The spectacle of protest on Market and Elm

by Brian Clarey

She sent out the e-mail on Saturday.

“…I can’t sit it out any longer,” she wrote. “This is intolerable. … If I just grumble about it to my friends and nurse my own sense of helpless frustration then I’m participating in the mistake. So here’s where I’ll be taking my stand: if President Bush announces a strategy that includes increased US troops in Iraq, I will be standing at the intersection of Market and Elm Streets at 4:30 on the afternoon of the next day. I don’t know what I’ll be doing, I don’t even know if anyone will be there with me, I just know that I have to be visible and vocal and present.”

Then Liz Seymour, Greensboro’s most famous anarchist, slung her words and thoughts to a few dozen of her closest friends with, as they say, a click of the mouse.

By the appointed date and time the “surge” was old news – was old news, in fact, days before the Wednesday night presidential speech revealing the new plan to take Baghdad, one that would involve the deployment of some 20,000 souls to the Iraqi capital and mucho artillery fire.

My friend Double A, in fact, predicted this months ago while our sons engaged in a toddling form of combat on his living room floor.

“They’re gonna call up all the old guys like me,” the Desert Storm veteran said, rinsing syrup off plates at his kitchen sink. “They want us to drive the trucks while the young badasses go out there and do their thing.”

My cousin, a newly-minted, 18-year-old Marine sniper, knew at Christmas he would be going over before the end of January.

I’ve only seen this cousin about half a dozen times during the course of his life, so it was jarring to see him in his dress blues, tall and strong with a face full of eagerness, exuberance and youth… so young.

So young.

As were many of the crowd assembled on the corner of Market and Elm Thursday afternoon. Kids, really, with a bellyful of anger and a healthy dose of righteousness and maybe a little bit of excitement at being part of… the scene.

A tricorn sidewalk stage forms at the southwest corner of this intersection in front of the red brick façade of First Citizen’s Bank, a venue with a great location, limited seating and something of a wind problem but also wonderful acoustics, exemplified by the rattle and boom of the Cakalak Thunder drum corps that bounce off the structure and echo to the four corners of downtown Greensboro.

“Who’d Jesus Bomb?” one sign holder on the corner wants to know. Another has scrawled the arithmetical couplet, “Bush’s Oops = More Dead Troops” on a posterboard. There’s a chalkboard with the US death count in Iraq – 3,005 – on it, a “Boobs not Bombs” message near the clavicle of a shirtless woman in a flesh-colored bra with flowers painted on the cups, some slick protest signs provided by World Can’t Wait and a few of the “honk for peace” variety, eliciting a response from passing motorists that fill the man-made canyon with a sound like migrating Detroit waterfowl.

Liz is there on the southwest corner, smashing in a black overcoat, black leggings and skirt and a woven gold scarf knotted loosely at her neck, a souvenir from a trip to Cambodia six years ago. It was the furthest from Greensboro she had ever been and the first time she was able to fully understand the effects the Vietnam War.

At the time of the trip Liz was just another middle-class wife and mom with a house in Glenwood, a couple teenage daughters too smart for their own good and a successful freelance writing career. The timeline between then and now has become the stuff of local lore – her separation and divorce, her descent (or ascent, depending on who’s telling the story) into collective living, her politicization and subsequent rebirth as… an engaged being.

She wrote a piece about it for the New York Times last March, triggering calls from Hollywood movie producers, book publishers and a literary agent whose services she retained.

Now in her dynamite threads she’s on the corner handing out tracts, concise orange fact sheets detailing the percentage of Americans who oppose the president and the war and some hard numbers describing the effects of the Iraq invasion on Iraqis, Americans and, in particular, Southerners, with a bit of editorializing on the reverse side.

“This is an emergency!” shouts the hed, with, “Something is seriously wrong” underneath.

“I didn’t know,” she says to me on the corner, “about this seventy-two percent,” that being the number of Americans who disapprove of the president’s handling of Iraq.

There’s hipsters, empty-nesters, mad mothers, concerned Quakers and Summer-of-Love holdouts along with a few media types crowding the corners and yellow-jacketed bicycle cops holding down each point. The drums bang and slap and the passing cars make their staccato counterpoints, the red lights from an ambulance splash color high on the building walls and the banners billow under another gust of wind that blows down Market Street.

“Can you hold on a minute?” Liz says to me. “Because as soon as the ambulance gets out of the way I think we’re going in the street.”

And when the vehicle pulls away the crowd spills willingly into the thoroughfare, with 10 bodies veering from the seepage and joining in the intersection’s geometric center. Cakalak Thunder marches the crosswalks, sis-boom-bah, as do the rest of the protestors, including a slim young hipster in a black beret and his girlfriend who is holding a Chihuahua like an accessory.

The yellowjackets blow whistles, shout into handpieces, and the cruisers roll.

You likely know the rest: nine arrests, a Tasing, impediment of an emergency vehicle, plastic wrist restraints and a trip down the block to the pokey for Liz and her co-conspirators, a rendition of “One Love” performed thorugh a megaphone by Jeremy Johnsonwith Cakalak Thunder.

Before they cart Liz off she looks over a cop’s head – she’s a tall woman – and mouths the words, “We’ll talk later.”

And now it’s later.

“Many of us have just retreated, saying, ‘Oh my God, what an idiot, look at what he’s doing now.’ It’s not looking each other in the eye and saying, ‘People are dying. Something really dangerous to the world is going on. This is important. This is real. It’s an emergency – it’s a serious moment in the world.'”

She’s talking about Bush, in case there’s any confusion, from her home the next day, in good spirits after a few hours in stir with her best friends.

“It was just an expression of the fact that I wanted to mark this moment and I hoped other people would join me,” she says, “but I didn’t want to organize anything. It wasn’t a campaign or a movement or anything. It was just personal expression.

“It was a very brave act for me because I am not a very brave person,” she continues, “but I don’t want to overblow what I did. It was not much of a personal sacrifice on my part, actually. There are people going through a whole lot more every day.”

But what, I want to know, was the point?

“What’s the connection with stopping traffic in Greensboro and stopping a war in Iraq? All I can come up with is, what happens if you don’t?”

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian Clarey at