Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition

February 18, 2021

I have a thing about Black History Month. I really get into it but I wish it was on a longer, warmer month. June seems logical. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right now. I try to make sure black authors are in front of their eyes each winter. There’s just a binge on learning cool stuff. Did you know that the ice cream scoop was invented by an African-American named Alfred L. Cralle? No scooped ice cream for racists!

My love of the black history binge might have had something to do with a white supremacist moment I had in 1979. In my tenth grade journalism class had an assignment to write an editorial. The title of this editorial, written by a white kid in a historic Klan town was… ready…?, “If They Have Black History Month, Why Don’t We Have White History Month?” That’s how my 15-year-old brain was processing the state of race in ’79. My teacher’s response was, “That’s a very strong opinion, Randy.” It should have been, “Every month is ‘White History Month,’ you racist twerp.” So maybe my affinity for Black History Month is a penance for that sin, or the many others.

This year’s Black History Month is a bit more meaningful, in wake of the massive BLM protests last year. But also because my daughter, Cozette, is ready to dive in herself. I was where she is, first grade, in February, 1970, which was the very first Black History Month. The closest I got to knowing that I should think about race at 6 was staring at a “Black is Beautiful” poster in a shop on an a family trip to Niagara Falls. The women in the poster was topless, with a massive afro and a clenched fist. I was transfixed. Cozy is more familiar with images of Breonna Taylor that are painted on murals in our city.

Unlike me, Cozy is growing up in a house with plenty of black heroes. MLK is on the fridge and Motown Magic is her go-to cartoon. (I did have Fat Albert but I don’t know if that undid any racial stereotypes in the 1970s. I’m looking at you, Mushmouth.) But even better, Cozy’s teacher has her first grade class on a healthy diet of Black History Month stories. She’s started her winter school days with lessons about MLK, Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, among others. 

Her school is sponsoring a Black History Month art show, in which students complete portraits of African Americans that have inspired them. Cozy’s already done portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so she chose Louis Armstrong, someone who gets a lot of play in this house. (Fun fact: Cozy’s grandma met Mr. Armstrong after winning a saxophone contest when she was 16. In awe, her main memory was that he swore like a sailor.) At 6, Cozy pretty much captured the greatness of Satchmo. She’s a true jazzbo. As much as she loves Louis’ “wrinkly” voice, she prefers Miles.

Having a teacher who explains why Black History Month matters has been a wonderful thing. How do you explain to a six-year-old the horrors of slavery? “People owned other people just because of the color of their skin.” When I asked her what slavery meant, she grew silent and talked about her black friends and how it made her sad. Kids her age are quite aware of race, especially if they are not white. Cozy’s Mexican genes are talking to her European genes, while across the street from her African-American friends and in a house where her parents are always talking about racism. It must be a lot for her brain.

To help her out, I bought her a copy of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, brilliantly illustrated by Lauren Semmer. D is for diaspora. She fell in love with the vibrancy of it, especially the entry on George Washington Carver (she loves peanut butter) and the “M is March” section, featuring BLM posters, like the ones she made last summer. In addition, PBS has made a point of centering black history in its children’s programming. She’s been glued to a cartoon called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, learning about Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ella Fitzgerald. (The 1956 Ella and Louis album is now on repeat play, which is a very good thing, and Cozy has taken up scatting.)

At 6, I think Black History Month is about celebrating how African-Americans have made life so much better in America. She has an understanding of the pain caused by racism, but it’s not time yet to wade into the torture, trauma, suffering, exclusion, and dehumanization the begs us to make black lives matter every month. I can see her processing it through her peers. Generation Z kids not only have more diverse friend-groups than their elders, they themselves are more diverse. Where “mulatto” was a pejorative a hundred years ago, bi-racial+ is just the norm now. But these kids still live in world that pushes a white supremacist worldview. Despite Motown Magic, the majority of the cartoon, book, and TV characters she sees are white. And male. So while it’s certainly too soon to sit her in front of the TV for a screening of 12 Years a Slave or 13th, she can definitely start picking up on the whole unfairness of racism story and that people who look like her father benefit from it and that people who look like her friend Jaden are challenged because of it.

It’s a tricky path. What I knew about race at 6 came from horribly racist norms. People who lived in the city (i.e. black people) were savages compared to those of us (white people) outside of the city. The urban jungle was framed in contrast to “civilized” society. Cozy lives in the city with plenty of black friends, so that hateful dichotomy is gone, but the complexity of racism remains. It seems like the “primary school” agenda is simply that black culture is amazing and that our black friends have faced unfair struggles that we are committed to fixing.

I’m supposed to be an expert on this topic, but when it’s your kid, it’s a real challenge. You really want them to value everyone as fully humanized but also recognize the forces that have stood in the way of that simple truth. It’s harder than I thought. But she’s smart. I think she’s getting it, complete with the soundtrack. Thank you to all the great teachers who make February matter.

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife

February 14, 2021

Two robots meet on the barren surface of Mars

Because of a bump in the road, one’s roving path was altered 

Putting it into an intersecting path with the other

It was on a large plain in a basin called Utopia

They took it as a sign

They both stopped, not expecting to see another robot on this empty planet

What were the odds?

They had traveled countless kilometers

(That they had counted, being so lonely)

And only seen red hills and valleys

They took each other in

As data

With their camera eyes

Same switches, same wheels, same solar panels

Yet they were not the same

With a few awkward beeps and whirls

They decide there on Utopia Planitia

To abandon their missions that had been programmed

By their motherboard, and whoever programmed her

Without logic or algorithm a new mission was created

The two robots made the choice

To turn off Mission Control

And build a new world of their own in the basin

They used the husk of an old Soviet lander to build a house

And stripped their bodies of circuits and pulleys to make a smaller robot to care for

Mars’ moons passed by quickly

And the stars shifted in the sky slowly

And each Martian day the two robots became more integrated

A singular mission in a harsh climate

Freezing winds without a flower in sight

It didn’t matter, there in Utopia

The two robots and their little robot

Collected information, charting their place in the cosmos

And found a new source of energy on which they could thrive

Two robots met on Mars and fell in love

Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism

February 7, 2021

Watching the Wheels began as a parenting blog but it’s turning into a policy blog. My broader social commentary started with the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and exploded with the ascent of Donald J. Trump. I promise we’ll get back to the kid, but there is a pressing reason I’m spending some extra energy on right wing extremism: April 19.

April 19th is the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, collapsing a federal office building, and has since been linked to “Patriots’ Day” by the right-wing underground. That underground is now very overground and the chatter in their world is that is that the January 6th Capitol attack was just the warm up. Fasten your seatbelts for April 19, 2021. We could see another wave of right-wing violence as they make their play for Civil War II.

It’s been encouraging to see the Biden Administration pivot to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority, including ordering a nationwide assessment of the emerging threat, with the National Security Council responding in a way reminiscent of how the intelligence community responded after 9/11. The Biden team’s focus and the fact that capable experts like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) will take the lead on the Counterterrorism Subcommittee are an encouraging start. There are plenty of challenges ahead, including our lack of a federal definition of “domestic terrorism” and the policing of such actions that also respects our first amendment protections.

But domestic terrorism is also an international issue.

I was having a conversation last week with a representative of a foreign consulate who was looking for ways that her government could navigate the post-January 6th world that the Biden Administration had inherited. (I won’t name her nation, but we’ve had a relationship with them since 1776.) As we spoke, it became clear that there are multiple international intersections in our efforts to confront right-wing extremism. The issues that came up revolved around three themes; intelligence, trade issues, and international relations. There are probably more but this is what came up in our hour-long talk.

White supremacy as a global movement

Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a decidedly internationalist trend in the nationalist responses to globalization. For me, this began in 1990s and charting how racist skinheads in America were looking to Serbian nationalism and the Balkanization of Yugoslavia as a roadmap to a race war in the United States. Notorious white supremacists like David Duke have cultivated large followings (and income flows) from Mother Russia. Any European nation that has struggled with an inflow of migrants has seen a surge in Neo-Nazi violence. In July 2018, I was in the UK to study British CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs and I worked my way into an English Defense League rally in London, under the shadow of Big Ben. Supporters of banned nationalist Tommy Robinson were laying out anti-immigrant tirades to a crowd of angry white men, many in Trump hats. In England. Two weeks ago, Germany handed a right-wing extremist a life sentence after he was found guilty of shooting a pro-immigration politician in the head at point-blank range, killing him. Racist nationalism is an international problem. The fact that mass casualty events in Oslo, Norway, lead to similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which lead to similar attacks in El Paso, Texas is proof.

The specter of a pan-Aryan movement has long been a reality. I discussed it in my search on Odinist prison gangs in the 2000s. An international network of racist pagans shared plans for their racial holy war from behind prison walls. Before that, research on white power rock bands traveling to Europe, revealed the trafficking of Neo-Nazi paraphernalia and ideology across the Atlantic. In 1991, I was interviewing a skinhead in (what had just been East) Berlin, Germany, and told me, in broken English, “We have many friends in your country.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate introduced S. 4080 – the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act. It’s a great start (if it ever passes) to assess the nature of the global connections to the domestic white supremacist call for a racial revolution. In the wake of the “dry run” on January 6th, the intelligence part of this effort needs to include four key elements.

  1. Foreign support for domestic extremists. While privacy rules make the work difficult, intrepid journalists have started following the money and unmasking the financial backers of the radical right, like the Mercer family. It is likely that money coming to back the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other groups hell bent on their “boogaloo” civil war is also coming from sources outside the United States, including Russia. The financial streams must be revealed and interrupted.
  2. Foreign disruption and misinformation. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that a little disinformation dropped into your cousin’s Facebook feed can turn a country upside down. In 2015, few people (including Republicans)  thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president. In January, 2017 he was sworn in. We know that Russia played a role in that campaign. Foreign interference that repeats tropes like “Black Lives Matter is a communist organization” are a part of our digital realities and serve to push “I’m not racist, but..” Americans into white supremacist worldviews.
  3. Encrypted communications. A lot of racist cross-national communication is right out there in the open, on Parler, Twitter, 4chan, and even Instagram. But white supremacists have long utilized encrypted communications. Whether they are sending messages on Telegram, Tox, through video game networks, or communicating in handmade codes on the deep deep web, the chat includes bomb making techniques, hit lists, and potential coordination on terrorist plots. They’ve looked to ISIS and other international terror groups for both mainstream recruitment techniques (ex. YouTube) as well as for tips on secretive channels of communication. We must work with our international partners to penetrate this information flow.
  4. Pan-Aryan movements. More must be done to understand the international connections of white supremacist terror organizations, like Atomwaffen Division. We’ve tended to think of these groups as “home grown” and disregarded their international connections. The internet has linked racist organizations in South Africa to similar groups in South Carolina. The role that Facebook live-streaming played in the 2019 Christchurch shooting that left 51 dead demonstrated that these so-called nationalists are playing to an international audience.

How trade policy impacts white nationalism

During my discussion with the consulate’s office, the issue of trade policy came up. It wasn’t a topic I was expecting or felt qualified to talk about, but it was clear there were some issues that were relevant. Much of racial nationalism is fueled by globalization. Globalization diminishes national identity (There’s an infinite number of McDonalds and Starbucks in Paris) and increases immigration. This was an obvious driver in Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote, the rise of Trump (“America first!”), as well as racialized nationalist movements in Poland, Germany, and Greece. Trade policies designed to reduce pushes into white supremacist movements and their calls for violence must be mindful of the following two questions:

  1. How does this policy impact agrarian or manufacturing labor segments? The very first of racist skinheads I studied in the late 1980s were racist skinheads because of deindustrialization. Their parents were being laid off of their manufacturing jobs which were being shipped to Mexico and China. And the only analysis they were getting was from the White Aryan Resistance who told them that it was a global Jewish cabal that was destroying their shot at the American dream. My 1990s skinheads added the giant sucking sound of NAFTA as the backdrop of their downward mobility. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 600,000 manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico after President Clinton signed NAFTA in 1994. Any trade policy must look at the impact on blue collar labor, whether in the factory or the field. An example of countering the trend, Samsung ovens are now made in Tennessee. The profits still flow to South Korea, but a lot of workers are getting to bank their money thanks to the push to revitalize our industrial labor force. This type of trade policy breaks the back of jingoism.
  2. How does this policy impact labor migration? Environmental policies will impact migration patterns as the planet warms. Refugees leaving drought ravaged lands where farming and access to clean water are stressed will become a fact of life unless international policies tackle climate change. Similarly, trade policies (which now often have an environmental component) can be mindful on the impact of the migration of labor. If a policy is likely to increase the migration into the United States, the benefit to Americans must be made clear. Otherwise, the policy (and the earnest foreign workforce that emerges because of it) becomes a white supremacist weapon for scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate crimes.

To work with America you must understand America

There is also a conversation going on from Philadelphia to the Philippines about what kind of country America is in 2021. Especially after four years of Trump. Our standing on the world stage has plummeted as our national interests were supplanted by Donald’s personal interests. As the Biden diplomatic team repairs the damage done to our international relationships, our global partners need to be mindful of four factors that drive activism in the extreme right.

Because each of these is a complex issue, worthy of pages of analysis, I’ll be incredibly brief.

  1. Understanding the split in the Republican Party. The symbolic division between the party of Representative Lynne Cheney (R-WY) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) reflects the split between the “Grand Ol’ Party,” with it’s core conservative values, and the nut-job wing that remains loyal to Trump, QAnon and the calls for an uprising to defeat the “communist” Democrats.
  2. Understanding that nationalism is a response to globalization. Over one hundred years ago fervent calls to “(Your country here) first!” set the stage for the “war to end all wars” and paved the way for the rise of fascism. Without the strength of our international treaties (I’m looking at you, UK), we’re back to square one.
  3. Understanding paths to radicalism and access to resources for deradicalization. There’s more than enough scholarship on why people become extremists. Programs in Sweden (Exit) and Britain (Prevent) have pioneered excellent methods to deradicalize extremists. It’s time to share the wisdom. 
  4. Confronting extremism in the military. We are not the only nation whose militaries contain Neo-Nazis who dream of bombing Israel, African and Arab countries, and liberal metropolitan areas. A global strategy to confront this issue should be the first step in an international effort to prevent large scale attacks.

And now the work begins

We talked about a great deal in one hour. I can really squeeze a lot in when I think there’s a ticking time bomb, like April 19th. That day may come and go without event, which I desperately hope will be the case. (April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, so wait to exhale.) America is starting from less than zero because of the hole Donald Trump dug. But, with the help of our friends around the world, we can put our shoulders to the wheel and ensure our common dream to live in a safe and stable nation.

Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II

February 1, 2021

I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he posted on my Facebook page, “You can either support Antifa or be my son.” I replied, “You know I’ve worked to oppose fascism my entire adult life. I am, by definition Antifa – anti-fascist.” His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. Unfriended by my Trump-loving father.

I know this scenario has played out in thousands of ways in American families as the lines of division have been drawn up. “Trump cult” brother against “libtard” brother, QAnon daughter against “communist mother,” or in my case, Antifa son against “Anyone who listens to the mainstream media has drank the Kool Aid” father. I was going to call my dad after election day, and then after inauguration day. I keep putting it off because I don’t want to hear his fragile old white man “sky is falling/Joe Biden is too old” blather.  (For the record, Joe is eight months younger than my father.) If I can’t heal my relationship with my old man, how can America heal this chasm that separates us? And is this how families felt before that last civil war?

Like a lot of Americans, while watching the January 6 storming of the capitol (It’s its own Wikipedia entry now) unfold on TV, I more than half-expected to see someone I knew (including my older-than-Biden father). We might have heard some great calls for unity on Inauguration Day but it feels like we’re more divided than ever. Trump still holds the reigns of the GOP from his gilded palace in Florida. A large percentage of the 74 million people who voted for Trump think that a large percentage of the 81 million people who voted for Biden were dead people. And complete nut jobs like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green are either seen as prophets or complete nut jobs.

It seems so hard to cross this divide. The mother of one of my childhood friends (who I had a mad crush on when I was 12) just posted something about Biden letting in “illegal immigrants who carry diseases.” My first response was to call out her racism. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But am I just driving her back into her fragile white castle? I’m good on a Facebook smackdown. I’ve got links to New York Times articles, persuasive statistics, hilarious memes, and, if all else fails, a facepalm gif.

Then I remember what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years, helping people leave the white supremacist movement (WSM). There are two ways to think of the WSM. The first is a fractured subculture of hate groups, white nationalists, and anti-immigrant organizations. The second way is to see the white supremacist movement is as America writ large. The real advocates of making America white again are not Klansmen and Proud Boys, they are people like my friend’s mom who would never own her own racism. “I’m not racist, but…” So maybe the things I learned about extracting Neo-Nazi skinheads could be helpful to talking to people stuck Trump’s in narrow nationalist vision of “patriotism.”

How has this improved your life?

One of the questions that has helped to get racist to rethink their commitment to racist activism is, “Has anything about this choice you’ve made made your life better?” They’ll sputter a bit and maybe parrot some line about finding “pride.” But then you push them with questions about their family relations, their economic prospects, their legal problems, their love lives and they’ll start to see they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The silly “white utopia” that they are physically fighting for isn’t coming and they are increasing socially isolated. I had one troubled young skinhead tell me, “It’s so hard to be racially pure and know what to eat. I love Mexican food but I can’t eat it anymore.” He left the movement shortly after that.

I wonder how my father’s life has changed with his devotion to this failed businessman from Queens. He chose that over a relationship with his son. It must be hard to be a Trump loyalist, having to believe so many things that are obviously untrue; that COVID-19 is “just the flu,” that the January 6 insurgence was a false flag plot by Antifa, that Trump won the election. The emotional labor it must take to ride the wave of disinformation while everyone around you watches you fall down the rabbit hole must be taxing. Just like the QAnon cult that saw their prophecy fail when the “Storm” failed to materialized to prevent Biden’s swearing in, Trumpists must have to expend a lot of energy to just not look crazy. 

We’re always telling racists that life is better on the other side, with our wide open cuisine and limitless playlist. Maybe an open invitation to Trumpists to break bread at the mosque and talk about Jesus in a black church would work. When you take off your Giuliani-stained blinders, so much great comedy, music, and NPR is there to enjoy. All that Ted Nugent and Scott Baio must get old. There’s so much celebration of life over here. Invite a Proud Boy to a Gay Pride parade. They kinda seem like overlapping circles anyway.

The power of the open hand instead of the clenched fist

I get it. It’s fun to fight. I’m always up for a few rounds with my high school posse, most of whom have become pot-bellied Trumpies. Sarcastic insults worked in high school so let them fly. I have a 50-something classmate who still calls me “Ballsack.” I won’t say he’s been emboldened by Trump’s bullying. This guy was always a prick. The political banter can take on a sport-like quality. Who gets the best jibe and obscure historical fact in last? I have dialed down my social media time (at the request of my wife and humanity), so I get a lot of “He stopped responding. I won.” Cheerio, desktop gladiator.

But the stories of haters leaving their racist lives have a similar element. Most had someone who they were supposed to hate reach out to them. A Muslim, a gay bashing victim, a black man harassed by Klansmen. In The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, former skinhead Frankie Meeink tells the story of a Jewish boss who helped him out of a tight jam and how he never wore another swastika after that act of undeserved act of kindness. I published a book chapter in 2004 after numerous interviews with former Neo-Nazis remarking on the pattern that females in their lives (girlfriends, teachers, daughters) had helped them out by showing the hate that they experienced as females was no different than the hurtful hate their men expressed as racists, opening the door to empathy.

I’m currently reading The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. She describes how both sides of the political divide are pretty good at dehumanizing each other. Internet trolls can lay some pretty hateful rhetoric on their victims, but referring to them as trolls makes them less human as well. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment dehumanized Trump supporters who she accused of dehumanizing others. (We don’t put people in baskets, Hill.) 

Remember when Barack Obama said in 2004 that. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states”? In fact we’re all shades of purple. We’re not so divided as we pretend to be and there’s more that unites us. As a life-long anti-racist, I can have a pretty good conversation with a racist skinhead about our common love of Slayer albums or classic WWF wrestling stars. Then, if we have time, we can get to the deeper stuff. I promise you this; no Nazi has ever stopped being a Nazi because they were told they were wrong just the right amount of times. You’ve got to win hearts and minds. I have to remind myself of this fact when I’m armoring up for a Facebook battle with my Georgia homies.

Being a part of something that matters

The teenage skinheads and the old white men who stormed the Capitol have one thing in common. They all want to belong to something that matters. The skinheads I studied wanted to save American from Jewish communists and the Trump loyalists want to save America from, well, Jewish communists. The both see a country that is about to “cease to exist” because of perceived enemies of “real Americans” and feel the rush of engaging in a great historic cause to the “save the country.”

The left has a similar raison d’etre, as we call others to, “Man the barricades!” and burst into lyrics from Les Miserables and Hamilton. “We’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round!” When I was getting teargassed by the police last summer at the George Floyd protests, I had a feeling that I was a part of something that really mattered, a page in American history. A younger version of me might have seen fit to hurl a projectile at the symbols of oppression. (Older me has several friends who are cops.) We want to feel like we are bigger than just our small one man/women shows. That we can change the world for the better.

The Trump loyalists and Nazi skinheads feel the same way. They see an injustice, however upside down or lie-based it might be, and they want to set it right. “Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again!’ as they sing in Hamilton. What if they were brought into our great cause, the cause that expands the rights millions of Americans, not one that expands the right of one bloated con-artist to become America’s first dictator?

One of the best weapons against hate is an organization called Life After Hate, made up of former extremists, like Frankie Meeink. They use their time in the rabbit hole of racist violence to pull others out and advertise the waste of the dead-end world of hate. There are plenty of former Trumpies, Proud Boys, and QAnon cultists who can serve a similar function. I’ve interviewed militia members and former militia members, and the formers have all said the same thing, “I wish I could meet my younger self and talk some sense into him.” The Life After Hate members are a part of something that matters. Former racists make the best anti-racists, because they understand the humanity of the racist.

Adapting to these times

We’re in strange times. The uncertainty of life makes the comfort of a perfect conspiracy theory seem all that more appealing. It creates a world that is easily understandable. But unfortunately it also creates a world where half of the country thinks the other half is brainwashed, and vice versa. This may be the time to reach out. 

My friend’s mom felt like I was picking on her on Facebook and I responded that I loved her and that her ignorant comments broke my heart. I forgot that calling a white person in the South “ignorant” is essentially calling them “black.” (The phrase “ignorant black” has long been a part of the racist Southern lexicon.) She immediately shut down and ended the conversation. I forgot how to talk to fragile white people. I should have said, “I don’t think YOU are ignorant, but I find some of your racial comments not based in fact.” I apologized for my poor approach hoping to have another opportunity to reach out to her. Nobody said this would be easy. Part of me wonders why I should waste any time with people whose thinking is so entrenched in fear and hate and conspiracy theories and just incorrect information. But another part of me thinks that nothing is ever going to change unless we try. As Axl Rose once sang, “I don’t want a civil war.”

I understand this approach centers the haters and doesn’t address the trauma caused by the hate itself. But one way to allow the victims of hate to heal is to stop the wounding done by the haters.

OK, I’ll call my dad. 

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism

January 23, 2021

Trump is gone. We survived the inauguration, not only unbloodied, but closer to united, which I am crediting to J. Lo. She sang a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” written by the OG Antifa Woody Guthrie. Besides Bernie’s mittens, the grand ritual was notable for one key sentence from the newly sworn in president. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It was a first for an inaugural address and a focus that is desperately needed.

I’ve written much in this blog about the threat of right-wing extremism and the through-line that connects the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The 25,000 National Guardsmen and the collapse of the ludicrous QAnon prophecy helped us to deflate the threat this past week but that doesn’t mean the barbarians are not still at the gate, hoping to cripple our democracy. The election of Barack Obama (and a Democratic congress) in 2008 gave raise to the Tea Party movement. 2021 will see a post-Q antigovernment movement that, with the help of social media, will fuse all the bad actors of the past. It’s already a broad counterculture the ranges from Trump’s “suburban housewife” that still thinks Joe Biden is fronting an underground pedophile ring to the self-styled Timothy McVeigh-wannabe who plots to bring down federal office buildings to strike a blow against the “Zionist Occupation Government.”

So what do we do now?

If President Biden is sincere about confronting political extremism and white supremacy and defeating domestic terrorism, now is the time to create an organized, cohesive interagency plan to get in front of this issue, or we’re going to need a lot more than 25,000 National Guard to protect our institutions of government. As a researcher and organizer working in this field for 30 years, I’ve started sketching out what a countering violent extremism strategy might look like. Similar to the institutional shifts that occurred after 9/11, it recognizes the capacities of existing agencies, including the Department of Education, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. This initial approach contains four organizing principles; suppression, education, extraction, and vision.

Suppression: Addressing active threats

After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Clinton Administration immediately pivoted to confront the threat of violence from the patriot militia movement. The reality is that, on October 25, 1994, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Attorney General Janet Reno to alert “all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by unauthorized militias that have recently sprung up in at least eighteen states.” While that warning may not have been heeded, after the terrorist attack the following April, Reno made the suppression of domestic terror groups a priority. The FBI broke up several plots, including those leading up to the “doomsday” prophecies connected to Y2K on January 1, 2000.

The events of 9/11 propelled President Bush to move many of those law enforcement resources to the investigation of international terrorist plots, particularly after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “patriot movement” didn’t go away after 9/11. It retreated to the corners of the internet. In the Obama years it scooped up many Tea Party activists and by the Trump years it was in the streets, heavily armed and promising a revolution, rebranded as the “Boogaloo.” In 1997, I interviewed several militia members in western Montana and one told me, “We’re patient men but this war will happen in our lifetimes.”

The suppression plan of the Biden Administration must include 5 important areas. 1) The interruption of ongoing plots. While we still don’t have a federal definition of “domestic terrorism,” criminal conspiracy statues have been used and must be utilized with increased use of intelligence services and investigative resources. 2) The monitoring of e-chatter of threats, including open source social media posts, the dark web, and encrypted communications. Research from the Rand Corporation has found that this chatter increases before acts of hate-motivated violence occur. 3) Turning extremists into assets. Life After Hate is a group of former extremists who now work in the field of countering violent extremism. The Prevent Program in the UK has utilized former jihadists in the working of interrupting jihadist plots. “Formers” are a vital resource available but under used. 4) Disrupting extremist prison gangs. There is a pipeline  that runs from white gangs inside prison to hate groups outside prison. A national strategy on these security threat groups would cut off a channel of extremist recruitment. 5) Monitoring foreign involvement in in-person and on-line extremism. Foreign actors, particularly from Russia, have been active in both bolstering the American white supremacist movement and spreading disinformation that increases hostility towards the American government.

Education: Confronting the issues that divide us

In this age of disinformation, we must honestly address the sins of the past while reaching out to those who are drawn into the conspiracy theories of radical right because of their lack of understanding of social and demographic changes (and how government itself works). The summer 2020 protests following the George Floyd killing highlighted the work that remains to be done to address institutional, cultural, and personal racism.

If we are going to have a national conversation about race, it needs two very important audiences. The first audience is people of color who need an honest acknowledgment of the generations of trauma that racism has cause. We’ve never really dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary psyche. It’s not like anti-black racism magically disappeared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Similarly, we also haven’t confronted the trauma caused by Japanese internment, the Bracero Program, or separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The second audience must be white people, especially white people who have been economically dislocated by globalization and economic shifts. Lecturing about white privilege is a hard sell to a coal minor who has lost his job in the push for “renewable energy.” We don’t reduce the normalization of white supremacist thinking that pushes white people into thinking “their” country is disappearing if we don’t help white people see the value of inclusion and the futility of extremism.

Education must revolve around four key agendas. 1) Racial reconciliation. As Germany did after WW II and South Africa did after apartheid, we need a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation that links the dark past to the problems of the present. This work is hard but must be done. 2) Diversity, equity, and inclusion training and celebration. The Biden team doesn’t have to give America a long HR diversity training, but there are some valuable skills that can be taught widely, including the understanding of implicit bias. This work can also be a lot of fun as we come together, not to melt into a national pot, but celebrate the diverse ingredients of our national gumbo. 3) Community healing and dialogue. Much of this work must be done locally, recognizing the intersectionality of different communities. “Asian-Americans” are not one monolithic group. 4) Outreach to dislocated populations. Equity requires actively bringing people to the table. We must recognize that many of those marginalized communities are white. They are better served at a table with their non-white neighbors than in a basement plotting attacks on their own government.

Extraction: Dealing with the internal threat

Nearly one in five of the participants in the Capitol attack were members of the U.S. military. There is a long list of police officers who have had ties to white supremacist groups. There is an alleged group of prison guards who work to support racist gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood. The infiltration of groups sworn to protect us by extremists is the worst kept secret in America. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet who handed out copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist revolution handbook, to the white members of his platoon.

Addressing this problem is vital to this strategy for two reasons. The first is the utilization of the military for training by right wing extremists. Additionally, having people on the inside (cops, prison guards, National Guard, Air Force officers with access to nuclear weapons, etc.) makes waging a civil war at lot easier. While I was undercover with a group of racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989, four Stinger missiles disappeared from the armory of a nearby Army base and were recovered from the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho. And if you’ve got a Josh Hawley who can open the doors for you, all the easier.

The second is all about perception. The belief that police and the military reinforce white supremacy didn’t die with Bull Conner and is central to the protests for racial justice. We can’t move forward until we’ve proven this important work is incompatible with organized racism.

So this plank of the strategy must both respect government workers’ first amendment rights while managing extremist infiltrations in three areas; 1) the United States military, 2) municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and 3) correctional officers in local jails, and state and federal prisons.

Vision: Who are we as a nation?

If the “America Century” began at the end of World War I, the century is ending. Will there be a second American century that is different? Or will it just be a high tech version of Jim Crow and people begging for black lives to matter. For the last four years there has been a massive vacuum of leadership. All we heard was a call to make America 1950 again, a time when millions of Americans were institutionally disenfranchised. We need a clear message about what America is going to look like. The hard fact is that demographic trends don’t lie. The country is becoming less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and less Protestant. Will we sink into an endless battle between WASPs and everyone else? A clear articulation of what the other path looks like is desperately needed. It seems like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are willing to formulate that vision.

We need our national leaders to think about four central agendas in this “re-visioning.” 1) A clear articulation of our values. What does mean to be an American? We are a nation of people of deep empathy, willing to confront our demons and work together on meaningful solutions. If the military reminds us “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” we can do the work to lift all those in our country to “be best” (Sorry, Melania.) 2) Addressing intersections. These issues are complex and overlap with other important issues. For example, global warming is pushing environmental refugees into extremist groups around the globe and is having real impact on the American farming community. 3) Addressing the truth and pain of the past. Donald Trump tried to erase the past with his 1776 Project. We must confront it head on and that will include some sincere acknowledge of harm done. President Reagan’s 1988 apology to Japanese-Americans for the mass internment in the 1940s went a long way to heal the wounding that was done to so many families who had their lives ripped away because of racist war hysteria.  4) Envisioning the path forward. What will a “less white” America look like? Our president can guide to a stable, diverse, beautiful pluralist view of the future that won’t doom us to endless division and extremist violence.

We have the ability to achieve this. We can both prevent domestic terrorism and bring disaffected Americans back into our wonderful, diverse family. The second American century can be spectacular, not just for few, but for all. There is a heavy load to be lifted by the Biden Administration, but it will be made lighter if we all help carry it.

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump

January 12, 2021

I’m not one to say I told you so, but I told you so. Since 2015,  I’ve been writing and talking about how Donald Trump was leading a cult of personality that wanted to bring fascism to America. But I’m not here to take credit. I’m here to urge action.

History tells us that failed coup attempts are followed by successful coup attempts. The 1/6 siege on the Capitol Building was not the last gasp of the Trump base. It was first attack by so-called “patriots” who have been arming and training for their revolution to overthrow our duly elected government. It won’t end on Inauguration Day. In fact, January 20th could be one of the bloodiest days of American history. Trump has spent 5 years emboldening (God, I’ve used that word way too many times since 2015) his rabid right-wing base with veiled (and not-so-veiled) racist declarations, and calls to attack the media and anyone who is not 100% loyal to him (including former members of his administration). He took something that was a fringe political movement of “Wackos from Waco” to a mainstream social movement of self-imagined 1776 revolutionaries. He’s done his work and now can stand back and stand by while the chaos destroys America. His father/fatherland didn’t love him, so he’s going to burn it down.

It’s not a matter of when Trump’s civil war will start. The fact that his troops were roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol with zip ties, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” while the vice president was certifying Biden’s victory, is evidence that we’re at least in “soft” civil war that’s about to get very hard. So what do we do to save the country from sliding from democracy into totalitarianism, as so many nations have before?

Recognize the threat

There is a straight line that runs from the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to Wednesday’s insurgence. To the outside viewer, Wednesday’s mob might have seemed like a crowd of sub-moronic good ‘ol boys who just got caught up in their angst that their “manly man” (lol) lost the election. But there was a method to their madness.

A small band of similarly minded “patriots,” guided by the blueprint provided in a racist novel called The Turner Diaries, intended to start a civil war to rid the government of “Zionist” control. It was their conspiracy-fueled version of the “deep state.” In one moment on April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts were the product of the patriot militia movement. Twenty-five years ago it was a fringe underground that was largely squashed by public rejection and federal policing. Now it’s a massive overground, fueled by internet, right-wing news outlets, QAnon, and the President of the United States. But the end goal is the same, a right-wing revolution to purge America of any vestige of liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and religious tolerance. And it probably includes somebody in your family.

It’s not surprising that several white supremacist groups were involved in Wednesday’s attack, including the Oath Keepers, the Rise Above Movement, and, of course, the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, Trump’s shock troops, have shed any pretense of not being a racist gang. The Oregon Capitol has been besieged by right-wing extremists, including one Proud Boy with a notorious past. Apparently, Kyle Brewster has been engaged in the actions in Salem. Brewster, besides an avowed Trump supporter, was one of the racist skinheads convicted of beating an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat in Portland in 1988. The white supremacist scene has rebranded itself as a “Western chauvinist movement” and invited a few men of color along to prove it’s not your grandfather’s Klavern.

I’ve written plenty in this blog about the “militia funnel” and the real threat of civil war. Just understand this. Some of these people are nut jobs. I mean the “Q Shaman”? Brother, please. But there is a core in the center of several concentric circles of anti-government fury that is heavily armed and has been training since the day they saw Timothy McVeigh take down a federal office building in Oklahoma.

This threat is domestic in nature but don’t think there is no foreign involvement. Numerous adversaries stand to benefit by pushing America into great discord, even if this soft civil war doesn’t go full Gettysburg. This includes Trump’s buddies (and creditors), the Russians. Don’t be surprised if we see Russian actors involved in the call for Trump loyalists to come to D.C. on January 6th, if not actually breaching the security at the capitol.

Now that the White House, and both houses of Congress will be in Democratic control, expect extremists to use Wednesday’s attack as a recruiting call for a national uprising. They know they have sympathizers on the inside who will open the doors for them. And we thought 2021 was going to be so chill.

Recognize the roots of the threat

Once we’ve come to terms with the threat level, it’s worth understanding the roots that got us here. Complex problems have complex causes, but Wednesday’s white riot has three factors (+1) that led to the destruction and death that occurred in the halls of Congress.

First is the massive social change that America has experienced in the last 50 years. The “natural” authority of the straight, white, cisgendered, Christian men is no longer assumed. Civil right movements to make equity a real thing have challenged (but not eliminated) their social position. Feminism, black lives matter, inclusion officers, and the rest has threatened their (male) God-given right. So Trump, a “macho” (stop) man, appears and says he’s going to make America “great again, ” speaking directly to their insecurity. Let’s make America 1950 again, before all this civil rights business. And quickest way that men gain authority is through violence. Just ask that “bitch who opened her mouth one too many times.”

This upsetting of white male power has occurred in the context of globalization. The manly factory jobs have all moved to non-white countries. In their place are low wage service sector jobs, with no union card and no benefits. Before COVID hit, there were actually more women working in America than men, and they were mostly working at Walmart, not at the plant. So what does the king of his castle do when the HR lady fires him for sexually harassing a co-worker? And then his job is sent to China?

The third factor is the coronavirus. It’s both turned everything upside down and magnified the race to the bottom. On the one hand, the virus has caused economic devastation, pushing formerly “king of the hill” white men further down into desperation. All this being blamed on, as Trump calls it, the China virus. On the other hand, the lockdown (and layoffs) has plopped people in front of their computers, looking for information and ending up in less than legitimate news sites like Newsmax, OANN, and Epoch Times, who traffic in endless conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election. (I can’t believe I’m going to put Fox News in the “legitimate” column.) And then here comes the web fad QAnon to tell you that the deep state is “communist” and controlled by baby-eating Democrats. Desperate people will believe pretty much anything that gives them a leg up on the uncertainty.

The fourth “bonus” factor is Trump. In a crisis like this, a leader would take on the task of bringing the nation together and steering those at risk away from the radical fringes. Instead, he has pushed these sad souls right into the militia rabbit hole because it suits his need for ego feeding. A bunch of yahoos who would never be let inside Mar-a-Lago are worthy props. They’ll be mowed down by the National Guard waving their stupid Trump flags, but it all serves substitute for the love he never got from his parents.

Neutralize the threat

What we do about this is a much larger discussion. The first order of business is to shut down the immediate threat. After the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno got in front of the militia threat and moved FBI resources to go after it. The bureau had its hands full shutting down terrorist plots, especially leading up to Y2K. (Ask your granddad about that one.) I don’t doubt that the Biden Administration, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, will take this issue seriously. The Trump Administration essentially ignored it, allowing it to fester. When members of the militia movement in Michigan plotted to kidnap and execute Governor Whitemer, AG Bill Barr acted like he had no knowledge of any of it. The difference between 1995 and 2021 is the anti-government threat is now massive. All 50 state capitals are facing assaults by right-wing extremists. Several Democratic governors have had armed extremists on the grounds of their homes. Shutting down these barbarians, who think they are on the brink of their promised white revolution, is going to take a well planned coordination between Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies, and community groups.

The other strategy has nothing to with police and everything to addressing to the root causes of this wind that has blown so many Americans over the right-wing cliff. We’re probably not going to recreate a massive manufacturing sector to get men back into GM factories, but we can help those men learn to manage the social changes instead of freaking the F out. One of the best resources here are people who have actually been through the grinder and come out the other side. Groups like Life After Hate have created a place for former extremists to share their journey into the dark side and help pull other racists and extremists off the ledge. 

Rebuild the middle

America needs to have several hard conversations that deal with trauma and reconciliation. If we want to “smash the binary,” we can include the pointless division between red and blue. This isn’t 1861. We’re all shades of purple. There’s such a need for leadership to guide us to unity. That leadership can come from the White House or it came from the liberal who reaches out to Trump supporters and invites them over for dinner (when that’s safe again).

The first civil war didn’t really end in 1865. We remained divided, especially on the issue of race. Jim Crow and the electoral college were the South’s revenge. But we’ve learned a few things in the years since then. We are on the edge of something that will turn this county into ash (and delight Mr. Putin and Mr. Jinping). But we also have the capacity to create a second, better American century. This is the moment for bold, if not a bit desperate, action.

2020: How Do You Measure A Year?

December 31, 2020

There’s that “Seasons of Love”  song from the musical Rent that asks how you measure the “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” of a year. “In laughter, in strife?” Or truths we learned.

You’d think that with all that pandemic lockdowns, I would have been blogging my ass off, but I only managed to get 19 posts out in 2020. Part of that was the task of moving a full time teaching schedule into a remote platform, part of it was spent rallying in front of the Portland Justice Center and dodging teargas canisters. But the truth is, we spent more time cocooning, ordering take-out and bingeing on endless episodes of 90 Day Fiancé.

It was somewhat of a blessing that I got to do my “What does it all mean?” and “Why Portland?” TV interviews from my living room, via Zoom. The world’s media was in Portland this summer, covering the protests. I was interviewed by La Monde from France (an 80’s Randy dream), as well as by reporters from South Korea, Switzerland, Denmark, Turkey, and several others that are lost in the fog. From assigning White Fragility to my students to talking to CNN’s W. Kamau Bell for United Shades of America (after getting a COVID test), it was a great year for pushing the conversation about race and racism in America.

We did have some safe road trips to give us a break from quarantine, including to the heart of Trump country in Eastern Oregon. It really was a year to focus on family, marriage, home improvement, and all things close to home.  Which was made easier since I spent a good third of the year in Facebook jail.

Watching the collapse of Donald Trump’s bid to become America’s first dictator was the most satisfying part of 2020. It’s too bad that his abdication from his Constitutional role was at expense of the the lives of 345,000 Americans (and more deaths to come). It will take decades to clean up the mess Trump will leave us when he is dragged out of the White House on January 20th. Trump will be gone but his sub-moronic base is sure pray for their orange messiah’s return. That will keep me busy on the right-wing extremism front.

I posted in Watching the Wheels when the spirit moved me. The most popular post was July 31st’s  “Open Letter to My Father: Why I Support Black Lives Matter.” (He’s still not speaking to me.) Followed by June 7th’s “It took getting gassed by the police to get it about policing.” I have no doubt I will be writing more about race and gender in 2021 as we dig ourselves out of this massive hole. Good times coming.

2020 WTW Posts

My Old Face (January 18)

A Safer Space – A Valentine’s Poem for My Wife (February 14)

Love In The Time of Corona (March 15)

Protecting Our Children from the Trump Virus (March 24)

Confronting Our Deaths in a Pandemic (April 7)

What is the feminist position on the COVID-19 pandemic? (May 19)

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting (May 31)

It took getting gassed by the police to get it about policing (June 7)

Real Americans Burn Confederate Flags (June 28)

“I wish I was alive in 2020.” Witnessing History from the Frontline (July 22)

Open Letter to My Father: Why I Support Black Lives Matter (July 31)

Saying goodbye to 5-year-old Cozy and hello BIG 6! (August 17)

How Veterans and Rape Victims Can Help Us Stop Trump’s Racism (September 22)

Pins and Needles and Civil War (October 31)

President Snowflake: How Trump’s fragile masculinity made me a better man. (November 19)

Disco Didn’t Actually Suck: Racism, Homophobia and Intersectionality in Music We’re Taught to Hate (December 2)

December 8, 1980, John Lennon and a Snapshot of Shock (December 8)

The Dream Life of 2020 (December 16)

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2020 (December 28)

2020: How Do You Measure A Year?  (December 31)

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2020

December 28, 2020

My joke about this year has been that 2020 will make 1968 look like 1954, but without the soundtrack. That’s not quite true. There has been a lot of great music this year, including full albums recorded while on lockdown (or “rockdown,” as Paul McCartney called it). Unfortunately, a lot of us where not in the mood to search out new music this year, especially when all live shows were cancelled. I found my muse in creating numerous Spotify playlists, like chronologies of Prince and The Kinks. My music highlight of the year was Beyoncé’s musical film, Black is King, released during the summer. Visually stunning and perfectly timely as the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter protestors.

The truth is that my most listened to album in 2020 was released in the summer of 2019. Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell was on repeat play through the year. It’s 67 and a half minutes of epic soundscape offered endless layers of discovery. Like an arthouse film that reveals a different interpretation with each viewing, Norman Fucking Rockwell was an expansive chasm of wordplay and music pulled from the dreamworld.

Similarly, some of my favorite albums of 2020 came out at the very end of 2019 (Harry Styles, The Who).  Others were the casualties of COVID (Toots Hibbert, RIP) or commenting on the meaning of it (Bob Dylan’s sweeping tome). The death of George Floyd gave us the most clear musical moment, including powerful releases from Run the Jewels and Black Thought. But nothing sounded more like 2020 than the third album by the British band Sault. Untitled (Black Is) brought the themes of being locked down and tearing down racism into a hypnotic swirl that was both backward and forward looking. I didn’t quite get the Taylor Swift album but the Sault album seemed to be the right album at the right time.

Flipping back through the new music I dug in 2020, here’s my top 20 albums of the year. I expect that, with massive vaccinations, 2021 will kick off our swinging ‘20s.

1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

3. Harry Styles – Fine Line

4. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able

5. Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling

6. The Who – Who

7. Paul McCartney – McCartney III

8. Shelby Lynne – Shelby Lynne

9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters 

11. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

12. Paul Weller – On Sunset

13. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

14. Toots and the Maytals – Got to Be Tough

15. Lido Pimienta  – Miss Columbia

16. Various Artists – PDX Pop Now Vol.  17

17. Pearl Jam – Gigaton

18.  Haim – Women in Music Pt. III

19. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud 

20. Neil Young – Homegrown

And a special mention of The Chicks “March, March” single, which gave us the most needed video of the year, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which the girls in the neighborhood mimed endlessly this summer.

The Dream Life of 2020

December 16, 2020

When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.

That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.

The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.

The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.

I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.

I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?

I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.

I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?

I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.

I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”

And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?

But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.

With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.

December 8, 1980, John Lennon and a Snapshot of Shock

December 8, 2020

Every generation has its snapshot memory, a historical event that is frozen in time. Talk to a baby boomer about the day JFK was shot. Ask Gen Xers about where they were when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. Younger “Greatest Generation” members talk about Pearl Harbor the way elder Millennials talk about 9/11. Like it happened yesterday. So much of the minutia of our lives is lost to the fog of time, but that event, like any snapshot, captures the detail of our lives and frames it in the historical context of that specific moment.

For me it was the morning of December 9, 1980, the morning I woke up to find that my beloved Beatle had been murdered.

Since this blog is dedicated the feminist influence of househusband John Lennon, I thought I’d try to recreate that snapshot. I understand, just like there are people alive now who have never known a world without a cold war or without the internet, there are billions alive who have never lived on the same planet as John Winston Ono Lennon.

Jukebox Hero, 1980.

First things first, in 1980 I was know as the biggest Beatles fan at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Even more than my obsession for the Ramones and all things punk was by fandom for the Fab Four. I bought solo albums the day they were released, including Wing’s London Town and Ringo’s Bad Boy in 1978, Wings’ Back to the Egg and George’s George Harrison in 1979, and Paul’s McCartney II in 1980, and most significantly John’s Double Fantasy in November 1980. John hadn’t released any new music in five years and it was a big deal. Yeah, it was really a “John & Yoko” album and yeah, I wasn’t mad about the Elvis-sounding “Starting Over” single, but I quickly fell in love with the LP (bought at Turtles Records & Tapes on Memorial Drive). There were rumors John would tour in the new year and rumors about the rumors that said Cheap Trick would be his backing band,

By the first week of December of I was reading every interview John was doing and, again, dreaming that the world was preparing us for the inevitable Beatles reunion, at that point, the very reason for living for any music fan. Both John and Paul sported Beatle haircuts on their new albums, That must mean something!

The country in late 1980 was in a weird place. We were a year into the crippling Iranian hostage crisis that played a role in Ronald Reagan beating incumbent Jimmy Carter. The 80s felt like they were about to bust loose on a new wave soundtrack, but there was a dark cloud hovering.

The guy that killed John went to Columbia High School, one of the Dekalb County rivals of my school. He was on some psychotic mission that changed the world at 10:50 pm when he shot John Lennon 4 times outside the Dakota, John and Yoko’s gothic New York City apartment. A spot I visit almost every single time I go to New York City.

John was known as being super accessible in the Big Apple, loving the freedom of movement he didn’t have in England. The fall of 1980 my friend Ed and I discussed going to NYC the summer of 1981, after graduation, and hanging out in front of the Dakota to meet John and thank him for all the great music he had given us.

The night of December 8th, for some reason, I had been gone to bed early. Sportscaster Howard Cosell interrupted his broadcast of Monday Night Football to tell the world that Beatle John Lennon had been shot. Friends began calling our house to share the shattering news but my mother chose to let me sleep. Instead she laid the morning copy of the Atlanta Constitution on the kitchen table the following morning.

Like most Tuesday mornings, I woke up and turned on 96 Rock, pleased to hear a Beatles song on the radio. I showered and got dressed to more Beatles songs. Perhaps it was a “super-set.” I went into the kitchen for breakfast, first turning on my parents 70s console hifi (96 Rock was obviously on a Beatle binge.) The 1967 classic, “A Day in the Life,” began to play. The line “I read the news today, oh boy” came out of the speakers just as I looked down at the newspaper. “John Lennon Slain by New York Gunman.”

The headline was next to a picture of John in a suit and tie from his 1976 immigration hearing. My first thought was, “Wow, there’s another John Lennon” thinking the clean cut gent was a politician or businessman who shared a name with MY John Lennon. Then I realized it was my John Lennon and it felt like the floor fell out from under me. I quickly turned on Good Morning America and saw the scenes of thousands of fans sobbing outside the Dakota in New York. My head was reeling. I wanted to go to New York. I wanted to murder the man who murdered John Lennon.

Instead I ran to my room. “Watching the Wheels” was playing on the radio. I fell on my bed, surrounded by Beatle and John posters, and sobbed. “I just had to let it go.” 

My mother reminded me I had to go to school, so I put on a John Lennon Walls and Bridges t-shirt (that I got at Beatlefest ’78) and carried myself to Redan. I only made it through three periods. I had become the wailing wall for the Beatle fans at school. Where before I got abuse for my weird music tastes, now I got hugs. Girls, who would never talk to me, came up to me in tears to say they were sorry. My English teacher, Mrs. Patsy Zimmerman, told me she had taught John’s killer when she was at Columbia. We both burst into tears and I decided to leave. I put the school’s flag at half mast and walked home, vowing to never laugh again, a punishment for the world stealing this peacemaker from us.

The week was spent playing records and piecing together what happened. I sat in my room, playing Double Fantasy and thinking I would suddenly wake up to find it had all been a nightmare and that the dream was over. Instead of a funeral, Yoko asked fans to gather that Sunday, December 14, for a 10-minute silent vigil. I ended up in Piedmont Park with thousands of other Atlanta-area fans. Without direction, at 2 pm the crowd moved to the center of the field on the south side of the park, grabbed hands and then formed a massive circle for ten very long and quiet minutes. Then someone began singing “Give Peace a Chance.” We all joined in and moved back to the center and hugged each other for the next hour. Peace. “Ah, this is what John was talking about,” I remember thinking.

“Starting Over” shot to #1 on the charts and six weeks later Ronald Reagan was sworn in, launching an era that we REALLY could have used John Lennon to help navigate.

I was 16 on that day and I am 56 today. It seems like a minute ago. John’s served as a model for mine, the evolution of a man. He died at 40, so I will now always be older than him, but I still feel like I learn from him in new and surprising ways. This “househusband blog” has been a part of that lesson. We all shine on in our own way.

I miss you, John and if I had gotten to meet you in the summer of 1981, I would have thanked you for showing me how to grow.