Before you get on your high horse about civility and what not, let me preface this by saying I have never punched an actual politician. But with politicians cavalierly invalidating the will of the people, choosing to not be open to constituent opinions, gerrymandering us into a corner, we have all had a fair bit of agitas to work through. I’d argue that, living in Wisconsin since before the 2011 protests and through eight years of ALEC puppet Scott Walker, I might have even a little more anger and anxiety to work through.
So, for the past seven or so years, I’ve gone to kickboxing three or four times a week. And imagined beating up politicians. My favorite flavor combo is using a street brawl downward punch on Paul Ryan’s face.
At some point, I wondered to myself whether, if I were to see him in public, would he be taller or shorter than I imagined? I decided to google his height. You see, depending on your height and the height of your opponent, certain moves might be more or less proficient at disabling them. Then I went down a rabbit hole of googling the heights of politicians I disagree with. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it certainly makes for entertaining party conversations.
Fast forward to about a month ago, on a Sunday morning, in a town just on the outskirts of Madison, on a soccer field. 9am, the field covered in a light mist descending from the heavens, I was questioning my life choices as a parent.
You see, I had managed to keep my kids mostly out of organized sports for many years. Alas, my 13-year-old decided he wanted to try out for a select soccer team, despite never having played team soccer before. Lo and behold, he made the team, and I had to follow through on my promise to spend ridiculous amounts of money on uniforms and cleats, coaches and ref fees and tournaments, and to dutifully drive my son to his twice-weekly practices and games. Ugh.
It was 48 degrees and raining. Did I mention that before? Well, I’ll mention it again. Because it was miserable. But not miserable enough to call the game. As the kids got warmed up for the game, I noticed an armada of three black SUVs pull into the parking lot of the field, circle around, and then approach the parking area nearest our field.
The past week in our town, there were reports of ICE doing raids and taking immigrants into custody and I, like many, was horrified and appalled. The city’s police department has a mandate from the city council to not cooperate with ICE enforcement, but usually ICE is supposed to let the police know that they will be conducting raids, should there be fallout or escalation that the police need to respond to. Well, ICE being what it is, they did not communicate with the police, and never did so until their raids were completed. Essentially, a big fuck you to the city and our police.
So when I saw those SUVs with tinted windows circling, I started to puff myself up. I thought to myself they better not be coming to snatch a mother watching her kid play soccer. “I wonder what the hell is going on?” I asked, to no one in particular. One of the other parents responded, “I think maybe they’re bringing another player.” “What?” I responded. “Like what kind of other player comes in an SUV with tinted windows?”
Sure enough, the doors of the middle SUV opened, and a lanky kid ran out in the opposing team’s uniform, and onto the field. After him followed the secret service— about twelve of them, replete with earpieces and looking— well, you know. Secret service-y. And amidst them was the floating, smug face of Paul Ryan. That face I knew by heart, but this time, attached to a body. For a second I was seriously questioning my sanity. Was I really here? Was I dreaming? Was I hallucinating? Was that really Paul Ryan? And, yes. It really was Paul Ryan. His son was playing on the opposing team.
As he approached, I reached deep down and did my must guttoral, growly voice and bellowed “YOU. ARE. NOT. WELCOME. HERE.” He looked at me as though looking through me, smirked, and said, “You know, I only get this when I come to Madison.” Without missing a beat, I responded, “No, Paul. Pretty sure everyone everywhere thinks you’re an asshole and lets you know it to your face.”
He blithely put up his folding chair and sat down. I was about ten feet away from him, and I started to cry and shake. What the fuck was happening? One minute I was a reluctant soccer mom, now I’m yelling at one of the most reviled figures in American politics.
One of the secret service guys started to engage me in conversation. “Ma’am,” he said, “I know you’re upset. He’s just here like you are to watch his kid play soccer.” I said, “No, he’s not here just like I am. He’s a public official. He works for me. And he doesn’t want to hear from me or any of his constituents. So it’s my right to tell him what I think about him.” As my voice rose, some other parents muttered, “Be civil!” “Sit down!” “Don’t make a big deal about this!”
I replied, “Nope. I won’t be civil. He doesn’t deserve my fucking civility. You know who deserves civility? Those kids he and his buddies put in cages. You know who deserves civility? The kids protesting his party’s immigration policy and inaction on gun violence, who were arrested. They deserve civility. This fucker is afraid of us because he doesn’t want to hear what we have to say. So guess what? This is fair game.”
I turned back to one of the nearby secret service guys and said, “Look. I’m not a danger.” I opened my coat to show him I had no weapons. I said, “I’m not armed. I don’t believe in weapons or violence. No thanks to Paul Ryan, who has done jack shit to get gun laws passed that would help protect me or you or any of the kids out there. I’m not a danger, but I’m also not going to shut up. So I’m sorry, I know you’re doing your job,” to which he chimed in, “Yes, ma’am. We’re doing our job. We all have different political beliefs but we try to keep things civil.” And I said, “I get that, and I respect you. But that’s your job, not mine. I’m not a danger, but I’m also not going to throw away my shot at making him squirm. If I have to feel uncomfortable being in his presence, he’s going to be uncomfortable being in mine.”
I wrote a post on facebook to alert my local friends where I was and what was going on. I sent out the bat signal— someone come be with me. Because, for as tough as I am, for as resolute as I am, I was shaking. My fight or flight reflex and adrenaline had kicked in and although I knew I was safe, that I wouldn’t do anything dangerous, my body was too amped, and it felt honestly awful. It felt like an anxiety attack does. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was nervously laughing one second, crying the next. I must have looked like a fucking mess. Which I was.
I got within seven feet of Ryan and continued to smack talk to his back while he avoided eye contact. I turned on facebook live to broadcast what I was saying and thinking, and to bring my friends up to speed. Plus, I thought it was kind of funny and creepy that I was narrating what was going on as though he couldn’t hear me, knowing full well he could hear me just fine.
Friends asked questions and I answered out loud. At one point he took out a Snickers bar— just after 9am? WTF— and started eating it for breakfast. I said out loud, “Oh, look, he’s eating a Snickers bar for breakfast, LIKE A MONSTER. Hey Paul, does that Snickers bar have the souls of caged children in it?” What an absurd fucking thing to say. But also kind of hilarious.
At halftime, I stopped filming and almost immediately, a friend of mine showed up and gave me a big hug. I collapsed into her and the hug with big, wet sobs.
She and I stood and talked, engaging the secret service guys in talk about all sorts of things, including how underprepared they were for the awful weather, and telling them how sorry we were that they had to protect someone as abhorrent as Paul Ryan. My son’s team was ahead 6-0 at the half, and the score stayed that way to the end, as the mercy rule was engaged. So essentially, his team just ran the ball up and down the field without shooting the entire second half. Which was good because I was honestly not paying attention.
Another mom showed up and I told her who was sitting on the sidelines and she seemed amused. She said, “I don’t like his politics, but I’m going to go and introduce myself to him. I know someone who was a friend of his in college. I’m going to try and engage his humanity.” “Go ahead,” I said, “But to be honest, I think the time for engaging his humanity is well past. If he had humanity to be engaged, surely gun violence survivors or ill people being thrown off of insurance would have touched his humanity.”
She went over anyway, squatted next to his chair, made eye contact with him. He vaguely paid attention to her, one eye constantly on the game. He seemed to remember their common friend. The woman came back after a short conversation, not having said anything of importance.
The whistle for the end of the game came suddenly, and he immediately popped up and started running back to the protection of the SUVs, a secret service agent running behind him to fold and swoop up his chair. As I realized he was running away, I yelled, “Hey Paul! Run away little man, run away!” My friend joined me. “Don’t come back ever again!”
Some of the other parents were annoyed at me that I had been a pain in the ass the entire time. The team manager woman came over and said that what I did was against the pledge we signed to be polite on the sidelines. I wasn’t having any of it. “I’m sorry, you’re defending the actual monster that was sitting here because, let’s see if I have this straight. Because I wasn’t being polite about the fact that he’s enabling people who want to take away health care, the right to choose, who want to make it harder to vote, who are openly racist and xenophobic?”
My son’s team did their run down the sidelines, as they do every game, gathering high fives from the parents and spectators. The kids had no idea, still, that anything had happened, or who was in the audience of their game.
My son ran up to me, and I said to him, “Great game! Do you know who was here?” He looked confused. “Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan was sitting right there.” I pointed. He asked, “Ummm. Ok. Did you say anything to him?” “Yeah,” I said. “I told him he was an asshole to his face.” My son smiled, but was also obviously embarrassed. The team coach, a generally chill dude, came over and started to talk to me about the situation, and said that he was disappointed in my behavior, that harassing another team’s spectators was against the rules.
“Ok,” I said. “But he wasn’t a spectator. He’s an elected official who enables the worst heinous acts against the poorest and most vulnerable people in this society.”
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t agree with his politics either. But this is about the kids. This is a politics-free zone. We leave the real world out there,” he said, pointing to the parking lot.
“I wish it were that easy for me,” I said. “I’m a Jewish woman. My people were almost exterminated less than 100 years ago. It’s not academic to me. What he does isn’t just a matter of politics. It’s a matter of life and death.”
“But this is supposed to be a safe space,” the coach reasserted. My friend chimed in, “Oh yeah? So white Paul Ryan, who works for us, gets a safe space? I’m a black woman. I don’t have a safe space in this country. It doesn’t matter if I’m on or off the field. There is no safe space for me. I can’t just stop being black.”
“But you signed a pledge!” The coach said.
“I didn’t,” my friend said. “I’m just here watching my friend’s son play soccer and supporting my friend. I didn’t sign any pledge.”
“Ok,” the coach said, “But this behavior is not appropriate.”
“I understand your position,” I said. “And I want you to understand mine, and the fact that I would not change a damn thing I just did or said. It had zero negative effects on children— they didn’t even know what was happening or that anything was amiss. This was my once in a lifetime chance to tell Paul Ryan what I felt about him, I did it, I stand by it, and I’ll take any consequences from those actions.”
My friend piped in, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree with you. Agree to disagree. Goodbye.” The coach and manager walked off, my friend and I hugged and laughed and cried all at once.
I am so thankful that she showed up to support me, and especially because in this relatively progressive idyll of a town, I was shocked at how complacent people were. I couldn’t believe that no one else had the guts to stand up to Paul Ryan, especially when he showed up with twelve armed guards at a Sunday morning soccer game.
Had he come in relatively low-key, I can guarantee you that no one would have noticed him at all. The weather was bad, we were all under umbrellas and blankets. But he rolled in like he was in charge of the place, and I was not the person he wanted to meet that day.
I drove back home and sobbed almost the entire way. My son was confused and a little embarrassed about what had taken place between the coach, manager, my friend, and I. He said, “Mom, just in the future, can you maybe tell him what you think of him in private, or in his office?” Between sobs, I explained, “Oh sweetie, I wish that I could have. But when someone doesn’t want to listen to you and makes it impossible to have your voice be heard, you have to take whatever chance you’ve got. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And even though I’m really upset right now, I know it’s nothing in comparison to people who he’s hurt with his policies and words. I’m privileged. So it’s even more on me to say something. So many others will never have the strength or opportunity to do so. I needed to speak up for them too.”
I came home and immediately hopped on facebook live and ugly cried, telling my friends the rest of the story. I have never been so emotionally bare in my life. (Ugly crying is, indeed, super ugly. We never want to see ourselves doing it, and we don’t want others to see us doing it, either.) I wanted to show people that it wasn’t so easy for me to do— there was a psychic and physical cost to that kind of confrontation. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
My cat jumped up on me and kept trying to paw my face as I spoke. It distracted me. I took a deep breath, and ended the video. A friend texted me and said come to the gym. I switched my clothes, still crying, and drove to the gym, to do my normal weightlifting class. I lifted one and a half times my normal weight for forty five minutes of the class, and only after that, for the last fifteen minutes, was I able to stop shaking.
The rest of the day I felt physically ill. I kept having flashbacks to the situation and my heart would start to race. I’d feel short of breath. Then I would consciously calm myself down, distract myself. Re-ground myself.
I went to my kickboxing class the next night and, oddly enough, I didn’t imagine Paul Ryan anymore. In fact, I was largely without any animus towards anyone— at least not enough to conjure their faces. That’s when I realized that I had fought a fight I’ve been training for for years. I fought it. Bucket list item checked off. I didn’t have to punch Paul Ryan. But I did get to demonstrate that what he has enacted and enabled is not acceptable.
My fight didn’t end that day, and in most ways, it won’t ever end. Confrontation is not the preferred norm. But when those with power choose to consolidate that power, we must take any opportunity to disrupt them. Make life uncomfortable. And most of all, show other people that they can stand up, too. We must be heard.