The Dream Life of 2020

December 16, 2020

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.

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 Angelos, 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