Taking the Street by LaSara W. FireFox

A report on the March 20 SF protests, International ANSWER contingent In response to the official beginning of "Gulf War 2," a large, exuberant, decentralized group of folks from all over the Bay Area and around Northern California took to the streets in protest. As luck would have it, I happened to be in SF for this amazing event, and am thankful to have been. In many years of protests, I have never seen such an effective and amazing application of decentralized action. Small groups took to the streets in the early morning of March 20, The Day After, effectively shutting down much of the financial district , SoMa, and at times blocks and blocks of Market Street. Market Street was closed down repeatedly throughout the day. I joined the masses at noon at Civic Center, and left the Center with a group numbering in the mid thousands. At the height of activity this group grew to be about 10-15 thousand strong. This group, while undoubtedly the largest, was just one of many ranging through the city.
 
While much of the media is playing up the frustration and inconvenience aspect of the response of San Francisco residents to the protests, I was not really surprised, but moved all the same, by the many people sympathetic to the anti-war cause. Of the individuals I encountered, city workers, construction workers, people stuck in traffic and on the sidewalks, many joined our ranks, and many more offered thanks for the work we were doing. Along the spontaneous route of the march, we met up with other cells of protesters on their spontaneous routes. Groups would merge, and splinter, and merge, and splinter. It was like being part of some living creature that was constantly dividing, recombining, and evolving.
 
Spirits were high. We were out in mass numbers, voicing our concerns and compassion, praying and walking and talking and being, for peace. We were making history, and we knew it. The air was almost static with the power of the people. Twice in the flow of the day, our large group was contained by two flanks of officers, one in front and one in back. The first time, I was emotionally preparing for the police to begin their usual crowd control tactics, i.e. shoving with batons, escalating to cracking with batons, escalating to rioting and tear gas, but was impressed with the ANSWER coalitions front-line tactics. Linking arms facing the officers, the ANSWER folks shielded the protesters. After a while, the crew with the P.A. system got us all chanting "Let us march in peace. All you have to do is leave!" over and over again. After about three minutes of this chanting, the officers fell back, and let us walk on. It was an amazing and powerful moment, culminating in a sense of jubilance and a response chant of "Whose streets? Our streets!" and the progression of the march up Market. The second time was our second pass on market, about three hours later.
 
From Market, we went to Van Ness. We were successful in shutting down both directions of traffic. By this time, the ANSWER cell of the protest had grown to cover about a mile of ground from end to end. All lanes were closed, and many of us were walking among the stranded cars, making contact with people as much as possible. Like I stated earlier, most of the responses I got were very positive. From Van Ness we went East on California. We hadn't seen any cops for ages, but finally ran into some at the Fairmount Hotel. That was the only time we saw police From the time we left Market to the time we got back to Market. Others cells were more attractive as targets. The police were less sympathetic to the Black Bloc crew. From what I understand, there was some head-bashing and police brutality in response to the more aggressive tactics of the radical types. From my perspective, I must say that the work I saw the officers do was at least done with restraint, and some of the officers were downright accessible. Some of these guys were obviously not trained in crowd control. These looked uncomfortable in their gear, and were totally ineffective at the dehumanization tactics riot cops are so schooled in. I swear, one sweet young cop looked like on the edge of tears in response to my asking him if he was doing okay. By the end of our short conversation he was smiling and looking both myself and a male friend in the eye. Another cop near this guy gave answers to every question I asked, with no attitude at all. I interacted with as many police officers throughout the day as I could. Each and every one said they had been on duty since 5 am. I felt sorry for them as they saw me leaving and said "At least you can leave"
 
As I left the Market Street gathering at about 6 PM, I had the opportunity to talk to some cops who were taking a rest in the vans a few blocks away. They told me that every cop in SF that was available was on duty, and had been since 5, and would not be off-duty for the foreseeable future. They were kind, and informal, and very willing to interact on a human level, once out from behind their shields. I left these interactions hoping that my offering a human face to these officers as a protester might help them remember the humanity of others as they spend more and more time on duty with little, or no, rest.
 
I went and tried to catch some news before leaving the city, but there wasn't really much to be had. Out on Market and 8th, I got to mingle for one last time for the day in a group of around 500 activists still taking the streets. As the crew caroused off into the distance, police vehicles trailing behind the crowd like lost puppies, I got into my car and left for home, knowing that I had just witnessed an evolution in activist tactics. A few final thoughts: If you are going to be out in SF, remember this: The cops are not getting much sleep. If you don't want to be part of the head-bashing form of protest, make contact. Ask how the officers are doing. Some will not look you in the eye, but others will. Some will even talk to you, and tell you how their day has been. Listen to them. Make them feel heard. It goes a long way to taking the pressure down a notch or two. (If you're lucky, you might even find that sacred place where the lines disappear, and we are just people, communicating. A few officers might even flash you a peace sign when no one is looking. One did to me.) All tactics are valid, but remember that your choices affect you, and others. By this I mean, be aware of the risks you are taking, and be aware of whether you are willing to take the consequences of your actions. If you don't want to face felony charges, steer clear of the bridges and don't wrestle with the cops. And, don't forget that your actions may affect those around you. If you are in a group of protesters that include children, don't throw stuff at the cops. If you want to make a statement about peace, try to be it. We are against the war. That is our common ground in this movement. Some of us are FOR peace, as well. Think about what the two things mean. Figure out where on that spectrum you sit. And then act accordingly.