I can wax rather sentimental when it comes to protests. While I didn’t get out to the Millions March on Saturday for personal reasons, I’d meant to. I like marches. Even the best ones have a slight air of chaos, and the dominating atmosphere is usually angry despair. But there’s something about just the act of walking together that can restore your faith in the usefulness of civic engagement. And given the news of the last few weeks – which to me has felt like a relentless chant of police brutality, rape and state-sponsored torture, rinsed and repeated endlessly – I’ve been feeling the need to have my faith restored in the usefulness of civic engagement. I suspect I’m not alone.
So my heart soared when I saw those pictures of clogged streets come up in my Twitter feed. Here were people doing what they could to challenge injustice. I felt a faint flickering of hope.
And then along came Deadspin last night to post the above video of a bunch of drunken louts in Santa suits heckling the protesters.
These men are participants in a weird New York tradition known as “SantaCon.” After nearly ten years of living here I can’t figure out if SantaCon has a point. The idea, to the extent that any kind of “idea” animates SantaCon, seems to simply be that it is enjoyable to get drunk on cheap alcohol while wearing even cheaper velour. So I know it mostly as that time of year when a truly inexplicable number of Americans descend on Manhattan to get drunk in bad Irish bars and yell loudly outside them. (Granted, you people also do that on the Fourth of July.) The people who live here the rest of the year generally stay in and/or pretend it isn’t happening. The mentions I hear of it usually have the sound of gallows humor, i.e. “Ugh. SantaCon.”
But the very fact that the people of SantaCon expect to be able to be such a nuisance without reprisal seems so telling.
You can see, for example, that these men are too drunk to be particularly effective hecklers. Mostly the protesters ignore them and march on. But the tableau sticks with you. Although outnumbered in the frame these idiots in Santa hats feel representative of some larger apathy of the American public. The fact that they happen to be white guys of the “bro” varietal, as Deadspin calls them, makes the image even more depressing. They’re more interested in “having fun” than in worrying about the growing authoritarianism of this country or about the militarization of the police.
And they seem unconcerned, you can’t help but notice, that their public drunkenness and belligerence might get them arrested. I bet they were right. I bet they didn’t get arrested. I bet they spent their Sunday in a peaceful and uninterrupted hangover. The distance between their expectations, and those of black men, is exactly what these protests have been about. But I still bet they don’t know that, and probably never will.