Insurgency in America.
Ifelt like I saw them for the first time. There were clots of young people in ragtag clothing but also people my own age, fat people and thin ones. A few had the pinched, worn faces of hard work outdoors; others were bursting with youth, needing a shave, the kind I thought of as know-nothing punks. Hair down to their shoulders, or heads scraped clean and blazoned with tattoos. A group of seven or eight hippie types wandered past, banging out a slow steady beat on big drums. One of the girls was shaking a maraca. Another of them, a black woman, was leading a chant, a quick rhythmic incantation that cut into the crowd. “Ain’t no power like the power of the People ’cause the power of the People don’t stop!” The drums would answer with two beats at the end of the phrase, and she would start again. I drifted sideways into someone.
I moved into the thick of the flow, borne along by the current. People were talking to each other, and in some areas little chants would surge up and then sputter out. I felt as if the pavement were far below. I staggered away deeper into the crowd. Faces seemed distant, and then suddenly close and intimate: a smile, an expression of worry, black words blotted onto cardboard placards.
The mass was slowing and consolidating ahead, and as I moved forward the street became more and more packed with people. I saw people talking on cell phones, heard little snatches of conversation. I felt a strange sensation, that I was part of this crowd and that we were all participating in something together. Without thinking about it, I gathered the notion that the police were going to make another stand at Pike Street, four blocks shy of the Courthouse. But they didn’t say the police, they said the Regime. The Regime was making a stand.
Protesters came hurrying toward us, retreating from whatever was happening ahead, but the greater tide of people kept moving forward, and I moved with it. I was safe, enclosed within the masses. The chant had grown – it seemed to come from all around me, and many other drums had picked up its beat. Boom-boom! “Ain’t no power like the power of the People ’cause the power of the People don’t stop!” Boom-boom! “Ain’t no power like the power of the People ’cause the power of the People don’t stop!” I could see the barricade clearly now, only 20 yards away. Soldiers with gas masks were poised with their rifles in front of a Humvee with a machine gun. Mixed in I could see riot police with shotguns and tear gas launchers, all of them masked and goggled, and suddenly I was hyperventilating again, bent over and panting, with my heart pounding away so fast I thought it would explode. Someone squeezed my arm. I heard a young voice: “You OK?” I straightened up, breathed in. A stocky kid with wild hair was looking into my face. No, I wasn’t okay, never would be OK. “Thank you.”
There was an explosion and a canister banged painfully against my shins. I stumbled, stared dumbly at it hissing by my feet until my companion picked it up with a bandanna and hurled it through the window of a clothing store. “Fuck you!” he shouted, waving his fist across the pavement. My eyes welled up instantly, but I could still see the guns smoking and hear the thud of rubber bullets against the bodies beside me, the yelps of pain. “You can’t silence me,” I heard someone whisper. “You can’t.”
People began to fall back under the onslaught, and I heard calls behind me to link arms, to keep moving forward. They had come this far, block by block, in the face of everything. A sudden sharp smack burned against my thigh and the impact dropped me to my knees. I felt hands under my arms lifting me up, offering to bring me away, but I shrugged them off and stood facing the ranks of helmeted figures, anonymous and inhuman. “You can’t silence me!” I snarled at them. I felt the tears running down my face and I didn’t try to choke them back anymore. I said again, louder, “You can’t silence me!”
I was alone now, with the crowd just behind me. The security forces had formed a line and were getting ready to charge, but they were just pictures of men to me now, lies made flesh, and the rage came rising until it was singing in my ears. “I’m going to tell everything!” I yelled at them, then I picked up an orange traffic cone and hurled it across the gap. “Do you hear me? I’m telling everything!”
The wall of men in dark armor began advancing, step by step, hulking and machinelike, but I didn’t move. “I’m not afraid of you!” A blur, the sound of shattering glass, then pools of flame exploded on the street. A savage cheering went up behind me, and the wave of black uniforms became confused and halted. They raised their bullhorns, babbling threats across the strip of burning pavement, but I didn’t care anymore. I was free now. “You can’t silence me, goddamn you!” I started toward them, throwing my fists over my head and screaming so hard that the hot ragged edge of my own voice was tearing at my throat.
“YOU CAN’T SILENCE ME!” They began to give ground.
Stuart Archer Cohen lives in Juneau, Alaska, with his wife and two sons. He owns Invisible World, a business importing wool, silk, alpaca and cashmere from Asia and South America. This story is excerpted from his novel of revolution, Army of the Republic, which imagines an insurgency in America.