Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shots rang out in the dark

As I recall it was cold that night in Denver. It’s fair to say that no weapon fire here-to-fore in Denver had caused the ground to shake so. It shook so hard that it was felt all the way in Washington.

I was in 11h grade at the time, and I was already politically active and politically aware. My bedroom door was adorned with notices of upcoming demonstrations, slogans for the causes I believed in and newspaper clippings diligently cut out of the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, Westword (when I could find it) and some underground newspapers (benefit of living near a college campus).

Several of the clippings were of pictures of students protesting and being beaten in Iran. Having been up on my bedroom door for two years they had already yellowed. But I had believed in them then, their fight against the Shah.

It wasn’t a popular position to take, even though Denver had become more left, very few people understood why I supported a revolution against a friend of this country. Many of the things I told them about how the Shah came to power, Savak, the abuses and our part in all of this, they refused to hear. Maybe it was just overload after Vietnam, Watergate, I’m not sure, but they wanted to cling to that shiny brass knob instead of recognizing how tarnished it really was.

What the hell did I know anyway, an idealistic, naive 9th grader?

The Iranian Revolution moved swiftly by January 1979 the Shah had left Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. February 11th saw the Palavi dynasty come to an end when the Iranian people took back their government over the one the US had installed and pretty much the puppet of.

Most people at that time had only vaguely heard of Mossadegh. We didn’t have the internet back then, no CNN and international phone calls were expensive, very long (while you waited for the person on the other end to hear what you had said and then you waited to hear their response), you frequently got disconnected and the sound quality was poor.

The news you got came from the newspapers, radio and 5 television stations (PBS, Ind, CBS, ABC, NBC). Back then Denver was still known as an “Oversized Cow Town,” and often those values clashed with the young people, the former hippies streaming in, the immigrants and refugees who settled in Denver, and those who feared the change.

I tell you this to give you a sense of the climate, how different is was from what you saw and may have experience at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

News exploded from everywhere November 4, 1979. Our embassy in Tehran had fallen and hostages taken.

The intensely political girl with known sympathies to the Iranian students now became a target. Strange things began to be shoved through the slots of my locker door. Sometimes taped to the front were signs saying “Iranian Lover.”

Denver, like most of the country, anger swelled at Iran and at Iranians here at home.

Rumors of a campus demonstration began to surface. I caught sight of a homemade Iranian flag and overheard a group talking about burning it at the demonstration. My high school's administration (like many I suppose) worked to quell the anger, protect the Iranian immigrant students on campus, and squash the demonstration. The flag was confiscated.

Then the shots rang out.

November 11, 1979

Thirteen boys from a neighboring high school went out looking for trouble that night. They went looking for an Iranian to "hassle." They went to a near by college campus reasoning that there would be Iranians there, and on an apartment mailbox they found a name that "looked" Iranian.

Reports back then said that they threw rocks through the plate glass window. One now says they were wielding baseball bats. Then they took off as shots were fired.

Two boys were hit in the legs and arm, a third boy was killed.

The anger boiled over not at the boys for looking for trouble, but at the Iranian. He had a gun, how could he have a gun? This was an extreme response to mischief, etc. etc. etc.

In my own house the almost constant political battles I had with my Dad reached a new high as I sided with the Iranian. I argued with my Dad that given the climate and the fear Iranians in this country must be experiencing it was only natural for him to seek to protect himself. What the boys did was wrong, and my Dad would have done the same thing.

That position would cost me more at school too. The district of the high school where the boys attended buttressed the district of my high school. Many of the kids in my school knew the boys who had been shot.

President Carter immediately placed the Iranian in protective custody.

That Christmas I sent the Iranian, Afshin Shariati, a card. I figured he was receiving horrible mail and I wanted to let him know someone, like this stupid 17 year old, supported him. He never got it though, I had addressed it wrong and it came back in the mail.

Afshin was acquitted of murder in December of 1980. His lawyer, Walter Gerash, pretty much arguing the same idea in front of the jury that I had argued with my Dad
Gerash brought tears to jurors' eyes with his insistence that a frightened Iranian had as much right to defend his "castle" from attack as any red-blooded American.

I was happy about the verdict, but then all thoughts were replaced by getting through the last semester of high school and going on to college.

August 1981 came and I was sitting in the gigantic lecture hall at the University of Colorado at Denver, waiting for Chemistry class to begin. This was before the Auraria campus was finished and many classes were held in the converted old rapid transit trolley building.

In this classroom the seats for the students were not tiered, we were all on one level, And if you had the unfortunate business of coming in late and sitting at the back, you needed opera glasses to see the board.

On this first day the professor called roll. This was a long and arduous process the class had over 100 students for the lecture, we were broken down into smaller groups for lab and TA class time.

It was all pretty standard stuff with the name and either “here” or silence following. Then with those who had already been called not listening any more and getting restless, the professor called out “Afshin Shariati.”

The room caught a collective breath and grew silent.

“Here” came a voice from the back of the room.

Slowly all eyes turned and came to rest upon this man. He was lean and bearded and was painfully aware of the eyes.

The next name was called, but no one turned back around. The silence only broken by the professor and those that responded.

“I have to meet him,” I determined. “I need to let him know we aren’t all against him.”

I figured that with the trial, and all, he hadn’t been able to finish his education.

As luck or providence would have it, he was in the TA and lab class I was in. So I introduced myself. We spent many hours talking, he became one of my two lab partners and the three of us would often have lunch together. I told him about the card I sent him. He replied that he had never gotten it. I said I knew, and eventually handed it to him. I had kept it, I don’t know why.

He told me about his experiences. Without his knowledge I took the past 2 years of my life and our meeting and wrote a paper for my English class. I said much the same as I have written here, though probably far more eloquently.

The paper received an “A” and I showed it to him. He was pleased and touched and asked for a copy.

We were never more than friends, and that was all that we seemed to want and enjoy from one another. His friendship and the perspective it gave me is something I will always treasure.

Years went by and we both did different things. But we would often see each other at the grocery store by what used to be Cinderella City. We’d catch up, he met my daughter, still a toddler at the time. And then life took me away from even that contact, we moved to Massachusetts and I lost touch.

Through the years I have thought of him often. Probably none more than I do now, and along with that the seeming desperate need inside of me to contact him. I want to make sure he’s okay, let him know that our friendship still survives, to reconnect.

Today another three letters will go out to addresses that may still be his. Maybe one will reach him. I keep looking, keep hoping.

The events of the past few days feel so familiar to me.

I’m hoping they haven’t triggered too much in him.

Crossposted at DailyKos