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Under a Trestle

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Message Michael Shaw
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      Having been reading in all the current blogs and digs just like the rest of you, about illegal government surveillance, the loss of liberty and becoming a police/fascist state, of war, lies, conspiracies, the economy et al, I find myself thinking more then anything about the visit to Washington, D.C. I'd made several years ago, only a short time after suffering a heart attack. It was a pivotal moment in my life, when my health began to fail and I literally did not know how much time I had. The only thought in my mind was to do whatever good I could with the borrowed time I had left. A heart attack will do that to you. Mortality makes you take a hard look at things. I suppose that is why I'll never forget back then.

During the plane's approach to Reagan National, I suddenly began to think I was having a stroke because of the labored breathing as the plane cabin pressurized. The needle sharp pains in my right temple seemed they would never end and had felt like being stung by a few angry bees over and over! How could I possibly forget that?

It was in June of 2003. I was on my way to the ACLU Inaugural Membership Conference. I had become a member shortly after the heart attack and when I'd read about the enhancements to the already unconstitutional USA Patriot Act. The ACLU was lobbying the congress over it and I simply had to be there. It was not a popular period to undertake such a venture.

I noted the damage to the Pentagon while we circled to land and after the pains and breathing problems subsided, an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach soon took their place. I debarked from the plane and strolled to the nearest cab, put in my luggage and sped off. The ride was short, maybe ten minutes. On the way to the hotel, I chatted with my cabbie a bit. An amiable fellow, he was curious as to why I was there, so I told him. He thought it sounded like a good idea and also shared some of his concerns. After checking in, I made my way back to the lobby and it was off to the Inaugural.

The conference itself was spellbinding. I mean how often do you go to a fabulous hotel like the Omni-Shoreham and witness the speeches of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Robert Mueller or Muhammad Ali, all on the same venue? How often do you get to meet people who are in charge of such organizations, like Nadine Strossen, ACLU president, who I had a delightful chat with in the hotel lobby (after the conference) while we awaited our respective cabs back to the airport. What an incredible and intelligent woman! A most impressive gal who has an air of kindness about her that matches her sharp intellect. If you had been there and heard her speak, then debate Mueller (who, as FBI director, admitted mistakes were made) you would know what I mean! She is a dedicated and compassionate person. Her wishing me a safe trip home to California was like a warm hug from a true friend! In fact we did hug and rarely have I had a better one! Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director, like the cabbie (but with a law degree), was an amiable and intelligent fellow himself. He graciously gave me directions to the conference on my first day, which was situated in the ballroom in the basement of the hotel.

That's where I heard (and almost cried) after seeing one of my all time heroes, Muhammad Ali! It was so easy to stand there and give a 15 minute ovation to a guy who has been a champion his entire life and who, more importantly, is fighting the two biggest fights of his career. One fight of course is the Parkinson's. The other, for liberty! A little thing like Parkinson's wasn't about to stop a guy like that even though Parkinson's is a far greater challenge than George Foreman or Joe Frazier could ever be. His very presence allowed me to empower myself with personal gratitude, having taken my overweight body with the poor heart and wobbly legs across the entire nation to be a part of this righteous cause. But I'm no hero, nor a champion, just a former food service director of a retirement community who felt it time to do some good before it was too late. Ali has been a champion his whole life. But I was able to make his courage my own in that short time frame. That's the kind of man he is! Pure inspiration!

By comparison, I had witnessed a previous event in the same room that morning, when explosive sniffing dogs were let loose in the auditorium by the FBI just prior to Robert Mueller's entrance. But that simply felt like a CSI episode and reminded me of the sad changes to our nation's capital and indeed the entire country. But you really saw it there and felt it too. There was no doubt in your mind after that. It was a scene that could have come right out of movie, a very disturbing movie. I imagine the same could be said for NYC. In fact, a reporter from there told me as much.

There were other surrealisms--seeing the concrete barricade's around our nation's Capitol building where as a child, I once saw LBJ climbing those very steps, smiling and carefree, as if he was going to a ball game. The soldiers and police with automatic weapons were everywhere, the barbed wire fences around the White House and the Vice President's quarters. Iranian activists were at every street corner around the capitol rotunda, passing out pamphlets that called for American intervention in Iran, seeing the Department of Education as being the deadest building in the city, literally devoid of human activity, going through checkpoints with armed and nervous guards to see politicians with perfect hair surrounded by lobbyists in thousand dollar suits laughing about the privatization, or in other words, the latest corporate pastime in the screwing of the nation, the realization that having been in Washington several times before over the years and then seeing these fantastic, real time occurrences that lent support to the feeling we will never go back to the way we were--of all these things, by far the most surreal striking cord of them all was simply a four letter word that had been stenciled in black paint on a column under a trestle where the Potomac separates the Capitol from Arlington. The word in question-- OBEY!

This word was placed there by protesters during the Vietnam War when Nixon was in power. The reason I know this is because for one, there is a stenciled caricature of Richard M. Nixon above the letters. Secondly, because I had seen it before having visited the city during the last days of that war. Thirty years had passed and there it was, still intact after all that time! I had almost forgotten about it. But seeing it again brought it all back and the current circumstances really brought it home. It was as if the word had simply swallowed me whole. It resonated from everywhere, even from the hot, humid summer air I was breathing and nearly drowning in. For the rest of the conference, I couldn't get it out of my mind. Even while I was packing up to leave, there was little else I could think about.

Now back in a cab, I was spirited back to Reagan National. My spell-bound adventure didn't end there though. While in line, two airport security people did the usual shoe searching, wallet shuffle and pat down. Then thinking that was over and right after I put my shoes back on, two others showed up, took me by the arm and "asked" me to follow them. "Where are we going?" I asked "Never mind! Just come with us!" one of them replied. They brought me into a room that was adjacent to the check-in area. In there were a few people in a line in front of me. None of them looked happy. They looked disheveled and bewildered. They were standing in front of what looked like an ATM machine. Only it wasn't in a bank wall, it was mounted on a pedestal in the center of the floor like some weird, futuristic obelisk. When I finally got up to it, I was instructed to take a credit card, "any one would do" and swipe it through this machine. I asked why? They retorted, "Do it if you wish to make your flight!" Reluctantly I did it and they finally let me leave. Still, I felt as though one might after a house intrusion, that I had left behind far more than I was taking with me. Like showering and going to work, only to find yourself naked on a subway! After the initial shock had subsided, it really dawned on me then as to why I'd made that flight to DC in the first place. The government knows everything there is to know about me now. What books I read, what organizations I belong to, the candidates I support and my political affiliations, to whom I send gifts, who my doctors are, what prescription medications I'm taking, to whom I've worked for as well as a pretty good idea what my sock drawer looks like. I thought, here is what one defiant moment in questioning authority has gotten me, a full rectal exam at the national airport!

I also pondered over what might have happened had I refused to swipe that card. For all I knew it could have meant a military prison cell! In that sense I suppose obedience, at least in this case had its benefits. But wait a minute! If I continue to OBEY, keep my mouth shut and wave the flag for our beloved president like a "loyal" citizen, leave the ACLU and become a God fearing republican, what makes me think for one moment, that this couldn't happen anyway? You can bet I'll be pondering that on my way to the next conference!


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I'm a concerned, middle aged blogger and member of the ACLU. I hail from the Bay Area. I Lobbied congress with the ACLU over the more unconstitutional elements of the USA Patriot Act. Marched in peace protests, lost a former school chum in the world (more...)
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