Open Letter to My Father: Why I Support Black Lives Matter

July 31, 2020

Dear Dad,

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I was watching the funeral of civil rights icon John Lewis, thinking about how far we’ve moved forward and how far we’ve fallen back. You’ve expressed anger that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and that I have been showing up at the protests in downtown Portland. To someone your age, I would hope the images of anti-racist protestors being teargassed and beaten by police would remind you of similar images 55 years ago when John Lewis and civil rights protestors routinely suffered a similar fate. But you’re a white man and white men like us can pretend the racism that existed then has somehow magically disappeared.

You and mom brought me into a world that was in the last, most violent, days of Jim Crow. Born four months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the month I was born Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers because of hung jury while black men were still being hung from trees. Three months later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was born while America was trying to shake off the yoke of the white supremacist order, but our little white family was removed from the growing pains in our suburban home while black people marched, carrying signs that read, “I am a man.”

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I often wonder what you, a 22-year-old white man, thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. Historians will tell you that a large percentage of white people considered him a “communist agitator.” Many fell in love with him after he was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968. White people love a black icon when he’s dead. I certainly never heard his name in our house growing up or any need to show empathy for the victims of white supremacy. In 1972, we moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. I never heard anything about the terrorism and trauma they inflicted on our black neighbors. I just heard about how if black families move into the neighborhood, home values will go down. I heard that a lot.

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I did learn some valuable life lessons from you in those days. As a Boy Scout, from a long line of Eagle Scouts, you gave me a mantra that has oriented me throughout my entire life – Leave the campsite better than you found it. That’s exactly what I’m doing and why I’m willing to put by body on the line to clean up this camp. So let me tell you how badly this camp is messed up.

I was born into a position of privilege which means a whole lot of people were disadvantaged. In February 1964, there were not yet systemic wins for the civil rights movement, the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, the Native American rights movement, or the migrant labor rights movement. Those wins were coming. But I was born into a world where the authority of white men like us was still unchallenged. I know, to you,  it must seem like that world is long gone, but I can tell you it’s alive and well and Jim Crow has never ceased to exist.

The statistics would make your head spin, so let me just say that in 2020, in every single institution in America, black people still get screwed. From the criminal justice system, to hiring, to health care, to housing, institutional racism is alive and unleashed. And before you fall back on the “but Affirmative Action!” trope, let me tell you that I worked in an Affirmative Action office at my university. Affirmative Action in no way mandates the hiring of unqualified minorities and the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action have been white women and veterans. Believe me, Dad, I’ve heard every fake excuse in the world about how black people have it so much better than white people, yet I have yet to hear a single white person say they would gladly switch places with a black person in America.

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So here’s why I support the Black Lives Matter movement. Because black lives don’t matter at the moment. African-Americans have been devalued and dehumanized for 600 years and it didn’t magically end because a law was passed in 1964. There is a mountain of evidence that teachers, cops, medical doctors, judges, and many others still treat people of color worse than people like you and I. You can argue the evidence, but you should try just talking to ANY black person about their DAILY experience with racism. And by talking, I mean shutting up and listening. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism , asked a black man what it would be like to have a white person just sit and listen, without responding, to the true expression of what it means to be black in America. He answered, “It would be revolutionary.” I’m listening. You should, too. If you truly believed that “all lives matter,” you would, of course, agree with the belief that black lives matter, just like someone who believes that all trees matter agrees with someone who says, “Maple trees matter.”

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You’ve told me that Portland is being burned down by “Antifa.” That statement is hilarious to anyone who actually lives in Portland. Of the thousands of people protesting, a handful have damaged a small area of the city. I have friends who are anti-fascist activists and I have friends who work in the Federal Courthouse downtown, and all have similar values. I would love to introduce you to my friends at the U.S. Attorney’s Office who work in the building that’s been surrounded by protestors every night. They support the Black Lives Matter movement, as do the scores of veterans, moms, doctors, lawyers, and black youth who have demanded justice in the streets of Portland for over two months. I know the internet and Sean Hannity want to tell you who the Black Lives Matter movement “really is,” but I can answer that. It’s all of us that are tired of centuries of the racist humanization of black people and want to find a way to change it. If you actually believe that all lives matter, you can be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, too. You could be a powerful voice to help clean up this damn campsite.

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But the main reason I support Black Lives Matter is because of the black kids in my neighborhood. They are my brown daughter’s best friends. They have already been disadvantaged by racism, including having parents arrested for things I should have been arrested for but my white skin got me off the hook. They live in a world where white is “normal,” including white heroes, white politicians, and white standards of beauty. Ask these little black girls which doll is the “pretty doll,” the white doll or the black doll and watch them pick the white doll every time. It has to end now. I will do everything in my power to prevent my daughter from growing up in a world where white is automatically viewed as better. There’s a term for that; white supremacy.

John Lewis was arrested over 45 times, trying bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That fight continues. I am honored to show up for that cause in a way that I wish more white people of your generation had done. Do you think the millions of African-Americans who are crying for black lives to matter are lying? Are grandstanding? Or want something for nothing? All three of those opinions would make you just another defender of white supremacy. Me, I’m doing what I can, even if is just quietly listening to black voices, to create an America that lives up to its value that all are created equal. And I have to do this work, in part, because you chose not to. I have to clean up our campsite. I hope you’ll get to see how wonderful it will be.

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“I wish I was alive in 2020.” Witnessing History from the Frontline

July 22, 2020

You’ve heard it a thousand times. “If I was around in the 1960s, I would have been marching with Dr. King!” Or how about this one, “If I was around in the 1930s or 1940s, I would have been fighting the Nazis!” As if the moment you’re in right now doesn’t require you to pony up and join the frontlines in the fight against oppression. Your time is now.

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One of the great twentieth century sociologists, C. Wright Mills, wrote in 1959 that we tend to see our biographies as separate from the moments in history that we live in. We focus on the, often mundane, day to day parts of our lives and not our lives as part of a larger historical moment. Very few of the people engaged in the vibrant protests in 1968 thought, “I’m in 1968, making history!” They might have thought, “I’m going to this protest with my friend and then I need to pick up some milk on the way home.” We are making history because every day we are making history by merely existing. But Karl Marx once wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” However, there are times, like now, where we can actually alter the course of events.

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Portland is again at the epicenter of national events. The media from around the world (including China and Canada) has been calling me to ask what to make of federal forces shooting “non-lethal munitions” into the faces of protestors and grabbing them off the street in actions that look more like Argentina in 1980 than anything America could ever be. And now President Trump has ordered federal police into Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque in what he has branded, “Operation Legend.” (I won’t psychoanalyze how that title fits Trump’s delusions of grandeur.) State and local leaders and well as senators and congress members have demanded the federal forces leave. Oregon Senior Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump get your jackbooted goons out of my city.”

The arrival of federal forces has completely altered the dynamic of the conflict. The protests had been geared towards Black Lives Matter and the systemic racial injustices that were highlighted by the May 25th murder of George Floyd. Even in Portland they were beginning to lose steam, as they had in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and other cities. We were trying to move to a sponsored dialogue phase of the conflict. I was working with the Department of Justice on a plan to get protestors and Portland police to the table together. Then, in a bizarre attempt at political theater (and perhaps a distraction from the unending COVID-19 headlines), Trump sends in federal forces to throw a tanker full of gasoline on to the fire. If it was his actual intention to quell the protests, he failed miserably. People who have never engaged in protests are now manning the barricades; grandmothers, veterans, dads with leaf blowers, all willing to take volleys of CS gas to the face to make a stand.

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This is now about a lot more than Black Lives Mattering. This is about a shockingly rapid slide into authoritarianism. We don’t have go back 80 years to Germany, or even 40 years to Argentina. The parallel is the Philippines, where the 2016 election of “law and order” candidate Rodrigo Duterte turned the country into a police dictatorship in which the media are regularly imprisoned. In 2017, Donald Trump praised the dictator and invited him to the White House. The people who are protesting in America understand how fragile democracy is. The Philippines was a democracy. It is not one now. Those who mocked Antifa activists for warning about the threat of fascism in America are witnessing something that looks a lot more like fascism than it does democracy rooted in constitutional due process. When Fox New’s Chris Wallace asked Trump this week if he would accept the results of the election in November if he loses, his response was that he’ll “have to see.”

So here America is at a turning point. Will we move to civil war or an era of peacemaking and healing? Are the protestors who are risking their lives to drive the federal forces out of Portland lawless anarchists, American patriots, or both? My wife and I (who were tear-gassed at an earlier protest) have stayed up into the morning hours watching the nightly mayhem in a small area of the city, wondering what’s happening to this country. Whatever it is, it’s history unfolding before our eyes. You missed Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 but you can show up to Chapman Square in Portland in 2020 for a front row seat for tomorrow’s American History textbook.

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I’m lucky to have a wide range of friends that run the gamut from U.S. Attorney’s Office civil rights lawyers and police officers to members of the “Wall of Moms” and some of those “lawless anarchists.” I have to imagine all of us are aware that this is a true crossroads in U.S. history. It’s both exciting and frightening. It reminds me of the end of the Cold War and being in London clubs as newly freed eastern Europeans danced their asses off. But it could easily go the other way as Trump’s America continues to flirt with our most dystopian dark fantasies. Police riots and “law and order” rhetoric got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, extending the Vietnam War into the mid-70s, but I think America is in a different place in 2020. At least I hope so.

This is history. Future generations will debate what happened in America in 2020. This great transformation could be a wonderful act reconciliation or the death of America itself. Pay attention. You are not required to participate in this moment, but you are required to bear witness to it.

Real Americans Burn Confederate Flags

June 28, 2020

Seeing this weekend’s vote to remove the Confederate stars and bars from the Mississippi state flag gave me a moment of hope in the progress of this once violently divided nation. The Confederate battle flag was first added to the Magnolia State’s flag, not during the actual Confederate era, but in 1894, 29 years after the end of the Civil War. It was inserted as a pro-Jim Crow protest against the Reconstructionist federal forces who were trying to integrate southern states into a nation free of slavery. We had a similar moment in Georgia in 2001, when the state finally canned the rebel stars and bars that had been placed in the state flag in 1956 to stake Georgia’s claim in racial segregation. Change happens.

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But so what? It’s just a piece of cloth. Yeah, a piece of cloth that has been a fixture at Ku Klux Klan rallies for over a hundred years. In probably the least expected “woke” move this year, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, but you’re still going to see it flying at NASCAR tailgate parties. Why are we so hung up on this red, white, and blue banner?

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Tick tock, time is up on the traitors who cling to the Confederate battle flag of the Northern Army of Virginia. (It’s not even the actual Confederate flag, but don’t expect ahistorical bigots to actually read history books.) All true-blue Americans should rip those flags off the Antebellum porches and mobile homes from across this great country and set them alight. And here’s why.

1. The Confederate Flag is the Flag of Treason

You would think that people who are still fighting the “war of Northern aggression” in their minds would actually know something about the Civil War. Without the replaying the entire bloody conflict that started before RACIST TERRORISTS attacked a United State military instillation called Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861 and ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered his traitorous forces at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, there is just one thing to remember; the Confederate States waged war against the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And the USA won. USA! USA!

To be pro-Confederacy is to be anti-USA. What do these rednecks not understand? America, love it or leave it, dumbass.

The South’s act of treason led to the death of 360,222 American soldiers from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines. That’s a hell of lot more than on 9/11. How can you “support the troops” and fly the flag of the forces that killed over 360,000 of them? Do you also fly the ISIS flag?

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There are those who claim the Confederate flag as a non-racial flag of rebellion, nothing more. I remember fairly decent white guy Tom Petty using the flag as a backdrop on his 1985 Southern Accents tour. In 2015, he declared the move “downright stupid.” “I wish I would have given it more thought, “ he told Rolling Stone magazine. A lot of people are giving it more thought right now. But if you want a true rebel flag, I’d like to suggest the rainbow flag. You wanna rebel against society, Johnny Reb? Fly that Pride flag. Be proud you’re a rebel! Let’s fill the stands at Talladega with rainbow flags! Yee-haw, girlfriend!

But it’s not a “rebel flag.” It’s a racist flag. I was doing a presentation at a high school in an unnamed town in Oregon (Hood River) and I noticed a ton of Confederate flags on backpacks and lockers and t-shirts. I asked the students why, so far from the Old South, the Confederate Flag was so ubiquitous. One young white student, said, “Well, the Mexicans have their flag. We want ours.” And when I said, “Wouldn’t the flag of the United States be your flag?” he said nothing. Because he wasn’t a rebel. He was a racist. Rebels rebel against white supremacy, they don’t wave a flag to uphold it.

2. The Confederate Flag Causes Americans Emotional and Psychological Trauma

There are approximately 42 million African-Americans in the United States (according to the 2010 Census). I’m guessing that every single one of them understands what the Confederate flag means. Well, maybe not black babies, but I bet that black toddler holding the “I matter” sign in the (Dixie) Chicks “March, March” video knows. It represents centuries of terror of white supremacy that didn’t magically end in 1865 when the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Let’s be 100% clear, race does not exist as a scientific fact. It was created by white Europeans in the 17th century to justify their superiority over other people. The enslavement of Africans was cleared by Pope Nicholas V on June 18, 1452 when he declared the people of Africa to not have souls and therefore not be fully human. The history of racism was built on the dehumanization of people whose roots were in Africa. And the history of America was built on the brutal enslavement of those people.

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And if you don’t know American history, let me tell you that that enslavement was brutal beyond belief. Rape and torture and kidnapping were “light” days in the slave trade. There’s a reason the true history of the slave trade is populated with stories of women who killed their own children to prevent them from becoming the white man’s slave. Whites love Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and the Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah happy slave. “They were better off as slaves than living in Africa,” a white person recently told me. The violent savagery of the slave trade is the worst kept secret in America, but whites today are in mass denial. Like all that brutality was wiped clean at Appomattox.

 

“Slavery ended in 1865. What are they complaining about?” “I never owned a slave. Why are they angry at me?” “Get over it!” You hear white people say all kinds of things to get themselves off the hook of their white privilege. The truth is the savage brutality of slavery, became the savage brutality of Jim Crow, and then became the savage brutality of a criminal justice system that saw a uniformed officer of the law choke the life out of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while onlookers recorded the modern-day lynching.

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To be black in America is to live with both the inherited trauma of the legacy of slavery that violently defined black men, women, and children as less than human and the present trauma of a white supremacist system that will murder you just for going on a jog. It will certainly pull you over, ticket you, deny to medical service, not give you a home loan at a good rate, make people get off an elevator that you get on, and cause Becky to dial 911 when you’re having a BBQ with your black friends. The numbers don’t lie. Racism is alive and well in every aspect of American culture, and if you forgot about it for a sweet second, there’s some idiot with a Confederate Flag decal on her Honda Accord to remind you that you can’t breathe in America.

The trauma of anti-black racism is real and deep and the Confederate flag does nothing to heal the pain of 42 million African-origined Americans. It only deepens the wound. Real Americans want to help their fellow Americans heal. We don’t support the flying of the Nazi flag because of the trauma that causes, so why do we tolerate the flying of the Confederate flag? And both the Nazis and the Confederacy had their asses kicked by the USA!

Let’s Be Clear About What This Flag Debate is About

Whenever someone says that tearing down a statue of a slave owner or removing a Confederate memorial is “destroying history,” I like to inform those people is that there is this thing called BOOKS. There’s a ton of good history alive and well in books. I just put “Robert E. Lee” in the search engine at Amazon and came back with over 8000 results. “Confederate States of America” generates over 4000 results. Confederate history is not dead, it’s growing exponentially in books.

But, but of course these people don’t read. They don’t actually care about history.

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What they care about is preserving white supremacy. They will claim not to be racists but work desperately to block every local, state, and/or federal action that might serve to dismantle white supremacy. And they’ve got a president who has promised to defend Confederate memorials and make America (white) again. But nobody’s buying it anymore. Nobody is buying the honky shuck and jive that bleats, “It’s heritage not hate!” It’s a heritage of hate. And you better see the Mississippi flag’s death as the end of your plantation fantasy. Your “Southern culture” is on the skids. You wanna “preserve” it? Write a book.

Real Americans reject the racist divisiveness of that stupid flag. Real Americans know we have to work to heal the wounds from centuries of rape, murder, kidnaping, dismembering, and traumatizing of our black neighbors. Real Americans know anyone who flies the Confederate battle flag hates all that is good and possible about this country. Let’s have a mass flag burning and out of the ashes will rise the promise of America.

And to my fellow white people, now is the time step to the right side of history and be better people. Tom Petty and NASCAR did it. So can you. It’s only a flag. You can’t destroy history, you can only make it.

It took getting gassed by the police to get it about policing

June  7, 2020

We went out of the county for a Friday night date. The next county over is in Phase 1, which means you can have drink in the radius others doing the same. It was an odd break from COVID and the daily anti-racism demonstrations reminding us how racist America is in 2020. So it seemed like an obvious date night activity to head back into downtown Portland to see how “Little Beirut” was gearing up for the weekend.

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The short version of the story is we found ourselves among a few thousand protestors outside the Justice Center, which had become a focal point of the protests against police brutality in the Rose City. The parks in front of the Justice Center are circled by City Hall, federal and county courthouses, and were the scene of a prolonged occupation during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. 

As I’m fond of explaining to the media, protests are complex phenomena with numerous types of participants, from earnest aggrieved citizens to hooligans, from career activists to agent provocateurs. And that’s just one side of the fence. So we wandered around black-clad white protestors with Black Live Matters signs and African-American teenagers, chanting “Fuck Trump!” The police, in their stormtrooper riot gear, seemed to hold the line on the other side of the fence, occasionally dodging a water bottle hurled from the crowd. We took pictures and made note of clever signs.

Then the whole thing went sideways. Concussive flash-bangs and tear gas hit the crowd. I wanted to film it but was unprepared for how the tear gas would choke me. I was blind and fell behind Andrea as we ran from the park. Fortunately, some seasoned protesters poured milk into my eyes so I could see my way out. After some marching around, some of the protest leaders (well, they had megaphones) encouraged protesters to head east, away from the hot zone where clashes with police seemed inevitable. Our car was in the other direction, so we headed back towards the Justice Center, and found a spot in front of City Hall to watch the show.

Tear gas was banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention in 1925 but it seems to still be A-OK in Portland 95 years later. We wanted to witness this moment in history and see which way it went, even if it was in a haze of fog. I thought about friends who were cops and friends who were antifa locked in this moment of change.

Just after midnight, the police made their move on the protestors, driving us through the rose bushes at City Hall and over a wall. About two blocks away, on the corner of 5th and Madison, we stopped to watch truck-fulls of militarized police deploy to launch noxious CS gas into the streets of Portlandia. I was filming and an officer, who might have been a county sheriff, pointed me out to another officer, and then he launched a gas grenade at me, my reward for flashing a peace sign. I was filming the whole time so the recording got both Andrea and I on the ground, gasping for breath. (Video below.) Fortunately, two anarchist angels were there to rescue us. From that point I just wanted to go to the babysitter and pick up our daughter.

After a very long shower (and a desire to burn our clothes), I laid awake wondering how this thing ends. Tonight will be the tenth night of consecutive protests in Portland, with surely more tear gas. Solidarity marches have been happening all over the world. There was an anti-racism march over my beloved Charles Bridge in Prague yesterday, and in Bristol, England, protesters pulled down a statue of a 17th century slave owner and dumped him in the bay. It feels like 2020, is going to make 1968 look like 1954. We are at a tipping point. But tipping to where? 1968 gave us President Richard Nixon.

The “Defund the Police!” chant is half right. We must defund the militarized police and fund an alternative model of policing. We need police. There will always be rapists and murderers who need to be caught (by detectives with dry senses of humor). But we also need social workers to address the root causes of crime before there are crime victims. There are models from around the world. British Bobbies still don’t carry guns, but can get them if they need them. The police department in Camden, New Jersey rebuilt its entire department and not only saw a 95% drop in excessive force complaints but saw a steep decline in murders. It can be done. It is being done.

The current policing model isn’t broken. It was built wrong. Detroit, Los Angelos, Ferguson, Minneapolis, have all told us the same thing. You can tweak the system and get slight changes in outcomes, but its the system that’s the problem. You can wave the banner of “community policing,” but if it’s the same armed officer harassing the “usual suspects,” nothing has changed. Our current form of policing is rooted in medieval notions of control. The root of the term “sheriff” is in the English shire reeve from a thousand years ago. Maybe it’s time to give it the old heave ho, like those folks in Bristol did to that statue yesterday.

Yeah, we need to talk about racism in America. We really need to talk about it. But we also need to talk about remaking how we police ourselves.

Best headline ever:

PORTLAND CRIMINOLOGY PROFESSOR REFLECTS ON USE OF TEAR GAS AFTER BEING GASSED WHILE OBSERVING PROTEST

 

White People: If you aren’t actively anti-racism, you are pro-racism

October 23, 2019

One of my weirdest media moments was one of my live CNN interviews. It was August 12, 2017 after the mayhem of the alt right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one anti-racist activist dead. President Trump had said there were “fine people on both sides of the conflict,” equating the Neo-Nazis, who had organized the “Unite the Right” rally, with the counter protestors. I was brought on to do the usual “state of hate” analysis. I must have been too concise in my answers, leaving space in the interview. There was a pause and host Ana Cabrera then asked, “Dr. Blazak, so if you were President Trump’s speech writer today, what would be the very first line, the first words out of the president’s mouth regarding the situation in Charlottesville if you were to advise that?”

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My friends watching said I looked like I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of being cast as Trump’s speech writer. I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I squelched the devil on my shoulder and decided to remain the professional academic. I replied:

I think it’s acknowledging the importance of diversity in this country, the fact that we are stronger together. And then we do want to come together, it’s going to take people acknowledging the history of oppression and racism that we have before we even take the next step. Sort of acknowledging that truth is key to the whole thing.

Here’s what I should have said:

Donald Trump is an idiot. At least on the issue of race, he’s a complete idiot. Not only does he not understand the very basic elements of race relations in America, he has shown no intellectual interest in understanding them. He’s not the president of all Americans, just of the ones who think like him.

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This matter resurfaces on a regular basis. From his regular proclamation that he’s the “least racist person there is,” (the least racist person would never say that) to this week’s proclamation that the ongoing impeachment inquiry is the equivalent of a “lynching.” This guy is clueless and hasn’t learned anything while being “our” president.

But this isn’t about Trump. It’s all about the white people like him who don’t understand how racism works. They think that being a racist is joining the Klan and burning crosses. They don’t understand the insidious persistence of racism in our institutions and in our psyches in the form of implicit bias. Racists are bad people so how can they be racists? They’re good!

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Sevier County Commission member Warren Hurst (an old white guy in Tennessee) is a perfect of example. At a public meeting this week, after complaining that there was a “queer” running for president, said, “I’m not prejudiced, a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day,” and then a bunch of other white people applauded.

This also isn’t about being “racist.” I would argue everyone is racist to some degree. We’ve all internalized ugly messages about white supremacy. Whether it’s white ladies clutching their purse when they see a black man, or black people placing a greater value on lighter skin, racism is the fabric of our lives. It’s there in Muslim bans, the gentrification of black and brown neighborhoods, police profiling, and the daily micro-aggressions that white people dismiss as “not meaning anything.” Racism wasn’t erased by the end of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the election of a black president, or white kids listening to Travis Scott. This is about what you’re doing about that racism.

I never say I’m not a racist. I’ve internalized white supremacist values since my childhood, but I’m working hard to purge them. I’m getting better at identifying my white privilege and recognizing when I’m practicing white fragility. It’s hard and it sucks and I can see why a lot of white people don’t want to be bothered with the disentangling that requires a constant mirror reflecting some pretty ugly shit right back at you. I never say I’m not a racist, but I do say I am actively anti-racist.

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If your core orientation, as a white person, is not actively anti-racist, you are practicing racism. Like the “good Germans” who stood on the sidelines and allowed the Holocaust to happen, you are enabling the white supremacy that exists in every corner of society. Being actively anti-racist requires that there are times when you need to shut the fuck up and listen to and honor the real lived experiences of oppression that people of color endure. Don’t speak for them, whitey. Listen with an empathetic heart.

But being actively anti-racist also means speaking up when you encounter racism in systems or people. I was inspired to write this because a good friend referred to Lindsey Graham as her “spirit animal” when he defended Trump’s claim that he was being lynched. An anti-racist person would not do that. An anti-racist white person would hear the anguish of black people with regard to the vicious history of lynching and defer to their pain. An anti-racist person wouldn’t say shit, like “Well, Clarence Thomas used that word.” An anti-racist white person would know how to hear the truth and know that they can be become a better person by hearing that truth.

I never want to hear another person say they are “not a racist.” I want to hear white people say they are actively dismantling white supremacy whenever they encounter it, including in themselves.

But part of white privilege is being lazy and feeling like you don’t have to do any work on yourself. White people, you better work.

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Stone Mountain is a rock with a lot of racial baggage: Finding solutions

November 22, 2018

Should Germany erect statues of Adolf Hitler because it’s their “history”? Is their banning of the swastika “erasing history”?

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When I was in third grade at Atherton Elementary in Stone Mountain, Georgia, if I couldn’t immediately name the three Confederate heroes carved into the face of the mountain, I would get punched. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. We moved to Stone Mountain in 1972, after a year living in Boca Raton, Florida. But before that, my family lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I quickly learned that the Civil War didn’t end in 1865, and if there was one thing worse than a “yankee” it was a “damn yankee.” The refugees of the rust belt were the new carpetbaggers.

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I loved growing up in Stone Mountain. In the 1970s, it was just starting to transition from a rural southern town to a suburb of Atlanta. We got our milk from a dairy, fished in a pond, road horses, and played in endless tracks of woods that were quickly being cutdown to make way for new subdivisions. We had brand new schools (Woodridge Elementary and Redan High for me) and new grocery stores and even a new Hardee’s hamburger joint. But there were some old demons that caught a few of us damn yankees off guard.

Let freedom ring?

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I didn’t hear Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in school for probably the same reason that (unlike other students across the country) we weren’t encouraged the watch the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. There was a subtle message that black lives didn’t really matter and neither did their experiences in white America. I saw the speech on PBS one day (a habit I picked up during the Watergate hearings) and was dumbstruck. Amid the rightness and righteousness to King’s call for a “symphony of brotherhood,” was a shout out to my podunk town. “Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” Woo!

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There was a reason MLK mentioned my town. Stone Mountain is the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. A methodist preacher named William J. Simmons saw the film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, an insanely racist epic that glorifies the Reconstruction-era Klan, and thought, “That looks like a good idea.” He assembled a group of like-minded white men, including a local quarry operator named Samual Venable, whose son, James Venable, would become the Imperial Wizard of the national KKK in the 1960s. Simmons, Venable, and 13 others, including 2 elderly members of the original Klan, climbed the mountain and lit a 16-foot cross and a new Klan (and a new Klan tradition) was born.

As a kid in Stone Mountain, it was well known that the Klan was still a presence. A good friend of mine in sixth grade’s father was in the Klan and would “delight” us with tales of nightriders who would keep the town white. There was no counter narrative about the horrors of lynchings, rapings, and sheer terror inflicted on black Americans under the Klan’s warped reign. Every Labor Day, the Klan marched through our little town before their annual rally on the Venables’ property. There was no Antifa to oppose them. The fall of 1980, my senior year in high school, as our student body experienced an increase in African-American kids, Klan flyers popped up on lockers. There was no response from the white administrators. The following fall a 23-year-old black army private named Lynn Jackson was found hanging from a tree in nearby Social Circle, Georgia. There were no marches. Everyone knew that we lived in Klan territory.

I carry great shame that as a young person I never spoke out against this insanity. The truth is I was told the Klan had my back against the “invasion” (that word should sound familiar) of black residents moving out from Atlanta, looking for a better life in the burbs. We were told they were bringing crime and lower property values. My northern-born parents would never use the N word, but I heard “jigaboo” more than once. I was conflicted but acquiescing to the Klan-view of the world was easier. I now wonder how hard it was for the black kids in my class to operate in the face of this normalized white supremacy. When one white kid did something positive, another would say, “Mighty white of you!” If you tried to reach out to a black student for friendship, you were called a “nigger-lover” (so you didn’t). I had a great black friend in my guitar class named Cheryl who turned me on to dub reggae and the very first rap records. I want to find her and beg her forgiveness for not being a clear voice against the daily micro aggressions she must have endured as a black kid in white Stone Mountain.

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Stone Mountain has changed dramatically. White flight accelerated in the 1980s and when I go back now it feels like aliens just rounded up all the Caucasians. They fled farther into the hills and complain about “what happened” to “their” town. (The truth is my old neighborhood is now a nice middle-class black neighborhood. Cars on blocks have been replaced by Mercedes and landscaped lawns.) My nearly all-white high school is nearly now all-black. My brother and I recently visited our elementary school to take some pictures and the black principle came out to confront us, probably worried that we were Aryan soldiers planting a bomb.

“Get over it!”

But Stone Mountain still has a race problem. It’s the mountain itself. Or at least the carving on it. When the Trump-hat wearing alt right was rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” they were defending a statue of Robert E. Lee. We were moving forward in our national history and putting these vestiges of our dark past in museums where they belonged. I remember thinking, “Um, we’ve got a Confederate memorial the size of a mountain to deal with. What do we do about that?”

It doesn’t make much sense to blast Lee, Davis, and Jackson’s faces off the giant hunk of granite that is our mountain. There’s some hysteria coming from white folks who think that’s even possible. These are the same white folks who, in 2008, worried that a newly elected President Obama would ban the N word and force white people to pick cotton. But those three faces loom over an increasingly black part of the country, watching over black families who picnic where the Klan burned crosses.

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Many southern whites say, “Get over it. It’s history! Stop looking to be offended!” I’m guessing that German Christians don’t say that to German Jews. These southern whites must be willfully ignorant of the centuries of rape, torture, mutilation, murder, family separation, and endless bondage that was a historical fact of the regime Lee, Davis, and Jackson fought to preserve. “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery!” these whites claim. This is the biggest lie of all. The leaders of the Confederacy made it quite clear that they were quitting the United States of America over the issue of slavery. Georgia’s proclamation of secession, signed January 29, 1861, referenced slavery 35 times. Confederate president Jefferson Davis routinely cited Lincoln’s attempt to abolish slavery as the reason for the war (as did Lincoln himself). It’s an Orwellian rewrite by whites wishing to diminish the savage and divisive nature of slavery to try to claim the war was about “state’s rights” (to preserve slavery) or the “southern way of life” (built on slavery). This what you get when people think Gone With the Wind was a documentary.

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But I go back to the trauma. The experience of that black family having their picnic under the gaze of the Confederate “heroes” who defended lifetimes of torture for their ancestors. As Dr. Joy DeGruy writes about in her brilliant book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, it is unrealistic to expect African-Americans to just “get over” the traumatizing effects of generational slavery when the reminders of that campaign of dehumanization are all around, from Confederate flags, to increasing hate crimes, to police brutality, to the simple micro-aggression by whites who deny that racism is still a problem. Black lives don’t matter. The fact that we are even having this conversation is proof.

I had a white student once tell me, “Racism ended in the 1960s. Black people are just complaining now.” I responded, “What day? There must have been a day that racism ended, so what day? I mean we should make that day a holiday! The day racism ended in America and black people just started complaining. What day was that so I can mark it on the calendar?” He didn’t say anything after that. If these white people (and they aren’t just in the South), bothered to ask an actual black person about the persistence of racism, their fragile picture of a “post-racial” America would crash.

Transforming a mountain

So what to do about Stone Mountain? Nobody’s going to blast off any faces. Half of the guys up on Mt. Rushmore owned slaves (Washington and Jefferson). Do they get blasted, too? These whites who worry that any of this is “erasing” history obviously don’t know what the fuck a book is. There are thousands of books on the Confederacy. But don’t worry, those three ghosts will be on that mountain long after we’re all gone.

My solution has always been to add to the carving. Leave Lee, Davis, and Jackson up there, but add Martin Luther King, Jr. to the mountain. He’s from Georgia and it was his “I Have a Dream” speech that put my little town on the map in a way the KKK only dreamed about. Maybe a larger MLK wagging is finger at LD&J or just looking down on them with pity. Racist rednecks can have their carving and African-American families can be reminded that progress happens. This country is not stuck in the past.

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I’ve been hanging out on a Facebook page called I Remember Stone Mountain When… It’s populated by those of us who grew up there and it’s mainly reminiscing about cruising the K-Mart parking lot or eating fried catfish at Rio Vista Restaurant. But bring up the issue of race and suddenly we’re back on James Veneble’s property with crosses burning. I’ve been called a “stupid liberal” more times than I care to count, just for asking people to acknowledge the truth about the carving and the pain it causes.

Amid all the yeehawing about “preserving our heritage” and my failed attempt to raise the issue of white privilege came the most sane rational post from a guy named Tom Malone;

May I invite you, gentlemen, to join me in an idea I’ve been developing over the past few years? To enhance Stone Mountain Park by making one of its missions to serve as a center for racial reconciliation. How? Not by removing anything, but rather by adding statues, historical markers, and a museum, etc. honoring and remembering the contributions, sacrifice, and suffering of the slaves who were also an integral part of the Confederacy. This way, the WHOLE story would be getting told, and we could all go there for honoring, reflecting, and reconciling.

Bam. There it is. Problem solved. The carving stays as a recognition of the horrific sins of the past and our dedication to right those wrongs. We desperately need a real national conversation on race and Stone Mountain, Georgia could be where this could happen. It’s not beyond the pale that Johnny Reb embraces the depth of his implicit bias in the shadow of Jefferson Davis. And it’s entirely possible that little black boys and little black girls may be able to transcend the trauma of racism from a mountaintop in Dekalb County where the KKK burned its first cross. That would be the realization of Dr. King’s dream. There have been incredible racial reconciliation projects in South Africa, Rawanda, and the former Yugoslavia that have brought real healing. We need this in America and we could start it in Stone Mountain.

It’s so funny when I hear white people blather about “heritage.” If you are a European-American, your heritage includes everything from Neanderthals to the Renaissance. The fact that you fixate on the disgusting eras of slavery and Jim Crow says an awful lot about your values. You know what is a part of your “southern heritage”? The civil rights movement! Where Americans put their bodies on the line to fight for justice and equality. Preserve that history. Be proud of that history.

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In 1997, Stone Mountain elected its first black mayor. Mayor Chuck Burris ended up moving into the house once owned by KKK wizard James Venable. To bring the point home, Burris put a freedom bell in the town square to celebrate the progress of MLK’s dream. That’s the Stone Mountain I love. I don’t have to wax nostalgically about fried catfish in the good old days. Stone Mountain’s good old days are straight ahead and I’m proud of where it could go. I have a dream, too.

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Stop saying racists are bad people

 

September 21, 2018

I had a realization of why it’s so hard for people, especially white people, to deal with the reality of racism. It’s because we have a stock image of who the racist is. It’s that sociopathic redneck waving a Confederate battle flag or Nazi skinned who screams about sending non-white people “back to where they came from!” Wrong. The racist is the person reading this (and writing it). It’s not the Klansman that is the problem. As Pogo Possum once said, “I have seen the enemy and it is us.”

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It’s another example of binary thinking. It’s so easy to think of racists as “bad” people and therefore we’re the good people. It gets us off the hook of our own internalized and unchecked racism. So let’s deal with this here and now.

We’re talking about two kind of racists here. The first is our cartoon character white supremacist who actively believes racism is a good thing. I’ve spent 30 years interviewing these people and believe me, they are proud to be identified as racist. Thirty years ago they’d go on Geraldo and Oprah and rant about preserving the white race. Now they are rallying at alt-right gatherings, blathering about “European chauvinism” and “Western supremacy.”

The other type of racist is the rest of us. We honestly believe racism is wrong but we have internalized the basic values of white supremacy. It could be something as a basic idea of what a “real American” looks like. Or it could be the impulse to clutch your purse when a black man is walking by. Research on implicit bias has shown how deeply this unexamined racism runs. It manifests in hiring decisions and picking the candidate who just seems a “better fit,” as well as when police officers pull the trigger because they perceive a “threat” that is subconsciously influenced by the color of someone’s skin.

I need to say this implicit bias also encompasses those who are actively anti-racist in their orientation. I was dropping off my daughter at pre-school. There was an African-American teenage boy in a hoodie on the sidewalk, staring at his phone. “Oh, what’s up with this?” I thought. I walked my daughter quickly past him. Turns out he was waiting for the school bus and I hated myself for the racist impulse, wondering if he picked up on my “white fear.” My wife was watching Cozy play a game on the iPad and noticing how she routinely picked the blonde white girl avatars, leaving the brown and black characters unselected. Research has shown us how early kids pick up on these messages, in homes with black or (in our case) brown parents. The white doll is more valued than the black doll, because black is “bad.”

Whenever white people say, “Well, minorities can be racist, too!” (as if to say it’s OK that I’m racist because they are), I like to tell them, “Yes, but not in the way you think.” Research shows that they value whiteness over their own racial group. They’ve internalized the same white supremacist ideas that whites have. Just look at who the media promotes as “beautiful” in the minority communities. The lighter the skin, the better. Latina beauty magazines still advertise skin lightening creams. Barak Obama got a lot farther then Jesse Jackson in politics and many believed it was because Jackson was “too black.” I would ask my students the question, if love is blind, why do more interracial marriages have a black husband and a white wife than the opposite? Because black men have been taught to value white women just as white men have. It’s all rooted in the white supremacist belief that white is better. Everyone is infected with racism. Malcolm X called it out it 55 years ago and we’re still wrestling with it now.

Every time a white person says, “I’m not a racist, but…” it’s always fun to call them out on their obvious racism. But maybe that should be a moment of self reflection instead of another “us vs. them” binary. You might not have said that, but I know you’ve thought that. Just yesterday a black woman threw some liter out of her car window, and I thought, “Oh, black people.” I’m admitting that. I had a friend who recently told me that he was caught off guard by his impulse to immediately judge a white woman with biracial children. I wanted to tell him I’ve done the exact same thing.

It’s not us and them. Just us. Our county was built on racism. All men were not created equal based on the “Godly” laws of our founding fathers. Our story is rooted in genocide, slavery, and systematic exclusion. Our national anthem was written by an anti-abolitionist slave owner. The state I live in, Oregon, was founded as a “white only” state. You might want to pretend we live in a “post-racial” society (“But y’all had Obama!”), but these sins run right to the marrow of our bones. We can’t talk about “racists” as if they are separate from us. Donald Trump is a racist and so am I.

We are racist. Let’s fix it now.

What Do We Do About the Nazis After Charlottesville?

August 11, 2018

How much has this nation changed in one year? In the wake of the murderous rampage of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve seen an increase in hate crimes and a white supremacist administration who complains about “shit-hole” countries in Africa, puts brown kids in cages, deports asylum seekers, and threatens to revoke the green cards of legal immigrants. Oh, and white nationalists are marching on our capital. Are the racists winning?

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A year later the same “Jews won’t replace us” thugs who marched in Charlottesville are on their way to the nation’s capital and the city is bracing itself for more right-wing violence.

I’m in Washington, DC, participating in some events in response to the second “Unite the Right” rally. Part of this was appearing at a teach-in to counter domestic extremism. It was organized by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Right-wing extremist expert Leonard Zeskind spoke about the roots of white nationalism. I was part of a panel entitled “Developing Effective Responses to Eliminate Hate,” featuring Dr. Wes Bellamy, Vice Mayor, Charlottesville, VA, Lecia Brooks from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Monica Hopkins, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, D.C., Tony McAleer, Board Chair of Life After Hate, and Chris Magyarics, Senior Investigative Researcher at the ADL. It all ended with a mighty 45-minute sermon from Rev. Dr. William Barber II that made me feel like I was sitting in the lap of God.

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Teach-ins and sermons are great, but this one had the ears of members of Congress and you felt a shift.

The question is – What do you do when Nazis come to your town? This event is one response. You organize to educate and embolden the resistance. Sometimes the batteries of social justice needs to be recharged and there’s nothing like a few rousing political speeches and a sermon from on high to get folks back on track. Otherwise, what’s on TV? A body can waste precious hours scrolling through a Facebook feed when it could be engaging with minds in a room with other folks who have the same end goal. It’s so easy to be distracted these days but to be in a synagogue full of people bending the arc of history towards justice seemed a good way to spend a Friday afternoon.

We use these words now – build community capacity. By educating people to the threats present, both existential and physical, but also about what has been done and can be done, you build a resilience. A resilience to say no (again) and resilience to do what needs to be done (again). Fighting the forces of oppression is a marathon, not a street battle. (Sorry, Antifa.) As Rev. Barber said last night, if you really want to fight racism in America, get serious about fighting the voter suppression by Republicans that silences minority voters.

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A point I made at the event (which made it out over the C-SPAN airwaves), is that I don’t want to play Wack-a-Mole with alt-right “Western chauvinists” (formerly known as neo-Nazis). I don’t want to have to plan my weekends around what they’re latest stunt. That lets them drive the narrative. It hands the power to organized racists. “Well, I was going to go hiking this weekend but the Patriot Prayer is having another rally so I have to go downtown and tell them they’re idiots.” Not gonna do it.

Instead, let’s do this work everyday in our communities, in our schools, in our places of worship, and our workplaces. And in our leisure time as well when our friends say something bigoted and think we won’t call them on it. Building community capacity is a full time job but it pays off in numerous ways.

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First and foremost is food. What brings people together more than food? Last week in a Portland park their was an immigrant family having a picnic. Some uppity white lady told them that they didn’t belong in this country and to “Go back where you belong.” Another white lady told uppity lady to leave them alone. She shut the bigotry down. Then the community, an area called Rose City, came together in a unity rally to support the vulnerable in their community. There was music and food. Lots off food. I stuffed myself with tamales. A local ice cream truck rolled out and gave away free scoops. Community capacity is delicious.

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Not in our town – strength for our neighbors

(For the next section of the blog, I’m writing at the Starbucks at the Trump International Hotel. You know, for irony. #Portlandrepresent)

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The second; community gatherings build capacity by linking us together as neighbors, not in front of screens, but face to face. As much as I appreciate a live tweet, the hugs shared last night were more encouraging to keep up the fight than I might have guessed. This includes from veteran social justice warriors that were in the trenches when I was a wee pup to high school kids who earnestly asked, “How can we do this anti-racism work in our school?” More hugs would be a good place to start.

The truth is liberation work is hard. And it’s a thousand times harder for people of color than it is for me. I can “turn it off” and go back to my white privilege bubble and say, Yeah, I’m a gonna take that fight on next week. It’s hard because requires dedication to see the subtly of oppression, including our own internalized white supremacy. It’s hard because, at times, the Trump white nationalist march to make America 1850 again seems unstoppable. And it’s hard because some of your allies will try to pull you down, like crabs in a barrel trying to stop another crab from lifting itself out (to help free all the goddamn crabs).

I posted a link to C-SPAN feed to the teach-in on the Coalition Against Hate Crimes Facebook page and this was the first comment.  You still hang out with Nazis on weekend to “create dialog”? A dismissive white dude as Chair of OCAHC is still a bad look, I could care less about your credentials. The average POC has far more expertise on this subject matter. I had to check my white fragility because my impulse was to fight. Instead, I replied,  I’d love to buy you a coffee one day and tell you why I think my work is important. And you can tell me what you think I can best do to help the cause. (Still waiting for a response.)

This is a marathon. Let’s build each other up instead of tearing each other down.

Cut off their oxygen 

Alt-Right Organized Free Speech Event In Boston Met With Counter Protest

The third benefit of the community building is it deprives the hate machine of fuel. The alt right is actively recruiting young white males who have no sense of connection. If you are alienated, you will join any group that says it  will build you up, and that’s exactly what thuggish groups like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa do (and your traditional street gang or cult, for that matter). It’s not the racism that attracts whites to the groups. It’s not understanding the social and demographic shifts that they are living through and the only ones who are explaining the “whys” to them are “Western chauvinists.” It’s not surprising that they are attracting lots of white guys who think everything was better in a mythical past. “Again.”

If we have strong communities where neighbors know neighbors, including that new family from Syria or El Salvador, the alt right hate spin has less pull. Those targeted people, even older white men with beer bellies, are less alienated and less likely to fall for the simplistic rhetoric of the far-right. I think everyone wants the same thing, to live in a (tag Paul McCartney song) peaceful neighborhood. I don’t need to join an extremist group. I have friends and neighbors I care about and I’d rather defend them against the threat of your extremist group, thank you very much.

I won’t speak against the people who will show up to directly confront the alt right boys this weekend in Washington, DC, Charlottesville, and wherever else they are seeking photo ops. Those counter-protestors are willing to risk their necks to say that fascists are not welcome and don’t represent the true direction of this country’s future. I’ve spent plenty of time on the frontline. It’s both exhilarating and righteous. I hope they get lots of pictures of these “patriots” so they can be shamed back under their rocks. But I also want to reach out to these alienated folks, who seem so full of anger, and invite them to our side, where we are less alienated and there’s better food. Some of the most committed anti-racists I know are former members of the hate movement.

Tonight there is a vigil in front of the home of alt right godfather Richard Spencer in Arlington. Maybe someone will invite him out for some pho or tapas. Maybe Spencer will be a “former” on the second anniversary of the Unite the Right march that led to the death of Heather Heyer. Maybe he’ll be on a panel in a synagogue asking for forgiveness and permission to join our marathon.

How do we respond to Charlottesville? Some liberal hippie once said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Let’s start there.

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What I’ve Learned about Countering Violent Extremism (is the opposite of what I’ve been told to believe)

August 3, 2018

I’m pro-radicalization. I want to radicalize people to be critical of power structures and constructs. I want them to ask questions about government, gender, guns, and Genesis. I want them to dig deep and talk to people outside of their comfort zone. I want them to show up on the front line. I want to admit that they can be well-meaning but wrong.

The latest buzzword in my academic field is CVE – Countering Violent Extremism. It basically represents a constellation of various strategies to prevent people from becoming violent religious and right-wing extremists. (I can already hear right-wingers asking, “But what about violent left-wing extremists?” To which I would say, “Touché.”) It is inherently of value to people like myself working to reduce hate crimes. My first exposure to this work was this spring when I was flown to the Middle East to participate in a United Nations/Haditha program to explore the role of gender in CVE.

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In those three days, I heard zero about surveillance or government programs to profile Muslims. I heard from ex-jihadists and ex-skinheads and people working in community-based groups to rescue teenage girls who thought running away to Syria to become a bride of an ISIS fighter seemed kinda cool and rebellious. I was honored to be in their company to talk about the my research on the role toxic masculinity plays in right-wing extremism.

So when I got an invite from the U.S. Embassy to be a part of a “CVE Community Leaders Exchange” in the United Kingdom, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I had presented on confronting hate crimes to the British delegation when they visited Portland earlier this year and now ten of us, from Portland and Seattle, would be on a ten day trip to talk to community agencies in Luton, London, and Leeds, England. (Why didn’t we get to go to Liverpool?) The Portland delegation was four folks who work for the city, including a police captain who heads the youth service division, and me, representing the Coalition Against Hate Crimes. The Seattle delegation had a similar mix of city officials and community advocates. The trip, organized by a non-profit called Cultural Vistas, would allow us a chance to observe important community work on the issue.

To be clear, I think most of the people in our group had no interest in “CVE” anything, and were motivated by learning how community groups help young people. As a criminologist, this was my connection to the whole thing.

Off to the UK

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Our first stop was three days in Luton, England. Luton had been a hotbed of activity for the right-wing, anti-Muslim English Defense League (EDL), as well as Al-Muhairoun (ALM), the Islamacist group that had been linked to several terror incidents including last summer’s attack on the London Bridge. We spent our days talking to people who are working to divert youth from this type of extremism. This included teachers at the Al-Hikmah School and Mosque, and youth intervention workers, and Carnival mask makers, scholars studying right-wing nationalism, and a group called the Luton Tigers who gets kids on the football pitch as an alternative to radicalization. The young imam at Al-Hikmah explained that the best way to strengthen their Muslim faith was to clarify the teachings of the Koran, which are in direct opposition to the call for violence.

What I learned right off the bat was that all this work was done by committed community leaders desperately working to help young people make the most of their lives instead of becoming Nazis or jihadists. Instead of talking, these people were doing. Unlike their critics, they were actually working with those most at risk. I didn’t see one single covert government plot unfolding or double agent spying for MI5. I just saw motivated people putting their shoulder to the wheel.

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Then we headed down to London where I slipped off to a “Free Tommy Robinson” rally in front of Scotland Yard. Robinson is the nationalist leader of the EDL who was jailed for contempt of court. The small crowd of rabid older white blokes (many in Trump hats) wanted their Islamaphobic leader released and, briefly, set on me for holding an anti-Nazi sign. It was a reminder of how important this work was as a British member of parliament had been stabbed to death by one of Robinson’s followers, while he shouted, “Britain first!” (And five police officers were attacked at the rally I attended, making it all even more dire.)

While in London, we had a long morning in the basement of the Home Office (essentially the UK’s Department of Justice) learning about modifications to the Prevent program, Britain’s primary CVE program. The initial rollout went all kinds of sideways, with some horror stories of Muslim kids being wrongly profiled and thrown onto “Terrorists!” watch lists. We got the government line on the attempt to overcome the “toxic” branding of the program with a more bottom up, community-based model, which is what we witnessed in the field. Maybe it was the English accents, but it felt a little bit like we were sequestered in the inner sanctum of the Orwell’s Ministry of Information, so we asked the hard questions about CVE and civil liberties.

What we heard in Luton, London, and Leeds, was that when you asked critics of the Prevent program what should be done to divert youth from violent extremism, their answers were exactly what Prevent was doing in 2018. There was just an awareness gap. The program needed a PR campaign, said we Americans who know the value of a good advertising budget.

After our morning at the Home Office we had another community meeting at the new U.S. Embassy building, followed by a reception. Other than having to walk past a giant grinning photo of Donald Trump (who was having his secret meeting with Vladimir Putin as we walked in), everyone was completely hospitable and happy to host our delegation. When I lived abroad, I was always mindful of where my embassy was just in case things got weird (or I lost my passport). It was a true thrill to be inside. We took a group photo and I posted it online. From Stone Mountain punk to American diplomat. Kinda cool.

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That’s when things got strange. A friend who works with the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Portland began posting on Facebook that we were complicit in some anti-Muslim governmental “training.” It just seemed silly at the time. I had just been watching the World Cup with the Muslim founders of the Luton Tigers. My only training was in what team to cheer for after England was knocked out of the cup. (France?) There was a hysterical storm brewing back in Portland, but we continued on. Most assuredly there are folks in the Muslim community who have been burned by “CVE” efforts in the past, but it wasn’t what we were seeing at all. There seemed to be a disconnect.

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Up to Leeds, where I had last been in 1982 to see the Rolling Stones play. We did some fantastic site visits to communities that are on the front lines in the battle for souls. We visited a domestic violence shelter where a bad-ass Bangladeshi sister works to counter violent extremism by teaching men how to respect women. We went to a refugee service center where committed activists work to counter violent extremism by plugging migrants into the needed resources to build secure lives in their new home. We went to the Makkah Mosque where leaders from the local Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh communities talked about how strengthening faith networks worked to counter the pull of violent extremism. And we ended up a in a community center in the Harehills, the poorest section of Leeds, talking to a cop named Ash. Ash had, with the help of the neighborhood kids, built this center with his bare hands to create a meaningful community-based way to counter violent extremism. Four walls, two floors, plus a gym and football pitch, just from the energy of his desire to create alternatives for young people. Wow.

In none of these experience was there anything about surveillance or undermining the civil liberties of any group, especially Muslims. There was only committed community activists, including police officers and imams, who were going above the expectations of their role to give youth an alternative to become violent nationalists or jihadists.

Fake News?

So imagine my surprise when I was contacted by young journalist at a Portland weekly, the Portland Mercury, asking what was going on over there in England. The folks from CAIR had her ear and there must be some conspiracy afoot because anything associated with the government is inherently oppressive to minorities, right? I tried to let her know that our trip was nothing of the sort and was motivated by learning how to protect those communities from the rising tide of hate in America. I even sent her some boring pictures of the delegation sitting in various settings, listing to community presentations. Those pics weren’t used.

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The Mercury’s piece was entitled, “City Officials Attend a Conference on Controversial Anti-Terrorism Surveillance Strategy” (with a creepy stock photo of someone doing some lurking). At first I laughed at the sophomoric reporting. There was no conference, just a series of community meetings. And, again, the issue of surveillance was never even on the table. How to get girls to play soccer and how to get boys to not join Nazi gangs were. That wasn’t headline grabbing, I guess. What Portland readers got was more hysterical knee jerking that conflated old and dealt-with criticisms of the UK’s Prevent program with Trump-era Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism strategies. Suddenly, I was a part of Trump’s Muslim profiling thought police! And my friends at CAIR were convinced that I was either an agent of the Trump regime (Have they read this blog?) or a dupe of a massive Alex Jones-level conspiracy.

The whole charade has been deflating. It insults the efforts of those who are committed to do this work to protect youth and their communities as well as the delegation itself. I spent 10 days away from my family because I wanted find strategies to help Oregonians be safe from the wave of hate that has surged under the Trump presidency, targeting, among others, the Muslim community. The city workers and police in our delegation all had the same goal – find what works at preventing people from going down the rabbit hole of extremism and hurting (and killing) our friends and family. Certainly research must be done on what strategy is the most effective, but we saw plenty of anecdotal evidence on how small groups of people can change the world.

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The other piece of this is locked into the binary thinking that breeds hysteria and, dare I say it, fascism. Here we have the simple good vs. evil duality. Reality is alway more complex. There is a large voice in Portland that thinks anything associated with the government is evil. All cops are evil and, I guess by extension, all equity workers for the city are evil. It requires little effort because everything drops into their binary paradigm. Just post an article from a few years ago and you’ve “proven your point.” Understanding the real world takes effort. First hand contact implies risks to challenging your perfect perspective. I can think all Trump supporters are “crazy racists.” Actually talking to them might upset what “I KNOW.” The Portland and Seattle city workers on this trip impressed me with their desire to work for social justice. And my conversations with Prevent coordinators in the UK (who were not white people, by the way) made it clear that Prevent had to make up for its past mistakes and rebuild trust with all the communities it serves. They were ready to do that heavy lifting, not from behind their laptops, but in the streets of some of the toughest streets in England.

The hysteria of the Mercury piece and those that still think we were all on some Trump secret mission threatened to affect important community relations in my city. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the local police bureau has engaged in numerous outreach efforts with the Muslim community and there has been a meaningful flow of good will and joint efforts to work to protect those communities. I have been a part of much of that work and it flies in the face of the “Cops suck” chant from the teenage anarchist crowd that gets so much attention. I wonder if my colleagues at CAIR have any practical ideas on how to fight extremism. I’m hoping it’s not more division between “them” and “us.” As much as I respect their work, I would inform them that there is only us.

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Like the local leaders I met in the UK, we will continue to strengthen those community relations, build local capacity, and help young people build the strength to resist. Resist. This resistance builds bridges, not more walls. It smashes ignorance (on all sides) with truths. We fight hate by reaching out to our critics to find a common path forward. We’re in this together.

In the end, the trip really wasn’t about “CVE,” but BCC – Building Community Capacity. I learned some good lessons that I can’t wait to share.

 

We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

See No Evil

There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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