Two Beers, One Activist- The Action & Reaction of Protests and Protesters

You might have seen me

Last week

On Tuesday night on Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the calm of the evening is split by the arrival of a fleet of police vehicles. A dozen or so cars and motorcycles, all sound and fury, lights erupting like explosions, sirens wailing in painful clamor, burst down a street otherwise serene to disrupt it with turmoil.

The tranquility they destroy isn’t rooted in emptiness or quiet, but the opposite. This writer witnesses this agitation while at work, seating a group of four at a table on a well-populated sidewalk. On this side of the street is a jazz band, as happens right here almost every night, and dinner patrons of the restaurant that brings the artists to the people. On the other side, aficionados equipped with lawn chairs, takeout food and cocktails, picnics from home. On both sides are music and the enjoyment of it, presented as one of few diversions available right now, an environment convivial and filled with harmonious joy.

The arriving four are seated in their chairs, armed with menus, illuminated by flashes of blue and red, and an investigation of what was happening is undertaken. “There’s a protest coming down the street.” The information is provided casually, but the hue and cry of law enforcement attempts to set a different tone. A protest is coming! A protest is coming! Fight, or flight, but either way take warning! Take warning! Stop what you’re doing and fear!

Saw a lady

Drinking a beer

Guests fold tacos for another bite, spoon up hominy and chickpeas, spear tentacles of octopus. Across the street mojitos and sidecars are sipped from to go cups.

The band plays on.

A protest is coming, and with the exception of the just seated quartet who choose to run for the hills, no one is worried.

The protest gets closer. Applause rings out for the singer, solos follow and get a round too. Ice cream sandwiches are cut in half to share and beers cracked open.

No one is worried.

The band plays on.

She said hey come here

I said hey girl what’s up

The protest arrives.

Those walking in it call and answer. The jazz singer lets her melody fade, turning over the space. The band plays on, not attempting to drown voices out but to support them, seamlessly adjusting from the improvisational phrasing of the song to the metered precision of the chant. It’s rhythmic and steady; the singer starts to clap along. So do the diners on the restaurant side of the street, and the audience congregated on lawn and camp chairs from home, and the employees of the restaurant, and one of its owners.

The protest stops, and drumbeats and keyboards continue. The organizer of the protest sees what the band was offering and takes it.

This organizer, Gam, is one who has for months been recognizable to everyone in town for their work. Not long ago, they achieved notoriety beyond this city’s boundaries when a cell video went viral. It depicts Gam stepping outside of the forward progress of a march to visit the table of an elderly diner, in a sidewalk cafe, almost like this one but barricaded rather than open. Gam is seen taking this woman’s beer, draining it, and plonking the glass back on the table. The video begins with the cross to the two-top. We don’t see what happened before.

A protest is here! Stop, and fear!

She said black lives don’t matter

She looked me

In my face

Then said black lives don’t matter

Despite the lack of context, regardless of the absence of information that could have illuminated motivation, in spite of the fact that there was a valid, just, and thoroughly defensible reason for this action, for this incident- or at least for the meager snippet of a moment witnessed through the testament of a cell phone- Gam was demonized far and wide. The video was picked up and distributed by numerous outlets with biased agendas who used this documentation of a segment of an interaction to support their biases.

Gam- an activist, organizer, neighbor, supporter, who cares about others and the community and works fucking tirelessly to bring good to a world that is frequently lousy and ungrateful- was misgendered, bodyshamed, maligned, threatened, spoken of with disrespect at best but often with blatant, violent hatred. Because they responded to abominable behavior with the reaction that it deserved; in the opinions of some of us, with less aggression than it merited.

She was old

It was awful

I didn’t know what to do

Not long following, on a Tuesday on Ellsworth Avenue, Gam is walking in a protest through another group of people dining on the sidewalk. These are not tossing insults. These are not rejecting the simple truth that the lives of Black people, including Black womxn, including Black transpeople, matter. These are not reacting with panic and loathing and fear.

These are clapping, with the exception of a couple whose hands are occupied with keyboards and drumsticks and strings.

So Gam steps briefly out of the chant, transforming megaphone to microphone, to take a minute to tell their own story, and let us know what came before.

You might have seen me

Last week

Saw a lady

Drinking a beer

She said hey come here

I said hey girl what’s up

She said black lives don’t matter

She looked me

In my face

Then said black lives don’t matter

She was old

It was awful

I didn’t know what to do

So I walked over to this broad

And I grabbed myself a brew

And the crowd explodes. There is laughter, hooting, whoops; joy and connection for those on the sidewalk and those in the streets who briefly, gorgeously, are one; not enemies, not predator and prey, not any bullshit construct of opposing sides that we would be led to believe is the case. Just some folx who are spending their time letting some other folx know what’s going on, and some other folx who appreciate the heads up.

A protest is an action in reaction, a spotlight shining on an injustice meant to illuminate it for the education of those who don’t yet clearly see. It is not conceived internally from self, but generated by external factors, a response to something already there. The measures of individuals acting with legitimacy within a protest are the same. These come to being by prompture, not born out of thin air, but as a reply. They are an answer to another’s call.

No one is worried.

The protest moves on.

A few of those congregated in marching assembly break ranks to toss some bills into the band’s tip jar. The procession advances.

But before they’re gone, one patron waves Gam over.

She gives them her beer.

is a Pittsburgh-based journalist, playwright, and theater artist who writes about social justice, visual art, travel, and her dog.

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