In August, 22-year-old Takiyah Thompson was arrested in Durham, North Carolina, for helping to topple a Confederate statue. A member of Workers World Party and student at N.C. Central University, Thompson climbed the statue and attached a rope to it. Demonstrators then pulled it down and began beating the crumpled bronze monument. Thompson said at a news conference, “That statue glorifies the conditions that oppressed people live in, and it had to go.”
Amen sister. And awomen, too.
In December of 1964, I was stunned to read in the Sacramento Bee that the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley won. The students won! The rest of us started thinking, “This civil disobedience stuff works.” Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King all tell you that your resistance must be nonviolent. But that can be a hard row to hoe when, for instance, the North Carolina state assembly has passed a law protecting the Confederate statues (which they did in 2015). So if symbols of oppression become legally protected by the oppressors, what options do you have as an activist?
I would make the case that sometimes it can be a legitimate act of protest for students to cross the line from civil disobedience to the destruction of public property.
Like I did, with that goddamn stop sign.
You read that right. And yeah, maybe this is going to sound stupid. Maybe it was stupid. Or maybe it was the price of freedom. The third option is that it was partially stupid, partially the price of freedom. You get the picture. To us, though, it meant something.
The year is 1965, and everyone hates the sign. It is insane to put a stop sign on the road coming across the mudflats into our high school, Rio Americano, in Sacramento. They’ve put the sign on the paved driveway to stop cars leaving school for a dirt road that is used by the janitor twice a day. The sign is wrong and everyone knows it. I hear yelling in the teacher’s room: “Who the hell asked for that goddamn sign?”
Miss Martin is the head secretary in the office, and every one of us loves her. She is high-strung, nervous, and she takes care of every kid and teacher in our school. As she leaves school the day the stop sign goes up, she gets flustered when someone behind her honks and she lurches forward, plowing into the car in front of her. The stop sign made Miss Martin have an accident. Kids yell at the sign as they peel out from school and pursed-lipped teachers shake their heads, but the sign stands. Fuck that sign.
We get a cool new English teacher, Mr. Emerson. He is thin, his tan face is weathered with lines that disappear when he laughs and get deep and dark when he frowns. He climbed Mount Everest and studied in China. And he truly means it when he quotes Henry David Thoreau: “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” He reads, “The government that governs least governs best.” My buddy Lonnie blurts out, “Or you’ll get a stupid stop sign!” Everyone laughs and Mr. Emerson nods, “Exactly.”
Mr. Emerson gives me a copy of a Sacramento Bee article about Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech movement. I take it home and leave it on our living room coffee table so my father can see it, and in minutes we are yelling about Martin Luther King and the right of people to use civil disobedience to change laws until my father slams his fist down on the table, “That’s it buster! I forbid you to experiment with any new hairstyles!”
That night, I slip out of my bedroom window and join my buddies Gordon and Lonnie. Gordon has stolen a half-inch of liquor out of every bottle in his dad’s cabinet, careful to replace it with a half-inch of water. He carries this vile concoction as we look for a place to drink. We follow the little blacktop road to our school.
When we come to the sign, I stop and hold up my hand. This is unprecedented, because I am never the leader of these escapades—not goody-two-shoes Dick Stockton. Lonnie is the leader. Lonnie and his girlfriend go all the way. Lonnie smokes cigarettes and has a tattoo he gave himself with ink and a broken guitar string the night he spent in juvy.
But tonight I am on fire. I say, “Let’s drink it here, by the stop sign.”
We pass around the fruit jar with six different liquors and struggle not to puke. And that’s when I hold onto the stop sign’s galvanized steel post and perform my best paraphrased Mario Savio, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, and you’ve got to make it stop. Gentlemen, the sign has got to go!”
Gordon and Lonnie bend the post back and forth until it snaps at the base.
We swear ourselves to secrecy and leave the stop sign lying in the mud.
The next morning, news of the sign’s destruction spreads through the school like a cloud of nitrous oxide. Laughing voices boom from the teacher’s room. “Clearly the work of God!” When Miss Martin sees the sign laying in the mud, she honks her horn and claps her hands.
But when I walk into Mr. Emerson’s English class, he is standing at the window, looking at the sign with his brown face creased and dark, and he turns and stares at us. Mr. Emerson tells Gordon to read Lord of The Flies and asks him to reflect upon pack mentality. Mr. Emerson gives me a copy of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and suggests I study nonviolent tools for social change. And Mr. Emerson recommends that Lonnie learn how to read.
In the afternoon, a highway department truck drives up, and two men in orange overalls sink a four-by-four wooden post in cement and bolt on a brand new stop sign. The rain that night, a torrential Sacramento downpour, makes it easy to wiggle the post back and forth until the hole is big enough to pull it out, cement base and all. We leave it laying by the side of the road in the mud.
The next day, no cops show up. No highway department trucks. But the students in the halls are cheering with their fists in the air. Mr. Emerson stares at me, Lonnie and Gordon and says, “You guys look tired.” When the bell rings, Mr. Emerson hands me a mimeographed quote of Mahatma Gandhi, “Do not seek to end or destroy the relationship with the antagonist, but instead seek to transform or ‘purify’ it to a higher level.”
The next day, two Teichert Construction Company trucks pull up—one a cement truck, the other loaded with steel working equipment. A crew of four men work for two days building a monolith of cement and steel, with the stop sign itself encased in steel bars. When the history teacher, Mr. Roberts, gets to the new stop sign, he stops his car and gets out to look at it, shaking his head. Mr. Roberts is a part-time guard at Folsom Prison, and when he walks into the classroom he goes to the window and looks out at the sign, “That’s the way they build things out at the prison.”
In English class, Mr. Emerson is staring out the window and his frown creases his brown forehead and cheeks into black crevasses. “What makes civil disobedience successful? Gandhi rejected the idea that injustice could be fought using violent, coercive, unjust means.”
Mr. Emerson looks directly at me and says, “Gandhi wrote that if you use violent, unjust means, whatever ends you produce will necessarily embed that injustice.” I act like I’m taking notes.
At lunch, we walk out to look at the structure. It is built like a safe; a pillar of steel and cement more than two square feet with steel angle iron running up the corners and over the sign itself. It is over. We have lost. At first, some yell at the sign when they come to a stop on their way home, but soon the grumblings turn into silent defeat.
The rain is replaced by the Sacramento tule fog, which wraps around our school like quiet depression.
I’m sulking on the couch Sunday night, when my mom says, “Phone, honey.”
“Dick, it’s Hugh. Don’t call me back, the old man’s on a drunk. Just meet me at the sign at two o’clock.” Click.
The fog is so thick that I walk past the sign before I hear the guys. Now we are four. Hugh shines a flashlight on his dad’s work truck, “Comstock Cement: No job too big, no job too small.” Hugh opens the tailgate, “Men, choose your weapon.” The truck is full of sledgehammers.
To prevent hitting each other in the fog, we work in shifts, going at it two at a time, one nine-pound hammer on each side. The fog deadens the sound, so we hammer with abandon. After four shift changes, our initial exuberance begins to wane. The cement shows no sign of failing. Gordon, the strongest kid in our school, takes the hammer and strikes with all his might. Where his blow lands, a tiny crack opens. We howl like wolves and pound on it with all our testosterone-fueled fury. It’s a miracle we don’t kill each other in the fog. A chunk of cement flies off. Steel rods are exposed and beaten out of the cement, and the sign itself is coming loose and white hot heat is radiating from my muscles and I smash and smash, and now we’re tearing out chunks of cement with our bare hands. We beat the structure until it is six inches high. Never doubt the devastation potential of four 16-year-old boys. Entropy at its finest.
In the morning, first period has to be postponed because the entire school is standing outside, shouting. Chunks of cement are taken by kids as souvenirs. At lunch, Gordon breaks and tells Rita Shoemaker, hoping that she’ll let him feel her up. But it doesn’t matter, because by now a dozen kids are taking credit for it.
The rubble from the sign lays in the mud for the rest of the week. The next Monday from Mr. Emerson’s English class we watch a highway department pickup truck pull up to the pile, we see the driver pick up the steel and cement that was left. Then we see him put up a yield sign.
Mr. Emerson’s brown face is smooth as he looks out at the yield sign. “Class, I want you to write an essay considering this question: ‘When, by consensus, a people decide that something is wrong, can a government permanently control its people with barriers?’ You may want to write about the Berlin Wall, or the Great Wall of China. Or you may want to write about a stop sign.”