I was sitting in front of my computer in my small upstairs office one cool October morning eight years ago when I received an email from a friend in New England. He forwarded me a wire service report that had appeared in his local paper that morning about a boater missing off the coast of Massachusetts. The missing boater was my old college roommate Alice.
The story pieced together slowly over the next few days. First Alice was simply, bafflingly missing—she had taken her 25-foot catamaran out on a breezy autumn afternoon and not come back. The next day the boat with all of Alice’s belongings still on board had washed up on some mud flats in Duxbury Harbor. The Coast Guard, the state police and the Plymouth harbormaster searched by boat and by air; Alice’s other friends and I went over and over the possibilities on the phone and in back-and-forth emails, all of them unlikely, but no less unlikely than the simple fact that she had disappeared. Could she have somehow accidentally fallen overboard? Been kidnapped? Gotten off somewhere and been marooned? I sat at my desk sifting finer and finer and finer grains of information and understanding less and less.
Alice had taken her boat out on a Thursday afternoon and the boat had been found on Friday morning. It was getting to be late in the season and Alice had told the Duxbury harbormaster that she wanted to get in one last sail before she put the boat up for the winter. The search went on throughout Friday until dark when the Coast Guard called off its portion of the search, and resumed on Saturday with state police divers. By Sunday the official search party had dwindled to the Duxbury harbormaster and his assistant, sweeping the harbor with a borrowed underwater camera, but by then it was clear that Alice hadn’t intended to be found. On Sunday the newspapers gave the first delicate hints: “Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan said Robinson’s disappearance is being treated as a missing persons case,” I read in the on-line version of the Boston Herald. “Coast Guard officials have said evidence on the boat suggests Robinson, a well-respected sailor, may have been injured. According to a law enforcement source, a splatter of blood and tissue on the boat’s mast appeared to be consistent with marks left behind by a self-inflicted gunshot. Robinson’s boat was found with its outboard motor in reverse and out of gas, its dinghy still in tow.”
The day after Thanksgiving I flew up to Massachusetts for the memorial service. Mara met me at the airport and we drove together to the old house in Marshfield that belonged to the local Audubon Society. Mara had seen Alice more recently than I had. What was it? I asked her. What was it that made Alice decide that those grasses and those trees just coming into yellow and red, that sky and that choppy water, were the last things she ever wanted to see?
I don’t know, Mara said. I don’t think Alice wanted us to know. Whatever it was, whatever depression and darkness, I think she would rather die than ask for help.
I used to admire that in her, I said. Her control.
I guess it didn’t do her much good after all did it? Mara said.
I always think of Alice’s memorial service, of the kind, sad, pleasant people sitting in a circle at the Marshfield nature center, the low late autumn light over the estuaries, the wind in the tall reeds, when I think about Seattle, November 1999. It’s strange how the two of them lie one over the other in my mind like a set of transparent overlays
In November 1999 I had never heard of the World Trade Organization, had barely heard the term anti-globalization, didn’t think protests still happened, believed that chaos was more dangerous than order, thought that the police sometimes made mistakes but were basically always right, thought that this might not be a perfect world but it’s the best one we’ve got. I was beginning to have questions, but I didn’t see my way clear to any answers. “I don’t get it,” I said to Isabell after reading about the 50,000 people on the streets of Seattle, the disrupted meetings, the teargas and broken windows and burning dumpsters. “It all seems so fuzzy and pointless. Is it about the sea turtles or the steelworkers or what? What do people hope to accomplish anyway?”
It took me a couple of years to understand the full ambitious intention of Seattle 1999: nothing less than to confront, resist and banish the dominator model of power and replace it with a power that rested on cooperation and partnership. A year after Alice’s death I met someone who had actually been in Seattle. While I had been going about my autumn business that year, he had been making up his mind to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus. His report of what happened next remains one of my favorite pieces of writing. An excerpt from it is below—Tuesday, November 30, the intersection of 4th Avenue and Pike Street, standing in front of a line of police in full riot gear.
I choose one—at random, for they all look exactly the same. Every inch of his body is hidden under black cyborg armor. He is armed to the teeth. His face is hidden under a gas mask, face shield, and full helmet. O’Neil is embroidered on his bulletproof vest. I plant myself squarely in front of his face and I stare dead into his eyes. He won’t look at me. He blinks constantly, looks down, left, up, right; anywhere but at me. It infuriates me almost beyond words that this coward has the impudence to attack me when I am unarmed but lacks the courage to even look me in the eyes. “Can you look me in the eyes? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? LOOK ME IN THE EYES O’NEIL.” Nothing. I know why he won’t look at me. When he was halter-broken he joined his trainers in a companionship stimulated not by love, but by hatred—hatred for the “enemy” who has always been designated as a barbarian, savage, communist, jap, criminal, gook, subhuman, drug dealer, terrorist, scum: less than human and therefore legitimate prey.
I try to make it impossible for him to label me as a faceless protester, the enemy. I pull off my ski mask and continue to stare into his eyes. I tell him that I am from the South, about fixing houses and laying floors and loading tractor trailer trucks, about nearly getting killed in a car wreck in October, about carrying my dog around crying to all the bushes that she loved to root around in the day she died of cancer. I tell him that we all have our stories, that there are no faceless protesters here. Nothing. “Can you look me in the eyes, O’Neil? I am a human being, and I refuse to let you evade that. I won’t let you label me as a protester, and I don’t want to have to label you as a cop. I refuse to accept that they have broken you completely, that there is not something left in you which is still capable of empathizing with me. I want to be able to treat you as an equal, but only if you prove to me that you are willing to do the same. And the only way you can do that is by joining us, or walking away.” I remain dead still, staring into his weak cow eyes. He is blinking excessively and is visibly uncomfortable. “Can you look me in he eyes O’Neil? The difference between me and you is that I want to be here and you don’t. I know why I am here. I am enjoying myself. I am reveling in this. I am rejoicing. I have been waiting for this to happen since I was a little kid. There is nowhere in the world, ever, that I would rather be than where I am right now. There is nothing I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. It has never been so magnificent to feel the sublime power of life running through the marrow of my bones. I know that you don’t want to be here. I know that you don’t know why you are here. I know that you are not enjoying yourself. I know that you don’t want to be doing this. And no one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to. Wherever you want to be, go there, now. Whatever you want to be doing, do it, now. Go home and get out of my way. Go make love with your girlfriend or boyfriend, go snuggle with your kids or dog, go watch TV if that’s what you want, but stay out of my way because this is a lot more important to me than it is to you.”
I have not moved my feet or my eyeballs at all. I have been trying to blink as little as possible. O’Neil’s eyes are quivering and squirming to avoid me beneath the mask. “O’NEIL! CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? CAN YOU DO THAT FOR ME, O’NEIL? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? Basically the whole ‘Battle of Seattle’ boils down to the relationship between you and me. And really, there are only two kinds of relationships that we can have anymore. If you can either join us or walk away then you will be my brother, and I will embrace you. If you cannot then you will be my enemy, and I will fight you. The relationship that we are not going to have is the one where you are dominant and I am subservient. That is no longer an option. That will never be an option again. Which kind of relationship do you want to have with me, O’Neil? Look around you. Look at all of these people singing ad dancing and making music. Don’t you see how beautiful this is? Don’t you see how much more healthy and strong and fulfilling and desirable and fun relationships that rest on mutual respect and consent and understanding and solidarity and love are than the ones that rest on force and fear and coercion and violence and hatred? Don’t you see that the life and the world that we are beginning to create out here is superior to the one that you have been trained to accept… Don’t you see that we are going to win? Don’t you want to be part of this? If you want to remain my enemy then so be it. But if you want to be my brother all you have to do is join us, or walk away.”
At this exact moment the Infernal Noise Brigade appears. For the first time since this surreal monologue began I look behind me. A small man wearing a gas mask and fatigues is prancing about in front, dancing lustily with two oversized black and green flags. Behind him two women wearing gas masks and fatigues march side by side, each bearing an oversized black and green mock wooden rifle. Two columns of about fifteen march behind the women with the guns. They are all wearing gas masks and fatigues, and they are all playing drums and horns and all sorts of other noisemakers. They are making the most glorious uproar that I have ever heard. The Infernal Noise Brigade marches all the way to the front where we are standing. When they reach the line the columns transform into a whirling circle. We form more circles around them, holding hands and leaping through the air, dancing around and around in concentric rings like a tribe of elves. We dance with absolute abandon, in possibly the most unrestrained explosion of sheer fury and joy that I have ever seen. On one side of the line across 4th Avenue there is a pulsating festival of resistance and life. On the other side there is a blank wall of obedience and death. The comparison is impossible to miss. It hits you over the head with a hammer.
When the dance is over I return to my post up in O’Neil’s face. I stare into his eyes and invoke all the love and rage I can muster to fashion an auger to bore through his mask and into his brain. And Cow Eyes cries crocodile tears. His eyes are brimming, with red veins throbbing. His cheeks are moist. He won’t look at me. “O’Neil, I don’t care if you cry or not. I don’t care what you’re thinking right now. I only care about what you do. Before long you will get orders to attack us, or one of you will get impatient and provoke another confrontation. What are you going to do? When that happens I am going to be standing right here. If you choose to remain our enemy then you are going to have to hit me first. I dare you to look me in the eyes when you do it. You may be able to hurt me and not look at me. You may be able to look at me and not hurt me. But you won’t be able to look me in the eyes while you hurt me, because you are afraid you will lose your nerve. You are afraid of me, and you should be. O’Neil, you all have been terrorizing us all day. If this goes on all night we will have to start fighting back. And you and I will be standing right here in the middle of it. I have no illusions about what that means. Neither should you. We may get killed. But I would rather deal with that than accept this one second longer. I would rather die that give in to you. I don’t think you cans say that, can you, O’Neil? Would you rather die that be my brother? Who are you dying for? Where are they? Whoever gives you orders is standing behind you, man. Whoever gives them orders is relaxing down at the station, and whoever gives them orders is safe in some high rise somewhere, laughing at your foolish ass! Why isn’t your boss, and their boss, out here with you, O’Neil, risking their lives and crying in the middle of 4th Avenue? Why should they? You do it all for them! What are you thinking? I just don’t get it. They don’t care about you. Hell, I care about you more than they do. You’re getting used, hustled, played man, and you will be discarded the minute you become expendable. Please look me in the eyes. I’m serious, O’Neil, come dance with me….”
Someone whispers in my ear that another cop is crying down the line to my right. For a fleeting moment I can feel it coming, the fiery dragon breath of the day that will come when the servants turn their back on their masters and dance…and then it’s gone. Because O’Neil is not dancing. He is completely beaten. His lifeless eyes don’t even bother to quiver or squirm. And he won’t look back at me. I could whisper in his nightmares for a thousand years, I could bun my face onto the backs of his eyelids, I could stare at him every morning from the bathroom mirror, but he would never look me in the eyes. He is too well trained, too completely broken, too weak to feel compassion for the enemy. His eyes are dead. There is nothing left. The magic words that could pierce his armor and resurrect him elude me, if they exist at all. “O’Neil, I know that you have been broken and trained. So have I. I know that you are just following orders and just dong your job. I have done the same. But we are ultimately responsible or our actions, and their consequences. There is a life and a world and a community waiting for you on this side of the line that can make you wild and whole again, if you want them. But if you prefer to lay it all to waste, if you prefer death and despair to love and life, if all of these words bounce off your armor and you still choose to hurt me then FUCK you, because the Nuremberg defense doesn’t fly.” I have nothing left to say. I sing the last verse of my beaten heroes’ song, softly, over and over and over again, staring into O’Neil’s eyes and waiting for the inevitable: “…in our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold, we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old….”
Eventually one cop down the line either gets impatient or gets orders. He grabs some guy, completely randomly, pulls him across the line, and starts beating him. The crowd surges to rescue our friend, and O’Neil makes his choice. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, O’NEIL!” He clubs the person standing next to me, and the cop standing next to him clubs me. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, MOTHERFUCKER!” But he never does. I ram into him as hard as I can, praying that the sea behind me will finally break through the wall, drown the both of us, and carry my friend out to safety. But I am not strong enough, and the wall of death beats us back once more. Over my shoulder I watch one cop walk up to a very small older woman and unload a tank of pepper spray into her eyes. Her indomitable and bitter face is the last thing I see before I have to run away.