The Magazine

Chasing the Dragon

Among the protesters.

Sep 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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New York

I USED TO THINK that there was nothing wrong with street activists that a good scrubbing and a few rubber bullets couldn't fix. But that was before I met Adam Eidinger on the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. The first time I saw him in 2001, he stood nine feet tall. He was on stilts, and hadn't quite gotten the hang of them yet. He was scraping his glasses on tree branches and risking impalement on SUV antennas. But Adam kept at it to advertise an upcoming inaugural protest. "We don't want to yell at Republicans, we want to engage them," he said.

I hung out with his people, then wrote them up in snarky fashion. His comrades sent me several irate letters. But Adam, who runs his own progressive public relations collective, never complained. He just kept on calling me every time nuclear weapons needed to be abolished or hemp regulations needed to be relaxed. Adam, it seemed, would not be deterred. Adam believes.

We arranged a reunion on the streets of Manhattan for the mass protest of the Republican convention. Now 30 years old, the former Eagle Scout and Naval Academy aspirant has been through seven arrests and countless court dates. He's had handcuffs affixed so tightly by D.C. police that he couldn't feel his thumb for a month. He says he was dragged by his hair and beat up by Philadelphia cops when he wouldn't give them his name once in custody, after undercover officers infiltrated his puppet warehouse at the 2000 Republican convention. ("I should've seen it," he says, kicking himself. "They were all burly guys who ate cheeseburgers among all these emaciated vegans.") But he is still at it, as he has been since the antiglobalization movement created a permanent underclass of free-range activists in the late 1990s. Today, Adam is not the stilt-walker. He is the "Dragon Master." He is overseeing the operation of a gigantic papier-mâché dragon, called, rather inelegantly, the "Dragon of Self-Determination." As dragon names go, it's no "Puff," but it's all about the message.

Requiring around 15 people to operate it, from its fly-away tail to its munching jaws, which chomp on a Pinocchio-nosed George W. Bush doll, the dragon attracts all sorts of curiosity-seekers--from Communist Revolutionary youth to soot-caked anarchists who look like Dick Van Dyke's chimney-sweep kick-line from Mary Poppins. There are all manner of distractions, from reunions with former holding-pen mates to the pro-bono lawyer who asks, "Is this the socialist group?" ("Aren't they all?" I respond.)

But Adam, who sports a Brillo Pad of hair and Buddy Holly glasses, never loses sight of his Dragon-Master responsibilities. He lashes car batteries to the dragon's wood-rickshaw frame in tight Eagle Scout knots, in order to power the sound system. He barks orders at his affinity group, telling people they're permitted out of the dragon torso to take bathroom breaks, but they must find their own substitutes. He apologizes that the PVC pipes feeding into the dragon's nostrils will not be smoking as they have at other protests. This is, after all, Mayor Bloomberg's New York.

Walking point in front of the dragon is Lizzie Croydon, one of Adam's close cohorts. Lizzie is a fledgling stand-up comic (she specializes in "world culture humor"), a 1-900 tarot-card reader, and an aikido aficionado who calls actor/martial artist Steven Seagal her "sensei." Dressed in an oriental tunic, Lizzie does shoulder rolls and spins bamboo rods, and while landing on your back on the bare concrete can be hard on a girl, she says she'd follow Adam anywhere, not only because of his commitment to nonviolence, but because she once heard him refer to their like not as "protesters" but as "attesters."

As we join the protest route up Seventh Avenue, the Dragon of Self-Determination is a camera magnet. But Adam spreads the love around. Taking the dragon's microphone, he transforms himself from a nice Jewish boy into the fourth Beastie Boy. He spins all the protest tunes from the Clash to James Brown to the Beastie's own "Finga-lickin' Good," while allowing every yobbo with a couplet and a dream to bust a rhyme on his sound system, like the skinny white kid who scream-sings: Hey Bush / You liar / Your cowboy ass is fired!

When Adam is not attempting guttural dragon noises that sound like a gopher with smoker's cough, he improvises his own chants, such as "We're gonna hydrate / We're gonna liberate!" Uninspired by his call to drink more fluids, someone hoots for a new DJ. But Adam is not discouraged. He is the CINC, the General, the Dragon Master. He not only inspires the troops, he also provides a public service with announcements like "This is the Dragon of Self-Determination; will Tiffany Price from Indiana University please come to the dragon to pick up her lost wallet?"