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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Thinking about Racial Reparations

June 10, 2018

Growing up in the Deep South you get to hear white people say a lot of foolish things. Things like, “I never owned a slave, why are black people angry at me?” And “racism ended with the Civil War. Black people need to get over it!” In 1992, a white student of mine at Reinhardt College (in rural Georgia) said this to me; “Racism ended in 1865. Black people are just complaining.” I asked him, “What day? There had be a day when there was racism and then a day when there was no racism that we can celebrate. There should at least be a stamp or a commemorative plate to honor the day that racism ended and black people just started complaining.” He had no response.

Unless you are Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “least racist person,” you know that racism didn’t end with end of Confederate slavery in 1865. It folded into brutal lynchings and the madness of Jim Crow, and then institutionalized into the “war on crime” and every type of systematic racial bias you can imagine; housing, health care, hiring, and on and on. People of color know this in 2018. White people, not so much.

Obviously, this country still needs to have an on-going conversation about race, not a one-day Starbucks seminar. Having a successful black president for eight years didn’t solve the problem and kicking Roseanne Barr off ABC didn’t solve the problem. White people can’t switch on a Beyoncé song and proclaim themselves woke. I think some whites are figuring that out. But if you want to talk about racial reparations, all that white liberal wokenness goes right out the window.

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I was one of those who was leery of the call for reparations for a crime from centuries ago but I should have not been so fragile. For decades I have lectured about the legacy of slavery and how the psychological effects of the enslavement of an entire race are still with us all, including with African-Americans. It’s not just rednecks waving the Confederate battle flag, declaring, “the South will rise again!” (That’s code, y’all, for bring back slavery.) It’s not even the persistent brutality towards young men of color by police. The dehumanization of the people of Africa is manifested in daily life. If you are black and your last name is Jackson or Lincoln, you family history starts with slavery. (Something those named Obama could sidestep.) If you’re black and worry that you’re not light-skinned enough or don’t have the “good hair,” that legacy is there. Do you think there might be a price tag for all that trauma?

Another thing you will hear white people say is, “Well, black people can be racist, too!” This is true but not in the way my cracker brethren think. Black people don’t think white people are inferior, but many think black people are inferior. Studies have demonstrated that many African-Americans have internalized the racism that the world has laid on them for centuries. Just ask a little black girl which is better, the black doll or the white doll. “Black is beautiful” tried to undo the imposed self-hatred but it’s still a light-skinned black person’s status that reminds those who are “too black” that not much has changed.

I was lucky enough to (briefly) serve on the dissertation committee of Dr. Joy DeGruy at Portland State University. She’s the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing and it needs to be assigned reading for white people. She outlines the gut-wrenching inhumanity of slavery and how those deep psychological traumatic wounds are passed down from generation to generation. That blacks are savages, rapists, thugs, or (as Roseanne just tweeted) apes deserving of what pain comes their way persists to this minute. Where is the class action suite on that?

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There is a young black activist in Portland named Cameron Whitten who has really forced me to take the issues of reparations seriously. We are a long way from “40 acres and a mule,” but there are real ways we can talk about making an amends today for the sins of the past. He has started to host “reparation happy hours” (now “Power Hours,” since it doesn’t have to involve alcohol) where white people who get it can contribute to gatherings for black people. At these gatherings black people can build community, political agency, and, yes, leave with a little bit of cash. (There is something poetic about black people being handed a ten spot with abolitionist Alexander Hamilton on it.) It doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of slavery but it’s a powerful symbolic act that has real, tangible value.

Of course the right flipped their shit. Fox News tried to paint Cameron as a huckster, playing on white guilt to put money in his pocket (a thought I probably have been guilty of in the past). For the record, he is doing this as a non-profit called Brown Hope. Still, the troll army came after him, lampooning the idea of racial reparations. “Get over it!” they screamed. “You had Obama! What more do you want?” Whitten appeared on a local NPR show last week and calmly laid out his case. I was in my car listening and a big ol’ black light bulb lit up over my head. It made perfect sense. Reparations are not some type of sociological blackmail and it is time to talk about it without fear of attack from the same old defenders of white supremacy, be they Fox News trolls or white liberals.

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Think of being black in America as an invisible tax. Whether it’s the poorer health outcomes that come from discrimination in the health care system or decades of tobacco companies targeting black communities with their cigarette ads. Think of lost wages from job discrimination and lost wealth from housing discrimination that has prevented African-Americans from buying homes. (From 1934 to 1968, less than 2% of FHA loans for homes went to people of color.) Think of the cumulative stress of “driving while black” in a country that still sees police use-of-force disproportionately targeting minorities, not to mention all those traffic tickets I don’t have to pay because I’m not the one who is racially profiled. I could go on and on to the break of dawn, but I think you get the idea. There is a financial cost to being a person of color (this goes for brown, red, and yellow people, as well). This is a cost that I don’t have to pay and it translates to more money in my pocket. According to one measure, “for every dollar owned by the average white family in the United States, the average family of color has less than one dime.” My white privilege obscures the real reasons for this massive imbalance but it’s as real as the balance in your bank account.

We can’t undo the hell of racism in one happy hour or one generation. But we can acknowledge the price of racism financially. Don’t expect there ever to be a tax on white people to right the wrong. (You think racists like Trump are popular among “undereducated” white folk now…) But white people can think of ways to give to people of color in meaningful ways, even if it’s just supporting a black-owned business or buying someone lunch. Let’s deal with the actual cost of being black in America.

 

Our White Supremacist President

January 16, 2018

President Trump enjoyed his Martin Luther King Day off like he enjoys most of his days on, playing golf. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, those working and those not, were left wondering, just how racist is our president?

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore. And it’s not one comment here or there about African shitholes or Haitians all having AIDS. It’s his entire life. In 1973, Trump was sued by the Nixon administration for refusing to rent his properties to black tenants. His very public campaign for the execution of the black and brown teenagers, known as the “Central Park 5,” who were later exonerated through DNA evidence, wasn’t met with an apology by Trump. Instead he doubled down on his belief in their guilt. And of course there was the bizarre “birtherism” campaign he led to “prove” America’s first black president wasn’t actually American.

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There are numerous examples of this even before his 2015 campaign declaration in which he proclaimed that Mexicans were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.” That was the the moment, from my little room in Mexico, I wrote the piece “Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy” that helped put this little blog on the map. It might be inappropriate to say the world has given Trump enough rope to lynch himself, but, good God, how much evidence is enough? His caricatures of Chinese businessmen? No? His Muslim ban? No? His demanding that those black “sons of bitches” in the NFL stop protesting and get back to performing? No? His proclamation that there were “fine people on both sides” of the Nazi/Anti-Nazi clashes in Charlottesville? No? How many examples do you need of him devaluing non-white people and their lived experiences with racial injustice?

I’ve been asked numerous times, including by the media, if I think Donald Trump is a racist. I always try to side-step the question. Honestly, I don’t know what in the man’s heart, other than Big Mac residue. I try to make the point that he’s just ignorant of the reality of racism in this day in age. He’s lived his life in a bourgeois bubble and the only brown noses he knows have been firmly placed in his ass. He hasn’t had to know about the persistence of racism and, like many white people, probably thinks the problem was solved at some point in the 1960s by nice negroes and the benevolent white people who took pity on them.

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But screw it. No more pussyfooting around. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know it when I see it and Trump’s obviousness about this is as big as the Stay Puft Man in Ghostbusters. He’s not only a racist, he’s a Stay Puft white supremacist. And the people that still defend him are his racist enablers. This isn’t just a sad statement of the president’s bigotry. This man has power over people’s lives. Just witness how he threatened to deport the brown children and young people in the DACA program while he threw a tantrum over his racist comments being leaked to the press. I don’t doubt that he thinks lobbing a few nukes at North Korea will help him bounce back in the “ratings.”

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The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s saw upwards of six million members across the nation (including here in Oregon). Their main rallying point was not the “negro problem,” but immigration. They promoted  “100% Americanism” and opposed immigrants “flooding” in from non-white countries as well as Jews and Catholics arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland. The Klan was a powerful political force in America, electing congressmen, senators, and governors (including here in Oregon). Their great victory was the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924. Johnson-Reed put strict quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, while encouraging immigration from Northern European countries like Norway and was on the books until it’s repeal in 1965. In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon in Brietbart, future Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an effective immigration plan. So, to be clear, the 1920s Klan wanted less immigrants coming from “these shithole countries” and more coming from Norway. Does that sound the least bit familiar?

This isn’t just me jumping on the shithole bandwagon. Trump is a textbook racist in so many ways that future textbooks on racism will be dedicated to him. But I’d like to focus on just a few, what I call Triple D racism; denial, defensiveness, and denigration.

“I’m the least racist person there is.”

Usually, when someone says, repeatedly, that they are not something, they are. But this is more than that. People who are actually anti-racist do not say they are not racist. We grow up in a racist society and we internalize that racism. I never say I’m not racist. I oppose racism but I still have racism in me and I am actively working to purge it. Like a recovering alcoholic who never says they are not an alcoholic, I will always be a racist.

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The least racist person there is would never say they are the least racist person there is. They would say they are racist but they are working every single day to rid themselves and their world of racism. Have you ever heard Trump discuss his white privilege or his implicit biases? No, of course not. What has he done to dismantle institutional racism or even his own internalized racism? I mean besides eat a Taco Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. Anyone who believes Trump’s claim to be the least racist person is as ignorant as he is about how racism actually works.

He should spend sometime with real white allies in the struggle against white supremacy if he wants to know how to sound less racist. He’s not even a good con artist.

“So much Fake News is being reported.”

Trump is a big baby. An orange snowflake. Instead of doing the people’s work, he spends his time on Twitter whining. This is a common reaction when white people get called out on their racism. They (we) reactively go into defensive mode. “I did not say that!” “I’m a good person!” “You’re lucky to have me!” This guy doesn’t see the opportunity he has. He’s too busy circling the wagons so he can kill some injuns.

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Racism is a deeply rooted facet of our society. Each time it appears in front of us there is a learning opportunity. Remember when President Obama hosted the “beer summit” after a white cop thought black Harvard professor was breaking into his own house? That’s how you do it. Trump could have made serious points here but instead he read through some staff-written script to honor MLK and then split for the golf course.

White people, listen to me! When you are accused of being racist don’t get all defensive and shut down the dialogue. Repeat after me. I’m sorry. Please help me to see this issue the way you see it. I want to understand this complex and traumatizing issue through your eyes. Thank you for helping me to grow and be a better person.

Can you imagine Trump saying that this week? There’s a better chance he’ll release his taxes.

On the attack

Of course what Trump does best is go on the attack and hit back “ten times harder.” A year a go he was attacking civil rights icon John Lewis for failing his “crime infested” congressional district in Atlanta (which we Atlantans know is one of the nicest, most livable parts of the entire South). Now he’s going after “Dicky” Durbin for spilling the beans on his latest locker room talk. Remember when, during the debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a Russian puppet. His response was, “No, you’re the puppet.” That’s the third-grade level of thinking going on here. Na na ni boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

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Trump and his troll army at Fox News are deft at attacking their critics. Unleash the MAGA drones and make all opponents’ lives hell. (It’s the main reason I declined to appear on the Tucker Carlson show last month.) It serves to silence dissent and protect his authoritarian approach to governing. Trump is already pushing to revise federal libel laws so he can go after tell-all authors like Michael Wolf, whose best-selling book, Fire and Fury, paints a more than unflattering picture of Trump and his dysfunctional White House. Hell hath no fury like a small-handed rich guy scorned.

Getting it

It’s crystal clear that, when it comes to race, Trump just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. This a guy who in 2014 tweeted, “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at highest level?” Um, you could totally have a show called Whiteish. How awesome would it be to have a sitcom that confronted issues of white privilege? (ABC, I’m available to write it.) But Trump’s brain farts are a great example of dichotomous lower-revel thinking.  Nuance must just sound “French” to him. As a rich white guy, he doesn’t get the race problem because he’s never had to and as president he could, but he’s got a tee time at 1 pm and then there’s all his “executive time”  he needs to catch up on Fox & Friends. Courting his racist base makes him feel more secure in his own racism. Merry Christmas!

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama promised more dialogues on racial reconciliation under their administrations and both failed miserably. But just the idea that white people need to take part in exploring how they benefit from racism, even if they are the “least racist person you ever met,” was a start. The white people who don’t want to be bothered with such silliness are now driving the nation. An NPR/Harvard poll last fall found that 55 percent of white Americans now feel whites are discriminated against. This is Trump’s base and they want to make America 1924 again.

If we hope to move forward, we’re going to have to talk our way out of this shithole. The sad part is that our president is an obstacle not an ally in our struggle against racism.

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Look out, I’m about to use the “N” word. Appropriately???

December 15, 2017

So much of this year has been about checking myself instead of wrecking myself. Maybe 90% checkin’ Donald Trump, 10% checkin’ myself. Is my implicit bias in play? Am I playing my male privilege card? Am I making heteronormative assumptions? Is my allyship performative? Am I expressing internalized racism? It can drive a nigga crazy.

Much of the work in 2017 has been confronting the rise in “polite racism” in the mainstream, from the “white nationalist” bullying by the alt right to the plantation talk of our more orange-than-whte president. But some of it has been done in the mirror. I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of the “N word,” not by Trump supporters or racist skinheads or rappers, but by me. I don’t ever us it as a pejorative. I was called “nigger lover” often enough as a white kid in Georgia who refused to board the cracker train to know when that word is used to hurt. But just the fact that I could use it in that sentence I just wrote, points to the shield of my white privilege.

There’s also a lot of talk this year about “triggers.” I’ve discussed it with regard to rape culture. A rape victim is not going to watch Saturday Night Fever (or Game of Thrones) the same way a non-rape victim will. We are better now at understanding the reality of collective trauma holding people back in their footsteps. Assholes call people who care about such things “snowflakes.” Decent people understand that being aware of triggers is practicing empathy. Well, I’ve been a bit slack with the n****r trigger. My white privilege says it’s not my problem. It’s just a man-made word.

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Because I’m an academic who studies racism and, specifically, white supremacism, I assume people know my anti-racist agenda and that that somehow permits me to use racist language when I am “making a point.” I remember one time in a criminology class I was teaching at Portland State when I was going off on how horribly sexist and misogynistic it was that the term “pimp” was being exalted in pop culture. This was somewhere between the time of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and “Pimping” your MySpace page. I was trying to make the point that the sexual exploitation of women by pimps was not that different than the dynamic of slavery. So I said, “Pimps have their ho’s, just like slave masters have their niggers.” Yep.

Two young African-American male students looked at me like I just pushed a TNT plunger. Now, aside from the fact that there is a world of sociological difference between a poor black street hustler and a wealthy slave-holding plantation owner, I thought I had carte blanch to use that word, because I’m, you know, down. In my Intro Class at Emory I’d make students mix tapes with The Last Poets’ “Niggers are Scared of Revolution” or would bust into random lyrics from NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” “A young nigga on a warpath, and when I’m finished it’s gonna be a blood bath.” Because I was making a point. About racism! John Lennon and Patti Smith recorded songs in the 1970s using that word, why couldn’t I use it too? (Answer: They were established artists making powerful statements to large audiences. I was a grad student.)

The thing is, I have never heard that word the way my black students heard it. And they were hearing it from the mouth of a white man. It’s gonna sound different. It’s gonna carry more historical and cultural weight. It’s gonna hit harder. Somebody on Facebook can call me an idiot and whatever. If my father calls me an idiot, it’s gonna be a gut punch. Context matters, even if you are a dope-ass woke white brotha. You don’t get a pass. Even if you went undercover to study racist hate groups, you don’t get a pass. Even if you voted for Obama (Twice!), you don’t get a pass.

I would justify it by saying these obviously smart black students understood the role of context, the point I was trying to make. I make a similar case about the “F word.” If I say, “F word,” nobody is thinking, “Gee, which F word does he mean? Fellatio? Feminism? Furby?” No, it’s fuck. So if I say, “the N word,” the word “nigger” is magically placed inside people’s heads, so why not (in the proper context) just say it? The reason is that is sounds differently in one’s head when it came out a white man’s mouth first.

 

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I always loved the bit from comedian Lenny Bruce from the early 1960s about the “N word.” It was recreated brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 movie Lenny. Bruce just starts using the word in front of a live audience at a comedy show. Then he starts adding other racial slurs, kike, mick, wop. His point is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power to hurt and maybe we should take those words away from the racists.(Paging Dr. Foucault.) Comedian Richard Pryor did that as well. When I was a kid in Stone Mountain, we’d secretly listen to his comedy albums, including That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger. The difference was Pryor was black, Bruce was not. Then, in 1979, Pryor went to Kenya and wrote, “There are no niggers here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” And he vowed never to say the “N word” again.

A lot of white people wonder why black people can use the word when they can’t. They want to rap along to the same Kendrick Lamar songs but they might have to censor themselves if in mixed company. “I’m the realest uh huh after all. Bitch, be humble.” Again, context matters and it’s complicated. Part of if is black people reclaiming the word from racists and getting a slice of privilege because whites can’t say it. Lenny Bruce was right. You can reduce it’s power to hurt, but you can’t remove it. The other thing is that things are different inside the family. I used to call my little brother names all the time, but if you called him names, oh, we were going to have a problem. Whether it’s “nigger” or “nigga” (Tupac turned it into an acronym for Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished), context matters. Whose mouth it is coming out of matters. Intent matters.

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When I was in grad school, I read the the late great Dick Gregory’s 1964 autobiography, Nigger. It’s about the struggle to overcome the worst Jim Crow America had to offer. In it he writes, “Those of us who weren’t destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we’re ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. Nigger.” I began assigning another autobiography to my students soon after that, Malcolm X’s. One of the most powerful lines in that 1965 book was when Malcolm asks a black audience, “Do you know what they call a negro scholar? Ph.D.? Professor? They call him a nigger.” This is not just a slur. You can’t even compare it to “kike” or “wetback” (also assaultive words). It’s a word with centuries of brutal oppression woven into its six letters. You just don’t throw a word like that around.

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In 1990, my roommate and I went to go see Public Enemy perform in Atlanta. (Opening acts: Heavy D & the Boyz and MC Hammer). Two white guys at the Omni Colosseum in a sea of black hip hop fans. We heard, “Hey crackers!” a few times. My first thought was, This what it must be like for a black guy to be at a Garth Brooks concert. But then I realized those two words are in no way equivalent. One word was sort of classist, and the other had centuries of genocidal violence and institutional disenfranchisement behind it. There were no black nightriders burning down the homes of cracker families to discourage then from getting too uppity.

I’m teaching two sections of Intro Sociology at Portland Community College this winter and I’m assigning The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I thought that, in the wake of Black Lives Matters and Trump’s racist plantation rhetoric, it was time to return to its vitally wise pages. But I won’t be using the “N word” to make any points. People of color are experiencing enough collective trauma right now in Trump’s America, enough deja vu, with out me adding one more pin prick to the daily tally of micro aggressions and macro assaults. They’re not snowflakes, but enduring humans. My apology for using that word, even in “context,” doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of the result. I’ll quote a white guy who once said, “Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” I know there are some white people who are just so sad they can’t say it. It’s complicated. If you can’t figure it out, best leave it alone. Just don’t say it. Now about that “B word.”

NOTE: I’ve already gotten shit from well-meaning white people for using the “N word” in this post. I’m gonna guess that 100% of African-Americans reading this will get the point. White radicals, I’m shooting for a 65% comprehension rate.

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Donald Trump as the Slave Master of the Black Athlete Plantation

September 29, 2017

Sports can reveal so much about where we are in American racial progress: Jackie Robinson, the Mexico City Olympics, Derek Jeter dating white women. White sports fans have made themselves the referees for what black athletes are allowed to do to move the racial equity ball down the field. And they’ll be more than happy to shut down a spectacular rush. And that’s the end of my sports metaphors.

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Enough has been said about Trump’s weird obsession with “ungrateful” NBA players and “ungrateful” NFL players. Except for white people who are in deep denial, anyone that has followed Donald Trump from his Central Park 5 ad, through his relentless Obama birtherism, to his comments about the “fine people” in Charlottesville, knows the man is a racist. He’s the modern kind of racist who says, “I’m the least racist person on earth. I have black friends!”

The way to frame the “I’m not a racist, but…” racism that is flowing down from the White House and across the Facebook feeds of white America is to think historically. They want to make America great again. And for “again,” let’s choose 1857. This was a time when one in four white families in Virginia owned African slaves. And, like the NFL, the best team owners made the most money. There were over a hundred planation owners who owned over a hundred slaves each. The slave labor on those plantations generated millions of dollars in revenue for the white elites, and it wasn’t just cotton sales.

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First, let’s get this out of the way. The NFL kneeling protests have nothing to do with the flag or the anthem. They are about the persistent problem of racism in America, especially with regard to policing. Trump and his army of racist overseer trolls can try to spin it anyway they want, but it’s about racism. (Trump lamented that white NASCAR drivers don’t bother us with this nonsense.)  They can act all butt-hurt about how much the flag means to them, but it’s not about the flag. It’s a common racist trick to make any unwanted racial protest an “attack on America.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1960s were routinely called “communists” who wanted to “destroy” America. Trump’s pathetic attempt to make this about the flag only reinforces the fact that this is about racism. “It’s not what the black people say it is. It’s what I say it is.” And I could spend thousands of words talking about how we disrespect the flag on a daily basis. Ever seen a Kid Rock concert?

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President Trump has fashioned himself as the ultimate plantation owner and these negroes better get back to work. He (and white America) owns them.  Black players are chattel. Trump’s Treasury Secretary,  Steven Mnuchin, made that clear on ABC’s This Week when he said, “They have the right to have the first amendment off the field.” As if the Constitution is suspended when the beasts are on the field. I guess these black bucks should be “grateful” that Trump is giving them their first amendment right when they aren’t picking cotton.

Obviously, racist whites don’t like any type of black protest about the persistence of racism, whether it’s a football player peacefully kneeling during our national anthem, written by a slaveowner, or Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully marching down a street. Racist whites didn’t like it in the early 1950s, when Trump said America was “great,” and they surely don’t like it now, after a black president. Racism has been solved and these blacks are just being ungrateful, right? They should be grateful “we” freed them, right? (Does “we” include the white guys waving Confederate flags? Post-racial America is so confusing.)

I spent some time on sports discussion boards this week, trying to get the pulse of the hard core sports fans. There was a lot of anger at Trump for inserting his weird version of patriotism into a multi-racial game, loved by many demographics. (Ask some of my Mexican family members about the role the Dallas Cowboys plays in their lives.) Many even recognized that when Trump referred to the protesting black players as “sons of bitches” to a roaring crowd of white supporters in Alabama, he grabbed a third rail. The mothers of football players are beloved, much more than ratings-obsessed politicians. There were obviously a lot of racists posts that moderators were working overtime to delete. However, plenty of “I’m not a racist, but…” posts slipped through.

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A trip through Twitter was more revealing. Not that these knuckleheads are actually going to do it, but a survey of #NFLBoycott posts was pretty harsh. Plenty of discussions of “ungrateful niggers.” And how much “we” pay them to entertain, not annoy, us. One white Facebook friend said she almost walked out a restaurant because they had an NFL game on. Of course she didn’t and if she did it would have had zero effect on the NFL or the need to solve America’s racial issues. But the blatant racism on Twitter has certainly been given a green light by Trump and his call to have these ungrateful negroes fired from their jobs.

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The term “ungrateful” is key in this issue. White men earn their income. Eli Manning earns his $21 million dollar salary. Black men are given their income. They should be grateful for their millions. I don’t have millions. Who are they to complain? (The average player in the NFL makes $1.9 million, so there are a majority of players who are not getting payed millions to cover Matthew Stafford’s $27 million dollar salary. If fact take a look at the 15 top paid players in the NFL. Thirteen are white guys,)

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Another friend on Facebook, who was angry about these “ungrateful athletes” said, “But we pay them millions!” (Something one of the indigent white hosts of Fox & Friends also claimed.) I asked, “Who is ‘we’?” Nothing. But the message was clear. White people pay them and the team owners own them. The don’t own Ton Brady, but they own Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and any other black player raising a fist or taking a knee when they should be picking cotton and swearing allegiance to the the slave owner’s anthem.

In my nearly thirty years of research on white supremacists, one of the recurring themes is the anger directed towards African-Americans who made more money than them. In my original study of skinheads in Orlando, Florida, racists were completely obsessed with the fictional middle-class Huxtable family on The Cosby Show. Their parents had been laid off from a Florida textile mill, but every Thursday night there was this black family on TV that had everything they thought they deserved. “What’s wrong with this picture?” I remember one saying in 1988. During that study, the movie Mississippi Burning was released. There’s a powerful scene in it which Gene Hackman’s character is trying to explain the racist white mentality to Willem Dafoe’s character. It perfectly summed up the skinheads I was living with and many of the NFL fans burning Colin Kaepernick jerseys (who, apparently, has not punished enough).

Donald Trump clearly has a number of personal issues wrapped up in this circus act, including his legacy of driving the USFL, a football league meant to rival the NFL, into the ground. His Twitter barrages rile up his under-educated white base while distracting the country from his numerous legislative failures. Perhaps there’s also some admiration for Rocket Man Kim Jong Il. Nobody takes a knee during the national anthem in North Korea. Trump doesn’t have his dictatorship (yet), but if he can get enough of his knuckle-dragging followers to demand that these ungrateful savages be fired from jobs they’ve worked their entire lives to have, he can call it a win.
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Ratings for all sportscasts have been on the decline for the last few years. It’s because young people would rather watch YouTube videos instead of sports, not because a handful of athletes want to make a peaceful statement about the race problem in America. Watching these idiots burn their sports crap in protest reminds me of the same idiots who burned their Beatles albums 51 years ago because someone told them the Beatles believed they were better than Jesus. (John Lennon had just tried to make a valid point about the declining role of religion in young people’s lives, but DJ’s in Southern U.S. states and the KKK didn’t care about context.)

Racism is real and continues to traumatize Americans on a daily basis. A black millionaire football player is still a black man in America. Malcolm X once said, “You know what a white man calls a black man with a PhD? A nigger.” And here we still are. Those who are peacefully protesting racism by kneeling are honoring the flag and the men and women who died for the right that gives them the freedom to do it. They are the patriots, not Trump and his racist cult.

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Charlottesville: America’s fork in the road

August 15, 2017

Chaos theorists talk about bifurcation points in our human history when everything changes. The invention of agriculture around 9,500 BCE that allowed nomadic people to  (literally) put down roots and build civilizations. The invention of the wheel around 3,200 B.C.E. that allowed us to travel and trade with other civilizations. The invention of the modern computer around 1950 C.E. that allowed us to process masses of information in a non-linear way.

The carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia feels like a bifurcation point. If not for the world, then for America. Are we going to descend into a fascist state or are we going to wrestle the reins of our democracy away from torch-carrying “proud boys” and their enabler-in-chief?

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When I began my research on white supremacist extremists thirty years-ago, they were purely a fringe phenomenon. There has been some serious actors, like The Order, that funneled millions of dollars from violent heists to folks like David Duke and the Aryan Nations, in hopes of funding a race war. My guys were mostly 17-year-old knuckle-heads who were angry that their parents had been laid off from the local textile mill and the only source of an explanation was the White Aryan Resistance. For years, my work was focused the alienated few who took their righteous anger in the wrong direction. It was always fascinating and good fodder for cable crime programs but never seemed to have much value in the analysis of mainstream culture (as much as I tried to link the two worlds). Nazis were an anachronism. A comic footnote in our progressive history.

That’s until Donald Trump decided he wanted to be president.

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The images of Charlottesville, with hordes of white men carrying torches, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” was shocking enough. That they were defending a statue of the traitor Robert E. Lee was beside the point. But then we saw the video of one of those neo-nazis, James Fields Jr., driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and seriously injuring many others. Even though this was a tactic utilized by ISIS around the globe, President Trump refused to call it an act of terrorism. In fact he refused to call it much of anything, bemoaning that there was violence on “many sides.” Two days later he retweeted a post asking why the media had covered this but not the “9 deaths” in Chicago that weekend. Because, you know, black people.

Unravelling the Alt-Right knot

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Those on the racist right get fairly regular public make-overs. In the late 1980s, Louisiana Grand Dragon David Duke took off his Klan robe and put on a Brooks Brothers  suit (and got a nose job) and ran for president of the United States (as a Republican). He didn’t win, but he did get elected to the Louisiana state legislature for a term. White supremacists have become white separatists and then white nationalists. It’s all the same racist ideology. I was doing live commentary for local news station during a large alt-right rally on August 6. One of the attendees said he was a “western supremacist.”

My first thought was, “Well, west coast is the best coast. So am I!” But then I realized he meant western civilization supremacist. He was a white supremacist.

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There’s a lot of people who are attracted to the alt-right message who are not white supremacists. Local alt-right organizer Joey Gibson is not even white. He just loves Donald Trump. A lot. He seemed to be caught off-guard by all the Nazis that kept showing up at his “free speech” rallies and is now fashioning himself as a “moderate Libertarian.” But the Nazis still show up whenever he holds a rally. They want to complain about immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, and feminists and anything else that bugs white men that day.

For the last ten years the alt-right has been primarily an internet phenomenon. Those who felt the most conservative Republican was not conservative enough. They found a safe space on the web, including on Breitbart,  4Chan, Reddit, and the DailyStormer.com. They’ve been able to find a place to talk about the “liberal (Jewish) media,” how much they hate the women on The View, the threat of “Sharia Law,” and Trump’s favorite drumbeat, that President Obama was a Muslim, not born in America. Going to a Klan rally has its risks, but sitting in front of your laptop, kvetching about Beyoncé all day is easy peasy. (You know she hates white people, right?)

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The campaign of Donald Trump, with all its white supremacist dog whistles, brought these trolls out into the sunlight. Now they’re in the streets ready to preserve the macho tradition of the white men who “built this nation” by beating up a few “communists.” (Last season, they were all “anarchists.”) They’ll go to liberal bastions, Berkeley, California or Portland, Oregon, or the University of Virginia because they know they’ll generate a strong response. And if some anti-fascist kid punches one of them in the face, they can further their wimpy cause that white men are the “victims” of the multi-cultural shift in America. Boo hoo, poor oppressed white men.

There are legitimate social issues that people have a right debate: immigration, trade policies, when religious freedoms bump up against existing laws, free speech. On the Glamor Shot surface, that’s all these alt right blokes are doing. It’s just a public conversation. But you barely have to scratch the surface to see what the truth behind this phenomenon is. Drop into AltRight.com’s editor Richard Spencer’s Twitter feed on any random day. Or pretty much every thread on Reddit’s “alternative_right” page or the incredibly sexist “Politically Incorrect” forum on 4Chan. How did these dorks become part of our mainstream political discourse?

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There are two very real threats from the alt right. And I mean very real.

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The first has to do with our alt-right president, who rode to power by championing the issues of these quasi-fascists, including bringing some of them into his White House men’s club. (You think Steve Bannon is a right-wing nut-job, spend some time with Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant.)

The rhetoric of the alt-right is that America is being ripped away from white men by all these enemy forces; Muslims, Jews, feminists, homosexuals, liberals, Mexicans, Chinese steel, and Korean smartphones. (It’s so much easier to just say “communists.”)  The Charlottesville marchers chanted, “You will not replace us!” After all, it’s good to be the king of the hill.

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The problem is, they are sort of right. White males are a shrinking percentage of our nation of immigrants. The U.S. Census Bureau has stated that by the year 2050, the proportion of Americans who are non-white will be be greater than the proportion that is white. If you believe this is a “white man’s country,” there’s reason to panic, because your vision is fading away. While most of us not only accept the demographic shift, we celebrate the added diversity, these guys want to go back in time. Push back against the hordes and make America great again. That’s why they voted for Donald Trump. What looks like an attempt to even the playing field to the rest of us, looks like oppression to them. They needed a “strong leader” who will stop this “political correctness.” Merry Christmas, motherfuckers!

Obviously they are going to lose. They can have all the tikki torch marches they want, but they can’t stop the browning of America. There is not a single family fleeing the violence of El Salvador who is saying, “We can’t go to America. They have racist Twitter trolls!” BUT, with friends in high places, the alt boys can hope Trump and his alt-right handlers can dismantle democracy just enough, and gerrymander a few more swing-state districts, that America starts to look like the country after the Klan helped push through the Immigration Act of 1924. It’s not an impossible vision. Neither is A Handmaid’s Tale.

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The McVeigh Threat

The other is what happens when the alt-right coup plan fades. There is a direct parallel  with the militia movement of the 1990s. Like the alt right, people (men) were attracted to the militia movement for a number of reasons, including gun rights, land use issues, and a general hatred of paying taxes. A bit further down it became a hatred of the federal government who had control of these issues. The next step on the flow chart was the arrival of the conspiracy theories. Republicans and Democrats and the whole ball of wax were controlled by the Freemasons or Illuminati. (The left tends to go for Reptilian aliens or the Koch Brothers.) A bit further down that conspiracy becomes anti-Semitic. America was controlled by a Zionist occupation government. (ZOG!)

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At that bottom of that dark funnel were the revolutionaries who believed a second American Revolution was needed to replenish the nation and rid the country of its Zionist masters. This was Timothy McVeigh’s intention when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare facility. The alt right has its own McVeighs who believe the exact same thing. Jeremy Christian, the Portland Max train murderer idolized McVeigh as a true hero. At his arraignment, Christian shouted, “You may call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!” Just yesterday, the FBI thwarted a plot by an alt right follower named Jerry Varnell to explode  a van in Oklahoma City to jump start McVeigh’s race war.

The more people you bring in at the top of this funnel, the more revolutionaries you end up with at the bottom. The question is, what will be the body count from these McVeighs as they realize that Trump isn’t going to deliver 1924 America to them on a silver platter? Will they force their race war on us? And if so, can I go ahead and enlist with the Black Panthers?

Why seekers flock to Nazis and Trump

People want to make sense of a confusing, chaotic world. The pace of change is accelerating. The old order is unrecognizable. Transgender bathrooms, bilingual signs at Home Depot, and a new iPhone when you haven’t even gotten the old one yet. It’s dizzying. Some one thinks your racist because you said, “All lives matter,” and you didn’t realize you were supposed to ask when pronouns people prefer. Wasn’t “queer” a bad word? People of color not colored people. I get it. It’s a lot for a privileged person to keep up with.

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Both Trump and the Nazis speak to this sense of normlessness, what sociologists call anomie. People need a frame to put all these images in and Trump and the Nazis do it. It’s a simplistic worldview of good versus evil and the only reason it’s confused is because of the fake or Jewish media. But don’t worry, Trump and the Nazis will explain it for you. It’s all a big conspiracy meant to deprive the average white (male) person from his natural position in the status quo. As Trump opined today, what are they going to do next, take down statues of George Washington? He owned slaves! (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t actually that Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general who was defeated by the United States.)

Once you have the analysis provided, the second part of the appeal is the action plan. What are you going to do about it? The white nationalists in Charlottesville clearly stated they wanted to take their country back. From who? Trump says he wants to make America great again. When was that? These are not even thinly veiled calls to return America to the days before civil rights movement upset the straight white male apple cart.

Step one: Provide the analysis. Step two: Provide the action plan. Step three: Unleash the hounds.

Life in Alt Right America

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Saturday afternoon I was hosting a hate crime forum in downtown Portland, co-sponsored by the Department of Justice. Peoples’ phones started buzzing and attendees began to ask, “Have you heard what’s happening in Charlottesville?” Afterwards I was whisked off for a CNN interview where I was asked what I would say if I was Trump’s speech writer. Over the next 48 hours I did dozens of interviews about the alt right (including with Turkish TV). There were two things on my mind. Could this please wind down before I take my daughter to Disneyland for her third birthday? And how did this weird little fringe group I started studying thirty years ago become mainstream? (I woke up this morning to MSNBC giving their audience a primer on neo-nazi groups and symbols.)

We are at a crossroads in America. It is obvious that President Trump just does not get it. He does not get the real trauma cause by racism in America. He does not get real threat posed by domestic terrorists, like James Fields, Jr.. And he does not get that people trying to stop fascists are not somehow equally threatening as the fascists themselves. His only response to this horrific trend should be to purge all the alt right bozos from staff. He needs to admit that he made a mistake and that’s he’s instituting a course correction for the country.

But he won’t. He never admits mistakes. That takes an evolved person. He’s the mayor of Simpletown. The alt right loves him and so he loves the alt right (and it’s clear that Trump is afraid of his alt right handlers). They will go on a road of destruction together. The destruction of the core values of this country. The question is – will the rest of us go down it with them?

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Note: This isn’t the most cogent piece I’ve written. I tried to zip if off between TV and radio interviews, a Canadian film crew in my house, and Cozy jumping on my back over her excitement about meeting Minnie Mouse this week. Also, the sun is going to disappear. But you get it, I hope.

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An Anarchist and a Cop Walk Into a Bar

May 4, 2017

Little Beirut: It’s not completely untrue that May Day in Portland, Oregon is more celebrated than Christmas Day. May Day marches can bring thousands to the streets to show support for workers’ rights around the globe and whatever issue has people’s collective goat that spring. My first Portland march was in 1996 and there were some signs protesting Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence and Bill Clinton’s deregulation of the internet mixed among the calls for worker solidarity. I had my union card in my pocket and probably a Smashing Pumpkins song in my head.

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Portland has long skewed left-of-center. If you’re a registered Democrat, you’ll likely get sneers, not from registered Republicans, but kids in Che Guevara t-shirts. The city was dubbed “Little Beirut” in 1990 by a member of the George H.W. Bush administration after Vice President Dan Quayle came to town for a fundraiser at the Hilton. There had been several anti-Bush demonstrations between 1989 and 1991, but this one unfolded in true Portland style, with Reed College students vomiting in red, white, and blue up-chucks and a man taking a dump on a picture of the Vice President. Now that the city has a rad nickname, each generation of radicals feels the pressure to raise the bar.

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The first May Day of the Trump Administration put Portland back on the CNN map. An initially peaceful protest Monday was quickly hijacked by Black Bloc anarchists, garden-variety trouble-makers, and probably a few agent provocateurs. By afternoon there was a fire burning in the middle of 10th Street, the windows of a cop car had been knocked out, and some 22-year-old  “revolutionary” smashed out the window of the downtown Target and threw a lit flare into the store full of people. I don’t think this is what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote that capitalism “sows the seeds of its own destruction.” The Portland Police Bureau declared the formerly permitted march a “riot” and most peaceful protestors got the hell out of the sustained barrage. Even Portland State cancelled some evening classes, perhaps depriving some students from a lesson on what anarchy actually is.

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Look, I get the excitement. I have all Rage Against the Machines CDs and used to play them really loud and scream along. “Fuck you, motherfuckerrrrrrs!” I was a punk in the early 1980s and spray-painted my fair share of anarchy symbols around Atlanta, including on a daycare facility. (I’m so sorry about that.) I even took a swing at a cop once. It was after a Clash concert in 1982. After the show, a brawl erupted in the sweaty summer street in front of the Fox Theater between members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and some Nazi-wannabees. Everybody else, charged up by the combat rock (The Clash’s final song was “I Fought the Law”), jumped in. Peachtree Street was full of punks and cops on horseback and 18-year-old Randy, who thought punching a police officer was the appropriate thing to do in such a setting. Luckily, I missed the guy who had more serious threats to attend to and I went off to the punk club and bragged about rioting in the streets to anyone who would listen.

There is a psychology of these events. Lord knows how many we’ve had over the decades. Social scientists have long looked at how angry mobs take on a life of their own and how a “herd mentality” emerges. When a like-minded crowd, excited about roughly the same thing and dressed similarly (whether its sports fans or black-clad anarchists), get together, there is a tipping point where the rational individual mind shuts down and the emotional collective mind ramps up. This is especially true when there is outside confrontation, usually with the cops. And it has to be added that most of the rioters are males acting out a hyper-masculine script in their “us vs. them battle.” I’ve seen it first-hand plenty of times and have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed for my observations. “Smash the state! Quick, lets get a selfie first.”

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Monday’s riot took Little Beirut to a different level. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of the police. Law enforcement officers had everything not nailed down thrown at them, including rocks, bottles, and fireworks. Besides the shop windows that were smashed and the bike tires that were slashed, “KILL COPS” was spray-painted on a street sign. I know these folks are opposed to the militarization of the police, but they’re pretty much encouraging the militarization of the police. It makes you think some of these supposed radicals are on the payroll of a defense contractor.

If you’ve read this blog you know that I’m anti-fascist. And the Trump presidency has moved this country closer to fascism than it has ever been. I also think intellectual anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, offer a path away from oppressive social systems. I get the antifa philosophy of “countering” fascism directly. (The FAQ on the Rose City Antifa website fairly clearly articulates their positions on the matter.) My whole life has been dedicated to countering neo-Nazis. I risked my life for years studying Nazi skinheads to learn how to do this. And I learned the best approach is to turn a Nazi into a former Nazi, not beat them into submission. That tends to have the opposite effect.  I’ve been to Klan rallies, Aryan Nations meeting, and had a couple of skinheads plan to severely beat me in a Portland strip club. I know Nazis and the Portland Police are not Nazis.

Kendra

Like most metropolitan police departments, The Portland Police Bureau has had its share of issues, including the shooting of unarmed African-American citizens. (Every time I pass the spot on the Skidmore Bridge where Kendra James was killed in 2003, I get a chill.) And there was one officer who was probably a little too fond of Nazis, which didn’t help the matter. In 2000, the city commissioned a panel to study racial profiling and found, surprise, the bureau did engage in racial profiling. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city because of police interactions with mentally ill civilians and the Portland Police are currently engaged in reforms based on the DOJ settlement. That’s a good thing. We’re moving forward together.

There’s no doubt that racism is an issue woven within the institutions of our society, including the various institutions of law enforcement, that devalues non-white lives. Based on our actions, the evidence is clear; all lives don’t matter. But there’s a seriously wide continuum between old school Bull Conner racist cops and harm done by seemingly invisible implicit bias. Post-Ferguson Report, these issues are now out in the open. Although, I don’t have much hope that our new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, will continue the reforms being made in police oversight.

I know an awful lot of Portland police officers who don’t go to work every day to prop up capitalism or put down the little guy. The officers I know have more of a social work approach to policing and probably have more in common with the core values of true anarchists than the “boys in black” might guess. (I will exclude the “Anarchy!” thugs who just want to “fuck shit up” from this observation.) Sgt. Pete Simpson is the Portland cop you always see on TV talking to the local media. He’s a friend and former student of mine and I asked him what he would want the anarchists to know about his line of work:

SgtP

“I have been a police officer for nearly 23 years and I have worked with cops from all across the United States. Never once have I met one that said they look forward to going to work to support corporate America and oppress minorities. Quite the opposite really. Most officers I’ve ever been around want to go make their corner of the world slightly better every day — and a lot of those corners are occupied by local businesses and people of color who officers work to protect and serve. At a core level, officers might philosophically agree in some ways with “anarchists” about the things that are wrong in the country — but police officers have a different approach rather than to slash and burn.”

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I also know many anarchists and former-anarchists. They are on their own journey to make sense of the world how to most effectively address the serious problems we face. Like the Nazi skinheads I’ve studied for 25 years, some get pulled into a simple world of black and white with a subsequent action plan of “destroy everything and hope something beautiful arises from the ashes.” When I was 21, that seemed incredibly appealing and romantic. As a 53-year-old parent, I know the black and white analysis (“Capitalism is always evil!”) is problematic, at best. (Starbucks is not 100% evil. I’d say only 40-60% evil, depending on my need for caffeine.) I also know it’s better to get inside the machine and “fix shit up.” Maybe I’m just an optimistic 50-something, but I believe real reform happens.

There was a moment before one of the many Portland marches against George W. Bush’s pointless 2003 invasion of Iraq. We were making signs in the Park Blocks and a young anarchists with a red bandana over his face asked the crowd for some good quotes for his signs. I offered a few. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem,” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and a few others. He scribbled them down furiously. “These are perfect! Who said them?” he asked.

“An anarchist named Ronald Reagan,” I said. He was not amused.

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Anarchism is a legitimate and important philosophy. I’ve taught its basics for years in my Contemporary Theory class. I’m guessing the rocket scientist who tried to set the Target on fire on May 1st would not pass the test on the subject. When people hear the word “anarchist” now they just think of violent thugs who want to murder the members of our community who work in law enforcement. Black Bloc might not all be agent provocateurs on Trump’s payroll, but they sure are reinforcing Trump’s narrative about the “violent left.” Not the best strategy of creating support for social change. Cool, in a Rage Against the Machine/rebellious youth sort of way, but not effective in reality. The 25 “protesters” who were arrested in the riot can only claim to adding fuel to the fire driving the drivel on Fox News. Capitalism remains unfazed.

On May 2nd, I was having an email chat with PPB’s chaplain. He had a little anecdote that said so much about the situation. “This morning at coffee I had a conversation with a young women who is friends with many of the Antifa people, and who was asking about racism and police brutality.  I think, from a honest position, her friends claim that there is out of control police brutality. And that none of the things the police claim are true, like destruction of property, aggressive actions, etc..  She came over to me and the officers seated at coffee with me and just didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.”

Karl

What if we got the anarchists and cops in a room together? What could they learn from each other? It might serve to humanize both sides. I was on one side of the “battle” until I started actually listening to people I thought I was somehow fighting. Turns out we’re all on the same side. As someone who has pretty much read everything Karl Marx has written (The picture of me at his grave in England in 1991 will surely surface if I ever run for office), let me end with a quote; “Let us seek our salvation through solidarity.” I promise that’s from Karl and not Ronald Reagan.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize this blog post might annoy some police officers AND sone radicals. If that’s so then my mission as a teenage anarchist is complete. Now dig this song.