Suicide no. 71: In Protest
–by Derek Alan Wilkinson
Riots and tear gas flooded the rain-dampened streets of a small town—so pointlessly innocuous that its cartography imitated graffiti on any map that bothered putting it in print. It doesn’t need a name, even though I’m from that place. Before that night, I figured it would turn out a ghost town in less than forty years, anyway.
That is, until I smelled that awful stench. Is that burning flesh??
Whatever it was, it started in Ferguson, and the movement would shift toward and wind up in big, so-called-important places where people pay too much money to live—cities like New York and Los Angeles—and work its way down the ladder to this hole in the wall. People were angry, desperate, and hurt that the Civil Rights Movement was still happening, in this era. WASPs thought that it was all over, but most everybody else knew better. I wondered that night, and still do, if it ever will be? It was the American Civil War all over again, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: remade and digitally remastered by angry people of color standing alongside bearded hipsters—some donning a protest-anything-for-the-sake-of-anarchy Guy Fawke’s mask, screaming their textbook politics into megaphones and scribbling them into nearly nonsensical signs.
Standing five-foot-five, and barely over a hundred pounds, I got jostled around like a pinball that night in the crowd. Regardless, I had to be a part of it. I believe in the kind of change that works its way from the ground up—grassroots and all—and I’ll be damned if I give birth to children that I couldn’t at least tell stories to: “I was there when it all happened!” I was surrounded by friends: some headstrong enough to believe that they really could have an impact, some who just wanted something to bitch about, and the rest were just sea-strung daydreamers shipwrecked by the hurricane of a certain kind of hurt that getting deeply involved with politics of any sort always left you with: dissatisfied, but wanting more change faster than the world would ever have it. Yet, all was well in that moment.
Until that stench clung to my nostrils.
Petroleum! It hit me just like I was pouring it into some soccer mom’s SUV, and had somehow gotten it all over myself. Then came the warmth; what I thought were the fires of some riot act happening too close for comfort turned out to be something else entirely. About fifteen feet away, and just out of range for anyone to stop the whole thing, I saw something that looked like an old and familiar Pulitzer Prize-winning photo: the year 1963 truly repeating itself. But this time, it wasn’t 1963 America: it was 1963 Saigon.
There he sat, motionless, cross-legged, and without a sound—the kind of monk who, instead of being bald and dressed in some orange habit, was clothed like he just stepped right off of Wall Street. From what I could tell, he was mid-thirties and white. He had a briefcase—something that, in this day and age, seemed outdated altogether.
And it was there, among about five-hundred tightly-packed onlookers, that a now-gone-silent crowd watched a man set himself on fire, and burn to skeletal remains before anyone with anything resembling a fire extinguisher could put him out.
And, even after they did, the fire just kept on burning.
It never did go out.