When Change Is Necessary (As It Is)

Very personal post today, friends. And long.

(Note: I really debated posting this and potentially diluting signal. This is not me lecturing on racism or its effects or its solutions; God knows there is plenty of formal and informal education available, and I’ve linked some at the end. This is my own thoughts on my own blog on my own working out frustration and inability, which might resonate with and perhaps prompt some others who feel as I do. Let me be explicit — if this post is taking time from more educational or proactive reading, skip this. If you’re interested in my personal experience, it’s here.)

I have always been the kind who called or wrote instead of the kind who marched, because I can articulate a more detailed argument. Nothing against marching, props to those who did, I just thought I could use my own skills (I do words professionally) in another avenue. But in the last few years I have been increasingly frustrated with expressing my opinion as a constituent. (Last week, for example, I finally received a senatorial response to my January plea on proposed changes to Title IX making sexual assault harder to prosecute, a month after those proposed changes were enacted, and that response was just a “thank you for your message” and a ridiculously insulting mansplaining-down that Title IX existed, as if anyone who wrote to express specific concerns about proposed changes wouldn’t know what Title IX even was.)

My sister Alena (L) and myself

As a behavior professional, I know that a lack of response leads to escalation. That’s just the science. (Watch anyone whose snack doesn’t immediately fall out of a vending machine.) If we didn’t want people marching and shouting instead of kneeling or writing, we should have listened earlier. I’m glad I escalated. This is about Baby’s First Protest, if you will.

I’m not gonna lie, Monday night kind of wrecked me. After seeing peaceful protesters assaulted with chemical agents and rubber bullets, after seeing my faith appropriated again and for a grotesque photo op, after spending roughly seven hours probing into first-hand accounts, videos, and reports, I was fairly devastated.

I knew my social studies lessons were highly simplified when they extolled our melting pot heritage and civil liberties, but I was still upset to find they were a lie and those lauded concepts could be discarded so easily. I found stream after tweet with footage that I recognized from demonstrations and suppressions in countries we were supposed to be better than.

Police were covering badges and name plates to avoid identification. Police were boxing in peaceful protesters and gassing or spraying or shooting them without an escape route. (It’s not a dispersal agent if you’re not dispersing, it’s just torture.) Protesters and journalists were blinded with projectiles. I saw police pulling down the virus masks of seated protesters with hands in the air to more efficiently pepper spray them directly in the face, and kicking seated maced people to the ground.

(In case you’re starting to think I’m anti-police — that’s missing the point. I’m certainly not. But there has been an enormous amount of abusive action, locally and nationally, and to deny it would take a phenomenal amount of [willful] ignorance. Part of being a good cop is recognizing a bad cop.)

I was largely useless on Tuesday. Didn’t eat much, didn’t accomplish much, didn’t anything much. I have never been good at comfort. I am not the person you go to for emotional hand-holding; I am the person you go to for practical aid. Here I was upset, but with no way to help, and I was aghast — probably grieving, technically — at the loss of trust in the principles I’d been taught we valued, not just the worth of all lives but including the right to assemble and speak.

Ironically, that suppression is what mobilized me.

John Locke from LOST, shouting "Don't tell me what I can't do"

I have no political affiliation whatsoever (I voted for 4 parties in the last election), but I have political principles. Among them, I believe that we got our Bill of Rights for good reason and we need to keep them. When police started attacking journalists and banning press from protest areas, that lit me up on a whole new fuse from where I was already upset. The only thing keeping the US what it claims to be is accountability (something we’ve been losing at a faster and faster rate at a federal level), and the correct response to an accusation of injustice is not to reduce visibility and thus accountability.

(Snark moment: Anyone who complained about pandemic restaurant closings or masks as an infringement of rights and government overreach, this is your hour. If you were angry at canceled sports events but you’re not outraged by First Amendment suppression and militarized tactics [update: and now the suspension of habeas corpus], it was never about the principles.)

That’s when I got the warning about a local protest.

It was intended as a warning, to keep out of a potentially contentious area, but it looked like opportunity. I won’t lie and pretend I immediately signed on with zero hesitation; I had just spent most of a night looking at extremely violent and often graphic videos. But ultimately I decided that if I can’t leverage my sacred white womanhood to the greater good, than what am I even doing with my life?

(Another significant factor for me was the viral risk — I had planned to start reintegrating with high-risk family this weekend, and I didn’t want to blow that. No way would I normally be moving in groups! But I determined to stay at an appropriate distance as much as possible and rely on the breeze to keep me clear.)

I dressed for tear gas and projectiles. I am thrilled to say I was over-prepared. We did have word that a white supremacist gang was coming to counter-protest, but while they circled on motorcycles a few times, they never set up their own assembly or made direct contact with us. We had police presence, including an undercover officer, but no real trouble with us or with others.

I was right to prepare, though. Some of our group had been protesting nightly. One (arrested already this week) described how a church group, seated and holding hands while singing, was gassed without warning by police. This is the kind of suppression which had freshly infuriated me and the kind of abuse we were here to protest.

While I am not remotely prepared to lecture on racism, its effects, or its solutions (there are others far more qualified), I can tell you about the good that protesting did me personally and what I observed or learned.

There’s A Lot More Good Than I Thought

I’ll admit it — I thought we would have a small protest with a lot of apathy or even resentment. I live in a suburb which used to be a small town, predominantly white, which suffered with the sketchy housing boom and following recession. Seedy get-rich-quick builders from elsewhere bought up land, built low-end additions which devalued properties all around, and explicitly answered community protest with, “You people just don’t want blacks or Hispanics moving in here” — a nasty deflection of economic concern, a regrettable assumption about people of color, and fuel for conflict in simultaneously making it a racial issue and presenting POCs as the villains in residents’ loss of investment. Some recent unpopular county decisions about promoting more industrial development, again awkwardly pitched to conflate economic/character change with ethnic diversity, didn’t help.

We don’t have open racial conflict, but to be honest, I did not expect a lot of local white support for #BLM.

I was so wrong.

We got honks and thumbs up or raised fists from countless passing cars. And because Americans often express emotional support as food: The restaurant across the street brought us fried chicken. The insurance company brought us cookies and then Popsicles. Many people brought us water. A driver pulled over and handed us fruit ice bars she’d bought for us. (The heat index was in the 90s, and I was in long pants, long sleeves, and a mask, so she was a favorite.)

One of the cutest and most awesome sights of the day was the two little octogenarian ladies pumping their fists and grinning like crazy as they passed.

This was a massive boost for my mental state; the world was not as bad as it looked. People did care. They did support equality and justice. The protest itself reset me. (Obviously that’s not the point, but it’s a nice side benefit.)

More — if we have this level of support in a small suburb in a conservative state where well-intentioned-but-poorly-executed strategies (school quota busing, that’s you) and intentional corporate pot-stirring (quick turnover builders, that’s you) had actively created racial tensions, then honestly this can’t even be a question nationally. Most people aren’t in favor of extrajudicial killings and systemic injustice. We just need to speak up together.

The Others Maybe Just Don’t Get It

While the majority of our interactions were positive and supportive, we did get the other side, too. I’m not going to dwell on these but for a few notable interactions.

One man on a motorcycle slowed long enough to shout, “Where were you two months ago when a black police officer was killed?” Then he promptly roared off because he didn’t actually want an answer.

But this is my blog and you’re getting one!

I knew the officer he was talking about. Her name was Breann Leath, she was just 24, and she had a child. She was killed before she even got to the door on a domestic abuse call. I never knew her, but I saw her photos and kind of wished I had. She had a killer smile.

Look, dude rolling away on your bike, I know you don’t know me, but anyone who has spent ten minutes with me can guess how I feel about a domestic abuser shooting his girlfriend and a cop. There is zero question where I’m going to come down here.

To support justice for black killings is not to be anti-police. That’s a false dichotomy. It’s actually a statement of faith, that I believe police are capable of better.

As the woman beside me said, while he roared away, “It just shows how little some people understand about the point of all this.”

Where were we two months ago? Why weren’t we marching then? Two reasons: First, because two months ago we were all under shelter-in-place orders during a pandemic (I know the weather got nice and America got bored, but surely you remember the pandemic?). Second, because while Breann Leath’s death was senseless and tragic and wrong, it was not the result of institutionalized injustice against the police.

I can’t protest to change the actions of one sick individual who is already in custody. I can support change to a continuing trend.

Or They Don’t Matter

The other non-supportive interactions we had were inconsequential. Not that they weren’t sometimes intense — I recall the man who leaned out his window as he drove through the intersection, literally spitting mad, screaming obscenities and honestly worrying me about who he was going to drive into in his rage — but they really didn’t make a difference. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Their anger didn’t change my adherence to that.

One man pulled his pickup to block the intersection so he could scream more directly at us. (He’s the only one of any view who drew any police action, which remained very low-key, just a repeated horn to move on.) He made a point of circling back for a second verbal assault (as did most) so he could video himself (while driving) shouting at us.

We wished him a good day. I hope his Instagram audience enjoys it, too.

Seriously, I was proud of our group. No one took the bait all day; all verbal assaults were wholly ignored or met with a pleasant wish.

(I will share a helpful tip, though, for any reader who may wish to flip off a protester in the future: Keep in mind that supporters honk to show approval. If you honk to get our attention so that we notice your rude gesture, it just means that we’ll already be cheering you by the time you crank your finger. That’s sort of awkward, when you’re left hanging as we smile and thumbs up. If you want to make a rude gesture, you’re probably more effective if you do it silently.)

But They Can Be Better

But one very cool thing happened. A man approached our group, but at the far side, so I didn’t hear what had happened until he was walking away. He had flipped us off and shouted at us — and then come back on foot to apologize. “That’s not who I am,” he was reported to have said. “You guys are doing this the right way.”

Mad props to him, first for assessing his own actions and then for having the courage to come back and apologize.

Look, we’re not out to convert anyone with a sign; that’s not how that works. Our purpose is to show our own support and elicit more — and apparently to have conversations, even small ones.

We live in a society which can view a change in opinion as weak. No, no, the opposite is true! Updating a view as you learn more is a brave thing, as it can threaten self-image and identity, and doing so means you’re strong enough to take that identity flex.

All my respect, brave sir.

Emotions Drive People More Than Logic

Okay, I’m weird. I cope with stressful situations by learning and analyzing. On one hand, this makes me very useful should you suddenly need to know what blood types are statistically less affected by, say, a novel coronavirus. On the other, this means I’m often perplexed when other people aren’t thinking the same way.

I had only been at the meeting point for a few minutes when a man approached us. I didn’t understand his comments at first, but then I realized he was suspicious. “They were broken into three times last year,” he said guardedly, gesturing to the storefront behind us.

I mean, obviously, we who were gathering today had nothing to do with a burglary which took place in 2019. There’s no connection there at all. But if you’re afraid of protests, you’re going to connect that with something else bad, and logic has nothing to do with it.

It was my sister who first put him to rest. “My house is right over there,” she said, pointing at it. “I’m not here to destroy things.”

“I work across the street,” explained someone else.

He came to realize that we were protesters, not opportunistic rioters. We want change, not destruction. He relaxed, wished us a good day, and went his way.

It’s hard to blame him. The commercial media (of all slants) has done a really terrible job of distinguishing between protesters and opportunists or agitators; if you don’t do some reading beyond the most packaged reporting, it’s hard to see that these generally aren’t the same. But when you find the videos with guys saying, “Why burn stuff? Why the f*ck not? I’m just here for that,” it becomes more obvious. Look at the highly organized way groups cleared out NYC storefronts; when they roll in with equipment, bags, and efficient team structure, smash the phones of those recording, and make a getaway without ever pausing at the march itself, that’s a planned operation, and probably not amateur. Meanwhile, see the many instances of protesters policing themselves and even running off agitators. (Here locally, protesters were using extinguishers to put out fires others started.)

This man didn’t understand the difference. My point is, this man was worried for his community and let his worry conflate our protest with such things as last year’s burglary. But we were there because we were also worried for our community. We need to think more than react and to understand better what is going on.

Why I Am Here

We were at a major intersection near the interstate exchange, so we had a steady stream of traffic all day. People of all colors were passing us and interacting with us.

But one moment I remember very clearly. I can’t figure out how to describe it without sounding like a white woman being overly proud of her contribution, which is not at all my intent — but I made eye contact with a black woman I don’t know and will never know, and I saw her surprised delight at finding a group of protesters in a small white suburb, and I felt like that was pure distilled motivation. We don’t know each other, but we share common desires and goals.

I didn’t go out to get thanks. I went out to do what I could so I could better live with myself. The expanded sense of connected humanity was a bonus.

Photos courtesy of Alena; I was deliberately not taking pics but she caught no faces.

The chants I found most meaningful during the protest were these:

  • No justice, no peace! How can there be peace in a society without justice? Who can feel at peace when they can be acted against unfairly?
  • White silence is compliance. There is no “just staying out of it.” Not supporting change means supporting the status quo. As always, if you do not oppose abuse, you condone it. We need to speak up.

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

John Stuart Mill

Resources

Links to educational or useful information:

Your right to record police: https://www.aclutx.org/en/know-your-rights/your-right-film-police Accountability is the only way we’re going to get through this and come out better.

Anti-Racist Resource Guide
Another Anti-Racisim Resources directory
Look, racism is baked into our culture, so that we’re often like a fish who doesn’t know it’s wet because it’s never experienced the lack of water. I’ve changed a lot as I’ve learned, and I don’t pretend to be done unpacking — but I’m trying to do better.

I haven’t had a chance to listen to “How To Be A White Lady Who Tries” yet, but it was recommended by a friend.

Suggested reading for learning through literature.

Galvanizing Videos

For anyone having trouble believing in cases of blatant police abuse, here are a couple of Twitter compilations of videos. These are not the most compelling or egregious examples, simply the easiest to reference as they’re conveniently threaded.

CW: blood, language, violence, intense violence
https://twitter.com/theepictheymer/status/1267954150157017094
https://twitter.com/boomerhunter55/status/1268004647882686469

For those who argue that the police are only responding to threats: What threat was this teenager, standing alone and unarmed with his hands down? (The first video is clear enough to make the point. Closer and gorier footage in thread, be aware.)

https://twitter.com/chadloder/status/1268304147490549765

And this kind of deception, suckering protesters close in order to gas them, is just unacceptable — and really underscores why some are having trust issues.

https://twitter.com/chadloder/status/1268399518371835904?s=20

(And if the argument is that this … poor behavior is understandable because police are feeling threatened, well, you just explained away any extreme protest behavior you might not like.)

I can only hope for a truly massive set of lawsuits and trials and crackdown when this is finished, because none of this has a place in a society which claims to honor liberty.

Author Note: About Talking About Politics

As I alluded above, I have made some significant changes in worldview, not always quickly or easily, due to thoughtful conversations with others or reading experiments and discussions. I encourage and relish meaningful conversation.

It’s commonly advised, however, that authors shouldn’t publicly mention things like worldview or political leanings, lest it frighten away readers who don’t share those views.

Here’s my take on that: My worldview absolutely informs my fiction, so there’s not much point to hiding it! And if you don’t like the idea of finding agency to oppose systemic injustice, you’re probably not going to like my stories about underdog characters finding agency and justice in their worlds. ;-) If you do like my stories, I hope you can find and achieve the changes you enjoyed in our real world as well. Thanks for reading.

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4 Comments

  1. Laura,
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience! As always, your detailed perspective on the issues is very informative and helpful. I hope you have continued success with future demonstrations and speaking out, in person and online.

  2. My respect for and admiration of you just keeps growing and growing.

  3. Thank you for being both courageous and humble in this article, and for sharing your experiences.

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