting in London and Germany!”), and though neither of you say anything aloud in the quiet Sunday morning hush of the city apartment, and though neither of you have ever been to a protest or raised a sign in anger, there’s an unspoken understanding: you’ll both go. After passively reading headlines for too long, the levee of your rage has been breached. You are flooded with resolve.

You make signs.

You drive to the State Capitol building and think ahead to park under the shade of a wide-branched tree two blocks away. Who knows what will happen in the next two hours? Who knows how hot you’ll be after the rally? Who can predict if you’ll also be running for your life, lungs full of teargas and rubber bullets ricocheting off the street around you at the end of those two hours?

Hold on, you think. This is Montana, the so-called Last Best Place, and the chance of your day turning into one of smoke and screams is relatively low. This is not Minneapolis, this is not Washington, D.C.

But you never know. Anything can happen in this new world.

You are wary but feeling brave. You are unsure how to properly “act” at a protest but you’re ready to stand and occupy space on a sidewalk for two hours.

You approach the great lawn of the Capitol grounds and are disappointed to see the crowd is not a blocks-long, seething blanket of bodies and signs, but more like a child’s palmful of salt and pepper sprinkled along the sidewalk. The paper will eventually report 150 individuals were at the event that day. You are reminded of the importance of showing up and the dangers of complacency.

You join the others with signs markered with “Black Lives Matter,” and “De-Militarize the Police,” and “Justice for George.” Your sign is the bottom half of a sturdy cardboard box: you haven’t torn it apart to make one flat piece of cardboard—it is still itself, a box bottom, and can easily be reassembled with its top half, the two parts rejoined as one box. Your wife stands next to you with the other half of the box. You can each grip your box half by the finger holes cut into the side of the box and hold the flat, markered side out to the world. Your wife’s box has the words “I Can’t Breathe.” Your box is simply a line drawing of George Floyd’s face (rendered by author Edward Carey) taped to the center of your box-bottom, with “1974” running down one side and “2020” on the other.

You step to the curb. You raise your arms. You hold George Floyd’s face and the span of his life to the sky. Beside you, your wife’s box pleads, “I Can’t Breathe!”

You stand near the corner at a four-way intersection where cars are forced to slow and stop.

You hold your sign above your head and stare at the passing windshields, willing them with your mind to look at your sign, to flick their gaze from the road to see George’s face and to remember that here was a man who was suddenly famous, worldwide, simply because he died. You hope that driver passing you will think about the fact that the only reason he or she knows about George Floyd is because George Floyd is no longer on this earth and how incredibly sad that is, the fact that a man is now famous for no longer existing.

Some drivers honk and cheer, flashing upraised thumbs in your direction.

A greater majority of cars glide by silent as coffins. You think bad thoughts of those people. But then you have to remind yourself that just because someone doesn’t honk doesn’t mean they don’t support your cause. In fact, you yourself are generally a non-honker; why, just the previous day you drove past a young woman sitting at a cardboard table along Park Avenue to get people to sign a petition for a cause you support and your hand never touched the horn. You vow to start being a supportive honker.

You try to think good thoughts about all people.

Cars slide by, passengers and drivers pivot their heads to look at you. Some stare, some glare, some scoff with a harsh cough of contempt, some rigidly refuse to look in your direction. If you don’t see me, I don’t exist, right?

You are flipped off. Someone purposefully rolls down their window and insults your group with a terrible slur, their voice trailing out of their truck like a banner ragged and frayed at the edges.

Your back tenses, hardens like the concrete you’re standing on, and knots up with a half dozen marbles of pain. You take a deep breath and push your sign higher.

Cars honk. Cars don’t honk.

Some people in the crowd of 150—a weak, scattered few—try to start up a chant, but it doesn’t get off the ground. There are too many syllables and nobody really knows what anyone else is saying, so the chant ripples weakly, like a snake struggling to come to life, but eventually dies into a mumbling murmur and embarrassed laughter.

You start thinking about headlines from other protests. You look down and realize you and your wife are half in the gutter and half on the black tar of the street. You have a sudden image of your bodies flipping into the air over the hood of a car. You nudge your wife and tell her to step back onto the sidewalk.

An older man, maybe in his seventies, walks through the crowd carrying a huge American flag on an eight-foot pole. Even though he has a gentle face and appears harmless, he is surrounded by other protestors who question his intentions. You yourself wonder why he is so adamantly waving this flag, this symbol that now seems tainted by “the other side.” Your wife whispers, “I think he’s okay. I think he’s one of us.”

You think about those words. Us. Them. It’s come to this, then? You know it has and it feels like a tide too strong to resist.

At 12:50 p.m., protest organizers circulate and remind the crowd of the pre-planned moment of silence at 1 p.m.

When the time comes, a new ripple runs across the crowd. Voices hush, knees bend, and—pretty much in one accord—the crowd drops to the ground, one half of a stadium “wave” (remember those?).

You begin the eight minutes of silence: the length of time Office Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck on May 25.

Your left knee digs into the sidewalk. You prop your body with your right foot. You lift your sign above your head. You are uncomfortable but you are alive.

Your muscles clench, the grit presses into the skin of your knee, your breath comes faster and faster, strained through the thick sieve of your mask. You think you will die.

Only four-and-a-half minutes of silence have passed.

You think of George Floyd: he had no choice, he had to go the whole eight minutes, not knowing when or if that knee would lift off his throat.

You start to think of George’s jaw, pressed and wrenched and scraped against the pavement. Your face swells with tears.

Your body is now shaking uncontrollably.

Then the eight minutes are reached, the silence is broken by a low murmuring in the crowd, and you are alive again. You are a white person who is still alive on a sidewalk in Helena, Montana on a nice Sunday afternoon. Birds might even be singing in the trees over your head.

You stand, with the rush of blood flowing out into your veins from your knees, and you feel an electric surge of hatred for all those who flipped you off, called you that horrible word, and all those iron-necked drivers who, worse yet, refused to look at you. You surge with emotion, something like a growl even rips up and out of your throat.

You stay on the sidewalk for another five minutes after the moment of silence has passed, then you turn to your wife and say, “Are you ready to leave?” and she nods. You lower your signs then carry your boxes with George and his plea for breath back across the State Capitol lawn. Other people at the edges of the crowd are doing the same.

You are done. You have said, or not said, what you have come to say. You know it is not enough—it will never be enough—but you stood and you will stand again because now you have a fire in your belly. You are agitated and you are an agitator.

You go home, log on to Facebook and write this on your wall: “Thank you to the dozens and dozens of horn-honking supportive Helena drivers for your Symphony of Horns. Thanks also to the drivers who flipped us off and called us names—you helped us keep our perspective and remember that the world is not yet completely rid of tiny-hearted assholes. Keep fighting the good fight, my brothers and sisters.”


  1. David, thanks for the witness. From Bogota, I kneel with you and all the justice workers. From here, it's hard to tell which is worse -- the state of the pandemic or the pandemic of the state. Sometimes, I wonder if I'll ever see home again -- my first home, I mean, the states. Take care of it till I get home, ok? Get it well. I'll do my part with words and works. Like you. Charles McNair

  2. Thanks for bearing witness, David, with your presence, and your sign, and this essay. I Honk in solidarity.

  3. Too bad you cannot see that this was and is just a front for socialist revolutionaries in this country. We haven't even begun to see how much damage fools like you will cause in this nation. If we end up being crushed by a President Kamala or similar, I will blame you. It ain't about racism, asshole.

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