My First Protest Wasn’t What I Expected

Our Muslim neighbors gathered to pray at the capitol. We went to protect them.

Today I went to the Texas state capitol.

There was this old Vietnam veteran there. He wore an old green military jacket. I am quite certain he’s had the jacket since he came back from the jungle all those years ago. Some people who go off to war never really come home, you see, even if they’re lucky enough to make it back alive. A lot of them spend their days wishing they hadn’t been lucky at all.

I know something about that feeling; it has been twelve years since I returned from Iraq, and I still occasionally find myself asking why I’m here, doing cool things in 2017 and (finally) about to marry the girl I first loved nearly twenty years ago while they are forever back there on the side of a dirt road or hill, forever young and patriotic, forever ready to take on the world.

I went to the capitol today because I am tired of this weird internal belief I’ve had for quite some time: a belief that I did my part back then in the war, that I served my country and went into the shit, that other people need to take up the slack.

I am tired of crafting up amazing hot political tweets and feeling that little moment of satisfaction that I am RESISTING and STANDING UP FOR WHAT I BELIEVE IN because the truth is this: I’ve long just been a coward trying to pass the buck to others and then justifying it because I wore fatigues a long time ago.

Except lately, I’ve decided I’m tired of just being a coward who is great at Twitter hot takes, because — and you may or may not have noticed this, I dunno — what’s happening right now in the United States is just a tad bit disgusting and embarrassing and also terrifying. So I decided that I would actually get out in the world and try to make a difference in a real human way instead of a internet-human way.

When my fiance told me a few days ago about how a few Austin citizens were gathering to support our local Muslim neighbors down at the capitol, and how we’d try to form a small circle to protect them against the protesters that would no doubt show up to harrass them, I agreed to join her.

It felt like the right thing to do.

Here’s another confession: while I was driving to the capitol, I was just a little bit scared. I had all these visions of people throwing things and screaming and shouting and violence. I hate to admit this to you, but there were moments where I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into, and there were moments where I wished that I hadn’t gotten myself into it at all.

Me and the love of my life and a few other folks were going to protect these peaceful people against an angry mob?

This seemed like such a bad decision.

I guess the first sign that maybe I was wrong (again) was when it took me 45 minutes to find a place to park near the capitol, and by “near the capitol” I mean I parked over 1.5 miles away. I walked over to that grand capitol building — one of the places here in Texas along with the Astrodome that can still make your heart resonate with history — and then I walked around the corner of the building and saw thousands of people, all linked together by their own arms and hands, creating a circle far bigger than I could have imagined I’d encounter. Only it wasn’t just a single circle, because there were rows and rows of people, and they were all smiling and singing and right there in the middle, now more than protected against whatever might come from the outside, was a small group of smiling Muslim men and women and children.

I saw all of this and I stopped and I just couldn’t help myself. I laughed out loud, not because it was funny, but because the joy I felt in that moment couldn’t be contained. I didn’t want to contain it, anyway.

The old Vietnam veteran, as it turned out, was the only protester who’d arrived (so far) to shout at our Muslim neighbors, and he came prepared with lungs full of air and a creative, revolting and wholly incorrect arsenal of insults.

“You’re standing with pedophiles? Is that what you’re standing with?,” he bellowed. “Did you know that Allah is a demon? Those people will rape all of your women. Is that what you’re standing with? Jesus hated lesbians. Did you know that? And you’re standing with them?”

I nodded, and it was a weak nod, because I hadn’t found my voice and because I was ashamed that all of this has happened to others for so long while I sat at home thinking that it was someone else’s problem.

And I realized in that moment that this stuff isn’t someone else’s problem, because “someone else’s problem” is what got us to this point. From that moment on, I was going to stand up for my neighbors. I was going to organize. I was going to resist and protest and call and write letters, because what’s happening up in Washington is not America and it is not our republic.

I stood up a little straighter and I looked that veteran in the eye, and I smiled at him, because no matter what kind of hatred he radiated in that moment, there was once a time when he left his family and friends here and went to the other side of the world to fight for his country. And then he left a lot of his friends dead in the jungle and came home to a country that wanted nothing to do with Vietnam or the people involved in it.

He screamed and shouted and we smiled at him, and then the group around me started singing.

“All we are saying….”

“They’re going to rape all your women!”

“….is give peace a chance.”

“That’s who you are standing with?”

“All we are saying….”

“They’re going to kill your children! That’s who you’re standing with?”

“…is give peace a chance.”

On and on they sang this song of protest, supporting their neighbors, standing with people of every faith and every race and every background. I slipped into the background, taking photos and talking to people and just smiling because I couldn’t stop smiling.

And I had this thought: this was the kind of wall that takes no money to build, and not just because it isn’t a physical object. This wall is human and it is American. It is formed of love and compassion even for those who don’t look or sound like you, for those who maybe don’t worship as you do. This is the kind of wall that understands that the truth is not whatever your gut is feeling about a certain thing, because it is the truth and truth doesn’t change or bend to meet your feelings.

And the wall kept on singing and smiling until long after the veteran’s tired voice betrayed him. He leaned against his neon green “JESUS HATES FAGS” sign, his shoulders drooping, and he stopped shouting. I was glad for this, and I was so very happy for our neighbors who were able to take part in a political process without being shouted at.

I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for the old veteran, for how his life led him to this point, and for all of his friends who only exist these days on a black wall between the Washington Monument and Lincoln memorial.

Because I could have ended up there. I could have been an old man in a green military jacket, shouting vile things at smiling strangers, all while my head does nothing more than serve as a new field for the battles I couldn’t leave behind when I went to war.

But I didn’t end up there. I ended up here. And I am through pretending that my service in Iraq means that standing up for America now is someone else’s problem.

It is my problem, and I am joining that wall.