My joke about this year has been that 2020 will make 1968 look like 1954, but without the soundtrack. That’s not quite true. There has been a lot of great music this year, including full albums recorded while on lockdown (or “rockdown,” as Paul McCartney called it). Unfortunately, a lot of us where not in the mood to search out new music this year, especially when all live shows were cancelled. I found my muse in creating numerous Spotify playlists, like chronologies of Prince and The Kinks. My music highlight of the year was Beyoncé’s musical film, Black is King, released during the summer. Visually stunning and perfectly timely as the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter protestors.
The truth is that my most listened to album in 2020 was released in the summer of 2019. Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell was on repeat play through the year. It’s 67 and a half minutes of epic soundscape offered endless layers of discovery. Like an arthouse film that reveals a different interpretation with each viewing, Norman Fucking Rockwell was an expansive chasm of wordplay and music pulled from the dreamworld.
Similarly, some of my favorite albums of 2020 came out at the very end of 2019 (Harry Styles, The Who). Others were the casualties of COVID (Toots Hibbert, RIP) or commenting on the meaning of it (Bob Dylan’s sweeping tome). The death of George Floyd gave us the most clear musical moment, including powerful releases from Run the Jewels and Black Thought. But nothing sounded more like 2020 than the third album by the British band Sault. Untitled (Black Is) brought the themes of being locked down and tearing down racism into a hypnotic swirl that was both backward and forward looking. I didn’t quite get the Taylor Swift album but the Sault album seemed to be the right album at the right time.
Flipping back through the new music I dug in 2020, here’s my top 20 albums of the year. I expect that, with massive vaccinations, 2021 will kick off our swinging ‘20s.
1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
3. Harry Styles – Fine Line
4. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
5. Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling
6. The Who – Who
7. Paul McCartney – McCartney III
8. Shelby Lynne – Shelby Lynne
9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
11. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
12. Paul Weller – On Sunset
13. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
14. Toots and the Maytals – Got to Be Tough
15. Lido Pimienta – Miss Columbia
16. Various Artists – PDX Pop Now Vol. 17
17. Pearl Jam – Gigaton
18. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
19. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
20. Neil Young – Homegrown
And a special mention of The Chicks “March, March” single, which gave us the most needed video of the year, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which the girls in the neighborhood mimed endlessly this summer.
When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.
That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.
The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.
The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.
I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.
I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?
I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.
I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?
I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.
I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”
And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?
But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.
With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.
Every generation has its snapshot memory, a historical event that is frozen in time. Talk to a baby boomer about the day JFK was shot. Ask Gen Xers about where they were when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. Younger “Greatest Generation” members talk about Pearl Harbor the way elder Millennials talk about 9/11. Like it happened yesterday. So much of the minutia of our lives is lost to the fog of time, but that event, like any snapshot, captures the detail of our lives and frames it in the historical context of that specific moment.
For me it was the morning of December 9, 1980, the morning I woke up to find that my beloved Beatle had been murdered.
Since this blog is dedicated the feminist influence of househusband John Lennon, I thought I’d try to recreate that snapshot. I understand, just like there are people alive now who have never known a world without a cold war or without the internet, there are billions alive who have never lived on the same planet as John Winston Ono Lennon.
First things first, in 1980 I was know as the biggest Beatles fan at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Even more than my obsession for the Ramones and all things punk was by fandom for the Fab Four. I bought solo albums the day they were released, including Wing’s London Town and Ringo’s Bad Boy in 1978, Wings’ Back to the Egg and George’s George Harrison in 1979, and Paul’s McCartney II in 1980, and most significantly John’s Double Fantasy in November 1980. John hadn’t released any new music in five years and it was a big deal. Yeah, it was really a “John & Yoko” album and yeah, I wasn’t mad about the Elvis-sounding “Starting Over” single, but I quickly fell in love with the LP (bought at Turtles Records & Tapes on Memorial Drive). There were rumors John would tour in the new year and rumors about the rumors that said Cheap Trick would be his backing band,
By the first week of December of I was reading every interview John was doing and, again, dreaming that the world was preparing us for the inevitable Beatles reunion, at that point, the very reason for living for any music fan. Both John and Paul sported Beatle haircuts on their new albums, That must mean something!
The country in late 1980 was in a weird place. We were a year into the crippling Iranian hostage crisis that played a role in Ronald Reagan beating incumbent Jimmy Carter. The 80s felt like they were about to bust loose on a new wave soundtrack, but there was a dark cloud hovering.
The guy that killed John went to Columbia High School, one of the Dekalb County rivals of my school. He was on some psychotic mission that changed the world at 10:50 pm when he shot John Lennon 4 times outside the Dakota, John and Yoko’s gothic New York City apartment. A spot I visit almost every single time I go to New York City.
John was known as being super accessible in the Big Apple, loving the freedom of movement he didn’t have in England. The fall of 1980 my friend Ed and I discussed going to NYC the summer of 1981, after graduation, and hanging out in front of the Dakota to meet John and thank him for all the great music he had given us.
The night of December 8th, for some reason, I had been gone to bed early. Sportscaster Howard Cosell interrupted his broadcast of Monday Night Football to tell the world that Beatle John Lennon had been shot. Friends began calling our house to share the shattering news but my mother chose to let me sleep. Instead she laid the morning copy of the Atlanta Constitution on the kitchen table the following morning.
Like most Tuesday mornings, I woke up and turned on 96 Rock, pleased to hear a Beatles song on the radio. I showered and got dressed to more Beatles songs. Perhaps it was a “super-set.” I went into the kitchen for breakfast, first turning on my parents 70s console hifi (96 Rock was obviously on a Beatle binge.) The 1967 classic, “A Day in the Life,” began to play. The line “I read the news today, oh boy” came out of the speakers just as I looked down at the newspaper. “John Lennon Slain by New York Gunman.”
The headline was next to a picture of John in a suit and tie from his 1976 immigration hearing. My first thought was, “Wow, there’s another John Lennon” thinking the clean cut gent was a politician or businessman who shared a name with MY John Lennon. Then I realized it was my John Lennon and it felt like the floor fell out from under me. I quickly turned on Good Morning America and saw the scenes of thousands of fans sobbing outside the Dakota in New York. My head was reeling. I wanted to go to New York. I wanted to murder the man who murdered John Lennon.
Instead I ran to my room. “Watching the Wheels” was playing on the radio. I fell on my bed, surrounded by Beatle and John posters, and sobbed. “I just had to let it go.”
My mother reminded me I had to go to school, so I put on a John Lennon Walls and Bridges t-shirt (that I got at Beatlefest ’78) and carried myself to Redan. I only made it through three periods. I had become the wailing wall for the Beatle fans at school. Where before I got abuse for my weird music tastes, now I got hugs. Girls, who would never talk to me, came up to me in tears to say they were sorry. My English teacher, Mrs. Patsy Zimmerman, told me she had taught John’s killer when she was at Columbia. We both burst into tears and I decided to leave. I put the school’s flag at half mast and walked home, vowing to never laugh again, a punishment for the world stealing this peacemaker from us.
The week was spent playing records and piecing together what happened. I sat in my room, playing Double Fantasy and thinking I would suddenly wake up to find it had all been a nightmare and that the dream was over. Instead of a funeral, Yoko asked fans to gather that Sunday, December 14, for a 10-minute silent vigil. I ended up in Piedmont Park with thousands of other Atlanta-area fans. Without direction, at 2 pm the crowd moved to the center of the field on the south side of the park, grabbed hands and then formed a massive circle for ten very long and quiet minutes. Then someone began singing “Give Peace a Chance.” We all joined in and moved back to the center and hugged each other for the next hour. Peace. “Ah, this is what John was talking about,” I remember thinking.
“Starting Over” shot to #1 on the charts and six weeks later Ronald Reagan was sworn in, launching an era that we REALLY could have used John Lennon to help navigate.
I was 16 on that day and I am 56 today. It seems like a minute ago. John’s served as a model for mine, the evolution of a man. He died at 40, so I will now always be older than him, but I still feel like I learn from him in new and surprising ways. This “househusband blog” has been a part of that lesson. We all shine on in our own way.
I miss you, John and if I had gotten to meet you in the summer of 1981, I would have thanked you for showing me how to grow.
One of my guilty pandemic pleasures (besides watching 90 Day Fiancé) has been making playlists on Spotify. I’ve made playlists that chart Prince’s album chronology and playlists loaded with songs about denim (“Forever in Blue Jeans”). I started doing month-based playlists, beginning with cuts from albums released in January, 1973. I was traipsing through 1979, month-by-month, reliving all the LPs I bought, borrowed or stole in my 15th year on earth. My top three favorite bands that year were, in order, The Who, Blondie, and The Police. It was the year of new wave.
It was also another year of disco.
While 1979 gave us The Cars, Gary Numan, and Nick Lowe, the radio was still dominated by dance tracks by Chic, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. The summer radio of ’79 was an ongoing battle between “My Sharona” and “Ring My Bell.” I was deeply into my “Randy Ramone” phase by that point. Even though I camped out for tickets for the 1979 Kiss Dynasty tour, I had already sold my soul to punk rock. But whether you were a mod or a rocker, a Clash fan and/or a Ted Nugent fan, all guitar disciples could agree on one thing, disco sucked.
In 1979, I sported a t-shirt that said, “Disco is Dead, Rock is Rolling” that I ordered from the back of Rolling Stone magazine. I was full of theories about how musicians were losing gigs because clubs were hiring DJs instead of bands (even though I wouldn’t get my fake ID until 1980). I graffitied “Disco Sucks” on the bathroom stalls at Redan High School and dreamed of burning copies of Saturday Night Fever.
I wasn’t the only kid hating on disco in 1979. Chicago rock radio station WLUP organized a “Disco Demolition Night” between games at a White Sox doubleheader. Over 50,000 rock fans showed up with their kid sisters’ Sister Sledge albums. The plan was to blow up the albums on the field. The explosion caused a riot as the rock fans stormed the field and proceeded to destroy the stadium, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the cancelled game to the Detroit Tigers. I had heard about it next day and thought it was a glorious blow against the disco empire.
Looking back on that era from over 40 years later, there certainly was some super crappy music (Who let Elton John make a disco album?). There was also some crappy punk and metal and “arena rock” records. But a lot of those disco tracks are now on replay, like “Get Up to Get Down” by Brass Construction. I’ve even warmed up to 70s-era Bee Gees. It wasn’t the cock rock of Van Halen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexy. But the hatred of disco was vicious. The Chicago riot was just part of the disco backlash. Was this a just a fanatical devotion to “any guitar and any bass drum,” as The Jam sang, or something else?
I don’t doubt there was some real imbedded racism in the “Disco sucks” trend. Disco had its roots in black and Latin dance clubs in New York. Soul music became R&B, then became the most banal disco. Somehow Barry White went from make-out music to the Hustle, with actual dance steps. Early Saturday afternoons in 1979 spotlighted white couples on American Bandstand who were trying to mimic the steps of the black couples dancing on Soul Train later in the afternoon. White rock fans in ’79 could dig Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin channeling ancient blues cats, but somehow Chic’s “Le Freak” was too much. Dance music was about black and brown bodies moving in choreographed synchronicity while individualistic white bodies were either head banging or slam dancing.
But there was black music that was off limits to the anti-disco hate in 1979. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall LP, with it’s Quincy Jones horns workin’ day and night, was dynamic in the way that rock sought to blow your head off. Prince’s debut single, “I Wanna Be You Lover” was so provocative, it was punk. (I’ll never forget his performance on American Bandstand, sporting a very small tiger print Speedo and thinking the 70s were officially dead.) And there was this weird hippity hop music coming out of the Bronx. But rock fans would still rather blast AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” then sort out what “Rapper’s Delight” was all about.
There was also a healthy dose of homophobia reflected in disco hate. After all, those dance clubs in NYC that birthed the coked up disco scene were mostly gay clubs. Few things seemed gayer in 1979 than the Village People and dancing with your hands in the air. Real men kept their hands at waste level to play air guitar to Aerosmith. Working class boys, terrified of revealing any feminine attributes, were required to bash anything that wasn’t macho macho, man.
But there was plenty of gender-nonconforming in rock in 1979, from David Bowie (“Boys Keep Swinging”) to Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“Don’t Stop Me Now”). The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” was a big ol’ southern gay dance party and Lou Reed was femming as Patti Smith was butching. The rednecks in my high school would harass me for liking “that fag music from England” (usually referring to Devo, who were from Ohio) which gave me the privilege of being gay-bashed without actually being gay. I was bonded the mythical urban queer (I imagined him/her walking into CBGB’s while “Walk on the Wild Side” played), but I still hated disco.
Best I can figure is the Disco Sucks crusade was an example of intersectionality. Both black and gay were devalued in 1979, but tolerated. Everyone was convinced Bowie was “queer” but Freddie Mercury was “straight” (figure that one out). But they knew how to rock. Bands with black members, like Thin Lizzy, Mother’s Finest, and the Doobie Brothers cranked the guitars above the bass. Black or gay could find a place in white boy culture. Black and gay could not. Disco was black and gay and that was a bridge too far. Play that funky queer music white boy. Or bash it.
The hatred was all contextual. Rock acts were allowed to release disco-ish records. (Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Wings’ “Goodnight Tonight,” The Kinks “Superman,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” to name a few.) But if the act had any connection to the dance club scene (think Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Night Life”) it was deemed “disco” and must be blown up at a baseball stadium. Disco sucks wasn’t really about the intersection of black and gay, it was the intersection of racism and homophobia.
I’ve missed out on a lot of great music because of learned bigotries. (Why didn’t anyone tell me that Mariachi music was 100% brilliant?) The 15-year-old me would have been musically richer and ethically deeper if I had been open to disco in 1979. It was a time of discovery but somehow small town culture stopped me. Two years later (at 17), I would be hanging out in Atlanta gay bars with the other misfit punk refugees from suburbia, but in 1979, anything without a power chord was a threat to my forming masculinity.
It’s been fun discovering these songs over the years. A lot of it is the worst culture human civilization has ever produced (Humanity should have cancelled for “Disco Duck” alone), but much of it is a joyous release. (Currently playing, “Beat of the Night” (1979) by Fever.) It didn’t all suck. Racism and homophobia suck. Shaking your groove thing will set you free.
If there was ever a time America needed a leader, it’s now as COVID deaths surge past a quarter million. But sad Donald Trump is in his bunker, tweeting madly that he won the election “by a lot.” No stimulus program for Americans falling into homelessness. No national mask mandate to save additional lives. Just Baby Donald having a temper tantrum and a circus of sycophants too afraid to tell the Emperor that the world is laughing at him.
The pathetic end of Donald J. Trump is not only a lesson in how not to be a president. It’s also a vital lesson in how not to be a man. Of course, Mr. “Grab’ em by the pussy” has provided that service for years.
The lockdowns of 2020 have certainly presented challenges for single people, but there have been challenges for those of us that are boo’d up as well. The pandemic has forced many of us married and “coupled up” (as they say on Love Island) to learn how to truly co-exist in a confined space, without the easy exit hatch of “let’s just go out.” There’s only so much Netflixing you can do. At some point, it gets real. And as if providing (finally) some kind of national service, there’s President Hissy-fit giving the men of America a perfect example of how not to handle this moment.
From the very beginning, Trump has made it all about him. From his word-salad lie-fests before his adoring cult crowds to his denial of the Biden victory, “America first” has always been code for “Trump first” and you almost feel sorry for the schleps that still fall for this con man. (“Quick! Donate to President Trump’s legal team so he prove those black votes in Detroit and Atlanta were illegal! We take PayPal!”) Trump always centers himself and you don’t have to look at Melania’s face to see that that’s his fatal flaw.
But this isn’t about Trump. It’s about all us men who do the same thing. We’ve been socialized to believe it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world and women are there as our support system. (BEHIND every great man… is a woman who should be out in front.) The world is about our male hopes and plans and adventures and successes and failures and wet dreams. That’s why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) resonated with so many women. It simply asked, but what about me? Arn’t I a person, too?
Sadly, the second wave feminist movement that Friedan helped launch did not fully humanize females in America. It made a lot of progress (Thank you, Title IX and hello Vice President Harris!), but it still looks like a penis-centered culture. At least American Ninja Warrior puts the the top two female contestants through to the finals. We can find plenty of reasons to find cracks in patriarchy. (I’ll credit Nancy Pelosi for keeping Trump’s nuts in a vice grip and the daughters of NFL fans for prioritizing Beyoncés BLM anthems over Go Daddy commercials and cheerleaders in halter tops.) We can see progress all around us (if we turn blind eye to the epidemic of rape in the country), but there are still people who want to make America “Father Knows Best” again.
We can talk about this on a societal level (RBG was right. We’ve had generations of all-male Supreme Courts. When do we get an all-female Supreme Court?) But this is about the personal journey of men stepping away from the destructive (including to men) effects of patriarchy.
More than that, this about me learning how to love my wife.
If patriarchy, on a macro-level, is about centering men’s voice and minds in society, on a personal level it’s about doing the same Goddamn thing in our relationships. Hi ladies, welcome to my world. Can you make me a sandwich? Feminist Dorothy E. Smith has written how women are given control of the “domestic sphere” so men can have pretty much everything else on earth. And that can include the space in a relationship.
Now, to be clear, I have claimed feminism as a core value in my life since the 1980s and proudly left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, inspired by my favorite househusband John Lennon. I can thrill you with stories of escorting women into abortion clinics past the screaming banshees of Operation Rescue and challenging students to accept that God is most likely female, but I still internalized patriarchy in the same sad way I internalized white supremacy.
That became most clear this year during long, under quarantine, conversations with my wife. Like most people, we’ve had our fair share of COVID-magnified conflicts; about money, about parenting, about who is going to wash the dishes. She was quick to point out how quickly I would go into defensive mode and try to “prove” my case, like we were on opposing debating teams. We’re on the same team! I forgot! But it became all about me and how I was somehow aggrieved.
What I should have been doing is asking questions. Why do you feel this way? What can I do to help? I should have centered her and put my amazing wife first in the discussion, but instead I retreated into “Randyland,” wondering why she had a “well, fuck this shit” look on her face. Maybe if I slept downstairs I could comeback, refreshed with an even clearer articulation of my position, complete with PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, my wife felt more and more alone as I plotted strategies in my head instead of re-coupling (also a term from Love Island).
This is going to sound completely basic to many people (and maybe a few men), but I have literally burned through every relationship by doing this. By making it about me. That’s not how love is supposed to work. You’re supposed to put your partner’s emotional well-being before your own, but in patriarchal America I didn’t get that role modeling, not from my father and not from Starsky & Hutch. The result was relationships crashing and burning and me thinking that I was just a “psycho-chick magnet.” If they were psycho, it was because I centered myself instead of them.
There is a parallel phenomenon here with regard to race called White Fragility. America has the handbook and is starting to figure that out. (Thanks, Robin!) It’s not about you, Karen, so stop centering yourself and start centering black voices. Maybe, we need a book called Male Fragility: Why Men Get Their Panties in a Wad.
My wife is strong as hell and sure enough doesn’t need a guy like me who doesn’t put his partner before himself. I should have gotten that lesson a long time ago. I’m not the king of my castle. But somewhere, between long, hard conversations with her and watching Baby Trump center himself instead of the nation we hired him to lead, I got it. Don’t be like Trump. Hey Donald, it’s not about you. It’s about America. She’s trying to tell you how she feels. Please listen.
I’ve been absent from this blog in October largely because I’ve been talking to the world about right wing extremism and the looming threat of impending civil war. Pandemic lockdowns, fears of America becoming one big “anarchist jurisdiction” like Portland, and Donald Trump telling fascist fighting clubs, like the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” had already elevated fears. And then a militia group in Michigan, taking Trump’s “Liberate Michigan” tweet to heart, hatched a plot to kidnap and execute their governor and overthrow the state government. I’ve talked to news teams from France, South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, and several others about Portland leading the country on one path or another. Standing at the crossroads.
What will happen after Tuesday, regardless of which candidate wins? I’ve seen pick-up trucks with rebel and Trump flags driving through black neighborhood in Portland, with semi-automatic weapons on full display. Is this their promised “Boogaloo” at our doorstep?
The organization I chair, the Coalition Against Hate Crimes, issued the following statement urging law enforcement agencies to take this moment seriously. I will be back here to follow up this week.
Our country is passing through a time of great division. The voices of extremism have been growing and the threat of violence centered around the presidential election has raised anxiety levels in many communities. The includes communities who have long been the targets of hate and scapegoating, as well as federal workers, and even law enforcement. The Coalition Against Hate Crimes (CAHC) would like to use its collective voice to urge our partners in law enforcement to enact a cohesive strategy to protect Oregonians from those who have pledged violence around and after the election. This threat ranges from voter intimidation to acts of massive domestic terrorism.
We call on our coalition law enforcement partners to ensure the safety of the citizens and residents of our state by doing the following;
Have a clear plan about how law enforcement will respond to election related violence, including by those civilian groups that claim to be “pro-police.” This plan should be a collaboration between local, county, state, and federal law enforcement, and should be presented to the public. The priority of confronting domestic terrorism must be high through the new year.
Law enforcement should reach out to vulnerable communities who have been the target of hate in the past, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and those subject to religious bigotry, to develop security strategies and encourage the reporting of bias related behavior. The Department of Homeland Security should provide resources to protect to communities who have been threatened by right-wing extremists.
All levels of law enforcement must make clear that any member who participates in right-wing extremist activities will be removed from armed service.
Law enforcement must engage in a public effort to both address the threat level and create a mechanism by which the public knows how to properly respond. This can include utilizing the state’s new bias crime hotline to report potential threats and plots, leading to immediate investigation.
The last few years, the right-wing extremist movement has returned to the forefront of our body politic. Jeremy Christian, the anti-government activist posted an ode to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, on his Facebook page before his 2017 murderous attack on a Portland Max train. Armed Proud Boys have been roaming Portland and Salem, looking for confrontation. Militia groups, like the Oath Keepers, have promoted themselves as soldiers in a coming civil war. The race war McVeigh hoped to spark has been rebranded as the “boogaloo,” with armed adherents, both on line and in the street, promising violent conflict if their man in the White House is not re-elected. The recent arrests of the militia members in Michigan who were plotting to kidnap (and execute) Governor Whitmer and overthrow the state government demonstrate how real these “patriot” visions for massive social disruption are.
Communities in Oregon have been traumatized by the presence of white-nationalist, fascists, and anti-government extremists, many regularly sporting weapons of war. This should not be normal in our state or in America. People are in fear of what a Trump victory or defeat could mean for public safety. This fear is magnified by the perception that many in law enforcement condone, or even participate in this form of oppression and domestic terrorism.
If a community member sees a threat being made to a mosque, synagogue, LGBTQ+ center, Black frequented venue, members of immigrant communities, or a federal building on social media, they should 1) believe that law enforcement is going to take it seriously, and 2) have a clear avenue to report it to authorities. Our partners in the justice field can help build community resilience in the face of growing fears of grievous violence.
Law enforcement partners must speak in a unified, clear voice that the threat posed by right-wing violence is at odds with our democratic values. It must be dealt with and not allowed to grow. There are those that are calling for a second civil war to begin in the next few months. We must stand together against the calls for violence and division and law enforcement must play a role in preventing this catastrophe.
CAHC/Law Enforcement Background
The CAHC was formed in 1997 in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. The actors in that 1995 terrorist act killed 168 innocent people, including 19 children, and injured another 759 civilians, all who were inside the Murrah Federal Building. The goal of the bombing was to ignite a race war in America. They had spent time in the militia movement in Michigan, training with right-wing extremists who hated federal and state government agencies. Following the bombing, Attorney General Janet Reno requested that federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies form partnerships with community-baed groups to prevent further domestic terrorism from the radical right.
The CAHC was created as a partnership between advocacy and civil rights groups and law enforcement and government agencies to do this work. For 23 years, we have collaborated on better reporting of incidents, supporting the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, community-level education, and providing resources to the victims of hate. Since our founding, we have had active participation from all levels of law of enforcement, from the Portland Police Bureau to the FBI. The partnerships have, at times, been tense, but have allowed for open channels of communications around key issues of public safety in our state.
It’s sort of pointless to argue whether or not Donald Trump is a racist. His lifetime record of words and deeds proves it. Saturday night he rambled on about how is white crowd in Minnesota had “good genes.” He can pimp out Herschel Walker (who has had his fair share of blows to the head), or suddenly throw $13 billion at Puerto Rico, but 99% of black and brown people know what’s up. The Trump loyalists who don’t think he’s a racist are not going to be convinced by me that he is. Anyone with an a IQ over 80 and a minimal understanding of twentieth century history understands what’s happening in America right now.
And we don’t have to go all the way back to Germany in the 1930s to see the populist swing to authoritarianism returning. Trump is straight up Nixon ’68, revisiting the racist “southern strategy” as he madly tweets at “suburban housewives” that black people (and Antifa!) are coming to destroy their bucolic worlds. The fear mongering worked for Nixon as race riots gripped American cityscapes. Things are different in 2020. The suburbs are different and most of those “housewives” are the primary breadwinners in their families. I doubt Mr. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” and his racist drumbeating is going to frighten them more than COVID-19 killing their children.
So then what to do? How do we deprive this racist lover of dictators of his oxygen? How do we kill the threat of Donald Trump to America?
It will be our veterans that show us the way
The absolute key to this racial mess is understanding the nature of trauma. Liberals and conservatives, antifascists and “patriots” all have a basic understanding of trauma. So here’s how it works.
Step One: Veterans – When was the last time we heard of someone coming back from a war zone and being spit on? We don’t do that anymore. Even hard core anti-war left wingers would never even think of doing that. My father used to joke about torturing a “shell shocked” Korean War vet who was his high school teachers in the 1950s. In the 1970s, tweaked Vietnam vets were the subject of derision. “Dude’s in his own private ‘Nam.” What changed?
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a very real and life-lasting cognitive condition. Because of the suffering and sacrifice of a lot of vets, we understand how acute trauma, like getting shot at, alters the brain. And we learned that trauma can lie dormant and be triggered by something random, like fireworks going off on the 4th of July. In 1998, I went to a special screening of Saving Private Ryan that honored surviving WWII vets. The opening scenes of the Normandy landing had men in their seventies convulsing like they were back on that beach 54 years prior. They nearly had to stop the film.
We’ve learned that PTSD has a whole host of ripple effects, like depression, substance abuse, and elevated suicide rates. That’s why there is near consensus on helping our vets heal instead of adding to their trauma.
Step Two: Rape victims – Rape is epidemic in our society. Depending on the measure, as many as one and four women in this country will be sexually assaulted at least once. Rape knows no political boundaries, no race or even age. We exist in a rape culture which traumatizes women with sexual violence and the looming threat of sexual violence. Even typing the word rape will traumatize some of the women reading this. I was lecturing about rape statistics in my criminology class at the University of Oregon and a young woman burst into tears and left the class, never to return. I re-traumatized her without even trying. It’s the impact not the intent.
We also have a mountain of research that shows rape victims suffer from PTSD just like our veterans do. The difference is women don’t walk off the battlefield. America is the battlefield, with the next potential attack just around the corner, or, more likely, in the next room. And having entertainment, like Game of Thrones, that turns rape into spectacle and a president who brags about his sexual assaults doesn’t help.
Even the most right-wing asshole dude has a mother or a sister or a daughter or a favorite teacher or a lover who has been wounded by sexual violence. Just like he would never tell an Afghan war vet to “just get over it,” it would be hard to imagine he would tell his wounded rape victim to “just get over it.” Even assholes have hearts.
Step Three: People of Color – I know there are white people who think racism magically ended in 1865, or 1964, or 2008 when Obama was elected. But anyone who has watched the 8 minute and 46 second execution of George Floyd knows that the trauma of racism continues and is a daily reality for people of color. Seeing grown black men, weeping on live TV, begging for black lives to matter was a wake up call for many white people.
Think of the cumulative trauma that results from slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, mass incarceration during the phony “War on Drugs,” redlining, educational discrimination, white flight, police violence, and on and on. Where is the opportunity to heal when the traumatizing impacts of racism are still coming, while white people chant, “just get over it”?
Black, brown, Asian, and indigenous people are marginalized in ways that are often completely invisible to white people. It could be a simple micro-aggression (“So, what are you?”) or a lack of representation (How many black male teachers have you had?). The rising rate of hate crimes based on race is the icing and Trump’s attacks on black athletes as “sons of bitches” are the cherries on top.
If we can understand the trauma of veterans and rape victims, why can’t we understand the trauma of racism victims? As a dude on American Ninja Warriors recently said, “Ignoring race doesn’t fix racism.”
An embarrassing story about myself
Two years ago I was taking my daughter, Cozy, to her preschool. I got there early and saw a young African-American male sitting on the steps to the school. His hood was up and he was on his phone. Something ticked in my head, that said, “Danger Will Robinson!” so I took Cozy in a different door, giving the young man a wide berth.
When I came back out, I saw him getting on a school bus, doing what we want every teenager should to be doing. The preschool steps were his bus stop. I felt incredibly embarrassed about my assumption and as he got on the bus, he shot me a look that I will never forget. It said, “What do I have to do? I’m going to school and you still think I’m a thug.” I had wounded him and his day was just starting.
What happened? I grew up in racist America which means I internalized white supremacy, including the belief that black men are threats to our safety. That internalized white supremacy turned into implicit bias, that gut feeling that had me choose to walk in a different door. That young man experienced that as a micro-aggression, he knew I was walking in the far door because he was black. And that micro-aggression was a small but meaningful traumatizing event. Instead of helping him to heal, I gave him YET ANOTHER reminder that being black in America is to be marginalized. I wounded him. And I’m sure there were plenty more woundings that followed that day.
Our president thinks discussing concepts like internalized white supremacy, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and racial trauma are anti-American. He’s come out hard against the New York Times 1619 Project that tries to undo the whitewashing we’ve done on the history and impact of slavery on America. He wants to institute some Orwellian “patriotic education” curriculum to indoctrinate kids back into the white washing. (School curriculums are mandated on the state level, so he’s just playing to his racist base, again.) I’m waiting for Trump to sign an executive order replacing Black History Month with Slave Owners Had Good Genes Month.
If “All lives matter,” then black lives matter. That’s how words work.
The road out of this backsliding moment is to talk to white people about trauma and healing. If they can understand the experience of veterans and rape victims with PTSD, they can understand the traumatizing impacts of racism and marginalization. If it makes sense that a wounded warrior might be triggered by firecrackers or a rape victim might be re-traumatized by another news report of a sexual assault, than a white person should be able to understand the cumulative impact of another unarmed black person who was killed by the police on black people in general. In 2020, it seems like black lives just don’t matter yet.
Except for sociopaths (and I understand the ranks of neo-Nazis and “Pro-Trump” activists have plenty of those folks), all human beings are capable of empathy. I’ve written about how my road from white supremacist kid from a Klan town to anti-racist educator started with the recognition of how I traumatized a black janitor in my freshman dorm at Oxford College by ripping up a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. and throwing it in the toilet. Good people don’t want to cause trauma. Good people want to help people to heal from their wounds.
The problem is that white people are so damn fragile. They run away from the term “racist,” thinking it only applies to cross-burning Klansmen. We’ve all internalized white supremacy, full stop. Myself included. The switch has to flick from, “I’m not a racist!” to, “I am racist but I want to reduce the harm that’s caused. How can I help the healing?” I think when white people understand the depth and length of racial trauma, they will want to be helpers instead of hurters. Take down your Confederate flag and unclench your white fist into an open hand.
Donald Trump has cast himself as the savior of white America. It might work. There are are still a lot of anxious white people that can’t handle a black football player who cares about justice, let alone people taking to streets, demanding to dismantle racist institutions. Trump’s racism has been unleashed in his desperate eleventh hour attempt to salvage the train wreck of his presidency. Perhaps calm conversations about the wounding racism has caused to people we care about can end his reign of injury.
One of the cliche adages that parents get handed (all of which are appreciated) is that every stage of a child’s life are great. Our daughter, Cozette turns six today. By the way, she’s made it clear that she prefers Cozette to Cozy. And as exciting as it is, I’m really going to miss my 5-year-old. She was a rockstar. I couldn’t get enough of her wit and wisdom and spontaneous dance routines.
Five is such a growth period. Physically and mentally. Physically she’s been stuck at 50 pounds for months, but growing like a weed, stretching from babyfat 4 to skinny 6. And the first loose tooth is seconds from falling out. But it’s been the intellectual growth that’s been so stunning. She still loves her stuffies, but she is completely plugged in to the world. Seeing her take on the Black Lives Matter cause as a personal crusade has been breathtaking. How many 5-year-olds can tell you, in detail, why we should remember George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?
My father is convinced we’ve “indoctrinated” her, but this is all on her. She’s not writing “BLM” in chalk on the sidewalk because of me, she’s doing it for her African-American friends and neighbors. She has an empathetic connection with them and wants to protect them from racism. I didn’t do this. She figured inequity all out on her own. She knows her black friends are hurting and, in her own way, wants to let them know they are safe with her and loved.
The fact that all this growth has happened during a global pandemic has been remarkable. The last three months of her kindergarten class were a disaster. Trying to corral a bunch of 5 and 6-year-olds to focus on Zoom for 40 minutes, four days a week was completely pointless. All COVID-era students, K through Law School, are getting screwed, but the little kids are getting it the worst. I don’t know if we were the best homeschoolers or if Cozy is now behind where she should be entering first grade, which is hard because she’s so smart.
Cozy’s great skill set is in her ability for social navigation. There is a complex social dynamic of kiddos in our neighborhood and it has a racial component. Our Cozette is the great peacemaker, like a little Freud, understanding the baggage that each child enders the playing field with. I was like that in high school, having friends in the various silly cliques. (Jocks! Preps! Freaks!) I was elected senior class secretary but Cozy already has her eyes set on the White House. (You heard it here first.) She knows how to speak to her audience and it is sincere as it gets. We won’t have to teach her empathy. Why “Y” is sometimes a vowel, yes, but empathy, no.
For her birthday weekend we took a trip up to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. (Americans are currently prohibited from leaving the country so that was as close as we could get to the border.) We decided to go after watching Free Willy. She was crushed to learn that Keiko the Whale had passed away so I promised her we’d go see if we could find some orcas in their habitat. As we stood on the empty Crescent Beach, watching for whales, I told her, “Cozy, I’m rally going to miss the 5-year-old you.” She replied, “Daddy, I’m going to miss the 56-year-old you.” She knew that we were both moving through life together, growing and changing.
You can never step in the same river twice. I will never have Cozy, 5, to discuss political affairs and L.O.L Dolls with. But the 6-year-old Cozette is going to change the world. I’m just honored to be in that world with her.
I was watching the funeral of civil rights icon John Lewis, thinking about how far we’ve moved forward and how far we’ve fallen back. You’ve expressed anger that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and that I have been showing up at the protests in downtown Portland. To someone your age, I would hope the images of anti-racist protestors being teargassed and beaten by police would remind you of similar images 55 years ago when John Lewis and civil rights protestors routinely suffered a similar fate. But you’re a white man and white men like us can pretend the racism that existed then has somehow magically disappeared.
You and mom brought me into a world that was in the last, most violent, days of Jim Crow. Born four months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the month I was born Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers because of hung jury while black men were still being hung from trees. Three months later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was born while America was trying to shake off the yoke of the white supremacist order, but our little white family was removed from the growing pains in our suburban home while black people marched, carrying signs that read, “I am a man.”
I often wonder what you, a 22-year-old white man, thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. Historians will tell you that a large percentage of white people considered him a “communist agitator.” Many fell in love with him after he was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968. White people love a black icon when he’s dead. I certainly never heard his name in our house growing up or any need to show empathy for the victims of white supremacy. In 1972, we moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. I never heard anything about the terrorism and trauma they inflicted on our black neighbors. I just heard about how if black families move into the neighborhood, home values will go down. I heard that a lot.
I did learn some valuable life lessons from you in those days. As a Boy Scout, from a long line of Eagle Scouts, you gave me a mantra that has oriented me throughout my entire life – Leave the campsite better than you found it. That’s exactly what I’m doing and why I’m willing to put by body on the line to clean up this camp. So let me tell you how badly this camp is messed up.
I was born into a position of privilege which means a whole lot of people were disadvantaged. In February 1964, there were not yet systemic wins for the civil rights movement, the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, the Native American rights movement, or the migrant labor rights movement. Those wins were coming. But I was born into a world where the authority of white men like us was still unchallenged. I know, to you, it must seem like that world is long gone, but I can tell you it’s alive and well and Jim Crow has never ceased to exist.
The statistics would make your head spin, so let me just say that in 2020, in every single institution in America, black people still get screwed. From the criminal justice system, to hiring, to health care, to housing, institutional racism is alive and unleashed. And before you fall back on the “but Affirmative Action!” trope, let me tell you that I worked in an Affirmative Action office at my university. Affirmative Action in no way mandates the hiring of unqualified minorities and the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action have been white women and veterans. Believe me, Dad, I’ve heard every fake excuse in the world about how black people have it so much better than white people, yet I have yet to hear a single white person say they would gladly switch places with a black person in America.
So here’s why I support the Black Lives Matter movement. Because black lives don’t matter at the moment. African-Americans have been devalued and dehumanized for 600 years and it didn’t magically end because a law was passed in 1964. There is a mountain of evidence that teachers, cops, medical doctors, judges, and many others still treat people of color worse than people like you and I. You can argue the evidence, but you should try just talking to ANY black person about their DAILY experience with racism. And by talking, I mean shutting up and listening. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism , asked a black man what it would be like to have a white person just sit and listen, without responding, to the true expression of what it means to be black in America. He answered, “It would be revolutionary.” I’m listening. You should, too. If you truly believed that “all lives matter,” you would, of course, agree with the belief that black lives matter, just like someone who believes that all trees matter agrees with someone who says, “Maple trees matter.”
You’ve told me that Portland is being burned down by “Antifa.” That statement is hilarious to anyone who actually lives in Portland. Of the thousands of people protesting, a handful have damaged a small area of the city. I have friends who are anti-fascist activists and I have friends who work in the Federal Courthouse downtown, and all have similar values. I would love to introduce you to my friends at the U.S. Attorney’s Office who work in the building that’s been surrounded by protestors every night. They support the Black Lives Matter movement, as do the scores of veterans, moms, doctors, lawyers, and black youth who have demanded justice in the streets of Portland for over two months. I know the internet and Sean Hannity want to tell you who the Black Lives Matter movement “really is,” but I can answer that. It’s all of us that are tired of centuries of the racist humanization of black people and want to find a way to change it. If you actually believe that all lives matter, you can be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, too. You could be a powerful voice to help clean up this damn campsite.
But the main reason I support Black Lives Matter is because of the black kids in my neighborhood. They are my brown daughter’s best friends. They have already been disadvantaged by racism, including having parents arrested for things I should have been arrested for but my white skin got me off the hook. They live in a world where white is “normal,” including white heroes, white politicians, and white standards of beauty. Ask these little black girls which doll is the “pretty doll,” the white doll or the black doll and watch them pick the white doll every time. It has to end now. I will do everything in my power to prevent my daughter from growing up in a world where white is automatically viewed as better. There’s a term for that; white supremacy.
John Lewis was arrested over 45 times, trying bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That fight continues. I am honored to show up for that cause in a way that I wish more white people of your generation had done. Do you think the millions of African-Americans who are crying for black lives to matter are lying? Are grandstanding? Or want something for nothing? All three of those opinions would make you just another defender of white supremacy. Me, I’m doing what I can, even if is just quietly listening to black voices, to create an America that lives up to its value that all are created equal. And I have to do this work, in part, because you chose not to. I have to clean up our campsite. I hope you’ll get to see how wonderful it will be.
You’ve heard it a thousand times. “If I was around in the 1960s, I would have been marching with Dr. King!” Or how about this one, “If I was around in the 1930s or 1940s, I would have been fighting the Nazis!” As if the moment you’re in right now doesn’t require you to pony up and join the frontlines in the fight against oppression. Your time is now.
One of the great twentieth century sociologists, C. Wright Mills, wrote in 1959 that we tend to see our biographies as separate from the moments in history that we live in. We focus on the, often mundane, day to day parts of our lives and not our lives as part of a larger historical moment. Very few of the people engaged in the vibrant protests in 1968 thought, “I’m in 1968, making history!” They might have thought, “I’m going to this protest with my friend and then I need to pick up some milk on the way home.” We are making history because every day we are making history by merely existing. But Karl Marx once wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” However, there are times, like now, where we can actually alter the course of events.
Portland is again at the epicenter of national events. The media from around the world (including China and Canada) has been calling me to ask what to make of federal forces shooting “non-lethal munitions” into the faces of protestors and grabbing them off the street in actions that look more like Argentina in 1980 than anything America could ever be. And now President Trump has ordered federal police into Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque in what he has branded, “Operation Legend.” (I won’t psychoanalyze how that title fits Trump’s delusions of grandeur.) State and local leaders and well as senators and congress members have demanded the federal forces leave. Oregon Senior Senator Ron Wyden tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump get your jackbooted goons out of my city.”
The arrival of federal forces has completely altered the dynamic of the conflict. The protests had been geared towards Black Lives Matter and the systemic racial injustices that were highlighted by the May 25th murder of George Floyd. Even in Portland they were beginning to lose steam, as they had in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and other cities. We were trying to move to a sponsored dialogue phase of the conflict. I was working with the Department of Justice on a plan to get protestors and Portland police to the table together. Then, in a bizarre attempt at political theater (and perhaps a distraction from the unending COVID-19 headlines), Trump sends in federal forces to throw a tanker full of gasoline on to the fire. If it was his actual intention to quell the protests, he failed miserably. People who have never engaged in protests are now manning the barricades; grandmothers, veterans, dads with leaf blowers, all willing to take volleys of CS gas to the face to make a stand.
This is now about a lot more than Black Lives Mattering. This is about a shockingly rapid slide into authoritarianism. We don’t have go back 80 years to Germany, or even 40 years to Argentina. The parallel is the Philippines, where the 2016 election of “law and order” candidate Rodrigo Duterte turned the country into a police dictatorship in which the media are regularly imprisoned. In 2017, Donald Trump praised the dictator and invited him to the White House. The people who are protesting in America understand how fragile democracy is. The Philippines was a democracy. It is not one now. Those who mocked Antifa activists for warning about the threat of fascism in America are witnessing something that looks a lot more like fascism than it does democracy rooted in constitutional due process. When Fox New’s Chris Wallace asked Trump this week if he would accept the results of the election in November if he loses, his response was that he’ll “have to see.”
So here America is at a turning point. Will we move to civil war or an era of peacemaking and healing? Are the protestors who are risking their lives to drive the federal forces out of Portland lawless anarchists, American patriots, or both? My wife and I (who were tear-gassed at an earlier protest) have stayed up into the morning hours watching the nightly mayhem in a small area of the city, wondering what’s happening to this country. Whatever it is, it’s history unfolding before our eyes. You missed Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 but you can show up to Chapman Square in Portland in 2020 for a front row seat for tomorrow’s American History textbook.
I’m lucky to have a wide range of friends that run the gamut from U.S. Attorney’s Office civil rights lawyers and police officers to members of the “Wall of Moms” and some of those “lawless anarchists.” I have to imagine all of us are aware that this is a true crossroads in U.S. history. It’s both exciting and frightening. It reminds me of the end of the Cold War and being in London clubs as newly freed eastern Europeans danced their asses off. But it could easily go the other way as Trump’s America continues to flirt with our most dystopian dark fantasies. Police riots and “law and order” rhetoric got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, extending the Vietnam War into the mid-70s, but I think America is in a different place in 2020. At least I hope so.
This is history. Future generations will debate what happened in America in 2020. This great transformation could be a wonderful act reconciliation or the death of America itself. Pay attention. You are not required to participate in this moment, but you are required to bear witness to it.