The March Protests (Dragon Day Excerpt)
Excerpt from my novel coming out May 28th.
THE MARCH PROTEST
Yellow House had its largest protest of semester at the beginning of March, that year. As planned, those who were so-inclined skipped classes on a Tuesday morning, and instead gathered in Yellow House at 10AM. I sat in the living room, watching the festivities unfold in front of me, as students chatted enthusiastically and threw together last-minute picket signs. A few seniors were handing out tabs of acid to make the protest into even more of a good time then it already promised to be. I was asked if I wanted one but declined.
Whereas the subjects of the semester’s previous protests had been the usual litany of grievances with Lockden’s administration—last semester’s tuition hike, recent budget cuts to the department of gender and sexuality studies, the University's investment in certain Israeli engineering firms responsible for the creation of bombs being used on Palestinians—a recent turn of events had given Yellow House something new to focus their energy on. A fringe-right group called “Patriot’s United” had been garnering headlines for its activities, and apparently growing popularity, in the greater New York and Hudson Valley areas. Beneath the façade of being in favor of “traditional, American values”, commentators informed us, the group’s ideology boiled down to pure White Nationalism. Chants overheard at the group’s rallies—or “anti-white-guilt-triggerings” as they called them—and comments made by certain of its members to the media seemed to corroborate this, even while their public statements assured us they were advocating only for “freedom of speech, association, and assembly”. Their numbers didn’t seem to be large, but they were making an outsized splash.
PU’s proximity alone would have warranted concern, but their activities struck close to home for Yellow House. One of the group’s explicit goals, according to its website, was combatting the rampant political correctness that had taken hold of America’s college campuses, and they seemed to be gaining headway, having successfully started chapters at several small and rural colleges across the region. It seemed clear that this facet of their activity was the primary reason for the group’s success. The Charli Hebdo shooting had happened at the beginning of that year in Paris, and a wave of pro-Western, anti-political-correctness was in full swing. One could see by watching the footage of Patriot’s United that their membership trended younger, middle-class, and relatively polished, in opposition to every fringe-right cliché. No one could doubt that college social-justice activists had made significant gains over the past few years, but the backlash had arrived, and it was uglier than anyone had expected.
Lockden hadn’t seemed like a high-risk location for Patriot’s United activity until the previous week, when a Facebook group titled “Lockden University White Students Union” had been created, complete with a manifesto condemning recent campus affronts to “European Identity”, and a tongue-in-cheek Norman Rockwell, Thanksgiving Dinner, image as a profile picture. The group had also promised a forthcoming demonstration on central campus and made a statement to Lockden’s student paper confirming its sincerity. The Facebook group had almost no followers and didn’t claim any ties to Patriot’s United. It also flouted PU’s policy of keeping all of its racism shrouded behind the American flag—so the administration and student body at large had concluded it was likely a fraternity prank gone-too-far. To the denizens of Yellow House, however—for whom the line between fraternity mischief and fascism was blurry in the first place—the flippancy with which the issue was being treated was an outrage: proof of Lockden’s institutionalized racism, and “just how far we have to go.” It was time, as one Yellow House protestor told me that morning, “to raise hell.”
Signs in hand, we walked up to campus’s central plaza. After a half-an hour of chanting without generating much attention, one of the protest's more enthusiastic participants declared that we should "take to the streets!" We marched across the arts and sciences quadrangle, and over to Campus Road, where we congealed on the crosswalk, forming a barrier. It went without saying that we would hold up traffic. We were surrounded by some of campuses nicer buildings: The University's Culinary school housed in a slick looking white cube, The Center for the Integration of Science and Technology with spiky looking panes of glass jutting out of its side, and Degnen Hall, where we knew that University President Kent Stahlman would be able to see us.
The first vehicle came after a few minutes: a bus. The dean of student organizations had at some point entered the scene, looking flustered in her business suit. She made her way over to the bus driver's window. "It’s a protest" she said. This didn't seem to alleviate the bus driver's frustration, but after a short moment the bus began to reverse, and eventually was able to turn down a different route. Protestor's began to yell: “Tell me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!" one half of the throng at a time. By now we were garnering some attention—both from the student body, who looked on intrigued from the sidewalk, and the LUPD, who kept their distance, but were obviously ready to step in if things became rowdier.
An old, black, truck pulled up to the crosswalk next. Behind the windshield I saw that its driver—an obvious townie wearing a camo, Realtree hoodie—was seething. He rolled down his window and yelled something that no one could hear. He yelled again, and this time I could make out a few words: "...run you over.” He sounded serious and began to rev his engine loudly. When he took his foot off the break for just a moment, the first row of the crowd sprang back, but no one dispersed. The dean of student organizations tore back through the protestor's, her hair falling over her face, and up to the truck’s window. She talked to the man calmly, and then looked back at the protestor's, repeatedly making a wide separating motion with her arms outstretched. After a moment they complied. The driver didn't say anything more. His window went back up, and he slowly and carefully began to drive through the crowd. As the car passed just a foot from me, I looked into its tinted side-window, but the driver stared straight on ahead.
Lockden University President Kent Stahlman watched the protests from his window in Degnen hall, sipping a weak hazelnut brew from his Keurig. He couldn't understand what these students had to be so angry about. Kent Stahlman: a man who had mostly researched AI during his academic career, but who really and truly valued the humanities. He played the clarinet. Had once even considered dropping out of college to pursue a career as a jazz musician. He really and truly did love the arts and humanities and he tried hard to show he valued them to the school. But consistently he was accused of only caring about the economic bottom line—of being a “neo-liberal”. But he loved the humanities, he really did. He had a picture of Albert Einstein over his door which displayed the quote "Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and dreamed of one day of giving a TED talk on the theme.
A few weeks ago, he'd heard news that had made him truly sad. A group of these Yellow House protestors had built a giant papier mache doll of him and burned it in effigy in the middle of the arts and sciences quadrangle. When he’d gone out to the quad to see it for himself, it had taken a considerable amount of energy not to weep. The doll had been grotesquely deformed, the waxen replica of his mustache the students had included in the model melted and dripping. A special investigation had been commenced to find the culprits, but so far there hadn't been any leads. Stahlman looked out the window, and was sure that whoever the culprits were, they were out there. He felt a tinge of rage. A tinge of rage yes, but mostly he was just deeply saddened. He knew that if the students could, they would probably break into the building, run up the stairs, storm his office and break his precious things. His clarinet. The framed image of Einstein with the quote. In that moment, he felt immense gratitude toward the Lockden University police force who seemed to be doing a good job keeping things under control.
It was all that damn Thomas Wallingford’s fault, Stahlman knew. Things had really gone downhill ever since they’d brought him on as a professor. The coup he’d led of the English department had been truly frightening. Everyone in the upper echelons of the administration as well as a number of prominent donors wanted to see him fired. The trouble was that Wallingford had mastered the art of making students do all of his dirty work, and so nothing definitive could be pinned on him. He was also popular—both with students and faculty— in such a way that made pushing back on anything he said or did a tricky PR situation.
Stahlman sighed. The Spring, 2015 semester was already one of the most chaotic in recent Lockden University history, and as he looked out his window, watching students barricade Campus Road, he didn’t anticipate things calming down any time soon.
Dragon Day comes out May 28th on Terror House Press
A previously published excerpt can be found here.