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.

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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:

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“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.”

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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.

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Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist

July 12, 2016

Let me get this out of the way first – Rudolph Giuliani is a first class idiot.

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If you are white, I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try.

This has been a rough week in America’s tortured history of race relations. Two years after Ferguson (one of the first things I wrote about in this blog), we thought we’d be a little further down the road; not living through even more stories of police, caught on camera, killing black men. And then Dallas happened, a massacre that could only described as a hate crime. What is happening to us?

A lot of white people are freaking out. They think it’s suddenly open season on them or “their” police. They are desperate to blame Obama, or Black Lives Matter, or civil rights, or Beyoncé. They bleat, “No, ALL lives matter!” perhaps not realizing that they are only adding fuel to the fire and making things worse. Many of these people don’t actually care about all lives. If they did, most of these root problems would be long gone. These are the same people who think saying “Happy Holidays” erases Christmas. Yet they are willing to erase the real lived oppression of their fellow non-white Americans. Confronting the complexity and history of racism in 2016 America (and their role in it) is too hard and scares them right down to their tighty whiteys, so they bleat about “all lives,” like they give a rat’s ass about what is happening to black lives and the very real trauma of endless systemic racism.

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Hey, if I say, “Northern White Rhinos matter!” it doesn’t mean that other types of rhinos don’t matter, but there are only 10 white rhinos left on the whole fucking planet. You get that, right?

A lot of white people hear “Black lives matter” and their fragile egos hear, “ONLY black lives matter.” Either they’re suffering from delusions of persecution or a fear that the hell foisted upon minorities in America is coming back to haunt them. Stop. There is no “only.” It’s all in you messed-up mind.

The Point of BLM

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The point of “Black lives matter” is that all lives matter, including black lives. But those black lives have been devalued since the founding of this country. First it was slavery. Then it was Jim Crow. Now it’s the institutional racism of the criminal justice system and the informal racism of bigots, like Giuliani (and plenty of liberals), who pretend to be colorblind.

Any social scientist will tell you that every major institution in America suffers from racial bias. Just Google, “predatory lending and race.” We dump our toxic waste in black parts of states and defund job training programs in black parts of cities. Racism permeates the education system, the financial industry, housing, urban development, hiring, Hollywood, and, perhaps most of all, the criminal justice system.

Every step of the justice system demonstrates racial inequity. From who gets pulled over, to who gets arrested and when force is used. It’s in who prosecutors charge and how they charge them. It’s in who judges sentence and how long they get sentenced. There is racial bias in corrections and in parole. Every single step of the way. Whether were talking drug sentencing or the death penalty, there is no debate that blacks get it worse. Dr. Devorah Pager’s famous 2003 study found that whites with a criminal record had an easier time finding a job than equally qualified blacks without one. I could show you a hundred studies like that.

Every single African-American understands this. Most white Americans either don’t or choose to somehow justify it.

This racism knows no class boundary. Just ask a rich black guy who drives an expensive luxury car how many times he’s been pulled over. Of course, if you can afford a good lawyer, you might avoid the rest of the criminal justice nightmare.

So I’m thinking this is a good time to think about some other folks. I’m thinking about black friends, and, after Dallas, I’m thinking about my law enforcement friends. And I’m really thinking about the two worlds my black law enforcement friends navigate. I don’t want to listen to people try to rationalize the killing of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile. (“They were thugs!” If police can kill thugs without due process maybe we should start telling them about the thugs on Wall Street who are robbing us blind.)

I’m thinking about the black father who has to have “the talk” with his 16-year-old son. The one about how to act if the kid gets pulled over by the police so he doesn’t end up dead. You know, the one white fathers don’t have to have with their sons.

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Look, anytime you have hyped-up males in the mix, you’re gonna have some problems, whether they’re hyped up because their sports team won or hyped up because their race has been systematically and violently oppressed for centuries. Yeah, there are some male folks who scream about “killing cops,” and one or two who have thrown a brick at public safety officers who are just trying to make it through another day at work. That’s not the true face of the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement, but you’d never guess that watching Fox News. (As it turns out, the brick throwers were not BLM activists, but outside dickwads.)

It’s Getting Better All the Time

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First, some good news. I know there are fear-mongers in the media and on the campaign trail that want to tell you that everything is getting worse and what we need is some old fashioned “law and order.” Sorry, Chicken Little. The crime rate in this country has been dropping steadily for over 20 years. That includes a dramatic drop in gun violence. The shooting of police officers has also dropped. That might not be much comfort to law enforcement folks who are understandably on edge right now. The only thing that is up is fatal shootings of blacks by police. And there it is. We don’t need more “law and order.” We need real justice and education.

What’s changed in those 20 years is the public eye. In kind of an upside down version of Orwell’s 1984, it’s not just Big Brother who is watching. It’s nearly every little brother and sister. It wasn’t the 1991 police beating of Rodney King that changed things. Shit like that went on and goes on all the time. It was that it was caught on video and still the cops were acquitted. Now with cell phone cameras, more and more of these incidents are caught and even live-streamed. It only seems like things are getting worse. Technology is just letting us see things as they’ve always been. When people carry tools to document social injustices in their pockets, things are bound to get hot.

The Life of a Cop

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After the Rodney King riots, I wanted my students to better understand the world of the police officer and how even well-meaning public servants can end up in a situation that can go FUBAR in seconds. I’ve brought officers, detectives and FBI agents into my classroom to address some of the hard questions about the thin blue line they stand behind.

The life of a cop is extremely stressful. While being a public servant can be highly rewarding, law enforcement officers have higher rates of divorce, alcoholism and death from heart disease. It’s one of the few occupations where every time you walk out the door, you are well aware you might not walk back in at the end of your shift. To serve and protect. The kevlar vest is hot and heavy and shot to the face doesn’t care if it’s on your back or in the back of your cruiser.

So maybe we can dial back the simplistic rhetoric that police officers are secret Nazis, with shrines to Hitler in their backyards, or fronting for the KKK. Police departments recruit from the human department and they reflect that mix. You’re gonna get cops who are rude, or dealing with anxiety poorly, or are garden variety dickwads. But also plenty of men and women who get into policing because it seems like an effective way to make their community a more livable place for families like and not like theirs. I guarantee you for every avowed racist with a badge there’s a truckload of liberal social work-minded cops who voted for Bernie. I can give you names.

One of the lessons the Johnson Administration’s Crime Commission in 1967 was that police departments needed to look like the communities they policed. White cops coming into black neighborhoods, like in Detroit and Watts, with all their white baggage, inflamed the “us vs. them” tensions and cities burned. Now, about a quarter of all police officers are minorities. But that still means that mostly white police officers are patrolling black communities. Room for improvement.

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Where the racism is real is in the very real mindset of implicit racism. In a racist society, all of us (including African-Americans), have been brainwashed into thinking black men are dangerous THREATS (while we let Bernie Madoff slip by). It’s an unconscious form of racism. Dr. Kimberly Kahn, a professor in the Portland State Psychology Department, completed a fascinating study that found white motorists were less likely to stop for black pedestrians than white pedestrians. Do you think those white motorists truly believed “all lives matter”?

So that white cop may go for his (any her?) use-of-force toolkit more quickly with a black male based on same “threat assessment” toolkit the rest of us carry with us. There’s plenty of “open carry” white guys walking around that probably wouldn’t be right now if they were black. They are labeled “2nd Amendment Activists,” not dangerous thugs.

STFU

black-lives-matterSo don’t tell me, “all lives matter,” if toxic waste incinerators in black areas or the defunding of black schools or health care discrimination or drug sentencing and use-of-force disparities are not on your “things to abolish” list. You’re talking shit and black America knows it. They are in the street telling you the expiration date on your white bullshit has passed and you better listen because there is no going back.

I know you think that when Obama was elected, he snapped his brown fingers and any vestige of racism disappeared (and now he’s just “dividing us”) but reality begs to differ. If anything, Obama has helped to reveal the depth of the problem of race. But don’t worry, the next president will be white. So, for now, if you are telling us, “All lives matter” and you are not actually doing anything to stop the devaluing of black lives, I am going to politely ask you to shut the fuck up.

Here’s the challenge. If you are not black, be quiet for a bit and listen to the concerns of your fellow citizens who are. Actually listen. And if you are not a cop, be quiet for a bit and listen to your fellow Americans who are. Don’t tell us about “them,” just sit with the information for a little while and then ponder how you would walk in those shoes.

I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try. Even you, Rudy.