Mike McNerney’s wife didn’t like the idea of him going, but he’d insisted, wanting to witness firsthand what happened at these, almost-daily, political protests. He turned the volume on the AM radio in the truck all the way up as he drove. The signal was weak; the station was rogue, over a hundred miles away, changing location daily. Three months earlier, the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine State Guard units had formed a bloc, the Liberty League, loosely aligning themselves with the radical Revolutionary Peoples’ Party, the RPP. They favored the government of the newly-declared president. Then, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and some counties in Virginia, combined their State Guard units, called themselves the Minute Men, and declared allegiance to the recently-ousted president and national government in exile.
As Mike came into the outskirts of town he passed the North Side shopping center. He turned on Main and was surprised to see a light through the tinted glass of the long-closed Atlas Hardware. He drove past and saw one of the front glass doors off the hinges and lying on the pavement. A small fire burned in the center of the building with a few individuals moving about it… transients and homeless. Hopefully the authorities would roust them soon.
He parked a block from the town center and locked the truck. Walking slowly walked toward the square, he was surprised at how few pedestrians he saw. The gravel lot where the Provident Bank once stood was usually filled with Flea Market vendors and shoppers. Now it was empty, perhaps in anticipation of trouble. Turning the corner, he could hear drumming and a protest chant of some kind. He saw a small crowd of about thirty or so people near the fountain. He approached, watching them milling about—mostly white, with a few blacks and Hispanics. Surprisingly, about a quarter of them were female. All of them looked to be in their twenties or thirties. They wore dark clothing and carried backpacks. Many wore hoodies and had bandanas around their necks that could be pulled up to hide their faces.
Before the government had shut down the TV stations, Mike had watched a couple of protests, but the footage was always severely edited and you could never tell what really happened. Everything in the country, from cuisine to music, the weather, had become hyper-political and vehemently argued over. Simple truth, so-called common sense and values, and dialogue had died in the last five or so years.
“They’re coming,” announced a big, tough-looking young woman pointing south on Federal Street.
Mike turned and saw the protestors, about a dozen of them, mostly middle-aged people, walking slowly toward them carrying flags and placarded signs.
The counter-protestors formed up into a loose group and a middle-aged man with a full beard, evidently their leader, addressed them in low tones that Mike couldn’t decipher. Finishing, he led the group closer to Federal Street. The protestors began filing by, looking over in surprise at the crowd gathered to watch them.
They chanted as they walked, “God and Freedom, U-S-A, everyone must have their say!”
Someone among the town counter-protestors threw a rock, striking a man on the arm. He looked up worriedly but continued to march slowly behind the others.
“Go back where you belong, Fucktards!” a young, male counter-protestor shouted.
Mike watched in fascination, then looked around, wondering where the police were. He thought he saw a squad car a block away, but it appeared to be parked. He saw no police officers. He returned his gaze to the marchers. One woman’s sign proclaimed, LEAVE MY PRESIDENT ALONE!
“Get the fuck out of here, Granny,” shouted one of the hooded young men, “before you get your ass kicked!”
Mike’s face was pinched with concern for the little group marching through, and anger toward them as well, for having put themselves at risk.
Most of the marchers passed the crowd of counter-protestors without incident. A man in his mid-fifties brought up the rear. He had fallen slightly behind. FREE SPEECH, his sign proclaimed, USE IT, OR LOSE IT. He looked up at the bearded leader of the counter protestors and paused. “You’re old enough to know what’s at stake here,” he shouted. “Why don’t you join us?”
The counter-protestors began chanting, “Racist, Fascist, Homophobe, we’re gonna pound you in the road.”
Undeterred, the man shouted up, “Tell them to stand down. You know better. Join us.”
The bearded leader ignored him, turning and walking away.
Mike didn’t want to get involved, but felt compelled to shout at the protestor. “What good is this doing? This isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. You’ll just stir things up.”
The man’s eyes found Mike’s. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Freedom, brother… Use it or lose it!”
Mike said nothing further. The sign-holding man turned and saw that his fellow protestors had moved on. He started walking to catch up but the counter-protestors quickly and stealthily surrounded him. Mike followed along at the edge of the crowd.
The man looked around at the crowd. His stern look was crumbling, turning to one of fear. “What is it about free speech that scares you people?” he said shrilly.
The crowd drew closer around him, mere feet away.
A short, stocky man wearing a black, watch cap pushed to the fore. “You mean ‘hate speech,’” he said, “don’t you, motherfucker?”
“No. I mean free speech.”
“Fuck you, racist!” screamed one of the women, “we know what you mean!”
Mike felt the electric tension rising. All eyes were on the man with the sign. Mike looked back again to see where the police were. There weren’t any.
The counter-protestor in the watch cap stepped right up into the protestor’s face. “Hate speech ain’t free, motherfucker,” he said. “There’s a price.”
Before the protestor could answer the man in the cap sucker punched him full in the face. Blood gushed from his nose and he dropped his sign. The other counter-protestors began pummeling him from every direction, knocking him to the ground.
“Stop!” shouted Mike. “Wait!”
Shouts and cries from the victim’s fellow protestors came from the distance as they began making their way back.
The counter-protestors continued to kick and stomp the man as he rolled about, attempting to protect his body. A young man built like a football player ran forward and kicked the man’s head—a punter going for a field goal. The man stopped moving. Emboldened, others on the fringe of the crowd ran forward to quickly stomp on the man’s inert form and dance away in mock fright. Several men from both groups now faced off and traded blows as some of the protestors knelt to the unconscious man. Feeling numb, Mike turned away and walked back in the direction of his truck.
Mike listened to the radio in the kitchen as he made a pot of coffee. He hoped to hear more about the fighting, how close things were getting. He had a family to protect. His wife, Marie, hardly ever listened to the news. It upset her too much. One of them had to know what was going on.
He leaned toward the radio, straining to hear the broadcaster’s voice over the static. The news wasn’t good: A Pennsylvania Air National Guard jet had just been shot down over the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. The Liberty League was now promising to shoot down two of the Minute Men’s planes for every one they lost. A food riot in Philly had turned racial, with people being hunted down by mobs and beaten to death. In Minneapolis, the two sides had recently squared off against each other at an RPP rally. That was only a hundred and fifty miles away. And, of course, there was the rally in town the day before that he had witnessed. He would have to talk with Marie about making serious plans to get him, her and their daughter, Elly, to a safer place. Some of the people in the neighborhood had already moved north to the countryside.
As Mike listened he became aware of Marie’s steps on the stairs. He turned and smiled as she entered the kitchen. “Just in time,” he said.
Marie frowned at the droning radio. “Do we have to have that on all the time?”
He clicked it off. “Not all the time, but there are some new, concerning reports.”
“What happened at that protest you went to yesterday?” she said.
Mike blinked thoughtfully. “Not much. Just two bunches of people shouting at each other for a while.”
“Carol came by after dinner last night when you were working in the back yard. She said a man was badly injured and is in a coma.”
“Well,” said Mike, “there was some fighting, but I didn’t want to upset you. I didn’t know anyone got hurt that bad.”
Marie shook her head. “It’s awful.”
The coffee machine beeped and Mike smiled sadly. “The coffee’s ready.”
She came to him and put her arm around him. “Not too strong, I hope.”
He shook his head. “Just the way you like it.” He pulled her close and kissed her. She responded and they both felt an awakening of passion. “I wish we would have done that last night,” he said. “Could have been the start of s ...