"Mom, what are asses of evil?"

Protesters have taken over my Manhattan neighborhood. But how do I explain their signs -- let alone the dismal state of the world -- to my 9-year-old son?

Published September 2, 2004 8:23PM (EDT)

I expected the Republican National Convention to provide some teachable moments for my 9-year-old son -- especially since we live in Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan. But I didn't anticipate that it would teach him some new words.

Earlier this week in Union Square -- ground zero for many of the protest groups -- I stopped to buy a T-shirt that depicted President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The caption read "Axis of Evil."

"Do you want 'Axis of Evil' or 'Asses of Evil'? We have both," the young vendor asked as I handed her my $10, gesturing to the two options. My son began to giggle. "I'll take the Axis," I muttered, hurrying him away. He chuckled for blocks.

It wasn't the first time since the RNC's arrival that my desire to raise a good liberal Democrat has run smack into my desire to raise a well-spoken gentleman. On the morning of the big pre-convention protest, I took my son and 5-year-old daughter to the playground at Washington Square Park early, hoping to get some ya-yas out before things got hectic in the streets. Washington Square has also served as a popular staging ground and meeting place for all manner of demonstrators: We saw the hookup spot for Texans Against Bush, Teachers for Peace and the Road Runners Club, among others. What did they all have in common? Signs. And my son read all of them with escalating glee.

"No more Bush-Shit!"

"Lick Bush!"

"Bush Sucks!"

"Don't say 'sucks.'"

"I'm not saying. I'm reading."

"I don't want to hear the word 'sucks' coming from you."

"Mom, everyone here is saying it."

"If everyone here jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?"

"Huh? What are you talking about?"

(Yeah, that Brooklyn Bridge thing always seemed like a non sequitur to me, too.)

I've been wearing my Kerry button all week; I'm proud New York is standing up and talking back. But it's a shock to my liberal core to find my parental impulses at odds with my political ones.

Take the nude activists who walked out onto Eighth Avenue and bared all to call attention to the criminal lack of funding for AIDS treatment around the world: There wasn't nearly enough pixilation to disguise them on the 5 o'clock news.

"Mom, what would you do if I went out in the street and took off all my clothes?" my son asked.

Again, I faced the dilemma: Who should answer that question? Politically Aware Mom or Behave Yourself Mom? I want him to be resolute in his convictions, willing to stand up and do what's necessary to speak the truth or right a wrong. On the other hand, the notion of my boy on the news wearing nothing but plastic handcuffs makes my stomach drop. I wavered and went for the blended response.

"Of course I expect you to wear your clothes in public. But this is not about taking off all your clothes. They're trying to make a point. They're doing something that they know everybody will look at so that they can be sure people are listening to their message."

"I'll bet their moms are mad," he said.

I'll bet their moms have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

The visiting anarchists aren't the only ones disrupting my parenting process. New York's Finest has had a hand. I entered my living room on Tuesday evening to find my kids blaring the television at top volume.

"What are you doing with the TV on so loud?" I demanded.

"It's noisy outside," complained my daughter.

She had a point: police helicopters, a fixture overhead this week, were hovering nearby, making it hard to hear Tommy Pickles face off with Angelica on "Rugrats." I retreated to another room and left them to their too-loud cartoon; it's not their fault Greenwich Village is under aerial surveillance.

And the visiting dignitaries aren't helping matters. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not doing a thing to back me up as I explain to my children that the action heroes we see on the big screen aren't real and that true leaders are thoughtful, intelligent, careful individuals who don't spend their time trying to get a laugh. From his use of "I'll be back" to "girlie men," Schwarzenegger's Hollywood delivery only underscores the notion that the election process is nothing more than the Oscars in November. I want to teach my kids to take this seriously -- but his sound bites say it's only a movie.

My neighbor -- dual income, no kids -- claims to have the answer. She says I should take the kids out of the controlled environment of my apartment and our local playground. I should take them into the streets, into the protests themselves. I should, she says, take them to midtown, where police are rounding up demonstrators in bright orange netting, where a mob is chanting "Shut up!" at the Fox News Headquarters and where hecklers are standing outside Broadway theaters, telling unsuspecting RNC ticket holders that the Phantom dies in the end.

"This is a great teaching opportunity," she says. "This is not a classroom. This is real life. Think of the impact this can have."

I am thinking of the impact. I'm thinking of the impact an angry adult crowd might have on a 4-foot child. I'm thinking about getting separated from him in a crowd that size. I'm thinking: Does the NYPD have tear gas?

But my neighbor's point is well taken. My son is not a bystander in this story; he is a stakeholder. He was here on these streets three years ago next Sunday, when I grabbed him up out of his first grade class and we ran through this neighborhood together. The streets were filling up by then, with milling crowds and rising panic and emergency vehicles screaming the wrong way down Sixth Avenue. The RNC wants badly to leverage that day for its own political gain. Shouldn't my son have something to say about that? Am I wrong to try and keep him from the hijacking of his life experience?

So I'm compromising. I won't walk my boy into the middle of an angry crowd. But I'm letting him read the signs. All of them. Some are no problem: "Peace Now"; "Books Not Bombs"; "Support Our Troops: Bring them home." Others are taking us into new territory: "Impeach Orwell"; "Regime Change Begins at Home"; "Osama Bin Forgotten." And when the pro-choice rally came marching over the Brooklyn Bridge chanting "Bush -- stay out of mine!" I took a deep breath and began what I suspect will be a very long discussion about reproductive rights.

He should have the words to describe the mess we're in: a war that never should have happened; an international reputation in tatters; a neighborhood just as vulnerable to terrorist attack as it was the day he first heard the phrase "ground zero." He should have the words. Because it sucks.

By Ellen Neuborne

Ellen Neuborne is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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