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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Revolution of Every Day: An Excerpt
“It won’t be enough to seal the outside doors, or even all the apartment doors,” Gerrit told everyone. “We have to do that, and more.” He told them how they did it in Amsterdam, how they needed to build layers of defense. “This is how it’s done,” he said. “This is what we need to do.” He drew up plans; he set them in motion. Three levels of defense: the barricades in the street; the protesters outside, arms linked; the windows sealed and the doors welded.
Everyone has been hard at work all night. They’ve dragged furniture, broken-down appliances, cinder blocks—anything heavy at hand—to build barricades in the street. Marlowe and Fletcher found a burned-out Chevy two blocks down toward the river and pushed it back to Thirteen House. Some of the neighborhood kids helped them flip it over and it landed on its roof with a satisfying rusty groan.
At five thirty in the morning, the work is nearly done. The residents of Thirteen House gather in the community room. Outside on the sidewalk, the residents of Cat House and Utopia and dozens more friends and neighbors wait, prepared to link arms and block access when the cops arrive. “Expect a cast of thousands,” Rick, the cop who’d tipped them off, had said. And those thousands will be armed, and armored.
Gerrit stands beneath the open cellar doors and sees their friends gathered and ready to stand up for them. Such a visible, bodily display of love and concern. There are maybe a hundred people out there. It isn’t even their building. Many of them aren’t even squatters.
Irving, their lawyer, says he’ll wake up every judge in town if he has to, but Gerrit doesn’t see any point. They’ve gone too far for judges and lawyers now.
Gerrit turns back to the group in the community room and fires up the blowtorch. “Last chance to leave,” he shouts. “Get moving now or you’re here for the long haul.”
José is looking toward the door. Gerrit saw him with his family in the vestibule last night, just before Nena and Carla left to stay with a cousin. They held fast to each other, whispering in tender Spanish. The girl was crying as her mother led her out the door. Gerrit catches José’s eye, sees the man falter a moment, but then he nods. He’s in. No one else moves to leave, and Gerrit pulls the metal cellar doors closed flush with the sidewalk. Together he and Ben weld them shut, and then seal the interior door, too, as they already welded the ground-level door closed, and the back door. The first- and second-floor windows are nailed shut and boarded up as if in anticipation of a hurricane.
“And now,” Steve says, “we wait.”
Dawn comes and goes. It’s almost 8:00 a.m. and still no cops. Gideon radioed in on the walkie-talkie more than two hours ago to say the cops were mustering at Tompkins, but they haven’t budged at all since then. Amelia and Suzie wander the halls, restless. Amelia is exhausted already and no telling when this day will end. No sleep last night and now going on two hours of being on guard, listening for the attack that was bound to come at any moment. Any moment now for two hours, and she’s circling like a dog, desperate to lie down, to come to rest.
Suzie carries a sledgehammer balanced over one shoulder, patrolling as they walk, stopping to listen at the sealed doors and windows each time they pass. Never any sound but their friends outside. Even from inside the building, Amelia can hear that the excited predawn chatter has given way to a weary, determined silence. Everything is on hold. The world has stopped spinning, the city gone still. Everything, everything is holding its breath, waiting for the siege.
The crackle of the walkie-talkie from somewhere upstairs cuts through the nervous silence. Gideon’s out on the streets on bike watch, and his voice comes across the radio, sharp and broken, and then Steve’s voice in response. Amelia can’t make out the words. And now Steve bellows down the stairwell. “Okay, folks!” he shouts. “Here we go! Gideon says they’re on the move. They’re headed our way!”
Gerrit runs down the stairs, banging on the wall as he goes. “Get to your posts! To your posts! Here we go!”
Amelia recalls the stories Gerrit told her about the fights with the cops in Amsterdam. The building clearings when he stood on rooftops with his comrades and threw down rocks and bricks. How he fought as they dragged him away, billy club against his throat. How as soon as he was released he’d be back out, opening another building.
For the first time she lets herself imagine how it could go down today, beyond the point of the cops reaching the doors. There could be nightsticks. There could be tear gas. There could be guns. For the first time she lets herself understand how very badly this could all end. Gerrit stops as he passes her in the hall. He looks at her, his face utterly calm. This is what he’s made for. This is all he’s ever expected. All these years of playing house, the cops turning their backs, the city turning its back. This was always coming, and he knew it. He tried to tell her. He tried to prepare her.
“I’m scared,” she says.
“We’ll look out for you. You’ll be fine.” He reaches out to touch her arm, then stops himself and his hand falls heavily to his side. “If the cops make it through the door, you go toward them, slowly, hands up. You let them see your belly, and you tell them you’re pregnant. Got it? No room for assumptions, no taking chances. You yell, ‘I’m not resisting.’ You yell, ‘I’m pregnant.’ They’ll take you out first that way, and they’ll probably go easy on you. Okay? No heroics. If they get through the door, you go to them and you get out safely.”
“They might want to search you to make sure that’s all baby there and not an explosive belt or anything. You let them search you. You don’t put up any struggle. Got it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” Explosive belt. Jesus. Who do they think lives here?
“I’m looking out for you. Steve is looking out for you.” He lifts his hand again, brings it to rest, hesitant, on her arm. The awful calm slips from his face, and there is the fear, there is the uncertainty. It’s comforting to see it, the soft animal underbelly he keeps secreted away. I still know you, she thinks. There you are.
She moves past him, into Suzie and Denise’s apartment. Suzie is in position at the window and Amelia joins her. Outside the door, she hears Gerrit take up the call again.
“Posts! To your posts!”
“Here we go,” Suzie says.
And there the police are. Where Avenue A meets Thirteenth Street, just beyond the barricades the squatters built last night, the cops are gathering. Cops in dark blue riot gear, bulletproof vests, heavy helmets, and boots. Cops with rifles, with machine guns. Mounted police, their horses the only calm bodies to be seen.
“The fucking SWAT team is here!” someone yells. The squatters of Thirteen House are all crowded around the upper-floor windows, trying to catch sight of the gathering forces. The warnings were true. They’re late, but they’re here. More police than anyone can count, innumerable because their helmeted, armored bodies blend together. They are a teeming blue wave poised to crash.
“Jesus fuck,” Amelia says, pushing away from the window, feeling panic rise and swell around her, panic closing off her ears, closing off her eyes so the room is a muffled swirl. The air is too thick to breathe. She finds the wall, leans into it, counts to ten. She wills her heart to slow, wills her lungs to take in the air. Hold it together, hold it together. Look out the window again. Look down, look at everyone gathered there. You aren’t alone, not by a long shot.
Outside, the crowd of supporters has swelled to rival the crowd of cops. The street in front of the building and the sidewalks on both sides are full, people surrounding the overturned car and all the way up to the dumpster, the bed frames, the garbage cans and plywood they dragged out into the mouth of the intersection—the final barricade that separates the people from the cops. The street is full of familiar faces and unfamiliar faces. They’re shouting encouragement up to the windows of Thirteen House. They’re shouting at the cops. They’re holding signs.
NO HOUSING, NO PEACE!
GENTRIFICATION IS CLASS WARFARE!
HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT!
“This is unreal,” Ben says. “Where did all these people come from?”
Two men Amelia knows only by sight climb up onto the belly of the overturned car. With a roar they hoist a big hand-painted sign overhead, turning it first to show the squatters in the windows, then turning it to the cops.
LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE!
“Oh, fuck yeah!” a voice Amelia recognizes as Kim’s shouts from the group that’s linked arms in front of the building.
Suzie tugs on Amelia’s sleeve and it’s up to the roof, running up the stairs, the sheet they painted last night tucked under Suzie’s arm. They burst out into the morning sun and Amelia gives the finger to the police helicopters buzzing overhead. Fuck yeah! Over to the parapet wall. They unfurl their sign, anchoring it in place with bricks.
Simple, in the biggest letters the sheet could take.
But the cops don’t move. They mill around, they shift their weapons from hand to hand, but they don’t move past that first barricade. An hour passes. Anne goes through the building, keeping everyone posted as the reports come in from outside, but soon there’s nothing new to report. No sign of Irving, or word from him by way of his assistant. On the other end of the walkie-talkie, Gideon says that the cops have shut down access to the block and he can’t get back to the building. Steve paces up and down the stairs, rooftop to basement, then back up. Gerrit wanders the halls, blowtorch in hand, muttering in Dutch. Overhead, the helicopters drone. Amelia wonders if it would be perverse to take out her knitting.
“What are they waiting for?” she says. “I’m gonna lose it if they just stand around much longer.”
“Beats the hell out of the alternative, though,” Marlowe says. “A lot of guns out there.”
Amelia squints to try to make out the faces of the individual cops, to try to pick some kind of identifying features out of the unified swarm of blue. These cops, each of them is somebody’s son or daughter. Maybe somebody’s father, somebody’s wife. How do all those sons and fathers and husbands, those daughters and mothers and wives, disappear into a single terrifying wall like that? How do they get so swallowed up? Do they feel swallowed up? Do they even feel like themselves, once the visors on their riot helmets drop down over their eyes? Behind those visors, are they thinking about what their kid said at the breakfast table? Are they thinking about their father’s last heart attack? The game on TV tonight? A few beers after shift, God willing we all get through this and go home? Or are they just thinking about the weight of the gun in their hands? Thirteen House just a target to be moved through?
“They don’t seem real to me, the cops,” Amelia says. “Do you think we’re real for them?”
Engines whir and a horn blasts and the sea of blue parts to let three vehicles through: a tow truck, a bulldozer, and something that looks like a souped-up school bus painted NYPD blue and white.
“Here comes the short bus!” somebody jokes, but the laughter dies down pretty fast when burly men in hard hats spill out of the bus and start breaking the first barricade down.
Cari Luna received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her short fiction has appeared in failbetter, Avery Anthology,PANK, and Novembre Magazine. New York-born, she now lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, their two children, a cat, and four chickens.
Buy a copy of The Revolution of Every Day.