An excerpt from the novel
Fake You’re Dead
by Christopher Schnieders
But the people kept coming. The plaza was humming. Of the hundreds of new commuters riding up the escalator, nearly half decided to stay for the protest. The moment they reached street level, their heads jerked in surprise. A dozen student council members from MacAteer High School chanted NWA lyrics and a circle of goateed slackers kicked hacky-sacks and traded joints as a gang of ex-hippies from Mill Valley parked their Volvo. The plaza corner was filling like a jig-saw puzzle of concerned mothers and off-duty bus drivers and General Assistance work crews.
The interns could hardly believe their eyes.
The protest was a popular success.
Everyone was waiting for the interns, after all, and the hand-holding maneuver had piqued a peculiar sense of interest. When Stacia saw two hundred pairs of eyes staring at them, she lost her balance. Her knees buckled and she rocked rapidly. If Laurie and Jose weren’t already holding her up, Stacia would have been flat on the plaza bricks, staring at the twilight sky.
And, somewhere around five thirty, Aaron Perez approached the microphone. He was the one who organized the interns and they knew he was the man for the job. As the son of a Mexican father and Black mother, he’d been involved in more racial incidents than he cared to discuss. Policemen had pulled him over a dozen times for driving a car, strangers had called him a nigger and store owners refused serve him in Tahoe. Once, he was handcuffed in connection with an unsolved murder in Florida. And even though he knew The Los Angeles Victim was wasted at the time of the beating, the whole ordeal pissed him off.
As he stood before the microphone like a ball of adrenaline, Stacia smiled. She had always like Aaron. He listened to her ideas and knew how to encourage people without looking like a dork. Mostly, she was enjoying his strong brown body in black Ben Davis pants and a white t-shirt that read “Fight The Power” in dark blue lettering.
Unlike the second before the ball drops on New Years Eve, the crowd at the plaza fell into the mesmerized silence of anticipation. Stacia thought she actually saw hundreds of cartoon brain bubbles vacuum into Aaron’s lungs when he sucked in a deep breath and pulled his shoulders back.
“What are we doing here?” Laurie whispered to Stacia.
Stacia shook her head and smiled.
“Say it, Aaron!” she said.
“It’s good to see so many faces,” Aaron said on cue. “When we first started planning this protest, I was hoping that fifty people might care enough to hang around and talk about what has happened. To tell you the truth, I thought this would be a little celebration because there’s no way this kind of thing could happen in modern day America, you know. We wouldn’t be celebrating the beating or anything, but… Justice… we could be celebrating that. Or videotape… we could be celebrating videotape right now. Y’all know I’m bullshitting, though. We’ve all seen enough go wrong before. Sometimes… I think that, one day… the police are going to bang on my door and say ‘Aaron, everything you do is illegal and everything we do is legal. The way you’re breathing is against the law. You’re sneezing wrong.’ And when I look them and say ‘Why?,’ they slap me in handcuffs and start laughing. But then I tell myself that’s just paranoia, I’m not in handcuffs now, that life in America is better than most places in the world, we all have rights… and then I look at the television and The Victim is black, and I look in the mirror, and… you can’t lie to yourself, you know it’s fucked.”
His words were greeted by a slew of grunts and “Yeas” and one “Oh my God.”
“Los Angeles is hell!” a wisecracking San Franciscan yelled out.
Even Aaron laughed at that one.
“Did everyone hear that?” he said into the mic. “Los Angeles may be hell but this ain’t all about L.A.”
“It’s fucked,” a laughing maniac said. “Say that again homeboy. It’s fucked.”
“There’s a riot going on!” yelled another guy.
“There is a riot going on in Los Angeles,” Aaron said. “Hollywood is burning. But, we can feel it here in San Francisco, and I bet they feel it in Chicago and Detroit and New York and New Orleans and even Iowa. It’s been wrong too long and we all know it. What’s the point of being an American if the police can beat a man into submission for driving high. Do we really pay taxes for this? When my friend Stacia told me the verdict this morning, I wanted to take the first train out of America. They call it land of the free but it’s really the land of the sham, isn’t it. Everything costs us. Look at The Victim. He paid with a battered body. How much are we gonna pay before we stand up and take our country back? ”
“Who’s country is this?” a gray-haired hippie yelled.
“Our leaders are fucked!” the laughing maniac added.
“I’m not going to talk anymore,” Aaron said. “You didn’t come here to listen to me pontificate. This microphone ain’t mine and I’m not the leader. None of us are leaders… but everyone can talk. Am I right? It’s time to talk or testify or bullshit or whatever you want. That’s why we set up this mic. And if we start talking loud enough, someone will listen. We can change things, can’t we?”
It was Stacia, in fact, who suggested the possibility of an open forum to the interns. She was the one who harped on the idea of a leaderless approach. “The whole idea of leaders doesn’t make sense,” she said during the brainstorming session. “Leaders lose touch with reality when they become leaders. It’s the nature of the assignment. They’re propelled to a level of importance that most people are afraid of… and when they get there, they don’t even know where they are. And while they try to figure out how to lead, they end up losing touch with the people who wanted them to be leaders in the first place. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I know we shouldn’t go to the Mission and try to tell people what’s right. We’ll look really stupid if we do that.” Stacia watched people in the crowd nudge each other with quizzical earnestness.
Are you going to step forward and protest? Do you have something to say? Can you even think of anything to say? Get up there. Tell the fucking truth.
There’s your chance at fame.
Here’s your fifteen seconds.
Stacia heard Spanish and English and Chinese. She saw septuagenarians holding grocery bags while they talked to teenage skate punks and a bare-chested, tattooed Vato warrior urging a hipster with short dreadlocks to approach the microphone. A woman in a wheelchair was there. So was everyone.
Or it seemed like everyone.
The corner was packed with protesters. With every turn of the BART escalator, another commuter joined the crowd as slew of out-of-work twenty four year-olds arrived, burritos in hand. The folks near the bus stop were pushed onto Mission Street and began blocking cars and the drivers of those cars honked. They honked and honked, but they could have been honking at a herd of cattle for all it mattered.
No one was going anywhere fast.
As the first stranger approached the microphone, Stacia was quietly proud. Her little plan was working. In a flash of sheer secretive ego, she credited herself as the mastermind of this particular protest. Aaron organized the kids but she dictated the tone. She said nothing about it to Laurie or the others. If she had never lived, she knew the protest would have happened. Protests always happen just as power is always abused.
Still, this one was rooted in the ideas Stacia planted. In an instant, the insults and idiocy of high school and college were smashed by the energy of the crowd. All of the “liberal” this and the “dreamer” that and the “get real” phrasings and “ignorant” inquisitions suddenly appeared as vacillating and fearful whispers of the past. In a snap of her eyes, she imagined a fifty foot iron triangle toppling from the sky and landing in the middle of Mission Street.
Did you see that?
Blam and conk and echo.
I have caused this change, she thought.
The crowd let out a holler of approval as the first speaker stood behind the microphone, fidgeted with his fingers and grinned. The man’s shoulders were hunched under a trench coat. His gray hair was thinning and his face looked like a worn shovel.
“My name is Ralph,” he said. “I wanted to say that I’ve been hearing this and that about what people are thinking about the verdict in Los Angeles and everyone has something different to say. And I may not know about nobody but myself, and even then I don’t know. But I know one thing… I ride the buses every day and I bet you ride the same buses. I recognize some of you. I’ve heard what you all say and, for myself, I think the whole thing is stupid and I can’t believe we have to talk about it. You talk on the buses and the television people are talking and everyone else is talking, but no one talks to me. People like me never get to talk. That’s what I want to say.”
Ralph moved aside amid confusion and laughter.
A line of eager speakers formed and a burly man in a plaid flannel shirt stepped up next.
“Hey Ralph,” he said, pumping his right fist in circles. “You’re a nut, dude. But you’re all right, too. If you didn’t just say that, I might be nervous, but I don’t have a thing to worry about now. And if you want to know what I’m thinking… This justice system is a rothog. L.A. is going up in flames. It’s getting violent down there and maybe it should. Maybe the whole country should go up in smoke. You can bet on this… there’s gonna be a ton of dead people when it’s over.”
One by one, the interns stopped holding hands as the crowd grew restless. Like most San Franciscans, the protesters wanted to politely encourage the right to free speech, but they reserved their own rights to extreme cynicism, boredom and lack of focus.
The next speaker took over.
“My name is Mary Frances Johnson, For a year, my family and I have been sickened by the disgusting video. My five year-old becomes mesmerized every time it comes on the TV. My nine year-old cannot stop asking questions about the beating. She says, ‘Why are they doing that, Mommy?’ She wants to know what the Victim did. She always says, ‘Why are the police doing that, Mommy?’ And I’ve been trying to answer her. I’ve told her that some people are just plain bad. I told her that some good people do bad things. I told her that most people are good. But now, I don’t know what to say to her. For a year we’ve watched the disgusting video and, more than any one thing, I’ve told my children that we live in America and, in America, everyone has rights. I told them that The Victim had rights and that the bad policemen were going to face a trial because what they did was illegal. They violated The Victim’s rights. I told my children that the bad policemen would have to go to jail for what they did, like all bad people. But now I can’t answer my children because the bad has won over the good. What can anyone tell their children?”
Somehow, the drunk hustler took control of the microphone:
“Everyone’s a bunch of queers. Let’s play a big game of smear the queer and then everyone will get smeared. None of you idiots know nothing. You don’t know what happens around here. You don’t respect shit. I see you run to your homes like scared little Mr. and Mrs. Weasels. I see you smoke pot and give nobody spare change. I see you laugh at me, you queers. I know you think you’re better. But you never get handcuffed or arrested. Mary Frances What’s-Her-Name sits at home with her little babies and doesn’t know what to tell them. Tell ’em, ‘Tough shit’, Mary Frances. Tell ’em, ‘The world’s a bunch queers who can’t change anything.’ Tell them…”
As the drunk began his tirade, Stacia realized that the open forum had already run its course. They weren’t on the campus of UC Berkeley, after all. The speakers were not a bunch of young students jabbering in the middle of the day, on top of a police car in a different era. This forum was over when the hustler started calling everyone a bunch of queers. At that moment, it was as beautiful and ugly as it was going to get. Once you start giving amplified freedom of speech to an average crowd of American citizens, chaos will inevitably ensue. It’s one of the things most of us love about our country.
Shivers rolled up Stacia’s calves, through her spine and fingertips. She rocked nervously. Backwards and forwards, she rocked, backwards and forwards, and the sounds of the corner vanished. Her senses were shot. Cars weren’t honking. The drunk wasn’t talking. The air smelled like nothing. With slow motion vividness, she imagined the fifty foot iron triangle tumbling from the sky. It smashed with another conking balm into the middle of Mission Street. Trouble had arrived.
We need to move, Stacia thought.
Saturn Astrelli and Heaven Gennen left the CALF line and approached the profanity-laced hustler with pleasant, cautious smiles. They were both twenty two year-old daughters of hippie parents. Their dresses were loose and long and thin. Their hair swayed with unwashed ease. You could have mistaken them for twins.
“Excuse us,” Heaven said.
“Mister,” Saturn added.
Hearing their greeting, the possessed man swerved to see the faces of two young angels. In a blur of delusion, he thought they were infatuated with his bravado and instant fame. He smiled the drunken smile of a million dollar game show winner.
“Ladies,” he slurred suavely.
Saturn and Heaven took small, baby steps to either side of the hustler.
“There’s other people in line,” Saturn said.
“More queers,” he said with a wink.
“Everyone has to talk,” Heaven said.
“Talk my ass!” he said.
“But you’ve already talked enough,” Heaven said as two young women grabbed the hustler’s wrists and pulled him from the microphone.
The hustler was stunned. He’d lost the game show and he didn’t even know it. With a growl, he whipped his arms away. He took a shaky step back and lunged ahead, pushing Saturn with one hand and Heaven with the other. The girls stumbled awkwardly to the ground. Their dresses twisted around their ankles.
“That guy can go to hell,” Laurie told Stacia.
“Well,” Dan Sandler said. “I’ve seen enough.”
Dan ran from the line, stuck his big, brown afro into the hustler’s chest and tackled the him on the plaza bricks. Instinctively, the hustler tried to stick his fingers in Dan’s eyes, but Dan was too quick. As Heaven and Saturn hopped to their feet and hugged, Dan simply twisted the hustler’s fingers backwards and waited for him to say uncle. Ten of the high school gangsters crossed 24th Street and pushed their way through the crowd in the hopes of a good fight. They saw the hustler try to kick Dan in the balls and Michael Lord and Joe Cohen sprint to the sprawled men and help Dan coral the hustler, who flailed his arms and spat ceaseless diatribes about queers and idiots. The crowd cheered when the boys hauled him to the entrance of the local bar and threw him inside. Everyone was so happy, you would have thought they scored a goal in the World Cup.
Truthfully, though, the protest was a scrambled shamble and the older hippies knew it. They shook their heads with bewilderment as a couple of punkers pinched yuppie asses and the slackers started smoking cigarettes. Even Aaron Perez was laughing at the wrestling spectacle.
Stacia focused on the open microphone.
The waiting line of speakers had run in fear and the power switch of the P.A. system glowed red.
If the authorities ever find out about her next decision, she’ll have to answer for it. But, then, at that weird point, when someone had to direct the chaos because the mob was going nowhere, Stacia chose step back into the world.
She ran to the microphone:
“Why are we standing here?” she said. “We’ve got to move. We have power but no one is ever going to hear us if we don’t move. No one will ever know we’ve been here. That would be horrible because this is good. Can’t you feel it? We have to tell them that we are still alive.”
Her voice captured the crowd.
They exploded with jubilant approval. There were cat calls and hoots, screams and chants, laughing punkers and Mexican men exclaiming “Ay Yai Yai Yai Yai!” The smells of grilled carnitas and boiling pinto beans and alcohol and dope wafted above their heads. Saturn Astrelli and Heaven Gennen jumped up and down. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” they yelled. Aaron Perez took Laurie Danube’s hands and spun her in a merry-go-round of circles. The other interns bolted from the CALF line and mixed into the mayhem. The guitarist turned the volume up and blasted away with a free jam, lacing his sound with distortion and sound effects and feedback. Jumping in a slow rap rhythm, the high school gangsters circled Stacia. They extended their hands high, towards the sky, until she joined them with her fingers wide.
And before anyone knew it, the whole circus was heading down both sidewalk borders of Mission Street.