“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Recently, on Portland’s MAX train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best, and Micah Fletcher stood up to interrupt hate speech spewing from the mouth of a white supremacist. Each put themselves unknowingly in harm’s way in service to two young women none of them knew. Namkai-Meche and Best paid with their lives. All are now called heroes.
After that, the Portland Tribune ran a story about whether it was “safe” to ride Trimet, Portland’s public transportation provider. It noted that despite Trimet’s efforts over the years: bolstering security, eliminating free fare zones, and announcing that these programs “solved” safety issues, hundreds of crimes are reported each year on the bus and rail lines, “many of them serious.”
“Trimet is safe,” Neil MacFarlane, Trimet’s General Manager, said. “but we want our customers to perceive it as safe.”
Translation: We want riders to treat each other better.
The question of whether a bus or train is safe is, in this case, irrelevant. An empty train is perfectly safe. People are the wildcards, the variables, the unknown factors for which we feel we must account. This should go without saying, but the conversation around how to stop violence continues to invite more oppression and suppression in the form of increased police enforcement, a band-aid that cannot cover the oceanic wound between how we hope and expect people will act and how we actually relate with one another in real time.
Safety does not result from force.
At some point, we may understand that “safe spaces” exist only in the fleeting perceptions of individuals, and that these constantly shifting notions cannot be controlled by increasing security. In many cases, police presence raises the tension in a space, not least because police officers are trained to profile, a tactic which has killed more Americans in the last thirty years than a small war.
The most present question for me right now is, how do we create a culture where disagreement is welcome, invited, and explored? Or, on a more practical level, how do we create equitable public spaces? That is, free, physical public spaces whose purpose is for people from different backgrounds to talk, connect, debate, dialogue, and *gasp* disagree?
That’s a tall order, given a culture driven by real estate prices and corporate profits. Imagine: if we redesigned the physical aspects of how we convene in public spaces, how might we interact differently? If the seats on a bus were formed in a circle instead of in rows, where people faced one another out of circumstance, would they remain glued to their smartphones? Maybe. But maybe they’d make eye contact, and maybe, a conversation would emerge.
Barring the internet’s digital plane, and next to city parks, the most equitable public spaces we have are the transit and road systems. Public transport equates people in some ways—most everyone pays fare, occupies the same physical space. But buses and rail lines are built for efficiency and transportation but lack the intention of gathering people for a greater purpose than (at best!) a peaceful commute.
And for drivers, the road system requires that we follow the same rules, regardless of whether we drive a clunker Ford or a Maserati, but the walls of glass, metal, and wind barricade us from accessing each others’ personal worlds.
If the only spaces where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints interact with one another are those in which we’re traveling from one destination to another, one calendar event to the next, from one insulated and exclusionary space to the next, our conversations and interactions will follow that pattern.
What might happen in a space where a white supremacist and those he fears can gather, at least in theory, and both be heard, seen, and understood for who they are, as opposed to the current dynamic of fear and anxiety creating conflict and avoidance?
My guess: More talking. Less violence.
When I saw Christian’s mugshot in the paper, I did not see a Murderer. I saw a man with great internal pain, a boy who experienced unfathomable trauma, whose models for how to be a good person probably did not exist.
These are my judgments and projections; I know nothing of the man but that which the media has portrayed of him. Which is a colossal problem, because he has been portrayed an a detestable and unforgivable monster – and maybe he is – but if we as a society do not effectively address that which made him and others like him, we cannot create spaces where people even have the opportunity to feel safe, let alone connect.
One last thing: it’s time that we get to know our neighbors. You never know when they might save your life. Here are a few ways that people in Portland are working toward healthy community:
Multnomah County, in the vein of Seattle’s Facing Homelessness tiny house project, seek to integrate houseless individuals into tiny houses built in the community’s backyards. We need each other to treat each other better in these turbulent times. Not just on TriMet, but everywhere. We must relearn how to convene, converse, and how to be in disagreement. We need to create more equitable public spaces, and more intentional opportunities to interact with each other. One great example of this is Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, where local leaders facilitate topic-specific discussions with local communities around the state.
The City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, which is happening this week, seek to reclaim and repurpose neighborhood intersections into equitable public spaces by facilitating neighbors’ collaboration and connection in painting street murals, building self-serve tea stations, playgrounds, and creating a sense of community around a space where previously people might have needed to crash into one another in order to meet their neighbors.