Category Archives: racism

Standing Home

I’ve never had a home to fight for. I moved around so much as a child that I graduated from my seventeenth public school as a new kid. Throughout my twenties, money in my bank account equalled passport stamps equalled minority status in most countries I trekked through. A local woman in rural Nepal once waggled her permanently broken arm in my face, grunting muted guttural sounds from her throat. When she opened her mouth to, I assumed from her body language, yell, I saw that she had no tongue, and few teeth. With her good arm she smacked my jacket pocket. Unable to comprehend, I dumbly stared at her. I remember smelling dried sweat and dal, the traditional local cuisine, on her sleeve. My role became clear to me that day: I was a privileged Westerner come to voyeur foreign squalor. Shame washed over me. I had no place there.

I told myself to go home, but I didn’t know where that was. 

This autumn, in an effort to make believe, I began building a tiny house on wheels. A place of my own. Before I started, I told myself that because I had no land yet on which to put it, I didn’t actually deserve it a roof over my head, a place to own and take responsibility for. That I hadn’t earned the right to a place to exist, or feel safe. Doesn’t everyone deserve that, one might wonder. Let me tell you: as I continue to build the tiny home, I choose to trust that I am also building something within myself that might one day belong within it. 

My friend Ari was headed out to Standing Rock to support the water protectors in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He knew no one out there, and had little money. When he announced on social media his intention to go, someone he didn’t know bought him a train ticket in support, or solidarity, or perhaps lack of knowing how else to help the water protectors keep their ancestral home but to put people on it who wouldn’t budge.

“Do you want to come out, Sean?” Ari asked.

My anger and sadness flared. My body shook in resonance. I sensed that the Native Americans knew in their souls that home was more than just a plot of land in a nice neighborhood, a piece of wisdom long lost to my ancestry. I thought that I could go to Standing Rock, and that my white maleness would declare my alacrity to heal the genocidal rift between our cultures. It seemed to fit my pursuit: I needed to know what it was to fight for home. I wanted viscerally to make eye contact with a man in riot gear from the other side of the line. To reach across the gulf between us: not just politics, but the narcissistic colonialist values that would keep a modern American man from honoring the Native struggle, not impeding it. I could empathize with the very human motivation to feed, clothe, and show one’s family that they loved them, but supporting a family at the expense of the freedoms police are employed to protect is another thing. I wanted the mercenary to see himself in me. I wanted my mother, who was a cop when I was a child, to see which side of the line I stood on.

To be sure, at Standing Rock I would stand isolated from my brethren in riot gear, and from the people I sought to aid. Maybe ‘aid’ was the wrong verb for what I wanted to do. Aid was what privilege-guilty Americans did to Africa; I wanted to be present, to listen. I wanted to wash dishes, chop firewood, build camp structures warm and strong enough to endure the frigid North Dakota winter. 

“Yes, I want to come,” I wrote back.

I contacted another friend who was moving his family to Omaha in three days. He replied immediately. Yes, there was room for me in the moving truck, if I would help with driving. 

Resistance set in. Did I have enough money? A warm enough sleeping bag? Was it ironic that I would consume heaps of fossil fuels in order to protest them? How long would I spend out there? My mother was coming to visit in a couple of weeks; would I be back in time? Would she understand if I wasn’t? 

I also had my own structure to build. The Northwest’s autumnal rains left me with precious few weather windows to work. Sunshine was forecast for the week. I had planned to sheathe and put up the walls, the most significant visual progress of the build: that of raising a pile of fastened lumber into a tangible house. 

Both options—going to Standing Rock; staying to build the tiny house—were noble holes to sink money into. Neither made sense. Why didn’t I just abandon both, give in to the poverty consciousness I was raised to believe—that there is never enough—and call my boss to pick up some more work, like a good American man? 

Fervent and confused, I backpedalled, and deferred choosing my destiny until morning.

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I’ve never seen an animal willingly subject itself to physical violence. I doubt that even David Attenborough has seen an impala in pursuit of a cheetah. Impalas know who wins that fight. 

Humans put themselves in harm’s way daily. We ride motorcycles, drink alcohol, join the military, stay in abusive relationships, eat fast food. Some beg to be whipped; stand unarmed in front of advancing war tanks; set themselves on fire to make a point.We put ourselves in dangerous situations because we either 1) ignore or haven’t developed our intuition and risk assessment to register that it’s dangerous, 2) think we’re cunning enough to avoid harm, or 3) because we’re harmed enough already that we indulge in it. 

Consciousness is a funny thing. With it, humans invented iPhones, democracy, and given a thousand names to the Great Mystery: Allah, Yahweh, Love, God. Consciousness is powerful, too, in that an individual may choose to make herself vulnerable, to chase the proverbial cheetah when her instinct says that only death will come if she does. It’s as if we are constantly asking ourselves, what if I do this?

My friend Ari knew that he might experience violence. In part, that’s why he went to Standing Rock. It felt important for him to witness people gathering to fight. It meant they believed in something. And from what I know of Ari, he probably needed something to believe in.

The complex cost of developing our consciousness is the very problem it provides us the ability to solve: as we discover new ways to create, the greater our power, and the closer we come to the values we’ve projected onto the gods. But we’re not perfect yet. Like gods in on-the-job training, humans make mistakes. We may assume that a particular resource is infinite, like oil. While framing my tiny house, I thought that I could get away with a mis-measured window frame. It wasn’t a big deal until much later when I couldn’t fit the window into the hole I’d created for it. Doing it right the first time would have been a pain, but I would have saved time and money.

By continuing to ask ‘what happens when I do this?’, observing the results, and changing our behavior accordingly, we enact and embody the very essence of what it is to be human—to ability to think, and to choose one path over another. Sometimes that looks like exploring the home culture, language, or land of others. In the not-so-distant past, European colonists coveted the land we now call America so much that they raped and pillaged for possession of it.

We did nearly everything we could to exterminate the Native American people. At Wounded Knee, we murdered them in cold blood. We systematically destroyed the bison population, once a primary food source. For decades we stole Native children, put them in boarding schools, made them wear “civilized” clothing, punished them for speaking their native languages. In the 18th century, the corporations of the day, including Hudson Bay Trading Company, traded and sold whiskey by the barrel to villages, creating a dependency that lasts into the 21st century. Later, we brought meth and heroin, drugs so powerful and addictive that the White Man has almost succeeded in our slow genocide. Now, an oil company is burying an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, a water source depended on by 17 million Americans. 

I woke up the next morning with a stone in my gut. I couldn’t go to Standing Rock. Not now. I needed to build my home. If there’s any gulf I needed to reach across, any rift I needed to heal, it was the shame of the privilege that allowed me to take up space. This body, this land, even this tiny house—these are not mine. They are   composed of resources lent to me—to us—for a time, and I can choose what to do with them. I have always deserved a home. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve their home. We all deserve clean water.

A month into his stay at Standing Rock, Ari was among dozens who were teargassed one night at a barricade where unarmed water protectors and heavily-armed members of the Morton County Sheriff department have faced off for months. A concussion grenade exploded in front of him, followed by a fire hose spraying bear mace. Rubber bullets and bean bags were shot at the protectors. In subfreezing temperatures, the fire hose unleashed torrents of water upon the protectors.

The concussion grenade had struck a young Native woman, tearing into her arm above the elbow. She stared dumbly at her attackers. When she opened her mouth to yell, she had no tongue. Ari’s role became clear to him. He had come to witness the fact that she and her people were the Impala being driven from their ancestral home. After generations of caring for this land, they no longer had a place there. Ari knew who would win this fight, and shame washed over him.

The suffering is no longer foreign.

(Photo courtesy of Leland B Benoist)

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portland “isn’t it.”

This place just doesn’t do it for me, a friend recently said about living in Portland.

I need more diversity, she continued: more interaction with people who aren’t like me.

And it’s sad that most of the people of color I see are homeless, or something like it.

Someone else piped up: this city is more diverse than you think. We have a tendency to invisibilize groups of people just because they’re minorities.

What’s the difference between invisibilizing, I asked, and just not seeing them?

The answer caught up with me pretty quick.

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My choices dictate how I show up in and for the world: where I go, who I share space with, what conversations I have, the activities I pursue. If I participate mostly in white culture, that’s where my energy goes. It follows that if I want to experience cultural diversity, I might attend different events, meet people I have less in common with, and hear what they have to say.

The difference between wanting to experience diversity and actually interacting with people of different color/culture/language/nativity/belief/sexuality/class/etc is the desire, the need, the absence of said dynamics in the daily walkabout, and one’s acknowledgement of that absence.

Last autumn, I lived and worked in New York City for three months. Lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan. The wild diversity of those I worked with and around in the event production and service industries sated me to a state of normalcy. Coming home to Portland, I’ve had a subtle sensation that something’s wrong, but can’t quite put my finger on it.

I relate to my friend whose feels more alive when she visits the Bay Area; the crossover of humanity and expression is such that there is simply a smaller proportion of white people, which makes, in my opinion, a more interesting mix of human expression. I don’t necessarily feel guilty for being born white (though I bear a vague responsibility for the actions of my ancestors), but I do notice my thoughts when I’m doing the daily thing in Portland – thoughts like, that guy sweeping the pay-per-hour parking lot is the first black person I’ve seen today; thoughts like, of course that woman doesn’t like to drive stick; thoughts like, why does this Mexican heroin addict keep talking about living the good Christian life? 

I notice these thoughts, and I don’t sweep them off the table. Thoughts are vital, material things that lead to verbal expression, then to action. I wonder, from what story deep inside me this or that thought might have come; what belief validates it; what has this person done to inspire my anger, or hatred?

One thought pattern I noticed while walking, taking the subway, and meandering New York City: I didn’t have such thoughts. True, I walked past Prospect Park down Flatbush in Brooklyn for a visceral taste of what I was told was a neighborhood I should “avoid at night” (I went there during the day). True, I zipped up my coat, pocketed my hands, straightened my posture and looked straight ahead when men of color approached me on the sidewalk late at night, and I ignored all but the most entertaining of panhandlers.

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That fear and discomfort inspired me: thoughts are impermanent things,
like cities and mental prisons.

filter culture: reasons to love Portland

Last week, Willamette Week front-paged Martin Cizmar’s 28 Reasons to Love Portland Right Now, a contradictive list of privilege and pride for the quirky logic young people use to flock here from geographic armpits nationwide. Included in the list is a catalog of Portland’s pole positions in a slew of publications:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

NO. 1 MOST RACIST

Just as a newly-wedded couple bears the Sisyphean weight of hope and expectation from families and friends, Portland’s bicoastal skyline is already playing the all-important role of projection screen for the newest wave of believers in the undead American Dream. The economy thrives. Jobs seem aplenty. PDX and our neighbor, Vancouver, WA, have the lowest residential vacancy rates in the nation.

It’s as if gas prices have dropped significantly — people start to buy gas-guzzling trucks again, because who cares how much [insert resource here] one uses, long as it’s cheap.

Oh, right. They have.

While I appreciate wholeheartedly Willamette Week’s optimistic gush of “enjoy this place now” attitude, there’s a chosen ignorance in Martin Cizmar’s offering that I can get pissed off about a developer “cutting down some pine trees,” or I could just forget about that, and check out all the pine trees around Mount Hood.

Hey, you can get pissed off about the displacement of black people, but you can go see them in Gresham, don’t worry about it!

I choose the role of devil’s advocate because the cost of Loving Portland is akin to the cost of Loving the New World. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying that love takes many, many forms.

Imagine the weekly colonial newspaper in Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1640: Six Reasones to Love Plymouthe Dearlye:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

No. 1 RICHEST IMMIGRANTS

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

No. 1 MOST WHITE PEOPLE

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

No. 1 LEAST DARK PEOPLE

 

Portland, Oregon circa 2016 is a gleaming beacon of hope for the modern world, so much of which is suffering right now. Let us not become so entranced by our own image on the convex surface of our urban bubble that we forget Portland’s uniqueness and depth for its sheer popularity.

For what reasons do YOU love Portland?

 

 

a portrait of the politico as a young man

The organizers told him that he had only a minute and a half to speak.

Gregory McKelvey had urgent things to say to the thousand or more Bernie Sanders supporters (and protestors), who had endured a dozen speakers already, and time was running short: the presidential candidate was to give a telecast in less than an hour, and the rally had run over time.

As McKelvey approached the stage, the organizer said, just get up there and say something short. Others were waiting to give their own speeches.

“My time is probably already half over,” McKelvey said to the crowd, practically shouting as he introduced himself as a 22-year-old law student at Lewis & Clark—“so I’ll get started…I’m sure that my being black was a factor in why I was asked to speak here today.”

On that rainy afternoon in Portland, the whitest, most liberal, fastest growing city in the union, there was no time for pandering or pretend. McKelvey acknowledged the incredible amount of privilege it took for him just to get to the stage: his amplified voice alone was a life accomplishment in and of itself, one he knew none of his close-knit childhood friends would ever be granted. He said so to the predominately white crowd that had, one speaker before, chanted “Black Lives Matter” again and again, with excessive gusto.

Last summer, McKelvey, along with a group of leaders in the community that believes black lives matter, sat down with Senator Sanders at the Moda Center to talk about why the candidate’s campaign didn’t seem to be reaching certain demographics.

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Gregory McKelvey

“So many people around the country are not being listened to,” they told Sanders. “Before you speak in cities, sit and talk with groups like ours. Listen to what they’re dealing with, and specifically mention these things on stage,” they suggested.

Don’t tiptoe the political line, they said. These are life and death situations we’re dealing with.

Sanders didn’t speak much during their conversation.

“In every city he’s been to since then,” McKelvey says, “Bernie has done that.”

Despite his support for the Vermont senator, McKelvey isn’t dependent on Sanders’ election for progress on solving local problems. Unreasonable arrests and homeless sweeps are happening now, he says.

“Regardless of whether he’s elected, Bernie Sanders’ platform is so important because he continues these conversations.”

Many of the community matters McKelvey addresses involve privilege (police issues are his main focus), and he doesn’t seem cocky about his own. The things he’s been able to do – meet with Senator Sanders; visit remote villages in the Congo and Mexico; speak at the rally on Saturday – “have nothing to do with my own talents,” he says, “rather the positions I’ve been lucky to be in.”

He says that it’s important for him to use that platform that he has “neither earned, or deserves” to give voice to the people who have earned it or deserve it “as much or more” than him. (He says he felt bad about the length of his speech, especially after seeing the disappointment in the eyes of a man who didn’t get to speak because McKelvey went over his allotted time.)

Walking the Talk

“Portland is very liberal, McKelvey says, “but I don’t want people to become content with the virtue of their values. The values are worthless if you don’t actually progress.”

To really progress, he says, Portland has to come to terms with two things:

1) People are going to continue to come here.

“We have to find a way to deal with that, and build an infrastructure that supports it.”

2) Just because we’re a liberal place, we have to understand that those values may not work for everybody.

What struck me about McKelvey’s speech was not just his proclamation of privilege, his ceaseless energy, or the fact that by the end of his eight-minute speech, his voice was shot – it was that, for a first year law student, he spoke with as much vulnerability and perspective on community and political issues as the entirety of the presidential candidacy, including Bernie Sanders.

“I am terrified of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me,” he said. It’s a common story.

The struggle of the young black man is the most poignant underdog material in America today. It is reason enough to rise against the wall of willful conservative ignorance currently being washed with the worst of American values: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, exploitation — values whose common denominator rests in the division between people: whether the physical differences between you and I are real, the effects are real, which validates the differences. He who draws the line between us bears the power.

But McKelvey doesn’t hold contempt for the other side.

“All I listen to is Fox News and right-wing talk radio,” he says.

When he first started paying attention to conservative politics, he hated them, just wanted to know what “these people” were up to.

It didn’t take long for him to realize, “Conservatives are good people. They’re just wrong.”

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The common perception that Portland is home to a disproportionate number of liberals was dismantled by The Economist in 2014. Things may have changed since Bernie Sanders took up touring as a temporary profession; still, nearly 30% of Portland residents are registered Republicans. (The highest percentage of voters are, in fact, independent or unaffiliated.)

Portland bears classic marks of a liberal city, McKelvey says, but they’re not all good.

He tells the story of the Northeast church in which he grew up, near MLK and Shaver. Once a conservative community of roughly 90% blacks, the pastor held the common Christian belief of anti-gay marriage. As the city changed, the church’s demographics changed. Eventually, the new parishioners, now a 75% white congregation, “ran the pastor out of town” because he held fast to his beliefs.

“The new people came into the church and weren’t tolerant of the church,” McKelvey says. “It was really awkward.”

“Because they felt they were on the right side of things politically,” he says, “they didn’t take the time to listen to the effects of what happens when they move into a city like this.”

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In other words, being liberal is not enough. Portland Police Bureau still arrests a disproportionate number of black people. Their gang enforcement unit, according to McKelvey, is known on the street as the “Patrol the Blacks” unit.

“For example,” McKelvey says, “some people say, racism exists, but I’m colorblind.

“Well, it’s so much easier for you to be colorblind if racism doesn’t affect you. Some people have to be afraid of the police all the time, so we don’t get to be colorblind.”

McKelvey is the first to say that he does not have all the answers as to how we’re going to bridge the divide between the police and the black community. He says that it’s vitally important for people on every side to listen to each other.

“I want to facilitate that discussion,” he says. “I want to make people listen.”

Zooming Out

In a city with so many resources for the homeless, sweeps are happening more and more frequently, pushing the fringe population away from the city center, into parks and quasi-public/unused private spaces in neighborhoods unaccustomed to seeing them daily.

It’s not like these people often get a voice. Mainstream media tends to put words in the mouths of protesters and the homeless. One might see in a headline, Black Lives Matters/Occupy/whatever protesters filled the streets today, but one does not often see a fairly-conducted interview with a homeless person in a front-page story about the effects of gentrification.

On a local, national, and international scale, we’re dealing with a lot of scary and uncomfortable change right now. McKelvey, like the rest of us, whether we admit it, is afraid that the world we hand to our children and grandchildren will continue to be habitable for theirs.

The simplicity of a conservative vs. liberal system no longer applies in the United States. The solutions to our problems, though easy to put into words, require complex systems of consideration, kindness, and trust in people and ideologies we may not completely understand. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism would require a shift in consciousness, as we are experiencing with Portland’s population and culture shifts.

Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, or an Oregonian shows animosity toward a transplant from California, we all experience the effects of regressive hate and division between people along lines that exist only because we have been told to believe in them.

New Portland is a reflection of New America. As humans, we change as we process new information. When we found magic was actually science, we changed. Economy and democracy are systems of change. As a society, we’re at a crossroads. If we go one way, we will grow, and life will become better and easier. If we go the other way, we will be like an engine run ever harder, its governor (the device on a vehicle that keeps the engine from running so hard that it blows up) removed by a business-run government, until we rip ourselves apart.

Gregory McKelvey represents so much more than he thinks. The only black student in his law classes at Lewis & Clark, he endures archaic conversations on the legitimacy of affirmative action and circular debates on the existence of racism.

“I’m the only one in class, so it’s like the faculty and other students are saying, yeah, you shouldn’t actually be here.”

It’s disappointing, he says. He’s able to dismiss Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s racist comments, but knows that many don’t, or can’t.

Just before we parted, McKelvey and I talked excitedly about how the quality of hip hop is found in its temporal, ever-changing landscape.

“Have you heard the new Dre?” he asks with a smile.

My hope is that soon, McKelvey is able to spend less of his energy dismissing systemic racism, and more of it packing punches into every ninety-second spot he’s given to speak for his generation.