July 27, 2020
“Because a good number of healthcare workers and moms I know recommend double masking,” Jane explains as she writes 971-247-2072 on my right arm—should I need the National Lawyers Guild to bail me out.
Accordingly, I put a disposable paper mask one in my pocket for when I’m off my bike, downtown.
I petal to the middle of Thompson Street where neighbor Donna is standing in Portland’s stifling near record July temperature.
“You going downtown tonight?” she asks.
“Sure am,” I reply.
Usual neighborly pleasantries are bypassed. She asks, looking filled with both panic and sorrow, “What are we going to do, Brian?”
I know that she is not just asking Brian but, she is asking the religious man she sees me to be. What she is really asking is, “Do you still have any hope? And, if so, would you share it with me?”
“I don’t know,” I hear myself say as a start and then continue, “I don’t know what we are going to do. But, I don’t think I need to know. I don’t need to know the details. Not yet. And, I’m ok with that. It will happen. Justice will prevail. Might not be soon, but it will.”
I continue, “I’m thinking of it like an art project. Like you are standing in front of a hunk of marble and don’t know exactly what the finished project will look like, but you know that you’ll make art out of it as so long as you work at it. With enough time and energy, a solution will happen. That’s how art happens. And, this is like that. I don’t know how we are going to get the Feds out or how we will demilitarize police and put money into anti-racism causes. But, I know it will happen.”
“You believe that?” Donna asks with the hope of a child.
“Absolutely. We don’t need to know exactly how this is going to be solved, but it will. I do believe that. Of course, I do.”
“Be safe.” Her two word admonition cause a wave of fear to wash over me.
As I bike to meet up with some folk I’m bringing to the protest for their first time, I reflect that despite this not being my first night, I still register more fear than I feel I is appropriate.
I muse: hours of feeling safe go unaccounted for, but the moments of fear are noticed.
Upon approaching the two buddies with whom I’m going to bike, I consider creating a safety practice analogous to a gratitude practice.
Because without being consciously aware of either, thankfulness and peace dissipate.
So many people at this moment aren’t safe.
Am I safe right now?
Yes, I am safe right now.
John, Gary, and I arrive at the Salmon Street fountains and lock our three bikes together—each of our locks connecting each of our bikes to the others’. We do for safety and symbolism—we are saying with our locks, we will not leave without the other.
John and Gail, two more who have not been to “the protests” before but chose to drive, find us at the south side of fountain rendezvous point.
Were I a woo-woo type spiritual-type, I might tell you that the #saytheirnamesmemorial—a recently constructed small white tent on the East side of the fountain—beckoned me.
I walk to a wall made of 216 interconnected, 8 x 10 photos of “black lives taken by racial violence.”
Memories of standing before a pile of shoes at Auschwitz come to mind.
I try to imagine the full, robust life of each person whose life—whose infinite, valuable, beautiful life—was snuffed out because of racial violence.
The systematic racism that pervades my homeland must end.
We walk up Salmon Street, the Federal Building is on the corner. The Justice Center next to it.
We continue our walk up Salmon to fourth and walk around the park’s perimeter.
“My God,” says the bicycle-helmeted-for-protection, 67-year-old Gail, “It’s more like a summer picnic than a riot.”
I rejoin, “It’s amazing how the media presents it. Shameful, actually, but, I guess, ratings are more important than being objective?”
Truly, from two blocks away, you wouldn’t know there is anything happening at the corner of 3rd and Salmon.
My group splits into different factions depending on how “in the thick of things” people want to be.
Gail and I are together approach the much ballyhooed “wall” and stand, safely, in front of it. No feds are out.
“Brian,” Gail asks, “would it be alright with you if I joined the wall of moms? I am a mother, after all.”
She follows me to the corner on 3rd we had passed on our way up from the Salmon Street Springs and we see the moms approaching. .
“It’s amazing, no?” I say.
“Powerful,” she says, wiping a tear as she approaches the throng of yellow shirt wearing women and locks arms with the woman in the front row before her.
I walk backwards and fire up my FaceBook Live to document what is truly happening.
Moms, a wall of moms, turn the corner of the Federal building singing the playground taunt/lullaby-esque, “Hands-ups please don’t shoot me.”
“Hands-up, please don’t shoot me; hands-up, please don’t shoot me; hands-up, please don’t shoot me.”
The mom army stands before the federal building—the inanimate object that the president claims the armed troops are here to defend.
BLM call and responses ring out in the slightly cooled off pre-dusk air.
“Say her name!”
“Say her name!”
The peaceful mob moves up a block to outside the Justice Center.
“Please, Mr. Officer,” pleads the black man at the top of the stairs of the Justice center into a microphone and asks us to repeat his words.
“Please, Mr. Officer,” we plead back.
“I didn’t do nothing,” he wails.
“I didn’t do nothing,” we wail.
He continues leading us in George Floyd’s final words. The last words of his life.
When we get to George calling out for his mama, it is religious.
When he has finished, the man on the mic points towards South to Madison street, away from the Justice center.
“Please, mammas, do me a favor,” his exhausted, strong, calm voice implores us. “When this part is over, please leave. Go home. Don’t get involved in the Federal building. Please, please if you love my black life, leave and don’t engage with the Feds. This isn’t about them.”
Gail tugs at my arm and tells me, “Rabbi I’m ready to leave.”
“I was just going to say the same,” I say—a line that I’ve rehearsed.
With my feet and my placard I make it clear which fight I’m here for. My homemade BLM sign is the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
- Darkness cannot drive out darkness,
- Only light can do that.
- Hatred cannot drive out hatred
- Only love can do that.
On the ride back towards the lower deck of the steel bridge, my buddies and I wonder what game is at play, why Portland, and about the media’s complicity in making it look like our city is out of control, when it simply isn’t. It’s one building. Not the whole town. One building. One block. We swap stories of trying to convince folk who aren’t here how things are here.
As we bike up the switchbacks on the East side to near the Moda Center, I think again about the idea of a safety practice—reminding myself at this moment, I am safe.
Because I—a white guy biking with two friends in Portland’s late summer dusk—am safe. I am six times less likely to be arrested, hurt, or killed by law enforcement officers. (Think about that. That’s not twice, three, four, or five times as likely, but 600% more likely.)
Just as consciously recorded thankfulness (and limiting my complaints) keeps my gratitude in the forefront of my consciousness, I commit to reminding myself that I am safe right now.
- Am I safe right now?
- Yes, I am safe right now.
- It’s best that I act like it.