Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Circles of Women


On Thursday, I walked up to Capitol Hill where the Black Lives Matter protests have taken an expected turn. When the Seattle police abandoned the East Precinct, the protesters turned a six block area of this densely populated neighborhood into a peaceful, educational, police-free zone that is being called the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). 

As I entered the area, a man asked me to cross the street because "there's someone here having a mental health crisis." Sadly, it's not a rare thing in our city. More often than not, when someone is yelling and behaving erratically, the police are called in, but CHOP has become a kind of radical experiment in self-organized community, one that is also self-policing. So instead of police there was a circle of women standing around the ranting man, listening, and gently responding to him. He was pacing about inside the circle, not apparently seeking to break through, but waving his arms wildly and shouting invective.

I was making my way to the intersection in front of the boarded up and graffiti-cover, but otherwise intact, police station where organizational meetings, teach-ins, speeches, and performances take place, but wanted to first check on the progress of the block long street mural that spells out B-L-A-C-K L-I-V-E-S M-A-T-T-E-R. The artificial turf sports fields were dotted with people taking breaks and beyond them was the growing tent encampment and impromptu community gardens. The No Cop Co-op was incredibly well stocked with food, water, toiletries, umbrellas, clothing, and Covid-related supplies like masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, all free for the taking. There was an undeniable relaxed street fair vibe that is understandable relief after the preceding week of tense and often violent stand offs with the police.

That vibe changed, however, as I approached the speakers where a young, Black woman was calling on protesters to honor Black women. There was a kind of scuffle in the middle of the street. A group of men appeared to be forcibly removing a white man who was struggling against them. I recognized him as one of the suburban street preachers who seem to turn up in the city wherever Seattleites congregate outdoors. I've had dealings with this particular guy before. He shows up with obnoxiously loud speakers and aggressively rants his fire and brimstone message of hell and damnation, completely drowning out everything around him. I myself have called on the cops and uniformed security to have him removed from other places in the past, but in this no-cop zone it was left up to the self-appointed. The man was alternatively throwing himself on the ground, then rising up to push back through the circle of men holding him. Slowly, but firmly, the men moved the white man down the street. His face was one of anguish. Several times he lay with his face on the ground. At one point he began to rant in gibberish. This was obviously another man in the midst of a mental health crisis.

When they got him down to the closest corner of Cal Anderson Park, they sat him on a short flight of stairs. They told him he was welcome to speak at the next corner where he wouldn't interrupt the other speakers, but by now he was no longer responding other than to occasionally shout a random Bible verse or insist that someone had stolen his phone.

That's how I left things to returned to the speeches. The speaker was telling us about powerful Black women civil rights leaders from recent history, and asking us to make sure to turn to the women in this moment as well. She was a talented, compelling speaker. When she concluded, it was time for me to head home.

As I passed the spot where I'd last seen the aggressive street preacher, I noted that the group of men who had escorted him had been replaced by a circle of women. The white man lay prone on the stairs, clutching a steel handrail support with one hand, his face pressed into the concrete, his body curled into a kind of fetal position. He was surrounded by those women, kneeling quietly, creating a space for him and his emotion. One woman was even partially lying beside him, her arm around his shoulders soothingly, whispering occasionally into his ear. 

I continued back the way I'd come, past the street mural. I came to where the other white man had been ranting. He was sitting now, speaking in normal tones, the circle of women still around him had gotten closer, working quietly together, compassionately listening.

This is obviously the right way to handle these kinds of things. Had the police been called, the risk is high that these men in crisis would have been either injured or arrested rather than soothed. If they had been Black, they might not have survived the encounter. Compassion rather than punishment. Listening rather coercive force. It's similar to how we try to do it in preschool and here it was, those circles of women, making it work with adults.

As a teacher who has been watching children self-organize for decades now, it doesn't surprise me that CHOP is working both as a protest and as a community. It is messy, yes. There are conflicts. There are challenges. There has even been some violence. These are unavoidable aspects of human beings trying to live together. As with everything, it's not our mistakes and challenges, but rather what we do about them that defines us as humans. We could do much worse than to rely upon those circles of women.

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I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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