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.

V for Victory

It is no secret that I have a thing for Beethoven. I’ve written about it here and if you’re around me when I’m drunk enough to go on a ramble about music, then chances are that you’ll hear me talk about why Beethoven’s work is so important to me. But in the context of what the US is going through right now, and, really, what the world is going through right now, Beethoven is integral.

Anyone who pays any attention to news from the US and abroad knows that the world has seen a massive upswing in the worst excesses of right-wing politics, from reactionary rhetoric to autocrats encouraging the full-sale slaughter of their own citizens. But more disturbing than their actions is that, at least in the West, these parties are democratically elected. They are a symptom of a great amount of fear, hatred, and misplaced rage the world over, and the causes of that are best left for another post written by someone who hasn’t recently gone on a tear shouting “Punch Nazis wherever you see them.” No, what I’m here to talk about today is a follow-up to a Twitterstorm I threw out a few days ago about Shostakovich. See, that happened before our President, a man with a micropenis—evidenced by his reactionary and egoistic approach to anyone criticizing him or the straw figures he calls his policies—decided to throw a gag order on environmental and recreational federal agencies. After that popped up, I thought some more about Shostakovich, a man who fought back against another oppressive regime in his own way: He made music. And now, with our President deciding that, yes, a list of crimes committed by immigrants is a fantastic way to unify the country and use his executive powers, I think about Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man from the margins who spent his life attempting to become an aristocrat by virtue of his work. His family was not of the upper crust, and he knew that very well. It’s reflected in his relationships with his patrons and his mentors, this mentality that they had no moral right or standing to address him as an inferior, or that he should be content with his station as a mere employee or artistic servant. This carried over into his politics, where, for the day, he was a staunch proponent of individual liberties. He criticized the Austrian court, its secret police, and the foibles of the aristocracy. He supported Napoleon up until the point where Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. His only opera deals with the theme of the unjustly imprisoned and mistreated overcoming their oppressors with the help of a just ruler. In all, Beethoven was, at least nominally, a friend of the common man. His music is filled with these themes, and to write about any of those pieces would provide enough content for an entire series about Beethoven and political resistance. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about Beethoven’s 5th and World War II.

In short, the Allies realized that they had a propaganda coup with using the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to open their broadcasts. Not only is the music striking, but, in Morse Code, the same short-long pattern translates to “V,” as in “victory.” So, with every broadcast, with every bumbumbum-buh, the Allies would telegraph their hope for victory over the Germans. Of course, what they didn’t really make a note of is the very same bars being the implication of Fate knocking on one’s door. That, naturally, has its own propaganda use, as it’s almost as if Heaven and Earth are willing the Allied forces to victory over the Axis powers. But, that’s a lot less snappy than “V for Victory.”

Of course, Beethoven’s German roots were a little troublesome to some people. Those people, naturally, didn’t really think about that beyond the labels of “German.” On one level, it falls apart because Beethoven didn’t live in Germany, as Germany would not exist for decades. On another, he came from a Flemish family (hence the “van” in his name), and lived and worked in Austria for a significant portion of his life. On yet another level, that concern falls apart when one considers that Beethoven had a certain, significant portion of his brain dedicated to making known his disdain for autocrats, tyrants, and the crushing of the masses by the aristocracy.

But beyond all of those political matters, the underlying theme in all of Beethoven’s work is a sort of universalism that is a unique hybrid of a Protestant environment, Beethoven’s sense of natural wonder and nature-based spiritualism, and the brotherhood of man. The most famous example of this is the Choral portion of his 9th Symphony, which takes and edits (for the better, by all accounts) a poem by Friedrich Schiller. The content of Beethoven’s choral work is a sort of unitarian spiritualist praise of the best qualities of humanity, and, at its core, a call for people to rise above their base natures and embrace one another as brothers (and sisters).

But, as it stands, and as poetic and beautiful and moving as the 9th is, there is nothing quite as punch and attention-grabbing as those opening bars of the 5th. They force you to sit up, focus your attention, and set you up for riding the wave of Fate that is the 5th. Most relevant for today’s political environment, though, is the call to action implicit in those bars. As the dynamic, bombastic music throughout the symphony would suggest, Fate does not favor those who sit idly by. Fate favors those who act.

Perhaps that was in the background of the Allied propagandists’ minds when they decided to use those opening notes in BBC broadcasts across occupied Europe. For whatever reason, though, those opening bars of the Fifth Symphony have found their place in the composer’s work’s theme of triumph over adversity, of resistance to tyranny, and the triumph of individual liberty.

As the United States faces a President who is at the very least someone who is eerily close to several definitions of fascism, we would do well to look back at the inspiration our parents and grandparents took from art like the Fifth Symphony, and the themes that Beethoven espoused in his work. Just as Fate favors the bold and the active, it takes more effort than we’d like to admit to rise above our evolutionary origins of face-ripping, feces-throwing apes and fully embrace each other. It takes a strong will to stand up against the empowered few who seek to dominate the disempowered many.

⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ▬

An Open Letter in the Wake of the UK General Election

Dear Brits:

You probably know that the Tories have taken another win in the general election. I know, because, like an idiot, I forgot to set my phone to silent last night. The BBC’s app doubles as an alarm clock, where the time is dictated not by the rising or setting of the sun, but the neverending onslaught of information.

You’re probably thinking a lot about what’s in store for you. Whether or not Cameron’s going to gut the NHS, school system, social services, and public support infrastructure – basically everything that makes the UK as good as it is. Or, perhaps, whether he’ll continue to bow to increasingly ill-informed public outcry against foreigners, the decadent Continentals, or, possibly, Muslims. Maybe the world in general. When people start getting angry, there’s no stopping them.

Yes, Western democracy is founded upon the idea that the will of the people is sacrosanct, but you have cause for concern, because… well, here:

triumphofthewill-thelongwalk1

But, never fear my friends, for I’ve put my thinktank, the Simon Institute for Macro-Organizational kNowledge, on the job of analyzing trends in Britain. We’ve come to the conclusion that you’re not headed toward a Fourth Reich led by a pudgy, pasty-faced, Oxford-educated member of the elite. Nope. What you’re heading toward is AMERICA!

What can you look forward to as the future America No. 2? Well, first of all, you’ll start seeing an increased and worrying influence of industrial and commercial entities in politics. Oh, you think that you have that now? That’s charming! So British and twee of you. No, just wait until you have your very own Koch brothers to bolster the ranks of the Conservatives while Labour continues to flounder. Liberal Democrats eventually apologize for losing their spine and the Greens… well, yes. The Greens.

You’ll also start noticing more borderline hatespeech creep into national discourse. No, not the charming Victorian kind that was just The Way Things Were and gave us legitimately amazing books like King Solomon’s Mines or, like, anything set outside Europe. But terrifyingly racist ideas held by people in power, like judges passing around racist caricatures of the President and his wife. But that’s fine, friends, because it’s freedom of speech – not endemic racism rearing its ugly head.

Further, you’ll notice more of your counties moving further to the right. We here at SIMON are not quite sure which counties they’ll be, but eventually, you’ll start to notice that you have dead-ringers for Mississippi, Alabama, and Idaho within your very borders! Yes, soon you’ll notice survivalist rhetoric popping up in casual conversation. People will talk about how they need handguns because “you can’t trust anyone.” And, if things get really bad, you’ll start seeing people talk about “cosmopolitan bankers.”

I know, it’s a bleak future you’re looking at, but you’ll also see an amazing film industry pop up, probably in London because, let’s be honest, that’s the only city you actually have. You’ll also notice more billionaires flouting their wealth! What this means is that, while you’re wallowing in poverty, at least you’ll have something shiny to look at.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll have baseball. You really do want baseball, by the way. Baseball is the glue holding the world together. That and Star Wars.

So, it may look like a bleak, desolate future, but hey: At least UKIP didn’t gain power! Then you’d be really screwed!