by Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva • September 3, 2008
Immediately following the protests at the RNC last Monday, I decided I to approach the Minnesota Children’s Museum with a proposal to expand their children’s programming to adults. If they respond favorably, the new empathy-training program, “Cops and Anarchists Playing Nicely Together,” will begin in late September and will run indefinitely.
The inspiration for the program came from a series of incidents at the RNC protests on Monday. As the protests wound down, I found myself at the Minnesota Historical Society, where I starting chatting with a security guard about the weather. She told me, “I can deal with the heat, but don’t give me humidity!” I agreed, and she continued. “At least you’re dressed appropriately! I mean some of those people are wearing the craziest things and have all this clothes on.” She was referring to many protesters’ creative costumes and in alternative dress, like Birkenstocks. “It’s, like, why the heck are you wearing that?” she said.
I hadn’t asked, but the security guard had let me know what side she was on. Down with humidity and dirty, smelly hippies! Hurray for dry heat and the professionally dressed!
Protests bring people who genuinely believe in peace, tolerance, and empathy, and yet on Monday I got many glimpses of the exact opposite, just as I have at every protest I have attended in the past eight years. Despite the innocuousness of most participants, there were plenty of people at the march who seemed like they’d seen their glory days on the fifth grade playground. They produce incidents that perpetuate stereotypes and render the inevitable truth: some pig-headed cops are obnoxious, and some scrappy protesters are obnoxious.
Case in point. Around 2:30 p.m., I stood at of the Landmark Center as more than 75 cops pushed the crowd northwards. I stood between two Ramsey Country police officers, one of whom politely told me I could go north, but couldn’t return once I passed the cops. I decided not to cross the “line” but as I turned around to go south, a 6’4″ police officer towered over me, extended his baton horizontally and pressed it against my breasts forcefully.
“Awwww,” he said, sounding as if I were his little kitten. “Looks like you just crossed over the line.” I had one foot south of his imaginary line, and one foot north and hadn’t even noticed. “Now what are we going to do about that?” he asked pressing against me. I had talked to nearly a dozen other police officers who were courteous and professional that day, but this one left me shaking with anger, especially when none of the other officers would give me his name. Whether the other cops agreed with his actions or not, they weren’t going to do anything to help me out.
Minutes later, I passed a Minneapolis police car with its windows smashed in by a rowdy protester. It was parked outside the Macy’s window, which protesters had also vandalized. Two men in their thirties wearing collared shirts and RNC delegate badges saw the car and stopped walking. One said to the other, “I hope they get the motherfuckers who did that real good.” The hatred in his voice was thick and hung in the air after he said it. It wasn’t what he said, but the tone with which he said it that expressed his feeling towards the protesters and just how different they were from him.
You develop empathy by experiencing things that are not part of your ordinary life and coming up with favorable conclusions. I doubt the security guard, the cop, the delegate, and the protesters have spent much time with people who espouse radically different values. And if they had, their encounters are most likely defined by the most pig-headed and scrappiest of “the other.”
So, the “Cops and Anarchists Playing Nicely Together” program at the Minnesota Children’s Museum program will mirror values already promulgated in children’s programming. Graduates of the program will sign a document agreeing to the following behavior:
1) We will not throw sticks at each other, no matter how many millions the Department of Homeland Security has given us to enhance our new sticks, or how many months we have been building the super stick 2000 out of twigs from our garage.
2) We will not verbally taunt people who are different than us with phrases like, “Shoot, you got your guns, now why didn’t I bring my flower?” or “At least I don’t smell!”
3) “Green light touches” feel good. “Red light touches” feel bad. We will not engage in “red light touches,” no matter how much a journalist gets up in our grill and how much we’d like grab them and put them out of view forever, or how much we’d like to sock a pig.
4) We will not break or take other people’s toys out of anger or frustration, no matter how much power we get from confiscating something or how good the rush feels of knocking something over.
5) We will not waste our allowance on candy and toys, guns, batons, armor, riot masks, plane tickets, squad cars, and helicopters.
I propose the YMCA offer up its gym so that the adults who won’t play nice at the Children’s Museum can go duke it out in a game of dodge ball and bring all their sticks and stones. It’ll be like detention.
Don’t get me wrong, the graduates aren’t going to hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah together around the Excel Energy Center while Dick Cheney briefs Sarah Palin inside on just what the VP does. There were egregious structural problems to protest at the RNC, among them the colossal resources wasted on security for the event. But perhaps a Children’s Museum program could have helped prevent the legal pickle the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office is going to be in after the protests. And perhaps the protesters could have “fought fascism” without resorting to name calling and vandalism. Then, maybe the rest of us past some of the stereotypes, gain some empathy and avoid a four-day mini-police state.