A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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

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 I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Living with hate in Portland

June 1, 2017

It’s been a long time since my city had such an emotional week. Maybe in November 1988 when three skinheads murdered an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw, ripping the scab off the supposedly liberal wonderland of Portland, Oregon. It showed us the ugliness underneath that had been there since Oregon was founded as the nation’s only “whites only” state in 1859. Last Friday that wound was opened times three.

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A local “patriot activist” named Jeremy Christian had been bouncing around on the fringes of the alt right movement. He had been seen seig heiling at a “free speech” rally earlier in the spring and around town going on racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant rants. His Facebook page was all over the place, hoping Trump would be his new Hitler, idolizing the Oklahoma City Bomber, briefly defending Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, wanting to kill those who perform circumcisions. He was an equal opportunity hate machine. And as the world now knows, last Friday that hate became lethal.

I used to ride Portland’s Max train a lot when I was single. It was often a source of free entertainment and a bit of sociological research. It’s a busted circus train where the human zoo gets to mingle. It might be obnoxious teenagers trying to size up an elderly woman dressed like she just climbed down from the Russian steppe. Or maybe a suave hobo trying to make small talk with a tightly-pressed banker. It’s never the same and always seasoned with a dash of risk. At any stop the anti-Christ might step on board and take the train to hell.

That’s what happened Friday when Jeremy Christian got on the Green Line on my side of town and started harassing two teenage girls who had gotten on the wrong train on their way to the mall. Homeless Christian started ranting that it was his train because he paid taxes and they should leave his country. One of the girls was black and the other wore a hijab, so Christian launched into a racist, anti-Muslim tirade. The poor girls had nowhere to go. Three passengers, Ricky Best, Micah David-Cole Fletcher and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, tried to get the maniac to back down and Christian quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed each man in the neck, killing Best and Namkai-Meche.

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On Friday afternoon, while this was happening, I was on my way back from the University of Oregon in Eugene where I had attended a workshop on implicit bias. My thoughts were on beating the traffic to pick up Cozy from daycare. My mind drifted to my wife’s new job at an immigration law firm and the family of squirrels that had made a home in my attic, threatening to chew through our home’s wiring. While I was trying to pick which lane would get me home the fastest a man my same age, also a father, was laying on the Hollywood Max platform, bleeding to death and thinking his last thought. There’s a good chance I had met Ricky Best. He worked for the city and we often take city employees on our Fair Housing Council bus tour where we discuss Oregon’s dark history and encourage people to stand up to hate. Our bus driver is sure that we was one our riders.

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Those three men were the best of Portland; a Republican army veteran, a recent college graduate with a new job, and a PSU student who did spoken word poetry about Islamophobia. They were white men, not girls of color. They could have just thought, “Hey, this is not about me.” But it was about them. It was about us and how we stand together against the darkness. Riders on the train took off their clothes to try to stop the blood gushing from their necks while Christian, waving his knife, ran away. As Namkai-Meche gasped for life he managed to say, “I want everyone one the train to know I love them.”

When I first heard the news, I went into “official” mode. As the chair of Oregon’s Coalition Against Hate Crime I had to alert the network of community partners and start talking to our contacts in the Portland Police Bureau and the Department of Justice about an appropriate response. There were vigils to speak at and interviews to give to put this horrific crime in context, including on NPR’s All Things Considered. The “hate crime expert” hat was on and there was important work to do.

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On Tuesday, I told a CNN crew I would meet them for an interview at the growing memorial at the Hollywood Max station. That’s when my expert hat fell off.

The Max station is now covered in chalk messages of love and tolerance, flowers, candles, and pictures of the stabbing victims. It was overwhelming, this complete coming together in an outpouring of collective grief and appreciation for these heroes. Two little girls were drawing chalk hearts on the pavement with Rick’s, Michah’s and Taliesin’s name in then. I thought about how much Cozy loves to chalk on the sidewalk and I broke down. How do you explain this kind of hate to a child? The next two interviews I gave they had to stop because I broke into tears in the middle of them. This wasn’t academic anymore, this was my community.

We’ve made so much progress as a society. All the measures show kids are much more tolerant than previous generations. HR departments have equity managers and police departments do trainings on implicit bias. Even in the middle of Trump’s wink and nod to our worst qualities which has unleashed a new permissiveness for hate and bullying, we’re still better than we were. Trump and his thugs are a passing fad. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends away from bullies.

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At the memorial, I wept because I forgot that. I thought my 30 years of work on this issue amounted to nothing if hate mongers were still slaying good people on commuter trains. But all the work we do has paid off. We are better. There will always be monsters like Jeremy Christian, who see themselves as righteous patriots. They will fall through the cracks no matter how small we make them. Let us stand up to them each and every time. We’ve come to far to turn back now.

I got home from a series of interviews last night and saw that our cat had killed one of the parents of the baby squirrel that was living in our attic and just felt the weight of the grey Portland sky.

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