Monday, June 01, 2020

This is America



Saturday's protest over police brutality against black Americans was the largest I've been to in Seattle since the Women's March three years ago. I'm not good at estimating these things, but there must have been at least 10,000 people at and around Westlake Center, maybe more. I've been to a lot of protests, demonstrations, and rallies. As I approached on foot, I could tell that this one was different. The assembling crowd seemed the same as always, energetic and righteous, but the police were already positioned in lines, blocking access, wearing riot gear. I've seen protests grow tense. I've seen the police push, shove, pepper spray, and even set off explosives, but I've never seen them doing those things right from the start. They were clearly itching for a fight.


Soon the crowd began to march up 5th Avenue. I didn't know where we were going. I assumed to City Hall or the Federal Building or one of the other governmental buildings located in that part of downtown, but after several blocks, the main body turned up toward the I-5, which cuts through Seattle's downtown like a scar. Before long we had occupied two freeway overpasses, filled the adjacent streets, and people were still coming. I was against an overpass railing where I could see the front of the march start to turn onto an interstate exit ramp that had been closed to traffic. A couple of police cars tried to block their way, but it was no use. Thousands of people poured onto the southbound lanes, bringing what little traffic there was on a quarantine Saturday to a halt. Then the horns started honking in support of the marchers and we had a kind of party right there on the freeway.


What we didn't know was that back in the area of Westlake Center, the police had begun to deploy more pepper spray, explosives and other violent measures to disperse the now smaller body of protesters who remained in the city center. And those protesters responded to the police violence with violence. By the time I returned from the festivities on I-5 there were police cars on fire and the explosions were nearly non-stop. That's when I decided I'd better go home. I'm asthmatic and inhaling pepper spray and smoke could kill me.

The best selling, most widely distributed book in American history is Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published in 1776. It was one of the triggers of the American Revolution and is still in print today. Paine wrote:

When the rich plunder the poor of his rights, it becomes an example for the poor to plunder the rich of his property, for the rights of the one are as much property to him as wealth is property to the other.

I went to a peaceful protest yesterday and saw with my own eyes how the police, the protectors of the rich, went beyond anticipating violence and instead initiated it again and again. I was standing right there, for instance, when a cop, for no apparent reason, chose to pepper spray a little girl. Remaining non-violent in that moment was very hard for me and I'm a white, middle-aged, middle-class male who has not yet had my rights significantly plundered. There were certainly outside agitators involved, but the dynamics that lead to rioting and looting are as American as apple pie.


Yesterday morning I took a walk around downtown to witness the aftermath of the violence and plundering first hand. I went out expecting to be deeply depressed, but I wanted to continue to bear witness to the truth about America. Plundering of property is a direct response to the far more significant plundering by the rich and powerful. The rights and lives of my fellow citizens would always be more important than their property.


As it turns out, I wasn't the only one headed downtown. What I found were thousands of people with their brooms, dustpans, buckets and rags. They were cleaning the city up, filling dumpsters and garbage bags, scrubbing walls, sweeping up broken glass, self-organized citizenry at its best, quietly going about their business. Many of these spontaneous cleaners and caretakers were the same people who had been protesting the night before. This, of course, is America as well.


We all have a lot to talk about with our children right now. They are asking questions and we owe them the whole story. They need to know that police brutality, especially against black people, is a virus at least as bad as the coronavirus, one that has been with us far longer and one that has taken and destroyed far more lives. They must know that the rights of black people have been burned and looted by a system of white supremacy that cannot be allowed to remain standing and that while there are some good people in law enforcement, the institution of law enforcement exists to maintain an unjust status quo. They also need to know that when we protest, we are likewise self-organized citizenry at its best, and our business is not always quiet. And they must understand that in the balance of justice, the lives of our fellow citizens have more weight than the property of the wealthy.


If you think things are ugly right now, you're right. They have always been ugly. We do our children, our fellow citizens, and ourselves an injustice when we avert our attention and divert our children's. Perhaps we don't owe our kids the whole unvarnished truth, but we must also answer their questions honestly without always giving in to the temptation to whitewash. And we must teach them the biggest lesson of America: a self-organized citizenry, one that follows our conscience rather than our leaders and fear, is the only way we've ever moved forward.

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My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

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