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Three Miles to Freedom

When I pull into the parking lot of where I live and round the median to find a space, I can usually catch a glimpse of the crowd from a local bar with which I share a building. It’s the typical hipster hangout with a largely unsurprising selection of accessible beer and overpriced fried what-have-yous. There’s nothing remarkable about it at all other than the fact that it has been around for as long as it has. Legend has it that it used to be a pretty cool place back in the day with back porch group karaoke until 2am that usually ended with a rousing and heavily slurred rendition of Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey.

At least that’s what my neighbor tells me. He has also told me the schedule of every dumpster pickup in the area, when the market beneath me opens, when the chefs arrive, and peak traffic times. The man has the ears of neurotic cat and the memory of an elephant. He’s a good guy to have around when you need such details. I can also understand why being awoken to Don’t Stop Believin’ on a nightly basis would stick in one’s memory.

Two nights ago, as I came back from the protest and turned in my parking lot, the back porch of the hipster bar was empty. It was closed as its in city limits and curfew happened at 8pm in Asheville. I had arrived home around 8:10 as I stayed as long as I dare at the protest without tempting the police. Obviously, the bar was closed because of the curfew.

I made it out just in time two nights ago as watching a live feed of the protest on the way home showed a group of marching protestors get ambushed from behind by the police with several rounds of tear gas and many more rubber bullets. Yes, ambushed because there was no audible warning given and all shots came from behind the group. Reporters and innocent civilians trying to drive home alike were caught up in the mayhem and there were about 20 arrests shortly thereafter. I’ve heard it said that it’s nice to see where your tax dollars are going. I’d like to meet that fella and have a chat. Before curfew of course.

Last night as I pulled into my parking lot, the back porch of the bar was so full that people were spilling into the parking lot. Dozens of people were drinking and smoking as if it was any other Thursday evening. I parked my car and walked back slightly in shock as the realization of what was happening slowly dawned on me.

I watched for a few moments as everyone carried on like there wasn’t a curfew and tear gas being fired at their fellow citizens less than three miles from where they were drinking the latest overpriced microbrew. It took me that long to reckon the contrast of realities I had experienced in just a few minutes.

I walked into the bar and found an unsuspecting waiter to ask what was going on. When I inquired as to how they were open when there was a curfew in place, he replied that as an establishment that served food, they were an essential business. I scanned the people sitting inside and saw two people eating food. Two out of more than fifty. 4% at best. That was enough for the rest of the crowd to carry on life as usual. The waiter said I was welcome to “belly up for a drink.” I hesitated… but did not share my opinions about how his employer was abusing the system and definitely did not belly up for a drink.

On my drive home, I saw other bars open and figured they were just clearing out since it was close to the 8pm curfew. I guess I was wrong. On my way home, I also saw families taking walks around their community. I saw people taking bike rides. I saw people ordering dinner from a food truck. I saw what looked life as normal. If I hadn’t known there was a curfew, I would have had no idea there was a curfew.

Tonight I saw two Americas. I saw one group of people asking the government to put a stop to legally-protected murder, and then those same people being forced to go home under threat of tear gas and physical harm. At the exact same time, I saw another group of people enjoying a comfortable lifestyle in a warm, cozy, detached bar just three miles away due to a legal loophole, and no one threatening them with anything other than a late-night drunken singalong.

Do you see the problem here?

With Tear Gas & Injustice For All

I am a non-partisan pacifist and last night, I tasted tear gas.

Obviously, for that to have happened, I was at an event featuring police and protestors. I went because I wanted to see the truth with my own two eyes. I have been following events closely on social media and traditional media outlets for days but I needed to see it and be a part of it myself.

I will admit that I had no intention of joining the front lines – I merely wanted to watch and see what was happening. It is my duty to know the truth because as an American citizen, I have the responsibility to vote and speak up in regards to determining who decides the future of me and my descendants.

I went to watch and observe. To soak up the truth of the moment. There are many factors and factions at play in these protests and I know that I could not possibly discern the full truth in a moment or even hours. The powers at play have been at it for longer than I and are far better at knowing what makes people act and react than I do. The countless articles, essays, and books to be written about what is happening in America right now are proof of my limited perspective.

But if my perspective can have a positive effect then I have the responsibility to present it. I can only hope to do just that for anyone and everyone reading this. And before I do so, allow me to express two personal biases that guided my view tonight and will guide follow up discussion from me:

First, the “right vs left” argument is a false dichotomy and I will not play that game in the comments. There are so many more ways we could be exercising our personal and political rights than are fleshed out in the Republican and Democratic parties. I wish we had more parties because I think being “pro-life” shouldn’t force a person to vote for whomever the Republican party offers as a candidate in any given race. Ditto for “pro-choice” and the Democratic Party.

Second, trickle-down politics is a bad joke and we are the punchline. We are all told to follow a leader chosen for us, and then have to swallow all that leader says and does. The effects of their decisions trickle down on us, and we deserve better. Are you laughing at the state of things right now? Don’t feel bad if you aren’t – neither is anyone else I know, but every single DC politician is laughing all the way to the bank. I was raised conservative, went libertarian, and live in a very progressive city. I’m none of the above and I love all y’all.

Now to the tear gas… It was terrible. Have you ever accidentally rubbed your eye when hot sauce or jalapeno juice was on your finger? It’s like that but much, much worse, and not only because it is a chemical designed for nothing other than pure pain that renders a person completely subject to whatever follows, but because it was tactfully and intentionally forced on you by someone else as a demonstration of power.

Before that happened, I skirted the protest a couple of times. I wove my way around thousands of emphatically chanting, well-meaning citizens; observed the scared, but dedicated and disciplined police at a close distance and from afar; instantly felt the pressure let up as I circled around the back of the station and saw entrances guarded by police who waved and nodded at me; saw local businesses owners protecting their establishments; met medics telling me how to react if I needed help; came across a group of young men agitating at every move and seeking trouble; and saw people stacking up water bottles, milk, and other basic supplies to take care of people.

While doing my rounds, I saw a few disturbing things. First, there were the roving bands of people dressed in ad hoc, all-black outfits and they had no connection to the group at large. The second was when police kneeled as a sign of solidarity and the audience applauded… only for one moron to fling a water bottle at the police at that exact moment. This was met with a round of booing from the crowd and an attempt to identify and remove the individual. The third was a regulated and reinforced escalation of police presence – until the firework that comes later, I saw nothing more than an occasional water bottle thrown at police i.e. nothing that required a scaled, escalated presence but it kept happening.

This wasn’t the first time I was in a similar situation. That happened in Debrecen Hungary in 1997 in a soccer match between Hungary & Romania, and it was real. Romanians, with whom my dad and I, along with another missionary family, were seated, was behind barbed wire for our protection. Policemen with dogs every few feet surrounded us. The Hungarians climbed the fence to hurl rocks, coins, and epitaphs with relentless ferocity. A rock hit me on the hip so hard I bled through my jeans. (Much to my dismay, the scar has faded.) I saw what anger looked like on a brand new level. I saw how generational beliefs operated when anger rose to the surface. I was fascinated because it was just a soccer game, but with crystal clarity, I finally understood how people around the world were killed over long-standing differences.

On my last trip around the Asheville protest last night, I sat on a bench for a few minutes and saw an SUV dive-bomb the wrong way down a one-way road and start chanting antagonistic, anti-protest phrases while slowly moving towards the police. Within a couple of minutes after this, a large firework mortar was lobbed behind police lines. It exploded with great sound and fury which enraged everyone. The crowd was against it wholeheartedly and lifted their voices in unison to communicate that. The police were against it too but their response was multiple shots of tear gas in and around the entire crowd.

It was then, for the first time ever, I heard thousands of voices simultaneously cry out in anger and dismay. First, it was the sound of a thousand voices expressing anger at the one person who threw the firework knowing it would undo all the work that had been done that evening. Then, in a split second, it turned to dismay at the police’s response to one person’s action – that response being multiple canisters of tear gas fired at all and the screaming of everyone.

Then I saw a sea of people turn with fear, anger, disgust, and pain written all over their faces and run at me for their lives not knowing if the endless, repetitive noise of projectiles being fired directly at them was tear gas, rubber bullets, or worse. I saw the visceral and very real pain on hundreds of individuals all at once as they stampeded to safety and until you have seen this for yourself, you will know that no words will ever do it justice. It is life-changing for you are seeing hundreds of wild-eyed people relentlessly charging at you in sheer pandemonium.

The tear gas rolled along with them like an ominous cloud of doom. The rest of the air was filled with screams, cries, pleas for help, spitting, coughing, choking – nothing but terror and physical pain in countless people grasping, gasping, and running for their lives. The goodness of the moment had been instantly sucked up in the vacuum of relentless physical pain as waves of the murky gray enemy gently rolled over everyone.

There were also the sounds of those calling for friends, those picking up the fallen, those leading the blinded and choking to safety, those helping others. It was the best and worst of humanity in a few seconds and an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

There were about 4,000 people at the protest last night. And one person threw a firework that resulted in tear gas. That means it only took 0.00025% of the crowd to trigger the pain and suffering of thousands. Last night, 0.00025% of the population and the police response hurt everyone standing up for a better America.

I returned back to the original scene with the rest of the crowd. Most were shouting “hands up, don’t shoot” and can you blame them? Tear gas hurts and you won’t ever understand how badly until you have felt it with every pore in your face. I only got a small taste but I now fully understand why tear gas is illegal in war – it’s inhumane. To put it simply, tear gas is a pesticide for humans.

99.99975% of the protestors had done nothing wrong but had just paid the cost for one idiot’s actions. Yet they believed in their cause so strongly that they were again willing to face inhumane pain and suffering.

This is real y’all. Protestors aren’t out across the nation because they want to break windows and loot some shoes. They’re going through hell for the betterment of our country – you and your family included. And that’s the God-honest truth.

The powers-that-be on both sides are instigating circumstances and actions that lead to the pain and suffering of people. They are subverting these events for their own purposes but that does not render the cause or protests unjust.

Tonight I saw a peaceful assembly of Americans destroyed by the actions of an insignificant minority that is being given far too much power thanks to the subverted talking points and weaponized rhetoric of the false, dichotomous political narrative.

Are we a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” or are we going to continue letting a few selfish individuals control us? Tear gas hurts like hell, but I will do it all over again because it is a small price to pay for liberty and justice for all. I hope you will join me.

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