My bus is all but parked, its frame quivering and growling as the engine idles. I look up from my book at the packed seats around me: an array of glowing white faces in the dark of night. Two white faces talk across the aisle a few rows in front of me, one pale to the point of translucence, the other light tan with soft undertones of yellow. I hear the word “Ferguson” as teeth peek out from behind pink lips stretched into a grin. I can’t imagine what there is to grin about.
Cold air swirls around my ankles and sneaks up my coat; a shiver follows it up my spine. The bus doors are still open and the bus driver is standing at the front of the bus. How long have we been parked here while I sat engrossed in the words of my book? I slide over to the center seat, both to look ahead of the bus and to better hear what conversation about Ferguson elicits such humor and levity.
Ahead of the bus, several police cars have blocked off the street as hundreds protest behind them. Jeff Goldblum’s voice lectures me in my head, “chaos theory: a boy dies in Ferguson and it moves hundreds to action across the country.”
“I guess they were, like, really mad about Ferguson or something?” I wonder how she’s managed to cram every linguistic marker of “disaffected rich kid” into one sentence, but Portland is where rich-parented Californians go to be jobless hipsters and baristas posing as writers, so I’m not particularly surprised. However, I don’t manage to catch much of what she’s saying amidst the clamor outside and the vibrating engine of the bus.
Perhaps she redeems herself later on in her story. But this is my story, not hers. My story stands up, walks by her, and steps off of the bus. I cross the street lawfully, taking the crosswalk right next to the stationary cavalcade of police cars. Two cops eye my laptop bag cautiously as I step between them. Self-preservation kicks in and stops the snarky jibe about having a bomb before it can escape my lips.
I take my place in the roaring crowd and emotions – dozens of conflicted thoughts – surge through me. At first, I feel comfortable. I grew up in Los Angeles, going to prep school after prep school, and the white faces that surround me are the faces I see every day. But everything is slightly off.
It starts with the chants. When I first arrive, I hear the chant that will come to define the night:
No Justice, No Peace
No Racist Police
What should be a protest event in solidarity of systematic violence against black men has become an anarchist’s rallying call against our authoritarian government. Make no mistake, the key words there are “no peace” (a call to anarchic unrest), and “no police”. Some chanters – apparently uncomfortably cognizant of the complete lack of black folk around them – have even started replacing the word “racist” with “fascist”.
Why is this a problem? Because Ferguson (and the events surrounding it) have never been about police. Every officer in the USA could behave with complete racial sensitivity and it wouldn’t have stopped George Zimmerman (a civilian) from shooting Trayvon Martin to death. In fact, it was an emergency dispatcher who told George Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin, acting with common sense and restraint.
Yes, police happen to be among the best armed and most legally protected people in America, making police killings of black men the most newsworthy, but it is not the police we should be condemning, but the widespread racist fear of black men, allowing their murderers to claim “self-defense” even in cases when it is they who are armed, or even the instigators..
But the Portland rabble has moved on:
All cops in the ground
Justice for Michael Brown
Woah. That escalated quickly. Do they not see the cops just across the street, cordoning cars away from us and allowing us to have this protest? I am not the only one to notice this: the other scattered black voices around me – 8 by my count – fall silent at the same points, their faces conflicted and suddenly lost in confusion instead of sadness or righteous anger. We yell out “no justice”, knowing it to be the reality of our situation. We hesitate on “no peace”, valuing unrest and protest, but fearing the violent phrasing could turn on us at any moment.
The ability to protest vocally and physically without being perceived as a threat is yet another aspect of white privilege. “Fuck the police” may only be perceived as a harmless counter-cultural statement in the mouths of white youth, but in our mouths, it could easily be cast as incitement for a riot.
Can I take a picture with you two?
The man smirks at me.
Like a selfie?
After some camera woes, he teases me, joking that I just want a picture of his partner. I thank them for their service and return to the protest, quelling my own.
An eloquent young man has begun reading from an essay he has apparently been carrying around in his pocket for just such an occasion. He speaks and means well as he details the increasing militarization of police departments across America. He traces this back – accurately – to the War on Drugs, and the use of SWAT teams largely in drug busts, as opposed to the expected hostage situations.
He then goes on to ignore the fact that the War on Drugs has been used as a systematic form of violence disproportionately against African-Americans since its inception, from higher arrest rates despite slightly lower drug use, to higher sentencing rates for drugs associated with black communities (crack vs cocaine).
He steps down at the end of his speech, and somebody starts the same tired chant up again “ALL COPS IN THE GROU-”
My voice cuts across his, equal parts bitter assertion and desperate plea.
Black Lives Matter!
The other black protesters – three black men in their 30s, one black woman in her 40s, and two biracial women in their 20s – join in with me immediately. It’s a familiar mantra. A few scattered white voices join in, but it is almost as though they find the word “black” uncomfortable to say. They even seem to have trouble catching the cadence. While we black protesters are saying:
Black. Lives. Matter.
Our few white supporters have joined in with
Black. Lives. Mat. Er.
I chuckle to myself over an unspoken joke about white people and rhythm. Much as “fascist” began to replace “racist”, I begin to hear a new chant under my own. I don’t know where it starts, but I hear it from two locations: the hecklers across the street and a fellow protester behind me and to the left:
All. Lives. Mat. Er.
At once, my vague discomfort coalesces into a clear idea. Portland is not comfortable with race. Unable to focus on race, they have fixated on another property of the Ferguson riots: authoritarian police brutality. I grow to hate that chant, not the least because it shuts down legitimate racial grievances.
Fast forward 24 hours and the protest has grown to thousands. As we march around the city in righteous rage, I realize the lack of connection between predominantly black Ferguson and predominantly white Portland. For the first time, I understand the outrage at cultural appropriation: an appropriation of my fears and concerns, without the actual consequences. They are playing a game, a game that has no real consequences to them, but could end my life.
The words “Hands up, don’t shoot” are so trivial on white lips and tongues as to be meaningless, when the Aurora shooter can walk out of a theater after having killed 12 and wounded 70, take his bulletproof vest off, put his hands up and surrender. Upraised hands are the universal sign for surrender; only when exercised to black men do they lose that power.
The march draws to a close, and a speaker says the most relevant words: the words many black men in the audience have been thinking:
Now we are here in solidarity with Michael Brown and all victims like him. We are here in peaceful protest, and we should remain here in peaceful protest. We have made our point. And if any here are endeavoring to break this peaceful protest, I say to you, get your own night. Get your own protest1.
A moment of silence begins for Michael Brown, leading into a group hymn: we shall overcome. Inevitably, a voice rings out from the crowd:
Let’s fuck shit up!
The gentleman next to me murmurs to his friend next to him
When are we gonna blow shit up?
We’re never gonna blow shit up…
Soon, a group of mostly white anarchists have decided that the protests of the night have not “done anything”. A large group of them begin shouting over the singer, calling for the protesters to “fuck shit up”. They soon break off and head to start their own protest. I put my hand on the shoulder of one in front as he passes me through the crowd. He turns to me, a white guy with dreadlocks and a rasta-colored bandana, disdain written plainly across his face, and snaps, “you got something to say?”
In that moment I realize the gravity of my mistake: a young black man choosing to challenge the right of a white man to do whatever he sees fit. I am not Trayvon Martin tonight, but I could be on another night, under a different context. I decide to choose my words even more carefully than I always do, my voice hoarse from hours of shouting.
If you go out there and fuck shit up, how do you think this will reflect upon our protest? Ferguson and many more killings like it happened because white conservatives have an unreasonable fear of black men. If this protest turns violent, what do you think they will remember? Another night where black men struck them with fear. Your actions reflect on us. Find your own protest.
With no personal soft spot for religion, I find it odd to be agreeing with the preacher from before.
I honestly don’t remember his response or our resulting argument. I remember snippets about police brutality and how this could have happened to anybody. I remember it escalating in tone and content. But most of all, the one thing I remember word for word is the last thing he says:
Your skin tone reflects poorly on you.
The crowd falls silent around me. My face burns with shame and anger and frustration all at once. I throw my hands up in dismissal and turn my back on him, one hand clenched in a fist. An instant passes, but I spend hours fantasizing about turning around and introducing my fist to his jaw. A tentative voice interrupts me.
I’m sorry, what did you just say?
I turn around, and the swelling crowd has swept him away. Somebody asks me if I’m ok, and I flash a lopsided grin and a snarky comment. I clench my teeth and swallow the mounting bile in my throat, and step outside the crowd. This isn’t the only such argument I see. A white guy in his late 20s argues with a black woman of 60.
He says “the tactics of the civil rights’ movement do not work”.
She responds with “and how would you know? I was there”.
He responds with “well I’ve studied it a lot”.
She turns away briefly and laughs, and I can’t help but see parallels to my previous encounter. A realization that even in a protest that is supposed to empower and offer solidarity to black voices, black voices are shut out by whites uncomfortable with the realities of race.
I know for a fact that the tactics of the civil rights’ movement work, because 50 years ago, my parents’ marriage – the basis of my very existence – would have been a crime. Despite all that, here I am today.
Another white guy finds it necessary to argue with a biracial woman about the necessity of violent protest. A black man walks by and says “if you wanna get shot, go ahead”. The white guy goes on to argue that it’s the responsibility of whites to be on the front lines with blacks in violent protest. What he neglects to realize is that the front lines are only dangerous to those with the wrong skin tone.
Later that night, two (white) men at the protest are briefly pulled aside for having a rifle and a handgun. According to the Oregon Live, police “separated the men from the crowd as police checked if they had valid state concealed firearm licenses. Once police found their licenses were good, the men were allowed to continue on the march.”
In a hectic protest where several arrests were made and bottles and rocks were hurled at officers, they had the presence of mind to stop, check for permits, and allow the men to continue marching with their guns. Meanwhile, John Crawford is shot holding a toy gun in Walmart without so much as a warning.
White Portland has nothing to fear on the grounds of issues like Ferguson because those issues exist solely in the context of black Americans.
I continue to follow the protest around Portland for the rest of the night, snapping pictures. While hundreds of cops appear to be mobilized, many in riot gear, I find myself impressed and relieved at their restraint, and no major injuries are reported.
Meanwhile, in predominantly black Ferguson, tear gas has been used extensively not only on peacefully protesting civilians (as many phone-shot videos will show), but also on journalists.
Portland, thanks to its lack of racial diversity, can afford a different kind of racism: pretending race isn’t a factor. But by doing so, they unintentionally erase the all-too-real concerns of black Americans, subsuming them under blanket anti-authoritarianism.
The stark contrast would be funny if it weren’t depressing: a white man with a rifle amidst a protest is checked for a permit and then left alone, while an unarmed black boy is shot to death in the streets.
1: The follow-up protest was ultimately led by a few young black men (Micah Rhodes being one of them). However, if you look at how it played out, the impact of people running counter to their intent was great. For example, as articles have noted, they did not want to block I-5 (http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/12/ferguson_protests_create_new_g.html).
Three examples of what I’ve been talking about with anarchists just wanting to wreak havoc, often over black voices. Ignore the source, video is still video…