My favorite story about my family is that, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bush campaign in the 2000 election, delivering him the state of Florida and, with it, the election my grandmother got out of her chair and declared that she was going to Washington and was going to shoot the son of a bitch. Of course, she was well into her 70s at that point and was not going to do anything like that, but it left an impact on me. As long as I can recall, my family watched the news, read about current events, and educated themselves on what was happening. We haven’t always had such, ah, strong reactions, but we never shied away from discussing this stuff with each other. Of course, it helps that we’re all more or less on the same side of things. We’re planted firmly on the left (or at least center-left) side of the spectrum and that’s given us a nice, safe, jumping ground from whence to start conversations.
It, thus, goes without saying that the folks in my immediate family are firmly on the BLM side of the spectrum. I’ve joined in on the marches in Portland for most of the last week – to varying degrees and lengths of time – and my family and I have been communicating steadily on what’s going on where we’re at. The reaction to me being in the crowds during the marches are a) wear a good mask; b) stay safe; and c) good for you.
For my part, I’m a little ashamed that this is the first time I’ve joined in on protests. Certainly, part of that is because up until college, I lived in Smyrna, Tennessee. A bastion of political activity only for hyper-local Republicans, it was not a place where a high school student who was nevertheless angry about the Iraq War could join in on protests. Nevertheless, I did go to school at the University of Tennessee, which did have protests. Aside from a few spats of yelling down street preachers, I did not join in. Why? Sheer, utter laziness.
Then, after university and returning to Nashville, I did not join in on the Occupy Wall Street movement, though I was very sympathetic. Why? Again, sheer, utter laziness. Sure, I’d talk to people about it and join in on a rare phone bank, but for the most part, I was pretty content to sit back and let things go on as they would otherwise. I had a vague feeling that I should be doing something, but I decided to build a desktop computer and get into PC gaming instead. Sure, I donated and discussed politics with people, but that is a far cry from the sorts of direct action that led to people being arrested and the first bouts of legislation passed in Tennessee to keep people from camping on public property – a state-backed method of eliminating a peaceful form of protest.
And then, after moving out of Tennessee, I moved to Portland, a city that is – far and wide – known for being contrarian and vocal. Yet, I did not join in on the first Black Lives Matter marches, the Trump Inauguration protests, or any of the other forms of protests that happened since then. It all, ultimately, came down to the laziness that, I think, is intrinsic to modern humanity – we’d all rather unwind at the end of the day with TV, movies, or whatever, than give up our evenings to join in on a march.
So why now? Why, in the middle of a global pandemic where the world is trying to stop the spread of a massive, highly-communicable disease? Isn’t this the sort of thing that I complained about people doing when they marched on governors’ offices to intimidate state governments into opening up? Isn’t this running counter to my thoughts about how stupid it is that people want to pack into movie theaters and restaurants?
Yes. It is.
And yet, this time, things have coalesced to such a degree that I have finally gotten off my ass. We’ve seen such a degree of worrying conspiracy theories, increasing hate group activity, polarization, and, indeed, an ever-increasing amount of police militarization that everything in me has finally propelled me forward to actually join in. I’ve looked back at my life, at all of the passive choices that I made, and reflected on the President threatening to use the military on protestors and the small subsection of those who turn to rioting. In doing so, I realized that the risk posed by the coronavirus is eclipsed by the risk posed by inaction. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to start pressing for reopening, or start coughing on people; but I am counting it as a social necessity to get on the streets and join everyone who is calling for change.
To start with, I thought about my family. Specifically, I thought about my mom, who took principled stances in her life about vegetarianism, the Vietnam War, hate against the Muslim community, hate against the Jewish community, and, in general, just put out good vibes. I then expanded out to thinking about how the Jewish community has played a big role in Civil Rights movements and how that is an extension of the idea of tikkun olam. Then, I thought about my interactions with friends, how I could have done better, how I could have not enabled certain mindsets, and then how, ultimately, when I finally moved to a blue state it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And, finally, I thought about all of my friends who are currently involved in organizing, protesting, or advocating, and how I needed to be more like them.
But that was, still, not enough.
It took a couple of events on Monday, June 1, 2020 to get me to act. The first was a series of comments made by folks I’ve known for over half my life. The second was the aforementioned threat of wildly disproportionate military force against American citizens. Both of those on the same day led me to do more than contribute money or to boost voices online. I won’t go so far as to say that acting was liberating, because that would be a little hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing. It was, however, the most right thing I’ve felt since quitting my last job. Being a small, small part of the crowds crossing the Burnside and Morrison bridges, and going up Grand Ave and coming down MLK, has really hammered home what all of this means and what it could lead to. Among the calls for justice for murdered American citizens, for calls for massive police reform, the declaration of all cops as bastards, there is a sense of change.
Portland, as one of the organizers pointed out, has a reputation of being pretty flaky. The city will gladly throw on a mask of benign a progressive bastion, but still give tech companies tax breaks while the police budget increases, the school budget decreases, roads continue to be, ah, not great, and more and more minority families and individuals are priced out further and further away from the city core. Those things are, slowly – ever so slowly – changing, but the running theme is that there is no time for these changes to continue their slow pace. To the credit of some of the city’s politicians, the changes are picking up. Voices are growing louder and that, hopefully, will lead to some of the policy reform that is so desperately needed. With these changes – policies outlined in the 8Can’tWait movement, as a single example – the city’s reputation for flakiness can, hopefully, change.
Much has been made in national media about protests turning to riots. The right wing has hung their hat on using looting in Portland or Seattle or LA or New York as examples of why their “law and order” approach must be taken. I can only make personal statements about the marches of which I’ve been a part. Those have been, without exception, peaceful, harmonious, and examples of a growing community. People have donated money, time, water, food, hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves to marchers. Individuals have blocked off roads in advance of the march so that the protestors can get from Point A to Point B safely. The organizers have brought voices from the community to share their experiences. They have, further, reminded people of their rights, what to do if they are arrested, and reminded the crowd to stay together and stay tight.
I have not, for the most part, been downtown. I have definitely not been downtown when the police have shot tear gas canisters into the crowds. For that, I’ve relied on the writing and reporting in the Portland Mercury. Based on that, I can say that I fully agree with those who decry the police response to these protests as vastly disproportionate and doing little else than to give the country an example of why action against police brutality is desperately needed. In these marches, we have seen the police kneel in front of protestors only to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at them minutes later. We have seen the police use SUVs as weapons to clear the streets.
More disturbing than all of this, somehow, is that the Mayor of the city has chosen to not ban the use of what is, essentially a chemical weapon. The day after stopping just short of doing so, he stepped back and provided the police the authority to deploy it, subject to vaguely-defined restrictions. As they have proven night after night, the police have no restraint when it comes to this round of protests – or, indeed, in any of the protests since Trump was inaugurated. Tear gas, riot police, and deployment of militarized units has been their calling card since the Inauguration protests. Indeed, the only reason the Women’s March was not gassed may be that people had knitted hats, and that might have been horrible optics, even for the police.
But now, when private property, high-end stores, and the police’s immunity to prosecution following murders is at stake, they have pulled up stakes and are letting loose their arsenal.
Walking back from a march last night at midnight, I heard from a mile behind me the sounds of explosions and helicopters. Some of that may have been protestors lighting off fireworks at police. (They continuously use “explosives” in their tweets, but anyone with a working brain should know that there is a difference between using a term “firework” and “explosive.” Sure, a firework is dangerous, but the term “explosive” conjures not Roman candles, but IEDs to the contemporary American mind.) Walking up my quiet, safe, Southeast Portland neighborhood street, I heard the closest thing I’ve experienced to the sounds of war. And the truth is that it is a war. It’s a war of common citizens against the dangling threat of police repression; of concerned citizens against the threat of lethal force against people of color.
This is, of course, nothing new. Any American who has gone through typical education understands that our country had, for a long time, slavery as one of the underpinnings of our economy. After that, it turned to cheap labor; it turned to security of white American jobs by virtue of color barriers. This has all been in place since the founding of the country and the underlying current has been, without a doubt, violence. It is naive at best, racist at worst, to think otherwise. The catch is that, with cell phone video and the internet, we are able to more easily share these problems. We are more able to easily discuss these problems. We are more able to point to horrific instances and say “This is what we mean.”
And now, as thousands turn out on the Portland city streets night after night and the police claims that people holding pie tins in the air and throwing roses and animal feed over a fence is a life-threatening scenario worthy of deploying lines of armored cops, barrages of gas canisters, and rubber bullets, certainly there can be less of a question of who is most dangerous in the community. Is it the provocateurs focused on instruments of state violence and economic repression or is it the easily-provoked, paranoid, and heavily armed?
For people of color – and anyone who belongs to a marginalized group – the answer to the question is obvious. Indeed, it being asked in the first place is insulting.
At the end of the night on June 6 – D-Day – and after a long walk back from a North Portland park, the group I was marching with stopped outside of what I term a yuppie kennel. A 3-to-5 floor building with expensive studios and 1-bedroom apartments in a trendy part of town. The organizers called on their PAs for the people watching us from their balconies to come down and join us. Most of them did. As they did, the organizers would bring them up on the back of the flatbed truck and ask them to speak. At one point, the person at the megaphone said, “I want you to go to sleep tonight with tears in your eyes. For eight nights you’ve stood there and watched us and not joined in. I want you to think about why you didn’t and what that means about you. And then I want you to feel good, because you joined in, and that’s what matters.”
I am ashamed that it took me this long to join in. But I did, and that’s what matters.