Just before the people who tried to kill me picked up their weaponthe gun, the knife, the pipe wrench, the suitcase bomb, the broken scissorshere's what they yelled at me, their battle cry of elimination:
N*****-loving Communist Cunt
And I'm really not that big of a deal.
I think the first time I got an eliminationist message was from a Nixon-defending high school cheerleader I enraged in 10th grade, who merrily slammed her locker door on my hand: "People like you ought to be shot."
Well, the cheerleader's dream almost came true. The bright-eyed vision that everyone who disagrees with "you" should be put before a firing squad is the kind of delusion that fuels such massacres as the one we've witnessed this week in Arizona.
Sticks and stones do break bones, and pejorative calls to arms incite their arsenal. I can't put up with Sarah Palin or Fox News taking offense at the mirror that's been held up to their mugsthey are not the victims here. Messianic crusaders like Palin wield rhetoric to condemn, they imply that a certain type of "bad American" doesn't deserve to live.
"Don't retreat, reload," Mama Grizzly insists. Fox TV's shrieks of indignation remind me of Beavis & Butthead's "Cornholio" character, the tweaker at the top of his voice, "ARE YOU THREATENING ME?"
But it's the opposite, isn't it? The deluded charismatics are threatening the non-believers, their critics. They don't sit at home wondering if liberals or socialists or queers are going to snuff them in the night instead, they face ridiculethat's their ultimate tragic fate.
But the average zealot doesn't see it that way. As the bullying provocateur, s/he imagines that s/he is the lamb, a lamb who just happens to have a full clip of ammunition.
Are their adoring followers, the lone and troubled gunmen, "crazy?" Of course they are. I'm sure my small-time bug-eyed assailants were "troubled at home," feared by their family and friends, easily suicidal. A fragile, shattered individual looks for ideological fuel to give them strength; they are mesmerized by apocalyptic language that justifies slaying their dragons.
My attackers from past decades didn't know "me," anymore than assassin Jared Lee Loughner knew Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The symbolic subject of every attack is nothing but a target to the assassin, the prize. When the big cheeses paint gun sites on our photos, or demand in print, or on the mike, that we suffer pain and eradication, the young martyr is only too happy to pick up a Glock. They don't want to read about peace, love, and understanding.
What happened in my case, when I was the "one-who-must-be-cut-down?" Obviously, I'm not nearly as famous as many targets who've hit the headlinesthank goodness for that. There's thousands of activists who've been in my shoes, and I wish they'd speak up now, especially the women, since our sexual virtue is always dragged into our "villainy."
I've been lucky to have nine lives, and don't relish the publicity of drawing attention to it. Who wants to look for sharks? There's no doubt, I've been chilled by political batshitterythe never-ending anonymous bullies who swear they will be successful next time. There is little one can do to protect oneselfexcept keep in the light.
I mean "light" literally, not spiritually. The most outspoken figures, who insist on public debate, democratic access, and eschew anonymity, are the ones who who make it safer for everyone to speak out, as well as saving their own ass. We're harder to attack when we're not isolated. This is why Gifford's case, as a gung-ho public servant, is so paradoxical and tragic.
My life and flesh was saved by friends, every time. I was rarely alone when my would-be assassins struck. When I read about the people who ran to the gunfire in Tucson, like Daniel Hernandez, and held the victims in their arms, that's when I cried. People like that embody the generosity and courage of America's best ethic.
When a .357 was pressed into my gut in Louisville, 1977, by a Klansman pissed off about school integrationa car screeched up right behind us, and interrupted his tirade. When a freight company goon grabbed his wrench to cripple me as I passed out strike-support flyers, I didn't know if I could walk. I didn't understand why I was bleedingbut I was bodily picked up by a quick-thinking comrade. It was my supporters who grabbed me out of all three bomb-targets, and the local firemen made me feel like nothing could get to me.
I remember after one bomb threat in Western Massachusetts in the '90s, the local police, who were no great fans of the liberal university in their midst, asked me why anyone would want to bomb me, a innocuous-looking young mom, Irish Catholic with freckles. I probably looked a lot like their wives or daughters.
I sighed. "I'm not Martin Luther King; this is ridiculous. I've been in civil rights and labor movements all my life, but this takes the cake. You know who this mad bomber is? She's likely a young undergrad from the Women's Studies department who's become convinced by one of her beloved professors that I'm not a feminist after all, but more of an anti-Christ.
"They think I'm a rape-monger, but I'm actually here to talk about ... female orgasm, and who gets to control women's sex lives."
"Female WHAT?" the sergeant said.
The shameful Dworkin-MacKinnon years of the 1980s, when a war of sexual politics broke out between women who'd shared in the same trenches for years, was bizarre. The more years that go by, the sicker it makes me. A battle over ... whether pornographic peep shows were the foundation of women's oppression ... evolved into a freak show.
In one instance, I went to the University of Minnesota, and was greeted by a blood-stained banner and flyer that proclaimed: "First, there was slavery in the Roman Empire. Then, the Holocaust. And now, Susie Bright comes to speak to the U. of M. campus."
It would have been just another knee-slapper, except for the event that ended my controversial lecture there.
I was seven months pregnant; I had to go to the bathroom every few minutes. I asked my producer to follow me into the lavatory on the ground floor; I felt a little nervous from all the anti-Susie protests upstairs in the auditorium.
It was one of those giant tiled restrooms with a dozen stalls and porcelain sinks lined up against the wall. From the rear corner a young blond woman, with a sharp tool grasped in her hands, rushed up to me. I don't know what I would have done without my colleague there. Or without my giant belly giving this young woman pause.
She was in tears as she accused me of "female genocide"yes, she with the blade in her hand. It made her angry to see me as a mommy-to-be, a real woman who had to take a piss, who might not be a monster after all. She wanted me to be that monster so badly, so she could destroy me.
To be truthful, social justice activists of all kinds do share something with MLK: we are demonized, particularly around issues of race and sex, national identity, class affiliationthis is the stuff creepy dog-whistlers and cocked riflemen are made of.
I've been told I should shut up and die (in more than a rhetorical way) because I protested the Vietnam war, because I was a labor activist, because I was a shameless women's libber, because I was a "race traitor," because I was a pervert, and in the final baroque twist, that I was a sexual demon to my own kind. Many of those issues seem quaint now, others feel like today's headlines. It was never a question of shutting up, and I thankfully escaped the chum festbut it took its toll.
All bigots' accusations are sexually neurotic. Womenand this certainly includes Congresswoman Giffordswho are outspoken in their politics are typically called whores, and castigated for "sleeping with the enemy." The enemy is typically defined by the color of their skin, the nature of their desire, the neighborhood they come from. We are called "sluts" (not in a fun way) if we champion reproductive rights. Our "virtue" is assailed if we don't "stick with our own kind." They call us "Bitch," and everything is justified from that word on. It would be a childish rebuke if our names didn't end up on their hit lists.
The entitled, frustrated madman is not going out on dates. He churns inside himself with erotic titillation and guilt. He imagines that the queers, the "colored people," the "perverts"are all out to get him, to expose his limp, terrified underbelly. If only our beleaguered patsy could "kill" his temptation, his "torment," then he thinks he'll sleep better at night.
But as Jared Loughner knows, as well as every prick that raised their hand against me, sleep does not come. The agonies don't go away; there's always another monster. And as long as we keep handing frightened sick people guns, violent puritanical manifestos, and a culture that loves a romance of apocalypse, the handwringing will do nothing but soak the ground.
Susie Bright is the author of Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir. She has been sneaking into Windy City Times ever since she was editing her first magazine, On Our Backs.