"Setting Loose the Marmosets"


The TV came on in the middle of a news report. “—arrested today in front of the Detroit Zoo after protesters blocked traffic at Woodward and Ten Mile for nearly an hour. The protesters chanted ‘Set Them Free’ as they were led away in handcuffs. The leader, who identified himself only as Chieftain, declined comment beyond shouting, ‘Slavery!’ No word on how long the protesters were detained.” The on-the-street reporter threw it back to the studio, where the sports report was teased before cutting to commercial. An ad for a dishwasher detergent that promised a tidal wave right there in your kitchen played, and then the television went dark.

I collapsed onto the bed. The day started off perfectly fine. I was in my office at the Zoo by 8.45, completed some work on a pair of presentations, called up a couple of long time high-dollar donors and extracted promises that they would donate still more money before I was summoned into the CEO’s office. That was when I found out about the protesters. “Have the police been called?” The CEO started slamming drawers. “Have the press? Should we send security out?” I didn’t really feel qualified to say much of anything. The Director of Communications was on a two-month sabbatical with a month and a half to go, scaling Kilimanjaro to bring attention to the plight of the humpback whale. I was just the Assistant Director, on the job for a paltry three months. And now here was this, this surprise protest in front of the Zoo by a group calling itself the MLF who wanted something freed. In the fracas, nobody had found out what that thing was supposed to be.

Mid-morning the next day I was pondering the printer and why it wasn’t working the way it was supposed to when Brenda from Purchasing poked her head out of her office. “Ivan? They’re back.”

I looked at her, or toward her. My eyes darted every which way trying to figure out who was back.

“The protestors,” she said. “Security just radioed back.”

I swore, abandoned my print job, and started toward the front of the park. The administration complex was a five-minute walk from the front gates and then another minute on to Woodward, the main road in front of the park. Getting from the front gate to Woodward was the issue today. The crowd was stacked ten deep into the grass median separating the Zoo’s access road from Woodward, and muttering a little. The protestors were louder than the crowd. I heard them from a hundred and fifty feet away chanting, “Heck, no, we won’t go,” and wondered if they knew how dated they sounded.

I wedged my way through the crowd and saw them at last. Eight of them were marching in an oval, carrying signs that said ‘Set Them Free’ and ‘Animals Are People Too’. The crowd gave them a ten-foot berth, and almost directly opposite me in the circle a TV cameraman filmed the whole thing. I took my lanyard ID off quickly; I was in the shot and didn’t want to be identified as an employee just yet.

“Jeezapetes,” Brenda from Purchasing said. She followed in my wake through the crowd. “They’re a bit full-on, aren’t they?”

The protestors switched to a chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Shut the Zoo and let them go!” marching in step, keeping their circle as perfect as possible. Standing on a milk crate in the middle was the man identified on the news as Chieftain. He had a bullhorn in one hand but wasn’t shouting into it just then. He was scowling the same scowl that I saw on the news the night before, like someone had passed gas in his face. On the ground next to the milk crate were a few backpacks and a couple of coolers; the protestors expected to be there for a while, or else go on a picnic afterwards.

A half-dozen squad cars pulled up then, lights flashing, sirens blaring. All of the officers had identical sunglasses on, thin metal frame, big lens, as if they were standard issue with the uniform. The crowd parted, not wanting to be in the line of fire should it come to that. The camera guy was perfectly positioned to capture it all.

“Behold, brethren!” Chieftain said into the megaphone. Some of the nearest bystanders tried to take a half-step back because of how loud he was. “They do not want our message to get out to the masses! They have come to silence us! Run!”

The protestors scattered, or tried to. As they were in close proximity to the policemen anyway and the crowd was essentially a blockade, none of them got anywhere. Chieftain was taken relatively easily. One of the cops got to him before he could get off his milk crate. For his part, he did nothing to resist the handcuffs being put on beyond starting to shout “Slaves!” again.

As one of them was being led to a squad car he said, “What about our things?”

The policeman grunted and gave the protestor—specifically, a twenty-something who looked like he was late for a class—a shove.

“I’ll take the stuff,” I said.

The protestor goggled. The policeman stared. Brenda from Purchasing said, “What?”

“I’ll bring their stuff along,” I said. “Where are you taking them? Royal Oak Police Station?”

The policeman nodded. “They’ll be in processing.” The college kid was still goggling as the cop gave him another shove and got him into the squad car.

I started to pick up the backpacks and coolers. Brenda from Purchasing followed me. “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know any of these people?”