The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist, the young activist, decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink. I accept cash though!

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I thought the cash line was a joke so I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) After the talk, I went to the ATM and got out $20 to give him because I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned my white guilt cost $20.”

He screen-shotted it and posted on his Facebook page and it became open season on me from his fan base. But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

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I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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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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Fascists Fall for Trump, their Nazi Dream Date

August 4, 2017

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The Metroplex was a beautiful abandoned building turned into a thriving punk rock club and the de facto Island of Misfit Toys in the 1980s. I saw shows there by the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks and a million others (including, oddly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). I did my first interview with a racist skinhead there 31 years ago this summer. There had been a skinhead brawl at the competing 688 Club that had sent the doorman to the hospital. You can hear the skinhead version of events in the Anti-Heroes’ song, “Disco Riot.”

I had first encountered skinheads when I was student in London in 1982. I hopped on a train in Victoria Station to my internship in a clinic out in suburban Thamesmead. There were three skinheads in the car and me. They were drawing swastikas and National Front logos on the wall. One looked at me and then scrawled, “Kill a mod.” I got off at the next stop. By 1986, racist skinheads were popping up all over America, including the Old Glory Skins in Atlanta. I was 22 and this kid, in boots and braces, was probably 18. I wanted to know what was going on.

“What do you guys really want?” I asked him as we sat on the curb of Marietta Street, the heat too unbearable inside the Metroplex.

“We just want a strong leader who will kick all the fucking mud races out of the county.”

I wonder where that kid is now. I bet he’s happy. He finally got his “strong leader.”

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Much has been written (including by me) about how Donald Trump has used white supremacist tactics, dog whistles, and code words to generate support from the extreme right and white supremacist counter-culture. Remember when he pretended not to know who David Duke was? When he was elected, white nationalist, oh, excuse me, “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer raced to Washington to exalt “Hail Trump!” with a stiff-armed salute.

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His campaign to take America back to 1950 (in an interview with CNN he said that was the “again” in his “Make America Great Again” slogan), has only gained momentum. His fascistic rule by tweet undermines the fabric our democracy, including his recent pronouncement that all transgendered people will be kicked out of the U.S. military. His unquestioning flock believe that accusations of racism are just a liberal (Jewish?) plot, spread by the fake (Jewish?) media.

Certainly the people I have been studying for over thirty years have been watching. I don’t go to Klan rallies anymore or bring beer to skinhead parties to get them to talk, but I still hang out with them in their virtual worlds and eavesdrop on their conversations in neo-Nazi discussion groups and the hang-outs in the darkest corners of the web (i.e., Reddit). And boy howdy, do racists love Trump.

The latests clarion call from their fake blonde führer is his plan to limit legal immigration to English-speaking only applicants. Everyone knows this is not about keeping German-only speaking immigrants out of the country. It’s about brown and black people, especially brown people from Latin America. It’s not even a veiled attempt at racism. It’s clear as a bell, and the radical right (and some of the Trump trolls who post on my Facebook page) are loving it. Just try to keep up with this thread on Stormfront, the leading discussion site for white supremacists: STORMFRONT

WhiteHistoryWrightBrosTrump’s “merit based” plan (you know, because the people who pick our food have no merit) would only offer visas to immigrants who have high-paying job offers and speak English better than our Drunk Uncle president. It would end the diversity that comes from the visa lottery and that was making America great long before Trump’s made in China MAGA dunce caps sat on the empty noggins of Bocephus and Betty Lou. It would also drastically restrict  the number of refugees allowed in the country, because, you know, screw that whole America is a “beacon of freedom” thing. If only we had more Nazi rocket scientists who needed sanctuary. The Statue of Liberty was a French (Jewish?) plot.

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These policies are surely the work of right-wing hate groups, like FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), that have Steve Bannon’s blotchy Caucasian ear and the soul of “more than kinda” racist Stephen Miller. And they are catnip to white supremacists. You thought they went gaga over Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban and Attorney General Jeff Sessions praise of the 1924 “Whites Only” immigration act. (That’s the one that caused the 1920s KKK to close up shop because they got what they were marching for.) The Little Hitlers are going ape poo over Trump’s latest plan to make America white again. I know. I lurk in their world of stupidity. And we don’t even have to get into his silencing of the First Lady (First Ladies are to be seen and not heard), or the stomping on transgender rights (“No boot camp for you!”). Fascist forums have threads dedicated to both.  The immigration thing alone has them ginned up like frat boys on pledge night.

Yes, America has a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. But Trump won’t get his final solution. He’s clueless at how America works. The guy can’t even speak in complete sentences or keep his lies straight. The Republican congress has blocked him and the courts have blocked him and the diverse patchwork of the American populace will continue to block him. But there will be casualties along the way as the 2017 alt-right versions of those 1980s skinheads believe they’ve got their strong leader. That’s why Americans cannot be silent or still.

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A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

RecoveringAsshole

Join the discussion on the Recovering Asshole Facebook page.

 

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.

Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

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There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

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And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

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I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

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Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

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It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.