I am hosting a graduate student from China and she and I went downtown St. Paul on Labor Day to see what we could see. It was very quiet, police EVERYWHERE, but they were agreeable and pleased when I asked if my student could take their photos. The first time I asked, the cop wanted to know if he should smile or look tough. I said, “Smile, you’re representing America.” He looked perplexed and serious for a moment; then he smiled broadly.
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We ran into a couple of women leafletting for Falun Gong. My student was shocked to see them. “Do you know about this?” she asked me. “Yup,” I said. I stopped to take their literature and one woman started talking a blue streak to me. When she noticed my student, she asked if she was Chinese, then said she was half Chinese herself, grew up here and made it very clear she was not against the Chinese people, but against the Chinese regime. My student listened with a furrowed brow to the information about Falun Gong.
After that, we were offered free hats and a CD of a funny movie. “What’s it about?” I asked. “Michael Moore,” the two young men said. “It makes fun of Michael Moore and the media which is so biased for liberals.” I told them I didn’t agree and I explained why. They listened closely and looked a bit shaken by what I said. I think it made sense to them. I said I would watch the movie and we must always keep talking to each other like this. They agreed and were very happy. My student took the movie, frowned and asked if it was legal. I assured her it was.
Then we were lucky to see the peace walk; it was huge. Later, I heard it was 10,000 people. The police were tense around the marchers and lined up shoulder to shoulder blocking cross roads. I kept my student away from crowds for a long time as I didn’t want to chance any entanglement if people got rowdy. She was fascinated with the signs criticizing Bush. “Is it legal?” “Yes it is.” The marchers were a very mixed group, all ages and races and causes. Many against the Iraqi war, some Oromos demanding Ethiopia get out of their country, Code Pink, some Somali looking upset, a group of Hmong for Immigrant rights, a huge inflated world for environmental issues, George W. Bush dressed as a groom walking with John McCain dressed as his bride, lots of Israelis with a cause written in Hebrew, a few Jews for Jesus (I bet their parents are mad), Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice wearing prisoner stripes and chained together, black banners in a foreign language carried by angry people who on patient questioning told me it was a list of names of allied Iraqis who had died in Iraq. After a while, we realized it was very safe, no one was getting unruly, so my student got very close to take photos. I thought there were many police, but she said it was not many in her opinion compared to China.
Above us was one helicopter. “Security?” my student asked. “Yup,” I replied. She said, “if this was China there would be twenty helicopters above.” She was very impressed with everything and took many photos. By this time, she seemed to realize we can say a lot more here than in China. I told her I tried to explain this to my students when I taught in China, but they never believed me.
We walked many miles in downtown St. Paul on Labor Day. We saw many people in the march and many police and all was peaceful. I only saw one man and woman dressed in very good clothes arguing with the police. He wore a suit and she wore a good dress and high heels. They had badges on lanyards around their necks. I think they were delegates to the RNC. They were trying to cross the police line to get back to their hotel, but the police would not allow them. I quickly took my student to the other side of the street; I was worried they would cause trouble.
My student was thrilled with her photos. She plans to send them to her friends in China. Many times, I thanked the police for their work. I said, “It’s hard work, thanks for doing it.” Their faces softened; they nodded, appreciative. I realized I wasn’t wearing any political buttons. Maybe that was good; I was just a citizen of America.