The Demonstration

by Suzanne Gardinier

I used to study boxing, sparring with a teacher once a week and practicing on my own. I found a poster then that I've had ever since, of an intent young man in the ring, sweaty with his labors, hands wrapped but ungloved and resting on the ropes: Muhammad Ali. The look on his face is a combination of fear and a focused determination to turn fear into power; below the image it says FIGHTER.

Most people would not link boxing with nonviolence, but for me they meet, in that, like Ali, I have no interest in being a warrior—fighting in a war—but am deeply absorbed in learning to be a fighter. Before 2002, I would not have linked the sound of Arabic with nonviolence either, but living in Manhattan in September 2001 led to many unexpected transformations.

The next cities I saw burning, after mine that September, were the Palestinian cities the Israeli army invaded the following spring, cities whose names I hardly knew before September 2001. Someone on the radio (who turned out to be a Sarah Lawrence student, Lana el Khalil '02) called for internationals to come protest at a nonviolent demonstration in Beirut called Tents for Resistance. So I traveled to Beirut, and for a week slept on the sidewalk in Martyrs' Square, under drawings the children in the Shatila refugee camp had made, beside local and international activists, mostly half my age, who were devoted to a different kind of fight than the guerilla war and suicide bombings I'd seen covered in New York newspapers.

One day a group of young people decided they would do a sit-in at the Burger King across from the American University, as a way of protesting American support for the invasions. (In 1999 Burger King had opened—and, under pressure, closed—a restaurant in Ma'ale Adumim, a large West Bank settlement illegal under international law.) As he explained the ground rules of a nonviolent sit-in, Imad from Beirut removed the silver stud from his right ear and advised his listeners to do likewise, in case the demonstrators were beaten by police. Two sisters from Morocco listened intently, while another activist from Beirut stared into the traffic; the group of five from France, through their cloud of Gitanes smoke, looked more and more afraid. The demonstration at the American Embassy a few days before had ended in tear gas and beatings; as Imad reviewed the catalogue of possible violences and nonviolent responses, the color drained from the French activists' faces.

It made me think of the photo in my kitchen of the security guard at my daughter's elementary school, who as a young woman stared through a hail of food and abuse as she sat at a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963—and of the children of Birmingham facing police dogs and fire hoses, some of them rushing to the demonstrations past Colin Powell's father-in-law, the principal of Parker High School, saying, "Gotta go, Mr. Johnson, gotta go."

"We want to do something different in Lebanon," Imad said, "not killing people and not throwing stones." It was April, the 34th April since Martin Luther King died; he had borrowed Gandhi's tools from Asia, and now Imad and his comrades were taking them up again in Asia, engaging in a dialogue with the world—although it was unlikely their picture would appear in the New York Times the next day, as a picture of the suicide bombings or the young men who burned flags at demonstrations might.

The McDonald's by the university was protected by soldiers, but not the Burger King; the group of six who had decided to participate—Imad and Raeda from Beirut, the sisters from Morocco, and three activists from France—walked in, trying to look unobtrusive, and after a few minutes took signs and kaffiyehs from under their clothes and sat down in front of the counter. I stood by the window with a video camera. The manager spoke in English, interrupting as Imad explained that their purposes were peaceful, that the group included internationals, that they planned to sit for an hour and go. Nonviolent resistance seen through hindsight may look heroic; on the spot it looks less heroic than naive, rude, brave, and pointless, tilting with abstract principle against immovable reality—a missed step in the complex dance of a city afternoon, because it's a dance one of the partners doesn't yet know. To the manager it clearly looked like a pain in the ass. "You're not leaving, is that right? That's all I want to know," he said, wiping his face, and went behind the counter to call the police.

By the time the first officers arrived, about 30 people, mostly students, had sat down in front of the Burger King; they linked arms and started to chant and sing, calling for Colin Powell to leave the country, for the Israeli army to leave the Palestinian cities, and for a boycott of American and Israeli goods. The officer in charge waded through the crowd slowly, smiling a little; Raeda spoke to him as planned, and he squatted down to listen to her. "We're trying to avoid a fight," he said, and she told him that even if they did use violence, the demonstrators would not reciprocate. "This is private property," he said, "You must leave the premises." She told him they would do no damage and would stay for one hour with their signs, no more. He stood and walked away and another officer started to speak. Three or four police—and later, army officers—traded places like that for 15 minutes or so. "If we weren't wearing uniforms, we'd be sitting with you," one said to Raeda, whose sign said "Save a Palestinian Life, Boycott America." "We don't want to hurt you," said another, crouching, smiling, flicking his finger over Imad's cheek.

Eventually a compromise was arranged: the demonstrators would stay only 45 minutes if the police agreed to leave them in peace. "You're violating the privacy of this place," the manager fumed, while the young men who worked for him laughed and called the activists names. "Powell go out!" the students shouted outside, and "Ghalayina is the tastiest!", naming a local restaurant, "We will eat fasoulia until we are full!" After 45 minutes the sitters inside stood and locked arms and walked out the door; the others formed a protective circle around them, singing, before dispersing into the street.

"The new internationalists," Le monde diplomatique called these nonviolent activists and those who'd been working in solidarity with the Palestinians since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000; Dr. Moustafa Barghouti, head of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute in Ramallah, called them "Those who give us hope." That night we walked among the café tables near the parliament building, after visiting the hospitable Dunkin' Donuts where we washed and brushed our teeth; one young Frenchman laughed and said, "In 2050, when we have done a new world, we will thank Dunkin' Donuts." I remember thinking as I watched them laughing in the street that they looked like Sarah Lawrence students—as did some of the young Tunisians I saw on YouTube in December of 2010 making their naive, rude, brave interruptions of the old world's ways—as did the courageous makers of some of the videos calling Egyptians to come to Tahrir Square last January—as did the people using the Burger King bathroom at the edges of the Occupy Wall Street encampment last fall. When I hear the words "Why We Fight," I think of those young people: their choice not to despair but to fight, their patience and persistence in labors that may seem pointless but are not, their fear and their determination to make fear into something new, for themselves and for us all.

Suzanne Gardinier is the author of Iridium & Selected Poems 1986-2009. She lives in Manhattan and has taught at Sarah Lawrence since 1994.