Marching in the Black Lives Matter 2020 Protests

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.

In Memory of a Macher

There’s a term in Yiddish, “mensch.” If you’re familiar with German, you might know that this is related to the German word “Mensch,” which means, simply, “man” or “person” depending on how contemporary you want to be with your connotations. The difference between the Yiddish and the German, though, is that when you hear someone referred to as “mensch,” it’s in the context of that person doing good deeds – “tzedakah.” Another related term is “macher,” which is less common in daily conversation, but means the same thing, but may even be more explicit in its praise of a person.

I write all this not to give you a Yiddish lesson, but to tell you about a mensch, a macher. His name was Stephen Fischer, and he was a good friend of mine. I say “good friend” to try and get across two points: One, I considered him someone who I could talk to about anything and expect that, no matter how long it had been since we spoke, the conversation would flow easily and would flow in directions as varied as theology, Star Wars canon, or rambling about how rogues are OP in D&D’s 5E. Two, he was, without fear of hyperbole, one of the best humans I’ve ever met. A real macher. 

In the interests of showing and not telling, I’d like to tell you a story. Well, why not? Two. Both of these take place back in the fogs of the past. Somewhere around ten years ago, closer to eleven. He, myself, and another friend were in Ireland for a week. This was during a study abroad trip, when we’d all met for the first time at the University of Kent at Canterbury. On one evening during the week in Dublin, we were wandering aimlessly and – I think – Stephen and Jon, the other friend, were talking about comics. I’d spaced out because they were way out of my league with this stuff. This was, you see, before the Marvel movies came out and everyone was forced to make a choice between superhero fluency and standing awkwardly at the periphery of conversations. 

Suddenly, their conversation stopped. Stephen had sensed trouble. Not trouble in the sense that someone was going to come at us with a butterfly knife, but trouble in the sense that someone was in trouble. There, to our right, in the middle of traffic, was a middle-aged man next his car, which had stalled. The conversation about The Wasp and how Ant-Man was a terrible person bolted across two lanes of Dublin traffic to help this person out. He ran over there, introduced himself, and offered to start pushing the car. Well, Jon and I were thoroughly shamed by this and, not to be outdone, ran over there and helped, as well. We pushed the car off to the side of the road to at least get the guy out of harm’s way and he told us that, in exchange, if we met him at The Brazen Head, just down the road, the drinks were on him and he’d tell us a bit of Irish history. 

We went there. I, honestly, didn’t expect the guy to show up. (I am what they call a pessimist.) Stephen, though, had faith. And, lo and behold, the guy showed up. He was true to his word, our good deed was rewarded, and we had a good story to tell each other in subsequent years, reminding ourselves of some pure fun when life got us down. But aside from that, I think this story illustrates something about Stephen: He was a believe in acts of kindness. We came from different backgrounds – way different – but we had many shared core beliefs. One of them was that actions change (and, I would argue, save) the world. 

For Stephen, performing good deeds and acts of loving kindness was a core expression of his Christianity. We had a lot of conversations about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – and, to an extent, Islam – to compare, contrast, and get highlights of philosophies and share them with each other. It’s very much to his credit that Stephen was one of the few Baptists in my life who heard my ideas, considered them, and replied back not with an admonishment of faith vs action, but with a considered opinion and questions on what I thought about his opinion. That was something that always set him apart for me: That consideration not just of ideas, but the very reality that – maybe – when I was obviously on a tear about something as a result of encounters with very inconsiderate Christians, maybe that wasn’t the time to take the usual tack, and that he should listen. Through his example, Stephen taught me something a very valuable lesson about religion that I consider to this day. In fact, when I hear folks decry Christianity as a rapacious tool of, say, imperialism, I think of Stephen, and remind them that, like just about every religion, Christianity’s core can be summarized with a simple rule: “Don’t be a dick.” 

(The more acceptable, Jewish version of this is something I told Stephen about Judaism once. A jerk went up to the Rabbi Hillel and accused him of not being as good as he was reputed to be. The jerk said, “If you were so good, you could teach me the Torah while I stood here on one foot.” So, Hillel told him that he could. The jerk stood on one foot and balanced himself. Hillel said, “Love thy neighbor. The rest is commentary.”)

Stephen was, further, possessing of the type of mind that I find most enjoyable: One that expresses wonder of the world through a bizarre, slightly dark, sense of humor. It is my opinion that this sort of sense of humor is a coping mechanism – or, at least, it is for me. When you look into the darkness of the daily news cycle – something that weighed heavily on Stephen, especially when architectural metaphors like the Notre Dame cathedral were setting on fire – it’s all you can do to make a joke. Otherwise, you lose it.

That sense of humor was, beyond the deep discussions we had about just about anything, the glue that kept us in sync. It was what kept the in-jokes around. It was the beginning and end of conversations, even when he’d call me at 2 in the morning his time, and I’d admonish him in the voice of the Jewish mother he never had, “Look at you, bubbeleh, it’s 2 in the morning and you’re awake – es ist eyn shande!” In fact, this became an in-joke. I kept a GMT clock on my home desktop, and he would call and laugh, saying, “I’m really just calling you at this time because I know it’ll annoy you that I’m awake.” 

Stephen was a good, good friend. While we never get enough time with the people that make up the core group of people who we lean on, I find myself, when I think about missed opportunities for a phone call or a visit, reminding myself that all we have is a few opportunities for contact. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the stars align; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, and we find ourselves unable to ever see that person again, we must be glad for the times we did share. And now, as I sit in my living room, listening to GWAR’s “Phantom Limb” and reminiscing about good times with a good friend, I have to remind myself of that. The time that we did get, those times when we were able to meet up when I was in the UK after a work trip, were good times – even when they were really challenging. That’s the important thing: That the times existed in the first place.

Oh, and that second story: One time – also when we were abroad that first time – we were young and stupid and in Paris. We looked across a massive traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe and, without really looking for an alternative, ran across the fuckin thing. Many years later, Stephen and I were on the phone one Saturday and he said, “That time we bolted across the roundabout? Not only could we have died, but that was extraordinarily illegal!” Nevermind the death, the sentence seems to indicate, we broke a law when we were abroad!

The Trail-Approved Sandwich

My love for sandwiches is something that is well-documented. A good sandwich, I think is something to remember. This is not something to just consume while hungry, not something that you’ll find pre-packaged in the semi-functional refrigerator at a Plaid Pantry or 7-Eleven. It is, in its ideal form, a refreshing, heaping dollop of protein, dairy, veggies, and bread. It is an all-around whole meal in a holdable, semi-portable form.

For me, the ideal sandwich is not a Reuben, though a Reuben is always appreciated and, at times, direly needed. No, the ideal sandwich is a pastrami, roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and brown mustard on rye. This is the idea. You can switch out the cheese or meats and be okay, but God help you if you skimp on the rye. It must be a rye bread sandwich, or the whole thing falls apart. White bread is barely bread. Whole grain or whole wheat are too health-conscious and are, as they say, missing the point. I don’t trust sourdough, and pumpernickel is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Rye or get the hell out.

I’m talking about sandwiches to talk about what I did today – and yes, indeed, eating a sandwich was involved. You see, today, I did some trail work. Trail work – as I recently learned – is focused on improving trails in national parks and is typically done by volunteers. See, in the back of my head, I’d always known that trails need to be cleared of overgrowth so that they can be more easily used by people; the catch is that, since I am not by any definition an outdoorsman, I’d kind of always assumed this was what park rangers did when they weren’t educating the public, making sure people don’t kill themselves, or keeping bears from stealing picnic baskets. Turns out that this is the work of mainly volunteers, a bunch of people who get together on trail work parties, and do stuff like trim back overgrowth, stop water from breaking up a trail, or maintain paths by the aid of these big shovel things that are not actually shovels (but basically are).

I joined one of these things after being goaded into it by a friend of mine who works for the Mt. St. Helen’s Institute. I’m not clear on what the MSHI does aside from organize trail work and educate people, but I know they also watch goats. They may or may not look out at the volcano and say, “Right, you pull those tricks again and we’ll have words with you.”

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Mt. St. Helen’s. That’s a cloud. Not an eruption.

The work party I joined was to clear out a trail to Butte Camp Dome. This trail starts off near a lava field – a bunch of rocks where there used to be lava. Based on these rocks not looking like dried lava, I assume that these rocks were pitched out of the volcano when it erupted, but hey, I don’t know and I didn’t think to ask when I had the opportunity. This is how I operate, and why many of my opinions are the way they are. Anyway, it cuts up through some forest that’s well on the way to regrowth, the brunt of the eruption being on the North side of the mountain. It is, for lack of a better word, very woodsy. Someone more outdoors-minded than me can tell you all about the trees, about the flowers that were growing, and all of those important details, but the only thing that I can tell you is that there were surprisingly few birds. There were also a lot of blueberries, which made for delicious snacks along the way.

What I did was simple: I took loppers and a saw and cut away woodsy bits that were starting to creep into the trail. I did this because, in the words of our team lead, Clare, “Nature was touching me, and we don’t want to be touched by nature when we’re on a trail.” So, you got brushed by a bunch of stick things? Probably time to stop walking and cut away some of the growth. It was simple stuff, not too demanding, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. See, my friend Chauncey and I had to leave early so that Chauncey could make it back to Portland to see an accountant. Not a very thrilling reason to duck out early, but there you go. The group lead was a guy named Brandon, who had massive dreads, used the word “mindful” a lot, and seemed to be the type of person who wouldn’t really like being in a city for any longer than he had to be. Brandon assigned us to brush clearing because it was pretty easy and we’d be close-ish to the trailhead to make it easy for us to duck out.

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So many rocks!

So anyway, we started on the trail clearing. I talked to Clare and her friend Erin for a while – both of them were people who really dug being outside. They went on hikes, both had personal hard hats from the Washington Trails Association, and did stuff like go on 25-mile hikes. They said that going on the said 25-mile hike was the first time they met, and in my head, I thought, “Jesus, I don’t think I’ve gone on 25 miles worth of hiking in my life.” Solid people, the both of them, and folks I’d like to run into again.

Anyway, we were on the trail, clearing things out, chatting as we went and having pretty good fun along the way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to be more proactive about for a while, this whole going outside and doing things out in the forests. It pops in my head every time I read about how we’re, like, ten years away from being past the point of no return when it comes to turning our world into a hellscape because of greenhouse gasses. I’ll read an article, think “I need to go out to Mt. Hood National Forest,” and then wind up turning on a movie again.

But this time, I had my friend Sarah in the back of my head. Sarah’s the one who works for MHSI, and when I told her a while back that I was seriously thinking about going on a trail work party, she pointed me in the direction. When I delayed on signing up for about three months, she texted “I don’t think you’re actually going to do it,” and I signed up that very goddamn day. See, nothing’s quite as effective at getting me to do something than getting called out like that. So I signed up for the thing, talked a friend into going along, and then waited for the time to come along.

So you fast forward to this past Thursday, when I realized that I didn’t have work gloves, I didn’t have a backpack, and I hadn’t really given thought to how to pack for this thing. Luckily, we live in a consumer product-focused world, and I solved the first two problems easily enough. Then I got to thinking about what to bring on the trail and I thought, “The sandwich. It must be the sandwich.”

*

For the past year, I’ve been living a largely grain carb-free existence. I’ve cut out most bread and rice – except for Saturdays and the odd meal here and there – and beer. As a result, I’ve dropped about thirty pounds. [Pauses for applause.] This has had the effect of me no longer having my preferred lunch – the sandwich I mentioned above. I’ve missed the sandwich, but when your blood pressure shoots up to horrific levels and you need to lose weight so you don’t die, the sandwich is something you can afford to lose.

But this time, looking at least a couple of miles’ worth of hiking and some physical work – and it being a Saturday – I thought that the sandwich would be called for. It was something needed. Something that’d wrap the day up into a bow, cap everything off with a nice, refreshing taste, and provide energy for a bit more work if required, and be enough to tide over hunger until dinner. Then I thought about how hungry I am as a general rule and threw in a couple of protein bars as well.

So, after prepping all of the ingredients for the sandwich, I wrapped them up in aluminum foil, put them in a tupperware container, stashed everything in my backpack, and got ready to go.

I touched on the trail work above, but the lunch was something that should stand out. After a few hours’ work, we stepped off the trail and sat around in the shade, near a fallen tree, looking out to the woods on our left and all around us, and the slight incline heading up toward Butte Camp Dome. I ate the sandwich, enjoyed it, and had, for the first time in a while, several extended periods of no-thought. Stillness of mind. “Mindfulness” if that’s more your speed. It wasn’t because of the sandwich. It wasn’t because of the setting. It wasn’t because of the work I’d been doing. It certainly wasn’t because I was being orbited by a group of persistent flies. All of that, though, came together and helped. It all pointed to those moments where my brain shut up for just a second. I stopped thinking about work. I stopped thinking about how I should set up my dating profile. I stopped thinking about how my roommate was so loud all the time. Fo those brief, shining moments, I could feel The Quiet, as a friend used to say

It wasn’t because of the sandwich. The sandwich, though, didn’t hurt.

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The potentially helpful sandwich.