By Jason Bircea
We were winding down Telegraph Avenue, heading from my apartment on Parker and Ellsworth towards the protests in Lower Sproul, when we caught sight of a bearded man rushing into Sam’s Market, a crowd of protesters trailing behind him.
I could see Sam (of Sam’s Market) through the store window, pressing his weight against the door. He had on that familiar forest-green raincoat. The bearded man stood near the rack of cheap wine my girlfriend and I had sifted through a few hours before. He was speaking with a reporter.
“Is he an alt-righter?” I ask the woman beside me. She is on her toes, casting iPhone camera light at the window.
“Fuck if I know who he is. This won’t look good, though, regardless. This ain’t the way to go about this.”
UCPD officers stand on the second floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, shouting crisp ultimatums through a megaphone: “This is an unlawful assembly. You are in violation of the state of California law. You have five minutes to disperse.”
My body stands in a crowd of other bodies. I put my body there so that it might bear witness to the bodies unseen and unheard — those who live in the shadow of others’ much-proclaimed absolute right to be heard.
Near Bancroft, bodies gather and play trumpets, trombones, drums, tubas in concert, in disconcert.
I can still smell the the acrid notes left in the air by a tree and generator having caught fire.
Up on the roof of the Student Learning Center, a small gathering of protesters stand stoically, looking over the spectacle of us.
The UCPD officers return, saying: “We will arrest. You have five minutes to disperse.” A member of the black bloc lights something, points it at a UCPD officer. “What the fuck are you doing,” a voice cries out. Student protesters recoil, flee from him; they do not want to be caught in the crossfire.
“That’s a roman candle,” my girlfriend says. It glistens and sparkles in the dark.
Here is a UCPD officer saying: “This is an unlawful assembly. You have five min — “
“FUCK YOU,” someone shouts, to cheers.
The black bloc begins marching towards Telegraph. We follow them, the air triumphant. All this is undermined by what follows.
The black bloc plays Drake’s “One Dance” through heavy speakers, then strikes out at the Bank of America ATMs lined up on Durant and Telegraph. Trash bins are toppled over, gutted, lit on fire. Windows are shattered. I do not see a single body dropped.
This is war! This is war! This is war!
My girlfriend and I leave, but not before the surreal experience of standing next to CNN’s Kyung Lah, whom we had seen a little while before, running from clouds of smoke on live T.V.
She was instructing her cameramen where to shoot.
Several days later, I am standing in the kitchen, my books and notebooks and flash cards and pencils and black pens cluttering the dining table. I’m supposed to be working on my honor’s thesis, but the VICE documentary streaming on my roommate’s television disturbs me. An avowed white supremacist says to the camera, coolly: “Immigrants are fuckin’ cancer.”
A — is wearing a black windbreaker, the gray, fleece-lined hood obscuring his knotty, brown hair. Lying alone on the expansive, three-piece living room couch, the rain pattering down the slide-in doors behind him, he cuts, for the first time, a vulnerable figure.
“A — ,” I begin, my tone already too serious, like a father with a lecture on his mind. “Everything OK?”
Unmoving, his eyes reflecting back the television screen, he says: “I mean, yeah.”
“Oh,” I breathe. “For sure then.” His refusal to look at me when speaking unnerves me. As a boy, my uncle Mo would instruct me to always look at people when I engaged with them. “Don’t turn away,” he’d say. “Only bitches do that.”
“By the way,” I add, unwilling to turn back to my index cards, “what are your thoughts on last week’s protest?”
A— casts me a sidelong glance. “Honestly, I’m fucking depressed over it. The older I get, fucking honestly, the more radicalized I become.”
“What do you mean radicalized?”
“I mean condoning fucking violence. I mean, I’m undocumented. The fucking university wasn’t there for me. The quote-un-quote liberals weren’t fucking there for me. But the Black Bloc was. They protected me, they stood with me.”
A — ’s voice has a particular cadence to it: it rises, then rolls back like a receding wave.
“So that’s where you’re at right now,” I say, after a pause.
“Yes, this is where I’m at. By any means necessary.” A — raises his hand to adjust his bifocal glasses. It is the most extensive physical movement he’s made in the minutes we’ve spoken together. The quick gesture makes me sad.
“You know,” I tell him, “I remember a distinct shift that night from inhabiting the position of witness — I stand here in peaceful protest of — to that of a spectator. I remember thinking, who the fuck are these people covering their faces? Why are they carrying baseball bats? And you know, I honestly didn’t know what to think or what was right. I still don’t. I probably need to write about it.”
“Sure,” he says, “do it.”
For a while we sit together in silence. Then A— says to me, “But you know, that’s a kind of privilege, to be able to write about all this. I think if I tried, I’d break down. Probably fucking cry.”
The night of the protest, A— stayed behind into the early morning, picking up trash, putting out fires. I did none of those things.
Jason Bircea is a graduating English major at UC Berkeley. This essay was first published on Medium on Feb. 11, 2017.