On Seeing the Tents in Chapel Hill

This morning I went by the Occupy Chapel Hill encampment. A dozen or so tents, all still quiet and zipped up, arrayed in two neat lines on the small concrete plaza of the old post office and courthouse. Inside the courthouse is a mural depicting the founding of Chapel Hill, which from its inception in the late 18th century was to be a center of scholarship and enlightenment values. Across the street from the encampment, in the shadow of Silent Sam the Confederate soldier, my father watched a communist speak more than 40 years ago. This communist was not allowed on the campus because of a ban on speakers of his persuasion, said ban enacted by the state legislature at the behest of reactionaries and knuckleheads. I’ve seen photographs of that day. The communist stood on the wall that divided the school from the town, while hundreds gathered to listen. It’s shocking how fresh-faced they all looked. I have searched for my father in the photographs of that day, but I’ve never found him. He was a smart boy from a little town with a wife and exactly one chance to change his life with an education and, knowing him, I reckon he stayed back on the edge of the crowd, listening intently but wary of getting caught up in trouble. But, nevertheless he stayed and he listened, he is proud of having been there. The man on the wall spoke for him because he had not yet learned to speak for himself. Someday he would speak, but this was still new for him that day. My father told me about all this by way of saying this is what you should do, you should speak. That day changed him.

After a little while this morning, the occupiers began to stir from their tents. I was late for work and couldn’t stay long. I stood off to the side. They gathered up their signs, stretched, went for coffee. This post office and courthouse has always been the hot center of justice movements in Chapel Hill. It’s where we gather to read the Constitution aloud, and to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, and to hear our candidates speak. In front of that post office, a building dedicated to the sending and receiving of messages, our leaders organized marches for integration and civil rights when they were very young. I look around me, and notice that they’re still young. And when I was young? I think of that, yeah I do. I remember standing outside the South African Embassy in D.C., marching with a sign and cheering on the hardcore punks who banged on their drums and screamed their inchoate rage at the passing cars and waved their signs at the grave, stony pile of the embassy across the street. I think of the shantytown in Ithaca where I spent time painting signs, even in my ROTC uniform. I remember like it was yesterday that day in February of my senior year when Mandela walked out of prison a half a world away. May we all experience that feeling again, and tenfold.

Did all that matter? Yes, it mattered. The trouble I got caught up in then was silly and sexy and hard and inspiring and complicated and disorganized and angelic, and it mattered, man. It matters now.

I’m standing at the edge of the encampment. Here come the beer trucks on their way to stock up the bars, and there goes the bus to Durham. I leave before anyone can say anything to me. I am a watcher, and now when I speak it’s from my little desk where I sit by myself, usually in the dark. This is who I am now, I am my father’s son. But you are not alone out there in your tents.

I walk by you as you wake, and you don’t notice me, but I am whispering you a prayer.