On two occasions, I have found myself directly beneath the underbelly of presidential power. The first was last summer in Austin, when His Fraudulency and a couple of military choppers flew toward Dallas. I recall speculating at the time that this was the closest I was likely to get to a living U.S. President without having to subject myself to metal detectors, Secret Service agents, etc.
The second was Sunday afternoon in downtown Portland. Across the river, my partner and I had just spent 90 minutes at an east-side library branch listening to a Texas political science professor discuss how the enlightened environmental policies of Gifford Pinchot under Teddy Roosevelt had, over the next hundred years, lurched to the right and mutated into the ecological troglodytism supervised by Bush and Cheney.
We decided to cap the afternoon off with a trip to Powell’s City of Books. Driving back downtown by way of Highway 84 was out: a police officer had blocked the westbound on-ramp. All three lanes heading into the heart of the city were empty. A traffic accident, we thought. We headed south and got on Burnside.
We crossed the river and hadn’t gone more than a few blocks into downtown when it became clear that something was up. The side streets on our left that pointed at the city’s heart were cordoned off with yellow tape and metal barricades. Cops stood in the intersections. Patrol cars were parked everywhere, lights flashing.
We parked a few blocks north of the store and headed up Tenth Street. By the time we reached the store, another element introduced itself: The pounding thud of a helicopter. A crowd had gathered on the corner, in front of the store, straining to see from what direction the noise was coming. Meanwhile, Burnside had been flushed of all traffic.
It finally appeared from behind the roof-line and was directly overhead. It was not a TV helicopter. It was an Army chopper, a big one. I don’t know much about aircraft, but I can tell you it appeared to be built for more than simply keeping an eye out from above. This thing, from what I could tell, was armed.
I asked a woman if she knew what the commotion was, and it wasn’t more than a minute after she said it was for Dick Cheney’s motorcade than it came roaring down Burnside.
It was led by Portland police officers on motorcycles, more police officers in patrol cars, the limousine, black unmarked cars with tinted windows, more cops in cars, and more on motorcycles. Oh yes . . . and an ambulance. The Dick Cheney Heart Attack Brigade, no doubt. God save him if he should ever keel over. If he died, they’d put Bush in charge.
I looked up again at the chopper. Would all this have been necessary if September 11 had not happened? Hell, would it have been necessary if Bush and Cheney had actually WON the election?
It occurred to me that this might be the closest I’d ever get to the oily Cheney. I wondered how to make the most efficient use of the occasion. My mind raced. What to do? I had no placard or loudspeaker, and yet for just a second, I would be even closer than Indiana environmentalist John Blair got in February before the cops hauled him away for carrying an anti-Cheney sign. For a brief, exhilarating moment, I stood poised on the curb, prepared to Express Myself to the Vice President of the United States with the most appropriate, non-verbal sentiment I could think of: my middle finger.
I did not extend it.
Blair’s experience back in February, recounted here at CounterPunch, did not come immediately to mind. But I looked at all those cops, all those armored cars, and that deafening chopper, and I thought better of it. And, only seconds after Cheney had passed, I regretted it.
I regret that I cannot report to you today what it’s like to be arrested, or even questioned by a police officer for flipping off the Vice President of the United States. Of course, I can’t guarantee that I would have been arrested, but I sure as hell can’t say that I wouldn’t have. Can I?
At 10th Street, the motorcade peeled off to the right toward the Benson Hotel. Cheney was in town to lend his fundraising prowess to Oregon’s senior senator, Gordon Smith, a millionaire Republican who has already amassed roughly $4 million for campaign against a Democrat who has barely topped $700,000. His itinerary, according to news reports, will include meetings with $10,000 donors over breakfast and a separate “photo reception” for $5,000 donors.
Not since watching the towers fall had I felt that kind of dread and sickness in my gut. Not since I’d heard Donald Rumsfeld insist last winter that the United States was “bombing targets in Kabul” without bombing Kabul itself had I been as angry.
An hour or so later, two young women outside Powell’s were providing an outlet for the citizenry’s frustration. They identified themselves as artists who were asking downtown folk for their thoughts. They provided a scrap of paper, and I provided a thought:
“Vice President Dick Cheney’s motorcade through downtown Portland this afternoon was an offensive and frightening display of American imperialism and militarism. Such a thing should not be necessary in a society that calls itself free and democratic.”
My partner and I headed up Tenth to grab a bite. In my Powell’s bag was a copy of Aime Cesaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism,” which struck me as an appropriate purchase for the day. The first three lines, I think, are worth repeating and thinking about deeply.
“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.”
“A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.”
“A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.”
David Bates is an Oregon-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org