I took my infant daughter, Percy, to her first protest march a few weeks ago in the hopes that nine pounds and 10 ounces of pure political muscle in pink footsie pajamas might be just enough to tip the scales toward peace.
You’re never too young to start developing a political consciousness. Really, she ought to be scared of this New New World Order more than anyone, living as she does inside John Ashcroft’s dream world. We’ve got her confined to a bed for hours at a time, she’s under round-the-clock surveillance and the food’s always the same — milk, nine square meals a day with no end in sight.
So, in the interest of broadening her horizons we grabbed a few extra diapers and bundled her up in the matching vest and socks from Baby Gap — the outfit was a gift, I swear. I’d never support that sort of Third-World sweatshopping, but since we’ve already got the clothes, it’s hard not to admit that she looks ridiculously cute in them. If you want to be heard, you’d better look good.
As a child in the semi-sovereign Berkeley principality of Rockridge I was raised with a picket sign in my hand. My parents figured we could always go to the Lawrence Hall of Science some other weekend when we weren’t busy saving the world. Protests are more fun than picnics, and better exercise, too. We rallied for the Sandinistas and against the Contras. Or was it the other way around? I always had trouble keeping my Central American paramilitaries straight when I hadn’t had my nap. The MX missile was a definite no-no, and I was demanding freedom of choice before I knew where babies came from. I remember the day my third-grade class picketed Bank of America to demand they divest from South Africa. Imagine that: eight years old and already toppling corrupt governments. I’m almost positive I was personally responsible for freeing Nelson Mandela from prison.
By the time I got to high school my political activism mainly consisted of going to Telegraph whenever there was a riot. The root issue might have been some new atrocity about to be committed against People’s Park, but mostly we just liked to watch as Rasputin’s had its windows broken (again). By the time my senior year rolled around, though, the first Gulf War was on and the word “draft” was in the air. So I found myself marching again — mostly out of pure, terror-stricken self-interest, but chanting about the injustice of Iraqi collateral damage because it sounded better.
The recent rally in downtown Berkeley was like many others I’d been to over the years, with lots of genuine good intentions delivered via shotgun — forceful and scattershot. Most of the speeches went right over Percy’s head, and mine, too, if you want to get technical. In the space of half an hour I was exhorted not only to end war, but to fight homophobia, legalize marijuana and write my city councilmember about some sort of communications tower that’s about to be erected within radiation-wave distance of — gasp! — Chez Panisse. A pair of kids in hip-waders stopped to ask if I had “just a minute” to save the California environment. Sorry, I’m still busy with homophobia, but thanks for asking. One speaker made the point that since global opposition to this war was so much stronger than during Gulf War I, peace must be on an exponential upswing. He was sure that after this round of fighting we’d pretty much have naked aggression stamped out once and for all.
I used to be that earnest, I know I was. And I kind of miss that George Bush-Julia Butterfly moral certainty that I’m unassailably in the right and damn the detractors. These days I’m not so sure; it’s quite possible that I’m wrong about a lot of things, maybe even most of them. I do know that I’m as powerless as a baby to affect what’s coming out of Washington, D.C., but I still like being connected to a movement that’s large and outraged, even if it is a little goofy around the edges.
I’ll keep taking Percy to the protest marches until she’s old enough to decide for herself. Besides, if I don’t take her out now, how will people ever get to see her in that fabulous, frilly Old Navy skirt we just bought her for spring?
Zac Unger is a Berkeley resident and an Oakland firefighter.