At the Barricade

First published in the Windsor Review, Fall 2012.


There was a tall, skinny, unshaven guy, in a denim jacket of all things, smoking out front of the run-down Hostel American, soaking up the last of the orange evening sun. He stretched out a lanky arm to stop me as I approached the door.

“We’re full,” he said, scanning the street, not meeting my eye.

“Carlo told me to come here.”

He tossed his butt into the gutter and stepped back. “Go ahead.”

The heavy front door stuck tenaciously in its frame, and I had to put my shoulder into it just to get it open. Finally it gave way, and I stumbled into an empty lobby.

Lobby was putting it generously. There was a counter to the left, but no one was attending it, and the shelves behind it were in disarray, half of them missing and the rest filled with empty beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers. Bags of trash were strewn on the floor, and broken furniture lined every wall. A narrow, unlit staircase began just the other side of the counter, and at the far end of the room was a doorway hung with a thick curtain, heavy metal music pulsing from behind it. The faint tang of ancient piss hung in the air. I braced myself, moved the curtain aside, and stepped through.

I don’t know what the room had been before, when this was still a hostel—a cafeteria, maybe—but now it was a tangle of couches and mattresses and limbs, churning slowly beneath a heavy cover of tobacco and marijuana smoke. I felt, rather than saw, all the eyes in the room turn to me as I stepped on an empty bottle and it scuttled with a clatter across the bare floor.

“Who’re you,” the guy closest to me asked. He was stretched out on a lumpy sofa bed, arms and legs arranged randomly, as though he’d been dropped there from a height. A thin, uneven cigarette dangled from his bottom lip.

“Dmitri,” I said. “I’m looking for Carlo.”

There were a few chuckles. “Guess you got my e?mail,” the guy said.

“I let Carlo know I was coming.”

“No one got that. E-mail’s one-time use, man. That account’s burned now.” His tone was serious, so serious that I began to feel like I was being checked, probed, assessed. I said nothing.

“Siddown,” the guy said. “We’re starting in a couple minutes.”

As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness, and I picked my way to a couch with only one occupant, and small girl with cropped hair poring over a map of the city. She ignored me except to say “Watch it!” when I sat down on a corner of the map.

“Here,” someone behind me said, and I turned and took the can he offered. “You come far?”

“I’m from—”

“Shut—no. No details, none of us. Is Dmitri your real name? Better get another. You got any ID on you? Passport, anything?”

“I left it—” I stopped myself. “Not on me. Locked up.”

“Good. There’s a safe here, but—”

He was interrupted by the slam of a door. I saw the guy who had been smoking outside had entered the room and closed a reinforced door across the curtained doorway. He was sliding a wooden bar into iron brackets to brace it. The hum in the room died away.

“Music off,” he said, and the growling stereo stopped abruptly. He stood in front of the door, scanning the room, making sure we were watching. The girl beside me folded up her map.

“There are a few who haven’t shown up yet,” he said. “Fill them in when they get here. Okay. Those of you who don’t know me, I’m Elephant. Those of you who have worked with me before, you’ll forget my name from that time and call me Elephant too. Clear?” There were nods and murmurs around me. I couldn’t take my eyes off Elephant, though. His quiet voice filled the room.

“Everyone here, start with a new name today. Not the city you come from, not your father or mother’s name, not your nickname from school. Best is just any word, name of a fish or a tree. If you don’t have something, talk to someone later and let them pick one for you.

“You know why you’re here. You know the election was stolen. You want democracy. Democracy is the people. We are going to tell them—remind them all—that democracy is the people. Let them know we’re still here.”

It was nothing new, nothing I hadn’t heard before, but something in his calm, matter-of-fact tones made my heart beat faster and my breath quicken.

“His motorcade is coming through tomorrow morning. There are barricades on all the side streets along the route. Where’s the projector?” There was the soft hum of a fan, and a bright image slowly formed and sharpened on the wall into a map of the downtown streets.

“We are taking charge of the barricades from here to here,” he continued, motioning on the wall. “The barricades are designed to keep us away from him. But building a cage around him also traps him. When we block off their route, they will have no way to escape.”

“Who’s blocking off the route?” someone asked.

“I don’t know. We have our job. Just keep your mind on that.” He didn’t even look at the person when he answered the question—he was still focused on the map on the wall. “When they realise they’re trapped, they will attempt to move a barricade and find an alternate route. We will stop them from doing that. Hold onto the barricade and do not let go.” He stopped and let this sink in for a while. It seemed simple enough.

“Has anyone here been tear-gassed before?” There were some replies. “Or shot with a water cannon? Or rubber bullets?”

“Gas masks,” someone remarked.

“No!” he said sharply, pointing at the offender. “No face coverings of any kind. They must not see it coming. They must think they are safe. It is a lot to ask of you.” He looked as though he were about to say more, but he said nothing.

The projector was turned off, and the spell broke. A guy sitting near Elephant stood up and addressed us. “There are clippers here, at the back,” he said, pointing. “Those of you with long hair, come get it taken off. You’ll thank me for it tomorrow. Come see me for your assignments after that.” Nobody moved or said anything; he was left standing uncomfortably at the front of the room. “Good luck tomorrow,” he said finally.

The hum in the room returned, and a few beer cans opened. I glanced at the girl beside me. She clutched her map tightly.

She suddenly turned to face me. “Go get your hair cut,” she ordered.

My hair was taken, my barricade was assigned. I had a couple more beers and pissed in a corner of the lobby before stretching out under my blanket—the only thing I had brought with me—and falling asleep on the cold floor.

*                      *                      *

It was a long walk to the barricade, twenty or thirty blocks, so I set out early with four others, as the sun was just beginning to break through the morning mist.

“Gonna be a hot one,” a guy said. I recognized the guy from the night before: his shaggy mane of hair had fallen to the floor just before my own.

We stopped at a Red Cross van. The relief worker at the trestle table ladled lukewarm coffee into paper cups. There was no milk or sugar, and the coffee was vile, but I drank it, just to put something in my stomach.

“Who’s going where?” a tall guy in faded fatigue pants asked as we stood. “I’m going to thirty-four east. Anyone else?”

There was a pause. I was at thirty-four east, too, but I didn’t want to be the first to answer.

“Since we’re all heading down together,” the guy I knew from last night said, “maybe we should all say our names and assignments.” He looked around our little circle. “Okay, I’ll start. I’m Horse, twenty-nine east.”

“Raven,” the tall guy said. “Thirty-four east, like I said.”

“Mustang, thirty-two east,” another guy said. He slouched and looked pissed off, so I had avoided him up to now.

“Homer,” the next guy said, and there were a few sniggers. He smiled to acknowledge them. “Thirty-three.”

They turned to me, and I hesitated; I hadn’t told anyone my chosen name before. “Goldfish, thirty-four east,” I said. I was relieved that no one laughed.

“Better get going,” Horse said, and we tossed our cups aside and set off.

I silently counted down the blocks as we went. There were all kinds of people milling about, some in groups like ours but mostly just people going about their business, probably going to work or whatever people did. Forty-nine, forty-eight, I counted, straining to see the barricades.

I was on the lookout for cops the whole time, too, but didn’t see any the whole way. Probably using plainclothes, I figured. It seemed a little weird, still, but this was the first demo I’d ever been to, so I kept my mouth shut.

The fear and anticipation was building as we walked the last blocks to number thirty-four. I had seen demos like this one on TV, watched closely as the power of the people crowded together in unstoppable strength. Usually the TV cameras showed only the fighting, the most undisciplined protesters being hauled off by men in black riot getup. They never showed the masses, or at least not enough—never lingered on the crowds, massed in silent and peaceful courage, a portrait of the very soul of human society painted across the streets.

There had been the Battle in Seattle, of course, which really started it all. Then there was Quebec City, and Genoa, then London and Buenos Aries, the war protests around the world, the shocking massacre in Cairo, the three-day occupation of Dresden and the general strike in Antwerp. All of it happened spontaneously, a movement without any single leader or coherent ideology.

My father used to make fun of me, sitting and watching whatever channel was carrying a live feed. “Deserve whatever they get,” he’d say when I would wince at the violence or shout in protest at the screen. “You break the law, that’s what happens.” But in the school library, I educated myself. I learned what was really going on, what my parents and teachers didn’t tell me, what the newspapers and TV news never talked about.

This was important, as important as anything that had come before. I could feel it, walking down the avenue, forty-two, forty-one, the people with me moving faster, with more purpose, forty, thirty-nine, the people we passed moving too, not to their jobs or homes but to the centre of the energy, thirty-eight, thirty-seven, to the place where it was all going to happen.

There would be no other time, no better time. This president and his cronies, their corruption and subversion of our country’s very principles, keeping the gold for themselves while tossing a few crumbs down to the rest. It was time to wake them up, let them know that we knew what they were up to. More than anything, I wanted to wipe that monkey’s smirk off his face; I wanted him to have fear in his eyes.

Thirty-four. We shook hands all around. “Remember,” the guy who called himself Horse said, “no fighting, no violence. They want to arrest you, go limp, let them drag you away. They play dirty. We play clean.”

“Stay strong,” Mustang said, to my surprise, as I shook his hand. “We’re all in it together.”

Raven and I turned and walked toward thirty-four east, down the side street to the barricade.

*                      *                      *

The barricade had started as a few sections of eight-foot-high chain link fencing, bolted together. It blocked the side street off from the wide avenue the president would be travelling along. On the other side of it, a couple of cops in riot gear stood facing us, tapping long black batons against their palms. Past them, a few supporters of the president—obviously hand-picked and probably under orders—stood quietly at the edge of the road, their backs to the barricade.

Since the barricade had gone up a couple of days ago, other demonstrators had been at work. Junk had been piled up against it on this side, rusty bicycles, pieces of wood, a couple of broken office chairs.

“It stinks here,” I said to Raven as we approached.

“No doubt,” he said. “They’ve been shitting and pissing on the barricade since it went up.”

“What? That’s disgusting.”

“There’s nowhere else to go. The stores around here would never let us in. Plus it’s a nice little act of defiance. ‘We shit on your pointless barrier.’ And if they try to move us, they have to go through all that muck themselves. It’s surprisingly effective.”

“Why wouldn’t they just come in this way, from the back?”

“They always keep us behind a fence. Always.” We were already at the barricade, and Raven turned away to talk to a couple of guys who stood directly opposite one of the riot cops, staring him down.

“You guys need to go anywhere?” Raven asked them. “We can relieve you.”

“Better not,” one of them said. “Should be happening in an hour or so. Maybe sooner.”

“Got a butt?” the other said. Raven produced a pack of cigarettes and offered it around. I was the only one who didn’t smoke. I wandered away to look at the barricade.

The mouth of the side street was about fifty feet wide, and the barricade went right across. Tall coils of barbed wire were piled at either side, and sandbags sat along the foot of the fence. There were about twenty people on this side, milling around, and more were approaching as Raven and I had, in ones and twos, up the street.

I was next to the short-haired girl I had shared the couch with the previous night. She had sunglasses on, but I was sure it was her. She wore black capri pants and a hooded sweatshirt, and large, opaque sunglasses; on any other street, at any other time, she would have looked like a university student, out for a morning coffee.

“Hey,” I said to her. She glanced at me but looked away without replying. “We kinda met last night,” I added by way of explanation. “I sat on your map.”

She looked at me again; she seemed to be sizing me up, but it was hard to tell.

“This your first time?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“A lot of people,” she said, evenly, with only a little bit of reproach in her voice, “don’t like to make small talk at this point. Things might get intense. It’s best to try to prepare for that. Mentally, I mean.”

Cold sweat crept up my neck, and my cheeks were unbearably hot.


She sighed. “They have more men. They’re bigger. They’re more experienced. All we can do is slow them down. No matter what, don’t move forward, just resist being moved back as best you can. And if it comes down, don’t get trapped underneath.”

I tried to think of something to say. “What’s your name? Your, uh, alias, I mean. I’m Goldfish.”

“I don’t buy into that bullshit,” she said, and removed her glasses. Her eyes were blue. “I’m Darlene.”

“Dmitri,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here.” She slipped the shades back on.

There was a sound off in the distance, a subtle roar to the north, off to our right, like a heavy thunderstorm about to strike.

“He’s here,” Darlene said to me. “Stay up front.” She turned around to the crowd nearby. “He’s here!” she shouted.

There was a rush, and I was suddenly surrounded, hands grabbing the fence all around me, voices beginning to fill the air. I was right in the middle, my fingers laced through the chain link, the rough metal biting the soft flesh of my palms. I should have brought gloves, I thought. Next time.

My left foot slid away from me, and I couldn’t stop myself from looking down and finding my shoe covered in filth. I gagged but managed to stay upright, hanging on to the barricade for support.

“That’s him!” a high-pitched voice shouted from one end of the barricade, and the first in a line of black limousines shimmered by us, then another, then more, phalanxed by police motorcycles. A riot cop was pointing his baton and screaming, his voice rising above the din, not carrying any words with it.

One of the last cars was tightly surrounded by motorcycles, undoubtedly the car with him in it, the one I had come to see. The windows were deep black, though, not a glimmer of light escaping. Then they were past, out of view, and the roar subsided.

Then a flash, lighting the street in front of us like bright afternoon sun. A few muffled crunching sounds.

Howls, jubilant, triumphant howls all around me, and a surge of energy, lifting us, pushing us, flowing through us, into our hands, into the barricade, hands formed like claws as though we’d been gripping the barricade all our lives, holding it in place.

Then the motorcycles returned, and a swarm of black boots and helmets and visors rushed up to meet us, clattering against the barricade like a tide on a pebbled shore.

Shouts and a press of bodies behind me, c’mon, c’mon, hold ’em. Then they beat the barricade with their batons, clanging against our fingers, bruising and bloodying. I felt my right hand get struck, but from a distance, a numb, unreal throbbing: at some point, I thought, that will hurt. But I held on; we held on.

More and more black, snarling and spitting, feral, guttural sounds. “You’re dead,” one mask said to me, right in front of me, then another’s shoulder moved between us.

They pushed again. More flashing lights, more motorcycles, more screaming sirens. I felt the barricade move, just a half-inch, but it moved, it moved. Hold it, hold it, pleas and cries all around, sweat and maybe tears flowing down my face until I’d give anything to wipe them away, but we had to hold. Another surge, another push, and now we were back a half-step, then a step, then the barricade and the round black helmets were pursuing us, and finally we let go.

I turned and saw her high above, standing on a pile of rubble against a wall, facing them down. My breath caught in my throat as she drew a hand back and flung it forward and glass glinted as it spun through the air, and as it fell and its fragments burst around it, I watched her draw her hand back again. This time, she merely ran her fingers through her hair.

The baying black mass was almost on her, and the barricade was falling, and I saw it again and again, her fingers running through her short-cropped hair. Then a baton lashed out and she was down.

I pushed through the crowd and ran to her, grabbed her hands, pulled her to her feet. “My knee,” she said, but she was up and we were running at last, she half-running, me half-carrying her, her arm tight around my neck.

The sirens were all around now, and others were moving in where we had fallen back. That didn’t matter now, only safety, refuge, quiet.

We danced as windows shattered around us, glass crumbling to the ground, covering the sidewalks like ashes. Tear gas crept lazily through the street, pinching at my eyes and lungs. Finally, an alley, behind a dumpster, and it was quiet but for the distant sirens and clattering of battle, and the buzz of helicopters above us, unseen among the high rooftops.

She reached up for me. I knelt beside her.

“It was just a bottle,” she said. “I didn’t mean—that was a terrible thing to do.”

I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of her hand, casually reaching back, running through her hair. “How could anyone not love that?” I said.

The words were slippery and slurred away from me. But she burst into tears and pulled me closer, then kissed me, greedy, gulping kisses, her lips around mine, consuming me, until we lay there, panting, the sounds of battle around us fading like clouds blotted out by the sun.

*                      *                      *

I saw her once more, in line to catch the morning train. Two tracks ran between us, a canyon.

“Darlene,” I called. She looked up. She saw me.

She looked at me, then past me, and then I looked away. At first I wanted to run up the steps, to cross over and find her, but instead I stood, watching her.

The southbound train came first, and she limped to the door. An older man inside got up and she took his seat, facing away from me, and the train began to move on.

And I saw it once more, her hand running through her hair, one brazen act of defiance and futility at the barricade, just as the barricade fell down, taking with it the defiance and futility, taking with it everything, everything that mattered.

  1. New work posted: At the Barricade | Matthew Bin - pingback on November 7, 2012 at 6:45 pm

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