being a good american

When I first heard months ago that the Republican National Convention would assemble in St. Paul, a tic tore through my body, psychosomatic dread and detestation you’re not welcome don’t you dare shield your faces in my city.

Worst, my howled-raw voice and middle fingers wouldn’t be there.

I thought about it—taking break from idyllic Victoria, BC, to march with demonstrations or more likely, put on neutrality and join my brothers in legal observing. Eye witness the onerous. Take a stand by taking notes and be there for my Bill of Rights.

I’d return to tell stories of New Glory, a remodeled America on the way, to Canadian friends always eager to listen or just polite to humor my fanaticism for U.S. politics, truth and justice, redress from the ground up sans corruption, deception and greed. Am I asking too much? probably asking too much. From the Democrats, “us,” but what can I say. I want to believe.

But I also recognized the real possibility of being beaten bring it on or arrested so what missing a flight back home [sic] I’d survive it but I wouldn’t be surprised were I not allowed to leave while I waited for the knife (the arraigning sword of injustice, a sluggish bureaucratic blade in the back), or just as likely—Homeland Security would carve a notch in my passport, barring reentry into Harper’s Canada so I can’t become the librarian Sarah Palin would one day fire.

I couldn’t take the risk. I must save Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, Boo Radley and all the rest.

I lived seven years in Minneapolis. I sagged my pants all over St. Paul. The former’s more mine, and these twins are fraternal, but it’s all family, it’s familiar. It’s deeply personal. When the people in the streets armed to the teeth with nothing but their First Amendment rights to speak, to assemble, to press what’s seen into words to enlighten, and civil liberties? these are human responsibilities are my friends, my neighbors, my brothers getting gassed, shoved back, billy cracked and booted, hemmed in, handcuffed, caged and told to go home. Hippies. Troublemakers. Terrorists. There is nothing to see here, move on. And not with that motherfucking dot org.

Eighteen hundred miles away, in another country, I’m getting punched. Kneed in the guts. Addicted to newsfeeds forking not enough while the mainstream media makes me throw up in absentia—its, and my own.

There was no getting near the Xcel Center, with razor-wired fences and phalanxes of riot cops. I’ve seen a score of bands in that arena-rock complex. Tool a couple times, Nine Inch Nails, and piles of smaller-pulls in an adjacent auditorium. Four years ago in the grand stand, I was blown away by the Vote for Change tour with Bruce Springsteen, REM and Neil Young. Four months ago in a conference hall tucked to the side, my brother Sam graduated law school. We remarked then, this is it, this is the place—where the RNC will descend from high horses and a heaven with pearly gates to keep out dissent. Cameras flashed on caps and gowns, proud grins and all things hopeful.

Before long, taking pictures in downtown was deemed criminal. Get your camera confiscated, your name on a list. During the convention, presence alone sufficed: conspiracy to commit riot, to complain of strife, to carry a fist, your voice in unison, or a video cam, a cell phone, a handmade sign.

So you want to be a good American? Fine. Vote in November. Call your senators, write letters to the editors. But don’t you fucking dare leave your house—shut off CNN, peel yourself from the couch, congregate and confront your malignant government.

For the People, By the People doesn’t mean you.

Cops from all over the country in full riot gear, with gasmasks and batons and pepper spray and teargas, concussion grenades, tasers and rubber bullets, on foot, on bikes, on horseback and motorcycles, in boats, in cars, vans and helicopters arrested more than 800 people over the course of the week: journalists, lawyers and medics, legal observers, bystanders and the protesting peacefully, innocent until proven breathing, bleeding-heart liberal, or just bleeding, liberally, concert-going kids and shout-match moms shut your damn mouths love it or leave it, and if you can’t believe it, what’s happening in your backyard, the streets of St. Paul, the heart of America, try faith. In our leaders, our dear leaders know what’s best for you, where you belong. Your skull pinned to the ground.

Go to jail or stay home.

To be Fair and Balanced, there were self-described anarchists smashing glass and slashing tires, overturning advertisements and throwing shit (bottles, shit) at cops. The reason for the overreaction, outright brutality, police state mentality, excessive force against everybody is probably the same reason the far right hate Muslims (as evinced by several RNC speakers). The ones who make the most noise shade the whole crowd. Bad apples condemning the barrel. Dead bodies for God to sort.

That, and the cops were following orders, like good soldiers. Good Americans. Nondiscriminatory intimidation and force.

I try to keep in touch with Sam and Ben, but they’re on the streets for hours, days, Sam in particular. My dad and I email links and texted missives. “Not arrested yet.” Meanwhile, a 17-year-old gets a boot print in his back. While the tortured prisoner-of-war drum is banged for John McCain, officers in the Ramsey County Jail beat a blood-coughing 19-year-old unconscious, disallow him food, dislocate his jaw, bend his ankles backwards, and put a hood over his head, refusing to remove it after he pukes inside it.

Thursday evening I call my mom in North Dakota, timed before McCain takes the stage. She thought Palin’s speech was “something else,” mom-speak for impressive. But she wants to know what’s going on. She hasn’t talked to Sam since Monday, and Joe said, “is it true he was shot at by a cop?” Joe had been included in some email threads, and sure enough—Sam committed the crime of making eye contact and was the direct target of either a rubber bullet or a teargas dud. He ducked behind an electrical box, unharmed, which I explain to our mother. “Wasn’t he wearing his hat?” she asks—a bright neon-green baseball cap, which along with a red bandana marked him as a legal observer. So hands off. …Right?

It doesn’t matter, Mom. They’re going after everybody.

I tell her about the weekend raids before the convention, where without warrants police broke into private homes and forced teens and twenty-somethings to lie on the floor at gunpoint for nearly an hour while they searched for terrorist plotting, such as the possession of cardboard boxes, then confiscated laptops and personal diaries.

I tell her about the treatment in the jail cells, the lawyers in handcuffs, the teenagers detained for hours, refused phone calls to parents then finally, weirdly, dismissed without charge but dropped off at late night hours in random, unfamiliar parts of the city.

I tell her how they’re arresting journalists and taking their cameras, how they’re targeting street medics, volunteering nurses and EMTs, their clothes marked with crosses of red electrical tape, on the scene to treat cuts and bruises, to soothe the victims of chemical weapons as they scream.

My mom’s heard none of this through her traditional media outlets, the nightly news and conservative Fargo Forum. Throughout she murmurs her shock and disbelief, her voice smaller and smaller, strained, absorbing the mind-bending, Constitution-killing context in which her nonviolent, not even protesting attorney son was shot at by a cop on a street in America. She struggles before admitting, near whispering, hoarse, “This makes me I’m ashamed to be Republican.”

For the last eight years, I’ve been ashamed to be American.

Ashamed of the war and the deception that brought us there, the lust for oil that locks us in, the arrogance that eats the key. I’m embarrassed by the swagger we shove at other nations, our ignorance, callousness, hypocrisy and greed. We paint the world in broad strokes with no room between the lines our lies squeezing out the gaps where humanity hides, and humility, logic, justice, what’s right.

And what’s left of what’s right? the centrists cry we must heal the divide but I am sickened by appeals to think of what we have in common: I want next ’cause I got nothing from foreign policy to needful education to what constitutes advancement for women. As the absurdly rich become abusively richer. The drowning in debt working harder sinking deeper.

I’m ashamed of the economy, Katrina, the Patriot Act, the Plame affair, health care costs, waterboarding, wiretapping, Halliburton, climate change ignored if not roundly denied, election fraud, weapons of mass destruction, Millions of Children Left Behind, outsourced jobs, collateral damage deaths, executive branch talking points fed to Fox News, more conservative judges, the Downing Street Memo and the President of the United States of America fist-pumping proud of being “the world’s biggest polluter.”

But most of all, I am ashamed that the Bush Administration has no shame of its own. No conscience, no compassion, no admission of its corruption and the coma they’ve been pushing since September 2001.

I want to be a good American.

A good Minnesotan and passably Canadian, possibly for this world a reasonably good person, a good fake Buddhist and a better humanist but like the emperor this slave has no clothes—I don’t know what I’m doing.

Or, I should say, I don’t know what’s going to happen in this culture war election ready to rip this country apart, again. If my guy will win or do half the things he’s promising. How he’ll possibly fix this heap, how power could corrupt him. How hope might turn coat and be the only thing that changes—back to disappointment and disgrace.

I’m trying to uplift this mess of emotion. Tell youall to do something, major and amazing, or minor but meaningful.

I can’t.



  • Anne Mostad-Jensen

    September 9, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Hear, hear! Check out Radical Reference, we just started a Twin Cities collective.

  • megh

    September 9, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for the link, Anne. I hadn’t heard of Radical Reference. My first inclination is to say woo! then comes “wait a minute, anyone should be able to ask any question to any general reference librarian and not fear consequences” or what have you. Then I figured, ah-ha! Radical Reference Librarians as subject specialists. You *can* ask anyone, but why not ask the experts? (…though I am indeed aware that sometimes, you *can’t* ask anyone, not even your local librarian :/ ).

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