Chairman of the Sandwich Board

By Jamey Hecht

I left my apartment carrying two protest signs in a garbage bag. There was plenty of time to get to the Not In Our Name demonstration at the UN, but it turned out I had misread the calendar. I learned this by arriving at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to find a few pigeons and a lonely man raking leaves. What to do?

I'd gotten up that morning with the firm intention of protesting a war that I consider unnecessary, venal and likely to result in the deaths of several thousand ladies, gentlemen and kids. Opposing such a war already puts me in a minority, and if I can tolerate marching down the street with two hundred of my fellow pinkos, I ought to be able to make the same statement on my own. But I've got two signs with me, nobody's here, and it's freezing.

Next move: buy gloves from a street vendor. Then, into a 42nd Street bodega for string and a nail clipper to snip it with. Four pencil-holes later, I'm wearing a sandwich-board and marching across Manhattan like some 21st Century Tom Paine -- or, depending on how you look at it, like a humorless alarmist with a freaky lack of people skills. The latter perception proved much more common. Loners with sandwich boards tend to be heavily influenced by some combination of Jack Daniels and the Book of Revelations, and their placards generally urge us to repent (for something, usually blasphemy or covetousness, rather than a violation of the Nuremberg Charter). This must have been what prevented so many people from actually reading what my ultra-legible signs said: "SANCTIONS DID THE KILLING" on the front, and "STOP THESE RACIST WARS" on the back. In somewhat smaller print I wrote "5,000 Iraqi kids dead each month since 1991."

The reactions generally broke down into three categories, which I'll call Smiley, Grumpy, and Ignorey (any resemblance to my doctoral dissertation committee of 10 years ago is purely accidental). Smiley was the reaction of about 15% of my fellow New Yorkers; their eyes twinkled, they grinned, they winked, they gave me the thumbs-up. A man pointed to my giant square of oak-tag and declared, "I respect that!" Another called me courageous, and some people even thanked me. Around two-thirds of these were African-American or Hispanic (which makes some sense, if only because of what my congressman, Charles Rangel, recently pointed out: Blacks make up 35% of the armed forces, but only 12% of the general population). More women nodded in agreement than men. So much for Smiley.

Grumpy, in his many incarnations, smirks and rolls his eyes. A gaggle of suits cheers me on with palpable sarcasm: "Oh, a progressive -- riiiight," and then it's back to cell phones and cigars. A baby-boomer in a Monte Carlo rolls his window down and shouts, "You protest your own country? What's wrong with you? Saddam's a lunatic! He bombs his own people!" Too cold to think, I fail to mention the 30% of Gulf War Veterans who are slowly dying from exposure to Depleted Uranium from US munitions. With no time to invoke the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Rocky Flats, Wounded Knee, Kent State, or Waco, I yell, "We created Saddam!" As the red tail-lights disappear, it dawns on me that once again I've said "we" when I really mean CIA, DIA, NSA, DOD. It is my country, but it's their State. Years ago Max Weber defined that term: "the State is whatever successfully seeks a monopoly on the legitimate use of force." Of course, "legitimate" means "official."

Pretending not to notice was the most common response, the middle of the bell-curve. But a bespectacled, well-dressed man covered in eight square feet of cardboard is hard to miss. When you avert your eyes from that, it's not an accident. Kierkegaard called it "armed neutrality." One woman shook my hand and told me how worried she was: "We're rushing down the hill with no brakes. I'm looking around, and everybody's asleep." I mentioned Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, in which one Parisian after another is transformed into that unstoppable pachyderm. Single-minded and armored like a tank, this animal was the Italian playwright's metaphor for fascist sympathizers. Just like the citizens in its direct literary descendent, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, each character in Rhinoceros loses all personal autonomy at the moment of surrender to mass militarism. Those are eerie scripts. If it's a moral injury to forfeit your capacity for dissent, it's much scarier to move among the pod-people with dissent written all over you.

I tried this again two weeks later. This time I went to Union Square instead of Midtown, hoping a younger crowd might find a fellow Gen-Xer more relatable. That didn't happen. Shopping happened. Serious individuals strode into the subway; jovial foursomes ambled toward the movies. Across the park, numbers flashed on that weird strip of illuminated digits that advertises nothing but looks so pretty (it's part of a giant conceptual art piece called "Metronome"). Near the Lincoln Tunnel there used to be a similar number-clock, but it was actually measuring something (the national debt, in fact). These numbers are just for show, because the central ones change at incredible speed while the numbers on the ends stay the same. I'm staring at this incandescent funstorm of non-information when I suddenly realize how late it's gotten, and how dark, and cold. Whether my dissent is preposterous or brave or both, night is falling and I need soup.

Email Jamey Hecht at

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