Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland

April 5, 2022

After my epic journey from Poland to Portland, that included another two missed flights and a night spent in the Newark Airport, I had the brief honeymoon of home. As if written in a screenplay, my Lyft driver at the Portland airport was a Ukrainian named Ruvim. He dropped me off in front of my house and Cozy ran out to great me. After over two weeks away, I fell to my knees and hugged her, thinking of all the dads in Ukraine who long to hold their kids but can’t because they are saving their nation from sociopathic Russians who are raping Ukrainian women in front of their children.

Coming home to Cozy and Andi felt like a dream. They are my sanctuary, my reason for everything. As is tradition, I gave Cozy her snow globes (from Paris and Krakow). I gave Andi a neckless and cross that had belonged to a Ukrainian mother who we got to safety. It felt like I was finally home. But it wasn’t really home. Andi had boxed up her things while I was away and was already entrenched in another relationship, and my silly plan to return home like a badass Rambo and sweep her off her feet with stories of glory was lost in my lack of sleep and the ghosts of what I had seen while I was away, not to mention that I was now only her husband on paper. I just wanted to take hot shower and fall asleep cuddling with my daughter, which I did.

The next morning, I jumped back into the routine and got Cozy to school. I hopped in the car after dropping her off and switched on NPR and that was that. The news was the horror stories coming out of Bucha, where Russian soldiers had tortured and murdered Ukrainian civilians in ways that make ISIS look like kindergartners. My heart raced and my first and only thought was, “ WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING IN PORTLAND? I SHOULD STILL BE THERE GETTING PEOPLE OUT!” The intense guilt of leaving. I knew these kids that they were killing. I knew their mothers. I knew the men who were living lives like me in one moment and thrown into an unexpected and unwanted war the next. How dare I be on my way to grab a latte when Russians are cutting their tongues out?

I don’t know if this is trauma but I do recognize my brain has changed. I have to imagine this is exactly what veterans experience when they return home from combat, the intense compulsion to rejoin the fight. And it’s not like I did 12 months in Afghanistan. I did two weeks in Poland and Ukraine and already I’m all Deer Hunter, ready to go right back. There’s also the adrenaline rush that a former cop recently told me is the attraction for many in law enforcement. If my cognitive patterns were changed in a fortnight, imagine how it must be for career military. 

The guilt is intense. While I was there, it seemed like things might be winding down and the Russians would go home with their tails between their legs, having underestimated the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people. Au contraire, mon frère. The Russians just leveled up their savagery. I should have stayed. I should have driven vans full of ammo straight to our contacts in Irpin so they could have taken these monsters’ heads off. I proved that I can do this work, racing around sandbags and hedgehogs in western Ukraine. I mean how old was Pablo in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

It’s a race of emotions that is balanced out by the very real fact that I have a beautiful daughter who needs her father here. I know she was proud of the fact that I was helping kids like her on the other side of the planet. She needs to know that she’s my priority. But the reality is, she’s not worried about Russian rockets slamming into her school and the children of Lviv are.

I’m just writing this, processing this, in this, getting it out for my own sake. You’re welcome to continue reading. I’ve had several espressos today, doubled my Zoloft, and am blasting Napalm Death’s “Suffer the Children” on my stereo. Not sure what the real world has to offer, especially after my day at Auschwitz on Friday. Is the world being destroyed or recreated? Will something wonderful emerge from the ashes, or will the illogic of the Putin-Trump cults lead us into a dystopian nightmare?

I’ll be OK. I have a great therapist, a good job, friends, an amazing kid, and a roof over my head. I can find ways to help Ukrainians from Portland and I can loose myself in music and books (although I might have to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls later). One thing I did do is ditch being called “Randy.” I’ve grown up. Call me Randall. I’m not the person I was. It’s time to be better at being better.

These two weeks did a number on me. My heart is in Ukraine. My heart is with all the veterans experiencing PTSD. My heart is with every refugee who wishes they were home. My heart is with my daughter who deserves a better world than the one we currently have. I’ve learned not to expect empathy, but I have a feeling there are countless people who understand what this feels like.

Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context

“The present moment began with fire. And still, it burns.” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet

April 2, 2022

Once again, I find myself in a white van, crossing the, now snow-covered, fields of southern Poland. My very first record, Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” is playing on the radio. The lyrics hit at an odd angle, “I just might turn to smoke.” Because we are headed to Auschwitz. Seeing the upside down world of April Fools Day, I try to make a joke with my fellow passengers, but my wartime dark humor is not received well. I was scolded earlier in the week for posting that the guy who was snoring in the bomb shelter we were sharing in Lviv, Ukraine made me pray for a bomb. I get it. But humor is also a way to cope with the endless trauma of this world. The DJ, sharing my skewed take on the day, next spins Ella Fitzgerald singing, “Let it Snow,” a Christmas classic in April.

Maybe the awkwardness was to prepare my brain for what was to come. How does one plan a day-trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps? How do you transition from this moment to that one? I’ve been a student of the Holocaust for as long as I can remember and lectured about the camps for 30 years. In my recent Research Methods class at the University of Oregon, I presented gut wrenching evidence of how Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele perverted the values of science in a sadistic attempt to demonstrate Aryan superiority. My life’s work revolves around studying neo-Nazis who both pretend to believe the Holocaust never happened and fantasize about perpetuating similar acts of genocide. The previous day, I had wandered around Krakow’s old Jewish district that had been emptied of Jews by the Nazis, except for the lucky few who were rescued by Oskar Schindler. It was important for me to do this.

The van carried a varied lot, an English couple from Birmingham, a Norwegian couple, a young German woman who must have been filled with dread and her English friend who puked, on and off, during the hour drive from Krakow because she had had too many shots of vodka the night before. Our driver, who went by Mike, was wise enough to ease us into the arrival into hell. He took us to his “secret location,” which was an abandoned box car on a track between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps that had been used to carry the doomed to their final destination. There, in the snow, I began to slip through time.

Auschwitz is where it is because Oświęcim, Poland was a railroad hub, and industrial town that could manage the importation of countless slave laborers and then the millions who were to be exterminated. It still feels like such a town, ringed with McDonalds and KFCs when you arrive. For better or worst, the area around the camps has been preserved in amber. When we arrived at the Auschwitz tour center, with the crematorium chimneys visible behind it, snow fell gently down, smelling cleaner than the ash that fell 80 years earlier. In the gift shop, I bought a copy of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and watched the other tourists. Some stared somberly, some teenagers laughed, as teenagers do, and a group of Israeli students, draped in their flag, did both. I held my breath.

My group got their headsets so we could better hear our tour guide, a Polish woman in her late sixties who had lost two uncles in the camp. We stepped back into the snow and walked under the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate as she began to describe the buildings. For the first time, I had a 360 degree view of this thing. I could see the grey clouds above and the mud below my boots. This was not a fantasy, a conspiracy, or a scene from a film. This was real.

The tour had just started and I began to hyperventilate. Then I began to sob. I got light-headed and thought I was going to pass out. I had to lean against one of the barracks that had housed 500 prisoners at a time. Nothing like this had happened to me before. I think I was having a panic attack.

It was the realization that this was a real place and that horror had actually happened. Holocaust deniers be damned, the systematic annihilation of millions of men, women, children, and babies was carried out with methodical precision here from 1940 to 1945. I could feel the terror and it was too much to bear. All those books and lectures and movies and documentaries and sitting listening to Holocaust survivors, choking on the pain in my throat. It all happened in this spot and my body convulsed at the realization. The weight of what humanity was capable of in its darkest moment.

I sat down for a bit, half listening to our presenter, half trying to get my bearings. I flashed to a scene in Schindler’s List. The black and white film had one moment of color. A little Jewish girl in a red coat, her body later appears in a pile of corpses. It was 1993 and she reminded my of my then 5-year-old friend in Prague, Suzanka, who was living too close to the genocide in Yugoslavia. I burst out sobbing in the Phipps Plaza movie theater. The memory, as I sat on barrack steps in Auschwitz, caused be to burst out sobbing again.

Gradually, I wiped my eyes and rejoined the tour as we entered the slightly warmer barracks and viewed their displays. Our guide returned to the refrain, “You must remember,” and how the total count of those exterminated may never be known, because the Nazis burned the paperwork along with the bodies. Each display was more devastating than the last; children’s shoes, human hair removed from the gassed to make into fabric, luggage waiting to be claimed. The one that put me back in my panic was the massive collection of crutches, canes, and prosthetic limbs of the “invalids,” deemed too defective to work and put to immediate death. That specter of ablism did not fade with the Third Reich.

I soldiered on for the rest of the tour, through gas chambers, past the gallows, in front of the “wall of death,” where prisoners were shot, and down to the ovens, and finally to the spot where Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was finally hung on this day (April 2) in 1947. But this was only the first half of the trip. Auschwitz had a sequel, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, ordered built by Heinrich Himmler in 1941 to accelerate the extermination of the Jews. Mike ferried us over to the second, much larger camp, much of which was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war in a futile attempt to hide their crimes. Our guide walked us along the train tracks where prisoners were divided between those who would be forced into labor than those who were marched straight to the gas chambers. Babies and small children were thrown into open burning pits. I stood there, as a father, unable to move. Where was goodness? Where was God? Where was the empathy that should have been present among Hitler’s willing executioners?

On the ride home, we were all silent, including puking girl. I thought about what I had seen in Ukraine; the faces of frightened children forced out of their homes by an unprovoked war-monger. I thought about the concerns of my Polish friends, that nuclear weapons would turn them to ash like those who left Auschwitz and Birkenau through the chimneys. I thought about the new rise of authoritarianism in the form of Putin and Trump, that gleefully weaponizes hate and the threat of violence. I thought about the anti-trans laws and voter suppression acts that are slowly eroding democratic freedoms in my “beacon of liberty” home country.

The first chapter of Ellie Wiesel’s Night is a cautionary tale. The Jews who lived in his Hungarian village thought they were far enough from the war nor to worry about the rumors of Nazi anti-Semitism. When they were pushed into a ghetto, many thought it was to protect them from the violence of the Allied invasion, and when they got to the platform at Birkenau, and Wiesel saw his mother and sister forced into the line for the gas chambers, many thought that no such horror would be allowed in the mid-twentieth century. The Holocaust was not a sudden tsunami of death. It was a slowly rising tide that drowned those who never realized they were so far from the shore.

That tide is rising again. I will not sit on my hands and hope things get better. I will use every tool at my disposal. This trip has taught me that I must.

Psychoanalyzing the Attraction to Chaos, or Why I Want to Go to Ukraine

March 13, 2022

I was born at the right time for punk rock. Fourteen-years-old in 1978, my teenage angst was perfectly positioned to hear the music of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols as a telegraph to my soul. The explosive anarchy was what I needed. I remember desperately wanting to go to the January 5, 1978 Sex Pistols show in Atlanta, but you had to be 18 to get in. Didn’t they know this was “my” music? My introduction to slam dancing gave me a direct route into the chaos. I was slamming at a Lords of the New Church show in London in 1982 and had my arm pulled out of the socket. Another punk, who was also an EMT, grabbed my arm and shoved it back into the socket and we kept moshing. Punk was life.

When Russian troops began their “training” on the eastern Ukrainian border last month, I got the impulse to be there, in the action. It’s not a new impulse. When I was 20, I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland and ended up (purposely) in a riot, where a kid my age was shot in the face by British soldiers. The experience became my senior honor’s thesis at Emory University. At 29, while I was in Eastern Europe working on my dissertation on right-wing extremism, I tried to get to Sarajevo during the siege of the city and couldn’t get past the Yugoslavian border. It was framed as “research,” but there was something the compelled me to be in a place that most people just wanted to escape from. During the summer of 2020, I couldn’t get enough of manning the BLM barricades in Portland, dodging rubber bullets and coming home smelling like tear gas. The chaos and flash bangs were intoxicating.

And now with a European trip less than a week away, I’m debating heading in.

I’m not exactly a wannabe mercenary who is obsessed with war and violence. A lot of the young men I study certainly are. In the timeless words of Michael Jackson, “I’m a lover not a fighter.” Do these conflicts ignite some toxic masculinity inside me? In the 2000’s, I received weapons training from the FBI as part of their Citizen Academy, and now I’m wondering if I remember how to unlock the safety on an MP5 machine gun. Who am I? I mean, it’s entirely possible that you will see me on Instagram two weeks from now, posing with my AK-74 (standard issue with the Ukrainian ground forces).

I discussed this need to dive into the geo-political mosh pit with my therapist. She had a valuable insight that it might be linked to the abuse I experienced as a child. That chaos became a normal state and my desire to fight it became deeply engrained. Putin is the molesting neighbor and I want to go save the children of Ukraine from him. I experienced pain then so I can experience pain now, acting out some masochistic savior complex. Hey, makes as much sense as anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the victims of childhood abuse are over-represented in the ranks of the law enforcement and military.

In front of this is my desire to help. I’m watching Russian tanks fire into civilian apartment buildings in Mariupol and I just want to leap through the TV. The kids streaming out of the country look so much like my daughter. I’m slavic and was born in a Cleveland suburb that was heavily Ukrainian (Parma). If I can just go to the border and serve meals with World Central Kitchen, that would be a lot. These people just seem stunned. The fact that Russia is now attacking close to the Polish border means there’s even more help needed with the refugees. I imagined rockets slamming into my neighborhood today and wondered if anyone would come to help us. How can I not go?

I felt so deflated last week I went to donate blood, even though I know that my blood is not going to Ukraine, or Syria, or Congo, or any of the other of Earth’s bloodbaths. But I have the privilege to travel and the freedom of “spring break,” as well as the ability to work remotely. Why not go? Flights from Paris to Warsaw are down to $94 and I have a new credit card. Can I go just help refugee families in Poland and resist the temptation to throw Molotov cocktails at Russian armored vehicles?

The plan now to fly to Paris on Saturday and then catch a flight to Warsaw, where I have one last Zoom class to teach. After grades are turned in, I’ll catch a train down to Przemysl to find opportunities to help with the flow of refugees. Even if it’s just giving hugs to traumatized kids who look like mine, I will feel that I’ve added to the healing in some small way. I’ve been shopping for both combat boots and children’s books to take with me. The only question is whether or not my childhood trauma will pull me across the border.  For the sake of my own child, I will probably stay on the safe side of that line. Or maybe I could do this work from a sunny French café. Stay tuned.

We can all do something. I really want to encourage people to donate to UNICEF’s Ukraine relief. It’s for the kids! https://www.unicefusa.org

In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time

February 27, 2022

We’re all gerbils crawling through an endless toilet paper tube. Most of the time we don’t notice the tube, because we’re focused on our forward motion. But every once in a while, we realize that we’re stuck in a freaking cardboard tube and it’s controlling everything about what we can see and where we can go.

History is that toilet paper tube. I remember how on a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I realized the events I was watching on my father’s television in Roswell, Georgia would impact every aspect of my world.  There were two realities, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The tube was tight, preventing me from getting on a flight back to Portland. And it’s touched our reality ever since.

I feel that way again, watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was focused on the tasks at hand, getting my students through winter quarter, adjusting to life as a single parent, waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to start a new season. And then on Wednesday night all that changed as Putin sent tanks and troops across the border in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. I had a similar feeling when I was 15-years-old on New Year’s Eve 1979, watching Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. It felt like the whole world shifted on its axis a bit.

Now as Russian troops bomb Kyiv, it seems like the axis shift is massive. Thursday I took time to talk to my University of Oregon students and ask them to be present in this moment. They will likely talk to their grandchildren 50 years from now about the first days of the third world war. Rising gas prices, bread shortages, fear of conscription are surely weighing on their minds. But for these Generation Z students, most born after 9/11, this will all get very real when the Russian cyber hacks shut Instagram down.

Historical parallels aside (Hitler pulled the same stunt in 1939), it’s clear that we have entered a geo-political order where Russia is not our friend. (Sarah Palin must be smirking.) We will divide modern history into before 02/23/2022 and after 02/23/2022. Will this end up in the similar global turmoil that followed Hitler’s invasion of Poland? It seems entirely possible. Vladimir Putin is this generation’s murderous madmen with designs on expanding his empire by any means necessary. Putin’s statement Wednesday that nations that come to Ukraine’s defense will face “consequences you have never seen” is chilling given the fact that Russia holds 45% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Maybe this will be a limited conflict and, well, sorry freedom-loving Ukrainians. Yeah, it went sideways with Hitler, but Putin is an ethnic nationalist of a different stripe. It will be fine. Let’s get back to the other existential crises, like COVID and global warming. Why should Russian tanks rolling through Chernobyl be an issue in suburban America? It will be OK. Have you seen the price of milk? Let’s riot!

Of course, the good people of Ukraine didn’t think Russian bombs would be falling on their suburban neighborhoods either. A child Cozy’s age was killed today on the westside of Kyiv. Global conflicts have the tendency to spread. Quickly. Watching the children heading for the Polish border makes me wonder where I would send my daughter if the war spreads to this part of the world. Hopefully we can get her to Mexico if things get hot here. The United States is not guaranteed to exist forever. Four years of Trumpism weakened our democracy and greatly inflated Russia. That could create a cascade of crises that puts the USA in the rear view mirror. You may not be safe as you think.

The reason of this concern is rooted what I did in the first 12 hours of the invasion. I spent it on the dark corners of the web in the places where white supremacists, Qanon believers, and Trump nuts dwell. They, to the one, threw their support to Putin, seeing Biden’s policies as part of a liberal Jewish plot to push Putin and Trump’s buttons and cheered Putin’s fascistic ethnic nationalism. They want that wider war to launch their “boogaloo” race war in America. And they are armed. Heavily. Timothy McVeigh is their hero. The ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia is their game plan. And Putin and Trump are their leaders.

Fortunately, like those Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who defiantly said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” the majority of Americans have no tolerance for the anti-American “America First” con artists and their little boy soldiers. Yeah, 4.5 million viewers tune into white supremacist Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show each evening but that means that over 327 million Americans don’t. Hopefully, unlike Ukrainian citizens right now, we won’t all have to take crash courses in how to fire AR-15s. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and thoughtful mobilization. We’ll certainly have the time after Russian hackers take down Instagram. Maybe then we will see the toilet paper tube we are in.

Death By a Thousand 9/11s

September 11, 2021

They say one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. From the perspective of a lowly stormtrooper inside the Death Star, Luke Skywalker and his band of rebel fighters, guided by an archaic religion, were not heroes, but mass murderers. Was the U.S drone strike that targeted ISIS-K in Kabul on August 29th a part of our righteous war on terror or was it a terrorist attack that killed seven children (and no ISIS fighters)? Remember when Bill Maher said, on his show Politically Incorrect, the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, but those who launch cruise missiles from 2000 miles away were and ABC canned him? Are we even allowed to ask these questions?

Today is not the day to debate whether or not the attacks twenty years ago were terrorism. They most certainly were. If they weren’t, the word has no meaning. Anyone who was alive and old enough to pay attention on September 11, 2001 (and now a quarter of Americans weren’t), felt the terror. I had just flown to Atlanta on 9/10 for my 20th high school reunion and my dad woke me up in time for me to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center. I remember saying out loud, “What the hell is happening?” as Peter Jennings attempted to translate the untranslatable. It was about to get worse. Much worse.

The U.S. government defines terrorism as, ““the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Much of my work is built around the description of hate crimes as acts of terrorism. Why do we not think of the 9/11 attacks as merely 2,977 murders? Because all Americans were the targets. I had a friend from college who was in Tower 1. Osama bin Laden didn’t know about him, or have anything against him personally. (Three of my former Emory classmates were killed in the New York attacks.) He was a random target, a death meant to intimidate a larger civilian population. And it worked. It was several months after 9/11 before I could enter a tall building or drive over a Portland bridge without thinking of a passenger plane crashing into it.

Hate crimes work the same way. Like the victims of 9/11, targets are randomly selected for their symbolic value, to coerce others like the targets that they aren’t wanted here. Leave. A burning cross, a gay bashing, a swastika on a synagogue, all meant to terrorize large populations. After the 9/11 attacks hate crimes against American Arabs and Muslim (and people perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim) increased 500%. Four days after the attack a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot in the head in a gas station in Mesa, Arizona by a white male who claimed he seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Not only were Arab and Muslim-Americans living in fear, but so were Sikhs and others. (Here in Portland, an Italian man was beaten by three teenagers after the attacks because he was perceived to be Middle Eastern.) 2001 wasn’t an anomaly. Just this week, data released but the FBI revealed that hate crimes increased dramatically in 2020. Who is terrorizing whom?

On this sad occasion, I’m reminded of how the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Administration tried to falsely pin 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, leading to the invasion of the wrong county, a protracted and completely unnecessary war that was responsible for the death in over 4000 U.S. troops, and over half a million Iraqi men, women, and children killed. But we were the ones fighting terrorism. We couldn’t possibly be the terrorists. Could we?

I visited Ground Zero the summer following the attack and I could still smell the dust of all the souls who had been atomized on that Tuesday in September. I’ve been to New York at least a dozen times since then and always notice what’s not there and what is. My recurring 9/11 dreams were central to my 2016 novel, The Dream Police. At the 9/11 memorial when I see the names of the victims who were pregnant women, I can’t help but convulse and every trip I make to Washington DC, I have a moment when I wonder what would have happened if the fourth plane had hit its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building. I carry this as trauma as does every American, to varying degrees, who remembers that day.

But we also carry the trauma of all the other acts of terrorism, many done in our name or done by people who look like us against people who don’t look like us. We’ve become blasé to the trauma and really good at rationalizing the traumatizing of others. We’ve become masters at dehumanizing the “other.” They see us as “infidels” and we see them as “fanatics.” They see us as “libtards” and we see them as “Nazis.” Nobody is just a human being capable of love and redeemable imperfection. If you told members of the radical right or the radical left they could push a button to launch a drone strike to wipe out the other side, the air would be filled robots on their death trips.

Trauma requires healing and there has been a lot of healing in the last 20 years. New Yorkers are resilient. The passengers on Flight 93 showed great courage in the face of their own deaths. And the work of the war machine that launches drone strikes into wherever continues at the Pentagon. But the healing is hampered by all the other terror we inflict on each other. An open wound never truly heals.

I will never forget that day. The confusion of wondering if it was real or a movie. The image of people choosing to jump rather than burn. The realization that the world would never be the same. But I will also never forget a lot of other things, including what happened in a Mesa, Arizona gas station four days after the attack and what happened two weeks ago in Kabul. Never forget any of it.

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

June  7, 2020

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

masks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best headline ever:

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

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

Vuitton

As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.

What is the feminist position on the COVID-19 pandemic?

May 19, 2020

The nice thing about having a “paradigm” is that there’s a formula to plug in to when challenging issues emerge. Liberals and conservatives, religious fundamentalists and scientists all have “narratives” they can utilize to make sense of the world. Similarly, feminists have a good starting position, that elements in society work to uphold patriarchal male power structures or challenge them. That’s feminist thinking in a tiny nutshell.

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So what’s the feminist position on the coronavirus?

Feminism is not monolithic. There is as much debate within feminist circles. Just mention Hillary Clinton. A liberal feminist, a radical feminist, a Marxist feminist, and an eco feminist walk into a bar… So rushing to a feminist position on a global pandemic is harder than it looks. Even after three months of pondering the matter.

While no feminist would celebrate sickness and death (that’s a male thing), there could be a feminist “I told you so” element to this mess. Mother Earth might be offering humanity a time-out for the bad behavior of waging war and dumping killing pollution. Eco feminists highlight the importance of healing and with endless wars and traffic jams on pause for a minute, we get to experience the joy of a planetary healing. There are sea turtles on Miami Beach and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice! Will we really want to return to the nasty business as usual after this micro-organism mandated retreat? Regardless, the lesson remains that man does not control this planet.

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And here’s a little “gender equality amid pandemic” point that my wife brought up; Zoom as a great equalizer. Zoom and other remote meeting platforms have become the new way to exist publicly. My classes have weekly Zoom meetings. On these platforms every person has an equal space, both in terms of the size of their video box and their volume. (“Everyone on mute?”) Since we are working and learning from home, the impression management is way down. Women don’t have to do their makeup and men don’t need a tie. We’re all equally casual in our Brady Bunch grids. I’ve done lecture videos after waking up from a nap and done interviews with a beer in my hand. There’s no judgement in a pandemic. We’re all in this bad hair day together. And if a woman is Zooming in to work with a toddler climbing on her neck, all respect for her for even bothering to unmute her video.

The other side of the ledger is less hopeful. There’s plenty of reasons to see this nightmare as another opportunity for patriarchal power grabs. The first thing to come across the wire when all this started was the impact that the lockdown was having on women who were in domestic violence situations, trapped in spaces with their abusers. By April, reports of calls spiking to domestic violence around the globe made the sad trend undeniable. Women began passing desperate messages in code to pharmacists, hoping for a lifeline away from the violence. Similarly, young LGBTQ people who are stuck at home with homophobic adults must be praying for the moment for this whole thing end.

The women on the frontline of the pandemic have taken the brunt of the risk. Working in health care and food services, taking care of the elderly, they are the most essential of workers, and the most expendable when the crisis hits the fan. They clean the bedpans of the infected, while Ivanka fixes her father’s make-up.

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As is the norm these days, Donald Trump simplifies things for us. Watching him puff up his chest in his daily performance as the manly man in charge (He don’t need no mask!), is just a lesson in the absurd limits of masculinity. (The fact that he’s claiming to take hydroxychloroquine just adds to his soft orange underbelly.) But it’s not his buffoonery that props up patriarchy, although if a female leader demonstrated such incompetence, with nearly 100,000 Americans (so far) dead, she would have been eaten alive.

It’s Trump’s “war-time president” rhetoric that’s the big gender reveal. While things are cooling down on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, look at how quickly we long to be going to war against something. And like those wars, it’s always futile. The War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Drugs didn’t end poverty, crime, or drugs either. And some would argue that they made those problems worse. Likewise, the war on Trump’s “invisible enemy” won’t “defeat” COVID-19. We learn to live with disease, and adapt to the coexistence. If you’ve ever gotten a flu shot or worn a condom, you have participated in that adaptation. Trump’s war has inflated the curve, not flattened it.

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When he refers to the “invasion” of the “Chinese virus,” (most infected folks entered the U.S. from Europe), he’s playing into the “Us vs. Them” binary that masks the naturally complex path diseases take. But he has to keep it simple for his simple base. This has involved the president of the United States of America sending tweets to quasi-domestic terrorists. His call to “liberate Michigan” (governed by “that woman,” as he calls her), and other states governed by Democrats, has triggered the anti-government militia men. Armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers (seriously) these “freedom” lovers in MAGA hats (and a handful of “their women”) have been seen on state capitals, spreading their germs and threatening to launch a civil war if they don’t get back their God-given right to go to the mall to buy camo wife-beaters.

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The “War on” rhetoric is tired but it works. It gets boys to men ginned up to go in to battle. And like all battles, there are casualties. The workers in the meat packing plants in Iowa who have died with ventilators down their throats are just abstract statistics to his base. And mostly brown statistics, at that. Ivanka is still healthy and the family stock price in hydroxychloroquine is only going up. As Sartre once wrote, “When the rich wage war it’s the poor who die.” Trump, the four-time draft dodger, is great at pretending to be a warrior (remember his celebration of “his generals”?), but the men, women, and children who will suffer and die because of his hubris are evidence of dire limitations of the blade and the perils of unchecked toxic masculinity.

So has this virus reinforced patriarchal power and the oppression that comes with it?

While we take a break from mass shootings and realize the great labor of all the women who stayed home with the kids without pay, I’m hoping we can use this moment to deflate the dumb puffed up chests of male rule. We have a moment to just talk to each other. Just think of all the conversations husbands are having with their wives because there is no basketball on TV. If ever there was a time to listen to women, it’s now. Maybe, anti-government/pro-Trump “protestors” aside, the earth is turning the corner. We’re ready for a paradigm shift.

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Your loved one was just killed by an angry white man with a gun. OK?

August 4, 2019

When will it end? After Columbine. After Sandy Hook. After Las Vegas. After Parkland. After El Paso. #YOURCITYHEREstrong

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I was preparing for an interview on CNN about the slaughter in El Paso when the news broke about another shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Another white male with a gun and the weekend body count climbs. Imagine if all these victims had been killed by someone shouting “Allah Akbar!” There’d be some action taken then. But when it’s a white guy, hey it must be the fault of video games or Satan or something.

I’ve been writing about mass shootings since the 1990s. My co-authored 2000 book, Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws, took on the wave of school shootings that ended the twentieth century. Since then I’ve written about the topic ad nauseam, including the specter of right-wing violence that was likely behind the kill zones in both El Paso and Dayton.

I’m so weary. There is a void in leadership. Trump is propped up by the gun lobby and his white nationalist base that not so silently cheers the slaughter of innocents. There must be a parallel universe America where Trump and Moscow Mitch McConnell are hung for sedition and the leadership of the NRA is put on trial for war crimes. But having to stomach another wave of these assholes’ “thoughts and prayers” circle jerk is no longer possible. These are your people, Trump. Tell them to stop and say it like you fucking mean it. WASPs demand that Muslim people disavow Islamic terrorism every single day. I want every freakin’ white man to tell these shooters to stop and I want to hear them do it constantly, 24-7-365. Wake up out of your sleep and tell these white men to stop killing us!

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Here’s where “great” America is now. I know that if I take my family to the movies, to the park, to the mall, to a house of worship, or to any school, there’s a chance a white male, angry at the world over some perceived loss of some perceived right, may kill them in front of my eyes. Because my family is brown, I know that elevates the chance they will be ripped to shreds by some human turd who hangs out on 8chan reposting articles about the “white genocide.”

This is the reality. I’m at a show and I’m keeping my eye on the exits in case the shooter comes in from the back. When my Mexican wife is teaching her students how to conjugate verbs in Spanish, I wonder if some fan of the president is going to come in, screaming, “Go back to where you came from!” and spray the class with his moronic rage, slicing her in half with “legally bought” ammunition. When I drop my daughter off at school, I wonder if some young man, inspired by the Sandy Hook shooter and his soft targets, will go for the “Fuck the World” glory and I’ll have to identify my precious child from all her friends at the morgue. Isn’t America great?

Here’s my promise. Any candidate that promises to use every tool legally available to shut down the NRA and the terrorists in the gun lobby has my full support. I don’t care if it’s Marianne “Huh?” Williamson. It’s sure not Joe Biden. I know the ice caps are melting and people are tweaked on opioids, but bullets are flying in God’s houses and the people’s streets. I’m not a fan of binaries, but it’s time to draw the line. Which side are you on? If you are not acting to defend my family from gun violence, you are in bed with the terrorists who want to destroy our basic right to safety.

I’m so tired of writing about this. I’m tired of our complacency and our stupid hashtags. I’m writing a manifesto of love, but if you aren’t onboard to stop these white men from killing families like mine, don’t expect much love from me.

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Watching fragile men freak out over a Gillette ad

January 17, 2019

I’ve never been a big fan of Gillette razors. Gillette is owned by Proctor & Gamble, one of the least-socially responsible mega-corporations and I remember boycotting them in the 1980s over their commitment to animal testing. So imagine my surprise this week to learn that Gillette was launching an awareness campaign called The Best Men Can Be that acknowledged the issue of toxic masculinity. What wasn’t surprising was the backlash from snowflake “macho” men who saw the corporation trying to dismantle maleness itself.

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The ad for the campaign aired this week and it’s powerful, linking the issues of bullying and sexual harassment to the type of “boys will be boys” masculinity that for too long has gone unchecked. And when it is checked, for just one minute and 48 seconds, a lot of bros simply freak out, swearing they will never buy a Gillette product again. These men fall into three categories.

  1. Misogynists who think it is their (male) God-given right to harass women and bully boys and men they view as less “manly.”
  2. Men who think the term “toxic masculinity” refers to all forms of masculinity. (As I’ve written, masculinity isn’t toxic. Toxic masculinity is.)
  3. Men who don’t understand that gender is something that we learn. We learn different definitions of masculinity at different times in history and in different places in the world. Masculinity has very little to do with having a penis.

When gauging the freak out, you see plenty of all three types of men. They’ve already made response videos, which I can’t stomach to watch. And I’ve given up on trying to educate these men in the comments section on the YouTube video. They are in full defense mode, many hilariously claiming the Gillette is a “Marxist corporation.” Seriously.

Here are a few of the prize-winners just from today:

Gillette the gayest a man can get – kdubs_r

Legal system: Innocent until proven guilty. Gillette: Men, guilty until proven innocent. – Nathan Drake

You do know that feminists are quite proud to not shave right? – Ben Haworth

“Because the boys watching today will be the women of tomorrow ” – Taffe M

It’s Toxic Irresponsibility. Not toxic masculinity. Why would you inject gender into this? The fight is against social irresponsibility. There are just as many irresponsible women in society as there are men. Why is the tip of the spear pointed only at men here? – Nic 9Volt

And my favorite;

Men account for around 80% of suicides. Men are most likely to fall victim to violent crimes. Men work the most dangerous jobs. More men die on the front lines of war/ Men have shorter life spans. GTFO of here with your social justice propaganda this is not a man’s world in the slightest – Mickey Rourke

Mickey just made the case that toxic masculinity is killing men without even knowing it!

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I have a feeling that someone at Fox News or some alt right website told their mob of triggered bros to flood the comment section, because, it’s pretty hilarious/sad. Maybe I live in a Portland bubble where most men know there are many ways of doing masculinity that don’t include beating up “sissys,” harassing women, of going on shooting sprees for that matter. These mouth breathers seem to think Gillette is describing ALL MEN. Maybe they missed former NFL player and male feminist (and TV hunk) Terry Crews in the ad saying “Men need to hold other men accountable.”

The first category of men, the committed misogynists, are going to see what they want to see in this commercial. They’ve labeled it “anti-man,” “anti-white,” and “anti-American.” They are committed to their inherited rights to have their authority remain unchallenged and will be in high attack mode to prevent a woman from being elected in 2020. (Several of the negative comments on YouTube reference doughy rich boy Donald Trump as the paragon of masculinity.)

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The other two categories can be reached through education. Why is violent crime overwhelming committed by men? Toxic masculinity, but there are scores of men who model other forms of masculinity that resists the harm men do to themselves and others because “boys will be boys.” Where does this toxic masculinity come from? We learn it at an early age when we learn that “boys don’t cry” and you show a girl that you like her by punching her. If there was ever a time for a sociologist it’s right now!

This is the message that I’ve been sharing with my students for nearly thirty years. We can construct gender any way we want. I’ve been a stay-at-home dad and I love Marvel superhero movies. This week I called out a guy on Facebook for referring to a female elected member of congress as a “bimbo.” Another guy, a rather well-known former cop named CW Jenson, claimed that I must have “burned my man card.” I told him I proudly burned it in college. “It’s called growing up,” I said. I’m just as much of a man as Mr. TV Cop.

Terry Crews is right. It’s up to boys and men to shut this shit down whenever and wherever it appears, on Facebook and in the office. I was walking Cozy past a schoolyard to the park recently and two middle school boys were beating up a third. I broke it up but where were the teachers? Boys will be boys? Silence is permission and it’s time to get loud. THAT IS NOT COOL!

It’s not surprising to see the Old Boys Club freak out over the Gillette ad. The writing is on the wall. The times they are-a-changing. And the genie is out of the bottle. Women are holding a mirror up to men’s faces and they don’t like what they see. Some men will change. Others will just try to smash the mirror. As Gloria Steinem recently told me, the moment when a woman is most at risk of being murdered by her abuser is when she finally tries to escape him. The abusers are fighting hard as we try to break free. I hope efforts like this will mean my daughter will be safer than my wife is and my mother was. In the meantime, I think I need a shave. Know any good razor companies?