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City Beat February 20, 2003
 
Social Awkwardness Among the Red Flags
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
I tried focusing on particular people: a grim old woman selling the nostalgic-fascist paper Pamyat'. She had wedged herself against a building, frightened but determined, like the Jehovah's Witnesses who used to stand on Berkeley streetcorners. Next to her, a younger woman offering Zavtra, another rightist paper. She seemed embarrassed too. The women selling Leftist papers like Pravda Rossii were more aggressive, more at home, circulating confidently. Wounded nationalism is a strong enough common denominator to bring Pamyat' and Pravda Rossii together now and then, but it looked like a chilly relationship.

Not to mention a very, very chilly day. The cold hurt. And these hundreds of people were standing in deep shadow on a day so cold it hurt. The men hadn't even put down the fur flaps on their fur hats.

There were a lot of those hats. They seeemed part of the dress code for the old men, who were very much of a type: sturdy, not tall, old but not ancient. Spry. Mustaches, dandruff and warts in abundance. Somebody's gruff grandfather, somebody's grumpy husband.

There were a lot of old women too: short, sturdy, a lot angrier-looking than the men.

This was the sort of crowd TV had led me to expect. And sure enough, the AP account of the demonstration described the Moscow demonstration as attended "a crowd of mostly older Russians."

But that just wasn't true. There were a lot of young guys up front, around their factions' flags. These young Commies were a rough-housin' lot -- excited, happy, bashing into each other in their padded coats. It was a very strange mix of crowd, as if a retirement home had crashed a Black Flag show.

There weren't many men between thirty and fifty. There were no young women at all. Our Leftist correspondent (see lead story) says there are lots of young women in the more excitable factions like AKM. All I know is that they didn't show up that Saturday.

Their loser boyfriends (see lead) were having a great time, though: chanting and hopping, gnashing their teeth. I envied them-it reminded me of Punk, when for a year or two I too had had a banner to wave, something to brandish in the face of the coma-consensus.

One of the young groups had flags with three horizontal strips: yellow, black and white. I couldn't figure out what that was supposed to stand for. All the other banners were in the natural colors of crazy folk: black and red. Yellow is for squeamish moderates. Anybody know who the yellow-flag people are? If you know, please email me at eXile. (Yeah, I should've gone up and asked, but the truth is I was too timid. One of them looked at me in what I took to be a hostile manner, and I dived back into the crowd like a reef fish.)

The biggest ruckus was around the AKM banner. This one was a fascist classic: the group's initials in black on a red background, with the "K" transformed into an AK assault rifle. Katherine and I tried to join the flow toward them, using the flatfooted shuffle you learn trying to funnel onto the escalator at Metro stations. But a group of high-school age boys slammed into us, pushing everyone back. They were roaring. God, I envied these guys. Slamdancing with real terrorist overtones! Punk never really scared anybody once the accursed Clash transformed first-wave nihilism into hippie piety. But a red flag with an AK-that's something to scare people with. Nothing purifies a banner like defeat; now that the reds were overthrown, their banners seemed glorious, just horrific enough.

The boys slammed us all the way back to the edge of the demo. We couldn't hear the speakers from there. The sound system was terrible, easily defeated by the whoosh of cars zooming past.

If there was any symbolic, cinematic juxtaposition in the scene, it was the battle between that sound-the roar of a freeway-and the speakers screeching about Imperialism. That surf-like roar -- that's the real sound of victory. I know that deep in my California bones. No matter what Robert Duvall's character says in Apocalypse Now, it's not napalm that "smells like victory"-it's car-exhaust. The real symbolic clash wasn't clothing store vs. Commies, but the Commies attempting to make themselves heard over the traffic with nothing but a little bullhorn. The low-tech setup may've been nice and proletarian, but it was being drowned out easily by the SUVs zooming past.


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