I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was standing on the steps of Oviatt Library at Cal State Northridge, giving a speech to all the incoming freshmen as part of the university’s formal convocation. (Quick acknowledgment: Yes, this actually happened, so you are now free to dump on me for being a pretentious Friedman-type dipshit who enjoys lecturing the youth of America.) In front of me there were a bunch of students sitting in the quad in folding chairs, alternating between pretending to listen and checking their phones. And to my left, perched on a series of rising terraces, was a group of protesters.
Now, they weren’t there to protest ME. I swear. They were there to protest tuition hikes that were going to be imposed across the Cal State university system. I saw signs that made it clear. There was no sign that said FUCK DREW or anything, although that would have been understandable.
And the protestors didn’t make any noise at first. Before I had to talk, there was a bunch of ceremonial shit, with the deans and vice presidents and chancellors and college vice-viceroys all dressed in fancy robes (I was offered one but declined, because Northridge is hotter than the surface of Mercury), strolling up to the podium one at a time to talk to the freshmen about all the joys and challenges that awaited them.
The protestors stayed quiet for all of that, which gave me peace of mind, because I had to give a speech, and I was worried they would start protesting, and then I would shit a brick. Well, if they’re not protesting the people that raised their tuition, they’re gonna go way easy on me!
WRONG. The second I was introduced and walked to the podium, the protesters came to life, yelling and hooting and hollering. I couldn’t make out much of it, because a) they were pretty far away, b) I was also talking, and c) my brain was going OH FUCK! WHAT DO I DO?! This was new territory for me, since I had never been protested before. Well, at least, not to my face.
You’ve probably seen your fair share of protesters this decade, from Black Lives Matter to the ongoing Donald Trump rallies, where the expulsion of protesters has essentially become part of the stagecraft. At this point, I would be pissed if I went to a Trump rally and a protester was NOT roughed up by a roid-addled campaign aide. When Donald Trump bitches about protesters at his rallies, he essentially boils them down to a single caricature: a shrieking, belligerent hippie loser. He’s not alone in framing protesters that way. South Park has done it. PCU did it. There’s even an old Metallica song about them. Those are the cartoonish protester stereotypes that your average Trump voter relishes an opportunity to beat down.
But obviously, stereotyping protesters is foolhardy, since they come in all forms: liberal, conservative, young, old, white, black, peaceful, angry, coherent, nonsensical. And not only do they vary wildly, but so do their motives. You’ve got noble, focused protests like the Selma march. And you’ve got incoherent, evil fuckfaces like the Westboro Baptist Church who show up at events just to be seen. You’ve got protesters who just want to hold up a sign. You got protesters who aim to publicly shame people whose misdeeds usually go by unnoticed. You got protesters who wade into hostile territory with the express purpose of martyrdom … of showing the world just how hostile that territory can get. And you got drunken assholes. You’ve got them all, and the only constant is the very, very awkward dynamic between the people who are aiming to disrupt something and the people they are disrupting.
For one day, I was in the latter category.
Okay, so back to the speech. There’s actually video of this speech online. You can take a look here at the 28-minute mark. I can watch myself talk for roughly 10 seconds before wanting to throw up into a wastepaper basket:
You can’t hear the protesters in this video (or at least, I don’t think you can), and they cut out the part where I turn to actually address them (more on this in a second), but you can definitely see my sorry ass rattled up on that stage. I took some real hefty pauses between sentences, because I was drowning. It’s the same as being heckled while doing standup. You’re trying to get into a rhythm and establish a rapport with the audience, but then a third party comes along and gets in the way. It’s virtually impossible to ignore. I knew I could hear them. And I knew that they knew that I could hear them. And I knew the audience knew I could hear them. I was saying words on autopilot while my brain feverishly attempted to multitask, something it was already poor at in non-pressure situations.
If I’m being honest, I was a little pissed that they were fucking me up. After the initial WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? moment where the protesters started talking, I was like Hey, why are they protesting me? I don’t even work here. They should have protested all the people before me. SOMEONE TASE THEM. I didn’t say any of that (Trump would), but the thought was definitely there.
Then they really DID start to address me personally. I made some joke and heard a dude shout, “There’s your patriarchy for you!” (Again, my overall appearance tends to elicit that kind of remark.) Then I laid out the topic of my speech, which was self-awareness (yes, there was a topic), and one of the protesters was like, “Talk about not being self-aware!” That ruined me. I was Dr. Charles Nichols trying to give his hotel speech at the end of The Fugitive. It was a doomed cause.
Christ. I feel like an asshole. I feel so stupid.
And then, I don’t quite remember when, they shouted one more unintelligible thing. So I turned and faced them and gave them a friendly nod and said “Yeah!” I was barely coherent at this point, but just that brief acknowledgement was enough to calm everyone down. Things got quieter, and I was able to finish my little talk without any more interruption. I wish I had handled it more gracefully, but that only comes from experience, whether you’re President of the United States or a veteran stand-up who knows just how to cut down some drunken asshole in the back of Larry’s Improv.
In the car ride back, I finally formulated a decent response well after it was of any use to me. Hey man, I’m real sorry about the tuition hikes. I swear I’m not against you. I hope you get everything you’re looking for. I hope they cut you a break. So can you cut me one too and let me get through this speech? Then we can all have ice cream. I wish I had said that, but you gotta be a genius to come up with the perfect rejoinder right off the top of your head. Instead, I was clumsy and awkward.
But … at least I wasn’t a cock. And that’s the important part. All your average protester wants is, for a brief moment, to be acknowledged, to have the target of their scorn say, “I hear you” and be sincere about it.
A protest is, at its core, a test for all parties involved. It’s a test for the speaker, and for law enforcement, and for the audience, and for the protesters themselves. It’s a moment that can go horribly wrong if any of those factions decides to be a hostile prick instead of an empathetic human being. Sometimes it’s the protesters who are unreasonable (I used to walk through New York City protests that seemed to have no fucking purpose whatsoever other than to block traffic, with every protester protesting their own specific cause, as unique to them as a fingerprint). Sometimes the cops get trigger-happy with the pepper spray. Sometimes Trump will openly jack himself off while one of his voters punches someone in the face. Sometimes EVERYONE will get out of line and spur one another to greater heights of dickishness.
And that’s a failure. That’s when people break down, lose their cool, and give in to the first angry impulse that flickers in their minds. That’s the easy thing to do. It’s easier to point at security and be like, “GET ‘EM OUT!” rather than take a moment to step out from yourself and try to see things from another person’s point of view. I did my best to diffuse the moment that day, mostly out of self-interest. I didn’t do the best job, but I tried to make sure everyone was cool. And it’s the people who don’t try—the people who are more than happy to act in bad faith—who deserve an inflatable rat in their backyards.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He’s also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at email@example.com. You can also pre-order Drew’s second novel, The Hike, through here.
Lead image by Sam Woolley.
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