A protest, the Latino Awards and an unexpected connection – it’s been a full weekend.
Yesterday Matthew and I went to the counter-protest to stand against the protest organized by white supremacist groups around a Confederate monument in Fort Sanders. As the article I linked to shows, it went wonderfully – I can hardly imagine a better outcome – we outnumbered them wildly with close to thee thousand of us and about three dozen of them. The protest was peaceful. There was a great “let’s unify and show these guys that we don’t want hate in our city” vibe. The city was very well prepared for it and kept the two sides separated.
Of course, going in we couldn’t have known that it would go so well. I expected that it would, and I also expected that the showing on their side would be small – apparently when white supremacists have shown up to protest in Knoxville it historically hasn’t gone well for them – but this isn’t a time to make assumptions. I mentioned in my last post that the post-Charlottesville rally I went to wasn’t my first protest but wasn’t far from it – this was definitely the first protest I went to that involved police in riot gear.
We only found out that this was happening last week – it all came together very quickly – and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about it, or that a part of me didn’t want to find a justification to stay home, or to go to another of the events in town. One group put together a gathering/rally to promote love and peace at a completely different location for people uncomfortable going to the direct counter-protest – and I respect that, I’m glad that that event existed, for people who for any reason just weren’t up for the face-to-face thing and the tension, and also for families who wanted to take their kids out to an event that would be safe for them. For me, though – me personally – going to that event would’ve been a cop out. I knew as soon as I found out about it that I needed to go to the counter-protest. That I wouldn’t be anywhere else. This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve been saying I would do if something like this came up, and it was time to live up to those words. Matthew, of course, was right on board with me.
And we did some preparation – I wore cargo shorts so I could carry the things I needed without a bag. I bought some sunglasses to take and wore sturdy shoes instead of sandals. We both took bandannas soaked in vinegar in sandwich bags – something we agreed was likely way over preparing, but a friend told us that they can make a huge difference if pepper spray ends up being involved, and better to over-prepare.
None of that turned out to be necessary – and I could’ve taken my bag after all and it would’ve been fine – but I felt better heading out knowing that we’d taken a few precautions.
The protest itself turned out to be a lot of fun. We were there for a while before anyone even showed up on the other side – when it had gotten to be past the time they were supposed to appear and no one had shown up, folks on our side started chanting “Hate is late!” That was one of my favorite chants of the day. There were also a few rounds of “Not about the monument!” which was very true. It wasn’t about the monument – it was about showing white supremacist groups that they shouldn’t feel empowered to show up in our town without expecting massive resistance.
There were people with signs that were brilliant and many that were funny – we didn’t take a sign but a group had made a bunch ahead of time and were handing them out; we took one that said “There’s Life After Hate.” Next time I’ll make my own sign. I’ll definitely use better poster board; ours was a bit on the floppy side and was a bit challenging whenever a breeze went by.
We saw a bunch of people that we knew and I saw a ton of people that I’ve seen around town at other events. The claim of paid protesters is hilarious to anyone protesting in what is essentially a big little town. It ended up feeling like a big ol’ social event, and I was perfectly fine with that. I think these outcomes are important – I think the headlines about us outnumbering them 70:1 are important, and I was proud to be a part of it.
We ended up leaving the protest before it ended to make sure we had enough time to get home, get changed and get to the Latino Awards Gala early enough to help out with ushering. We managed it without having to rush too much, and the Gala was a lot of fun – the ushering was a bit like Diner Dash but once everything got into the groove we got it done and got everyone to their tables. We were some of the last folks to get to our tables after helping everyone else get seated, but the tacos were well worth the wait.
It was great seeing several of my ESL students there, all dressed up and with their families. Applauding the badass Centro staff when Claudia, the Executive Director, recognized them in her speech was great – and standing when she called for volunteers to stand felt really good, too.
The timing of it ended up being interesting. It was only the previous night that the news about Trump pardoning Joe Arpaio came out (I won’t rant about that now, plenty of people have talked about it way more eloquently and with way more information than I could, I’ll just say that the news made me absolutely sick) and I just hope that having the Latino Awards the very next day was a balm for some folks’ hearts. I know it was for mine.
After a super full and active day yesterday (I got in over 25k steps without any intentional exercise) I tried to keep it really low-key today, and I succeeded at that, but I did have one interaction that’s going to stick with me for a while. I took a walk downtown and was about to walk past two scruffy middle aged guys walking together when one of them asked me if I had any cigarettes. I said I didn’t smoke; he thanked me anyway and then thought to ask if I had any spare change. I said “That I can do” and gave him a couple bucks. He thanked me and I wished them well and was going to just keep trucking past when he asked me to spare a good thought for his friend, who is going through a rough time. He’s been sick, the guy told me, and then the friend spoke up for himself to say that his wife left him and took his dog, too. I said that that was really really rough and that I was sorry he was going through all that, and he talked about how he’d gone from being “on top of the world” to nowhere very quickly. I told him I’d definitely send good thoughts his way. He thanked me, and didn’t say much more after that, but his friend – Red, as I learned (his real name is Dave but people call him Red because of his long red – now shot with white – beard) – kept talking to me for a while.
It’s an interaction I would’ve avoided not long ago. Not because he wasn’t nice or because I felt threatened – I didn’t, not even slightly – but just because, at first at least, it made me feel awkward and I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I’m really trying to stop just fleeing these situation where I feel awkward, especially if my own privilege is what’s making me feel awkward. Avoiding connecting with people because it’s awkward isn’t doing me any good.
So we talked. We were walking in the same direction, there was no need for me to hurry off or take a different route just to get away from him. And I was very glad I didn’t, because we ended up having a really nice conversation, wherein he recommended I check out Justin Cronin’s The Passage and when I told him I’d already read it, and the sequel, but that I hadn’t read the third one yet because I wanted to re-read the first two first, he was pretty floored that it turned that I also loved one of his favorite books. He told me that he’d gotten kicked out of a treatment facility (after telling me “I’m an alcoholic, I know you know that” – and yes, I’d known that) because they wanted him to participate in some activity or other but he just wanted to read his book and wouldn’t put it down. He ended up leaving, buying a 40 and finishing the book.
When it was time to part ways, we ended up hugging and fist-bumping. He called me “person,” and asked me if I knew that Native Americans (he used the term “Indians”) only refer to people of their own tribe as “person.” (I have no idea if there’s any truth to this or if it’s an urban legend and a quick Google search wasn’t helpful so more research is needed.) I said that I didn’t know that, but said “It’s good to know you, person,” and told him to take care of himself. We headed off in separate directions. I’ll likely never see him again, but if I do I’ll stop and talk to him, and give him a hug and a fist-bump.
It’s been a weekend of experiences.
Today wasn’t my first protest, but it wasn’t far from it – and it was my first protest of this type; something formed quickly in direct response to a particular incident. I posted a while back about how my focus has been on volunteering/education rather than protest and direct action, and I’m fine with that, everyone finds their own work – but I said that I wanted to stay open to opportunities for protest, and this wasn’t something I would’ve been okay with sitting out.
It was a great gathering and an excellent group of speakers – the Knoxville News Sentinel livestreamed the whole thing. I was particularly impressed with Representative Rick Staples; his message about refusing to turn away from difficult situations and choosing to become dangerous was powerful.
I participated in my first Black Lives Matter chant. It felt significant, and it felt overdue.
There was a police presence but it was small – and I wonder how that same event would’ve been different if had been organized by Black Lives Matter. There were folks there from BLM, but the event was organized and promoted by the Women’s March Coalition. I was so aware the whole time that I’m a middle class white woman and I was attending a rally organized primarily by white women – almost all of the speakers were people of color and they were the voices of the event, but when an organization that’s known to be run by middle class white women organizes an event in Market Square, the response is different than it would have been if it had been organized directly by Black Lives Matter. I’m not saying that this detracted from the event – in fact I think it was an example of using white privilege for good – it’s just something I wanted to be aware of.
I’m glad that Knoxville responded so quickly. It makes me proud of my city that I didn’t have to drive two hours to go to an event like this, I just had to walk two miles. I’m proud of the amazing and diverse collection of leaders and activists and educators and elected officials who spoke. I’m proud that our mayor was there via livestream even though she’s apparently traveling currently.
And it tears me up that we had to have this event in the first place. It tears me up that white supremacy is still a thing. That people – real people – can even believe such hideous things.
Not long ago, something like this would’ve happened and I would’ve just thrown my hands up and said I didn’t know what to do to help, and I would’ve retreated into my world of entertainment and not actually looked for ways to help. Going to a rally isn’t going to fix the world, but it’s something – it’s getting out there and standing up with people in my city who believe that our country can – and must – fight this crisis. And maybe I’m not out there on a front line literally punching Nazis in the face, but every time I go to Centro to help immigrants learn to speak English, I like to think I’m delivering a symbolic punch in the face to the white supremacists. And I’m just going to keep on doing that. A particular rally may be a one-time thing, but the message it sends to the city – and the country – is important, and so is the organization and motivation that comes as a result, and the energy that people take away. I came away ready to keep plugging away at my Spanish studies and to go into Centro next week and deliver some symbolic Nazi punches.
The blog I had previous to this one was focused specifically on geeky things. I’ll always be a geek and there will be times on this blog when I geek out about some ridiculously nerdy thing – but I trailed off on that blog and I think it was, at least in part, because I was too limiting in directing a topic for it. This one I’ve left purposely open. I wanted a place where I could talk about news, current events and politics if I wanted – but I didn’t want to limit it to that, either, because sometimes I want to talk about books or fitness or something completely random.
One of my friends tweeted something today that I identified with in a huge way:
2015 me: who are you?
2017 me: I’m you but now I livetweet congressional hearings instead of scifi tv shows
Yep, pretty much. I haven’t out-and-out gone off about politics yet on this blog and it’s partly because, to quote Jon Lovett, “there’s just so much going on” – one doesn’t even know where to start. I’m also relatively new to following politics and I’m very aware that there are a lot of areas where I just haven’t learned all the background and I try not to spout off too much about things if I don’t feel I really understand them.
But I’m learning and I’m doing. I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteerism vs. activism. I’m really into DeRay Mckesson’s Pod Save the People and of course he’s an extraordinary activist and talks a lot about activism, getting involved, what you can do, etc. And he talked on the newest one about starting where you are, and about not waiting for someone to give you permission, and not worrying that what you’re getting involved with isn’t the absolute most critical thing, because there’s so much to be done.
And that’s part of what I worry about, so hearing him say that was helpful. It’s not that I worry that what I’m getting involved with isn’t what should be at the top of the list – I’m helping people strengthen their English skills and I’ve got no doubts about how important that is, and there aren’t enough people doing it (there regularly aren’t enough volunteers, so myself and other teachers will end up teaching two units that are supposed to each have their own separate class).
The thing that sometimes pokes at me is that I’m focusing on volunteering and not as much on activism. I am calling elected officials (and various other offices – I get my ideas of who to call each week from 5 Calls) every week (I have a spreadsheet!) and I keep an eye out for activist opportunities that work for me; I’ve done one protest and one phone bank with Planned Parenthood and would gladly do either of those things again. But I haven’t gone to any of the big marches – being in a crowd of loud people can sound really draining at a time when I’m really ready for some rest.
And it’s not like I feel like I have to do #allthethings – I’m just super inspired by people doing protest and activism and a part of me wants to do more of that. But I’m also really loving the volunteering I’m doing and putting a lot of energy into it, and I feel like it’s a great fit for my personality and skills. I do still want to keep open to doing more activism and look for ways to do that without burning myself out. But I’m in this for the long haul – the election was what woke me but I intend to stay woke, which means I don’t need to do EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW, I need to continue to do things in ways that are sustainable. So if I need to rest instead of marching, that’s okay – I’m not doing anyone any good if I exhaust myself.
Really I just feel, in a lot of ways, like I’m trying to make up for lost time – so many years of living in my bubble and not making any effort to get out and do something that helps someone. And you can’t make up for lost time, so there’s no point running yourself ragged trying – you start where you are and go from there.
Revelling/Reckoning has been one of my favorite Ani Difrano albums since it came out, and there’s a song on that album that I’ve always loved but that also has always terrified me – Tamburitza Lingua. This is the part that’s always gotten to me: “10 9 8 seven six 5 4 three 2 one / and kerplooey / you’re done. / you’re done for. / you’re done for good. / so tell me / did you? / did you do / did you do all you could?”
And the answer is no – the answer is always no, the answer always has to be no, unless you’re one of the rare and amazing people that gives up their entire life to activism/volunteerism – I know a person like that and he’s fucking incredible. But not everyone is that person, and that doesn’t mean your contributions aren’t crazy important – the important thing is making contributions.
DeRay frequently asks his guests what advice they’ve been given that has always stuck with them, and in the first episode he asks Andy Slavitt, who quotes his dad’s advice – “always contribute more than you cost in all that you do.” That’s a huge goal to work towards. I think I’ll be working towards it for the rest of my life. And I’ll never be able to say “I did all I could” – but that song doesn’t scare me like it used to.
I used to believe – or at least thought I believed, or wanted to believe – in the inherent goodness of people. I don’t anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I’m not saying I’ve figured it out beyond that – people are fucking complicated, yo. Years and years of working jobs that involve lots of interaction with different groups of people have solidified my belief that people in general are way dumber than we’d like to believe, and sometimes way meaner. Yes, I’m a bit of a misanthrope, and yes, I can be elitist and judgy. I own it.
Days like today solidify my belief that there are people out there that are just truly bad. I don’t usually use words like “evil” just because there’s an almost religious connotation there that I’m not sure gets my intention – I can certainly understand why people use words like that today, but to me the word “evil” almost implies something beyond human. I don’t know that I believe that there’s anything even vaguely supernatural about it – some people are just not good people and some people take it way, way further than just a lack of goodness. But I think it’s all human – humans can be seriously, seriously fucked up all on our own. We don’t need any supernatural help to accomplish that.
My thoughts on good and bad and the balance of light and dark in the world are a bit of a swirling mess and I don’t claim to have any set philosophy, at least not one that makes sense when I’m sober. But I will say this – even though I very much believe that there are all manner of bad people out there, I refuse to let that deter me from seeing how many good people there are, too. You don’t have to try to sugarcoat humanity to recognize what bravery and heroism and beauty there is out there. There are people who blow up kids and then there are people who risk their lives to save them. I won’t lose my faith in the latter just because I believe the former are always going to be with us, too.
And I won’t give up and be apathetic because “people suck and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Yes, there are a lot of terrible people and no, we can’t change that fact – we can change systems, situations, laws, etc., in various ways that give the terrible people less power, opportunity and incentive to cause such destruction, but we can’t change the fact that there are terrible people. There always have been, there always will be.
But there have always been amazing people, and there always will be, and that will always be worth fighting for, even if it’s a fight that won’t ever end.