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Mr. Bush’s character and personality still elude definition. It may be the Florida flap that touched on American sensibilities and put him beyond curiosity. It may be the shock of 9/11, or the long wait for tangible results in his war against terror; say, catching up with the latter day Moriarty, or discovering the location of the underground evil empire from confessions of the thousands of Muslims rumored to be in jail, or ferreting the mastermind of the Taliban from among the hundreds of the unnoticeable and silent foreign prisoners languishing in Guantanamo sun braised blocks.
It may be waiting for the news that the illusive link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qa’ida is now really in hand, or the discovery of those weapons of mass destruction–the principal if not the sole reason for the devastating war. Someone inevitably retorts: “Or, were they?” and much of the disinterest begin to turn into distrust, and a natural consequent dislike.
Californians, and Northern Californians in particular, have crossed that distrust line, as a public meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church in quiet Palo Alto showed. The speaker, a journalist on a major San Francisco Bay newspaper reveled in loud laughter and feverish subsequent applause when he reminded his packed audience of their inner feelings. But he told them to nurture their pains, egg their determination to continue the masochist game of uncovering problems they perceive, and pondering hopelessly at the inevitable disastrous consequences. They appear lonely and leaderless even in their uniting fears. Mr. Bush, they were told, flushed with events in Iraq, is touring their heartland. But it was not a victory tour, as newspapers insisted. It was a fund-raising effort for his 2004 reelection bid.
At 8:00 am people, singly and in groups began to converge on a car park in the sleepy town of Santa Clara. Silicon valley is basically a sprawl. It stretches from San Mateo in the North to San Jose, the self-acclaimed capital of the valley, in the South straddling both sides of an ancient route, El Camino Real. Santa Clara is the county seat of the southernmost county. It is a tidy industrial town typical of the Valley’s: opulent engineering and commercial buildings on one side, incredibly beautiful and chic homes in one green corner, and in a remote other, less beautiful, and at times down right derelict dwellings, for the ‘less fortunate,’ mostly Latino immigrants, without whom much of Silicon Valley would be just that!
Almost everyone arriving at the car park had a banner, or was presented with one from volunteers who made some probably the night before, but some were being made there and then too. A banner could be a placard held across one’s chest, and waved up high at moments of excitement, or stuck at the end of a stick, which required piercing the sky a few times when similar moments of excitement take hold. Most of the banners were home made, although familiar organization-issue banners were present as well but not in the quantities one saw in other demonstrations.
The handmade banners betrayed a strong desire to be original–and one is in Silicon Valley. A man in his late fifties wearing a Downer hat and hanging by his wife’s arm smiled gently to a photographer as his wife displayed her hand-written banner that said: “My Husband, a Computer Scientist has been out of Work for 16 Months, Mr. Bush.” But the feeling amongst the marchers was that Mr. Bush doesn’t even care!
Caring or not, the board the woman carried was the kind of white boards that dazzles one’s eyes into sleep at meetings. This woman invented a multi-use banner with an eraser and a stock of erasable ink pens bulging out from her pocket, to boot.
Other banners weren’t so polite. Younger participants used the occasion to establish their right to adulthood by using words not usually reserved to greet anybody, let alone a President. Judging by letters to the editors of newspapers in the area, the use of such a language evokes amongst supporters of officialdom a pre-Vietnam sense of self-righteousness, and a biblical subservience to authority. “The President represents his office and not his person,” said one letter writer. “Sorry,” one could imagine a reply, “I meant to insult the person.”
Asking Mr. Bush to take his troops out of Iraq seemed to be a recurrent theme of the banner writers. It was a colorful scene. Some were thoughtful and others laughing. Some had a grim look of determination. Others had a defeated look of an underdog–but none were hesitant or unsure, and all marched under the banners and to the welcome rhythmic beat of a jazz band that appeared from nowhere amongst the crowd and colored the morning.
One thousand protesters marched to the industrial part of Santa Clara. The target was a United Defense Corporation factory where a troop carrier, the Bradley, is made. These carriers did not brake down as often and as frequently as other land and air transports such as the Abraham tank and the Apache helicopters in Iraq. Russian intercepts during the war spoke of round the clock maintenance activities and disablement of hundreds of tanks and helicopters due to the (patriotic?) sandstorms in Iraq.
Mr. Bush was to make his a staged and choreographed appearance in the factory, before one such a troop carrier. He was to deliver a speech before the workers who are under the strong impression that they will get a share of the $4 billion paid so far to their employer.
“Not so fast.” the demonstrator’s frontline was told. At least half a mile from the dreaded weapons factory a line of black-clad policemen stopped the demonstrators. Horses, mostly good tempered were mounted by very menacing looking characters, wearing peculiar sunglasses and helmets seen so often in the bravado shots of US troops attacking Iraqi cities and civilians. These were, however, black helmets. For some reason, one of the policemen covered it with a camouflage cloth that can only be a reflection of this person’s desire to treat the demonstrators as combatants who are likely to drag him into a battle between the bushes, where his camouflage will presumably save his life!
The horses, obediently–though not exactly happily – danced under the hesitant rider’s confused instructions on the tip of their hooves the ballet only horses can perform so majestically. One remembered the Arab princes and their flowing robes fluttering in a rushing wind to charm one’s sense of rhythm to exaltation–as decaying Hollywood movies pictured Arabs, Iraqis included, in the long gone past when Rudolf Valentino sought to improve his image by pretending he is an Arab! The scene has changed The elegant Rudolf is replaced by an impossibly fat policeman, wearing a frighteningly black evil-looking raincoat that covers his struggling belly, who can perform such dances–thanks to a clever, nimble and dutiful and noble animal, who had the misfortune of having to give a ride to a beast.
There are a lot of immigrant policemen amongst the predominantly white collection. They look even fiercer than their white colleagues. While all maintain an aggressive, ready-to-jump-on-you look, we have long uncovered this white man’s trick and found out that no damage they can cause cannot be repaired by a hospital or an undertaker–but those brown faced Asian policemen are a threatening mystery that goes beyond injury and death. They wear glasses that cover their entire eye-sockets, lending them an extra terrestrial look and their clear anger a serious moment of crisis–since one has not committed, to one’s perception, any wrong–or has one? The aggrieved look, the yard-long baton, the big boot dangling from expensive Spanish-style stirrups, the continuous charge at the crowds sideways with the horse. All convinced one that the right to demonstrate is not a right. It is done at the sufferance of these police persons, and that incredible apparatus behind them called the state–who supplied them with such fancy leather goods and armor as well as the batons, and all those gadgets underneath the voluminous coat, flowing leisurely on the back of the horse.
Well, one of those aggrieved policemen was aggrieved. And he decided to use his baton to push the crowd off to the side pavement. He did not speak. He just kept pushing his horse sideways–and the horse moving obediently, but so gently against the crowds. When the horse would simply not go further out of concern for the people in its way, well the policeman lent a hand, and jabbed one old woman spectator in the face. She screamed and moved back–and the horse was made to take her place and the place of her companions rushing to help her. The policeman murmured angrily–probably upset that the horse couldn’t do the jabbing without bothering the rider!
From afar, a couple of golden-striped policemen appeared. The stripes run down the side of their dark blue trousers. Their police shields, the metallic star policemen carry, are golden. Their demeanor is that of superior officers–may be even lieutenants. They were directing the operations from a distance. Soon, they waved to some two hundred policemen standing near them, and the latter proceeded with great haste towards the demonstrators. One thought for a minute that a charge is afoot. No. It was just another demonstration of numbers. The horses, which cleared the street and pushed the demonstrators to the side pavement, were withdrawn to the back of lines of policemen carrying yard-long batons, stood between them and the demonstrators. They did not have the menacing look of the horse riders although they had appeared to enjoy performing their duty standing to attention, and holding the batons across heir chests with both hands. Soon, one of the golden-striped policemen appeared and gave instruction to a police sergeant. The latter gave instructions to a lesser policeman, who came over and moved the entire line two steps to the right. This was not good enough to the second striped policeman, who, through the usual, though different channels, moved the entire line one step to the left. Well, this time the initiative was in the hands of the lower echelons. A sergeant orders the line to move back two steps to the right. That last move must have brought some satisfaction since no further changes in the readiness of the forces against the demonstrators seemed necessary–or that the matter was being discussed by higher-level police captains?
A counter demonstration soon appeared on the opposite side pavement. Some fifteen persons scattered across a hundred yards carrying American flags–the sign of the war supporters. This is unfortunate but seems almost a part of the American traditions. Some carry the flag and others evidently prefer to burn it. A wise man once told me that when fairness and justice prevails, the reverse would happen. I wondered.
But the counter-demonstrators had to stand next to a splinter group from the main body of the protesters, who were already there. The situation became confusing. A banner urging “Hail to the Thief,” rather than to the ‘Chief,’ was raised next to one asserting ‘Bush–the Right Man in the Right Place’ failing, however, to specify: doing what?
Then, right in front of the protesters there appears a man pushing a peculiar pram with three very young children in it. The other hand carried a fluttering flag as he paraded hurriedly up and down. The police asked him remarkably gently to refrain from doing so. He obliged good-naturedly and went off with his infant cargo that was meant to solicit police protection while he intimidated the demonstrators.
But not for long. Undeterred he crossed over to the demonstrators’ side and began placing his big flag in front of their banners. A very childish (right of speech?) contest ensued. The flag would cover a banner and get entangled with it. The banner holders would untangle it and move it forward. The flag would then cover it again, and so on. The police watched and paid no attention. He obviously has the right to ‘say’ what he wanted, and it did seem that his right superceded that of his opposition. Soon, other invaders showed up. More flags migrated from the other side of the street to take its place amongst the demonstrators. They were too few to make a difference, especially when a surprise object made its appearance.
A giant rocket-shaped blimp made of rubber and filled with a light gas appeared. Demonstrators held it down while its position amongst the demonstrators was being secured. As it lifted above the heads of the demonstrators carrying a huge anti-Bush slogan that could hardly be covered by flags, or the amassed police.
It was not long before sudden movements amongst the police signaled the end of the ‘state of emergency.’ The President must have moved on. The policemen began to withdraw, looking rather unhappy. Was it the cowardly demonstrators who failed to do battle? The horses evidently relieved and provided evidence to that effect, some of which made some demonstrators distinctly unwell and prompted some theorizations about Police plots. But both, the horses and the demonstrators must have felt good.
Did Mr. Bush take notice? If he did, he probably brushed the whole thing off the way he reacted when millions took to the street against the war with Iraq. He said then that he does not run the country by ‘focus groups.’ Those who understand what focus groups do failed to understand the analogy. But his was a muted anger compared to that seething wrath emanating from the eyes of his National Security Assistant like a pair of devastating laser beams shooting out their green rays in parallel every time she shook her head. She demanded that the demonstrators “go, and demonstrate in Baghdad” rather than in their own country against policies of their own Government. This was somewhat expected. The only strange thing about it was that it was too early to declare America divided into ‘you’ and ‘us.’ The return of this division is frightening. It certainly characterizes the people surrounding the President, but he, the President, still defies characterization.
Khaled El-Birzi lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at: email@example.com