So, as had been reported in mainstream media in a few places (here, for instance), and as I alluded to last night during comments elsewhere (“there are still stories to tell and information to pass on”) the BLM organizers have called for deemphasizing the federal courthouse protests after the BLM rallies next door at the Justice Center. At least one asked for people to simply go home, and skip any post-rally protest focussed specifically on the Mark O. Hatfield courthouse.
Honestly, the audio system is pretty deficient (as I’ve also noted before, though I will admit it was better last night – July 27th – than on most other nights) so i can’t hear anything clearly and can’t be sure I got everything, but they did clearly ask people to simply go home at the end of the main BLM rally, rather than refocus the protest on the Hatfield courthouse as the crowd typically does around 10 or 10:30pm. This request is different than simply asking people not to set off fireworks or start the small fires (on concrete, they don’t spread, but they are plenty large enough to hurt someone badly if they fell into it). They have been consistently asking people to stop setting fires and setting off fireworks, which I consider the worst behavior during these demos, every night I’ve been there. This request goes much further in simply asking people to return home.
It’s interesting for me, because I haven’t engaged in anything illegal besides jaywalking (oh so much jaywalking) and just being present, which shouldn’t be illegal, but becomes so after an “illegal gathering” is declared. I don’t throw fireworks. I don’t start fires. I don’t bang on the fence, and I certainly don’t climb over it. IIRC, I’ve only touched the fence in the context of trying to get the phone’s camera lens placed closely and correctly so as to get a shot between the fence panels. I certainly haven’t attempted to damage or dismantle the fence, as official warnings declare is illegal.*1
But Oregonlive reports the main speaker last night as saying, “Burning that building down does not help Black people,”*2 and my BFF remembers the same speaker asking the crowd where they think the money to rebuild a destroyed courthouse would come from if not the same people who are already needing help and support – in Black and other communities. (I was off taking pictures elsewhere just then b/c of my frustration with not being able to hear clearly, so I’m relying on BFF for the quote.)
Despite the clear request to leave, there’s at least an implication there that confronting Feds’ violence and other authoritarian tactics isn’t contrary to the BLM organizers’ hopes or desires. Instead it speaks to a recognition that no matter how many times they’ve asked – and they’ve asked many times just in the past week and a bit that I’ve been attending – there are still going to be stupid fuckers who throw fireworks and set those small fires. And while I think that exposing authoritarianism and violence does help the BLM cause, anything that allows the right to justify authoritarianism and violence – like setting fires, however small, and however impossible to spread due to concrete, and however pitifully unable to damage the building itself – certainly does hurt the BLM cause.
So it seems that now they’ve given up on the idea that there can be a 100% peaceful protest at the courthouse next door after the Justice Center protests are over and are worried that anything less than 100% peaceful protests will result in more damage to Black lives and Black communities – either through police retribution or through economic deprivation as public funds are diverted to other projects or through both.
I know I’m WAY over the top as a hippy non-violent type. But I also know that not everyone is like me and that when you have 1000 people gathered, especially when the gathering is both on the street accessible to all and also focussed around issues which can and do and should make normal people angry, some angry people are going to show up and do stupid shit. This doesn’t mean that I think setting fires is a good idea. It just means that I’m smart enough to expect it, and I’m smart enough to realize that if a few people throw fireworks (that, by the way, are far less dangerous than the Feds’ “fireworks” of flash-bangs and tear gas), this doesn’t mean that the purpose or message or even motivating anger of a protest is invalid.
What drives me nuts is that it appears that I’m smarter than the US government, and that’s just pitiful. They have people who study security and riot and protest and free speech and spend entire professional lifetimes working out the best things to do in these situations. To think that the federal government can’t get it together enough to simply use the information that they have is as frightening as anything in this crisis.
So what now? Do I go home every night after the rallies? Do I assume that I know better than BLM what they want, and that they’d really be okay with peaceful observation and vigil? That sure as hell is fucked up. I’m not going to do that. But what if I wanted to respect Black leadership during events for Black lives and yet treated the courthouse protests as something separate – something spun off from the BLM protests but not a BLM protest itself?
There’s a lot of merit to that idea, but it still requires dismissing Black leadership, as if Black voices didn’t matter after 10:30 pm.
And, truthfully, part of what makes me want to stay is this: I don’t want to get tear gassed. I don’t want to be beaten in the street. I don’t want to be disappeared for 72 hours – or even officially arrested with my due process rights intact. So there’s always a little doubt: Am I just willing to listen to the Black voices telling us to go home because they’re telling me what I want to hear? That I’ve done my job when I take no risks?
Because that was another big part of the rally last night, the topic of comfort. Multiple speakers spoke about the need to push past where one can remain comfortable. There was a time when we were asked to sit down on the streets and sidewalks and park grass instead of standing. It’s an odd feeling sitting down surrounded by others at a political rally like that. It goes against social expectations and for that reason it was … disconcerting.
“Are you comfortable?” asked the speaker after the crowd had followed her instructions. And when people replied, “No,” she added, “Good. You shouldn’t be comfortable. This shouldn’t be comfortable.” Her message was that if we could solve these issues while everyone remained comfortable, they’d be solved already.
And that message dovetailed with the message of Black people I spoke with that weren’t part of the BLM organizing group or the sanctioned speakers. These were people who were simply engaging in conversation with me, and two of them in separate conversations (each while the other wasn’t present) expressed a wish that we would have huge crowds downtown 24 hours a day. More than 2 spoke about the frustration of seeing the crowds crash from 6,000 or so on Saturday to 1,000ish on Monday.
And, again, these aren’t necessarily conflicting desires. Whether or not we would find it to be true if we got the chance to ask in private, it’s at least likely that the BLM organizers would love a 24-hour crowd of 6,000 so long as our actions weren’t giving the right excuses to paint their efforts to save Black lives as violent and radical and dangerous, and therefore best ignored.
And so this puts me right where it should put me as a white person: on uncomfortable ground. You’re never going to get 43,000,000 Black USians to agree on tactics. You can’t even get them to agree on goals, though here I feel more comfortable saying fuck Diamond & Silk.
With different people telling me different things, my job is to listen like fuck and then to use my own best critical thinking to determine what I can best do to support the goals and desires of Black people leading the struggle for Black lives, Black love, Black community, and Black liberation. Some might want a 24-hour protest, but I have to recognize that I have disabilities and will need to take time away. Others might wish to deemphasize or end the late-night courthouse protests, and I have to decide whether I will go home right away or not, and if I stay, what I can and should reasonably do while there to discourage the fires and fireworks that give BLM a bad name.
In the face of inevitably conflicting opinions from Black people, the correct response can neither be to revert to mindless acceptance of whatever any Black person said last nor can it be to throw my hands up and decide to do nothing at all until 43 million people unanimously agree on the best next course of action.
In this moment, I am called upon to use my brain, to live my ethics, and to act.
And then? Well, then I have the opportunity to be accountable for my choices. If I act badly, I will consider myself lucky if people give me the gift of criticism from which I can learn.
And then I will be called upon to choose again, to act again, as uncomfortable as it may be to take that risk. I will be called upon to be a little bit better than I was before the criticism. It is only in this way, through each of us gradually becoming better as persons, that we will all become better as a people.
*1: Parenthetically, the warning wording is this:
Do not attempt to damage, remove, enter or climb the fence around the federal courthouse. Failure to do so may result in arrest or use of crowd control munitions.
*2: The statement about burning the courthouse down is hyperbole, of course. The worst fire on courthouse grounds I’ve witnessed was a small amount of garbage that then had a 4′ by 8′ piece of plywood added. As the facing of the courthouse is concrete, there was no threat at all to the structure itself. This sent’ saying I think it’s a good idea or that I’m okay with the fires, just that they couldn’t possibly burn down the courthouse. The speaker was merely exaggerating to make a point.