May the fires still burn
May we light ever more
May you stay awake if you are now; may you be woken if you are not
Abolish the police
Reparations for oppression
I repeat to myself over and over because this mantra must be remembered: “none of this is new, none of this is new, none of this is new.” And, because I need to tell myself this, because I am little different than the oppressors, “I am not the hero.”
We are seven months into a movement that began in the 1960s, which was itself an uprising that had been a quiet revolution since the day slaves were first brought to this land. We are not treading new ground or discovering new atrocities. All this has been here all along.
Still, there is something that feels fresh. The mothers with whom I stand wearing mostly black now, they were here but not a force, before this. I have learned to be one of the first conversations upon coming out of jail, always arrests made not to find criminals but to chill speech. I have heard stories about the sorts of cruelties that feel like things I remember from the novels that radicalized 14- and 15-year-old me: nights without blankets, six or seven people in an 8×10 concrete cell, harsh words and punishment for little or no reason. “We need sweatshirts, because people come out freezing,” said one jail support comrade this fall. “They thought I was a pro, I was wearing wool socks,” said another. “We were told we would get mylar blankets after 24 hours but they never came.” Women who stand up for other women are forced to spend the night in solitary confinement. One woman is forced to take a pregnancy test despite the police having no legal reason to do so. “The cruelty is the point,” says one friend, after telling me of the story of being left in a cell with five women in withdrawal, suboxone withheld despite orders to give it. “I think they were trying to break me,” my friend said.
Someone went into a seizure so violent it sent her falling off the concrete bed. My friend went to catch her head to keep her from adding a concussion to the women’s list of issues, which she later learned included an active TB infection. “No touching!” came the order from outside. “Or you’re in solitary!”
These are the post-protest stories and they are also the pre-protest stories. So many of my friends have been pepper sprayed directly in the eyes — an act considered so inhumane the Portland Police Department was ordered to pay $40,000 for one instance in 2016 — that I can’t remember which ones haven’t any more. One friend thought she saw me on a documentary being pepper sprayed in the face in front of the PPA. “No, I was never pepper sprayed there,” I regretfully replied, having hoped my own injury, in front of a different building, was caught on tape. Another friend came out with me for her first protest night and ended up with a litany of horrors, including being pushed over a wall taller than her and half-shoved, half-dragged over a block by a police officer for sitting in someone’s front yard adjusting her knee brace.
The tear gas we have collectively inhaled will surely end up with lasting impacts on our health, has already wrought terrors to the uteruses of those who have them, some have stopped monthly cycles altogether and some (like me) coming at the worst months of protests every two weeks, painful, extra.
We all have PTSD.
We paint Black Lives Matter on windows and helmets, we get into arguments with family and friends over internalized white supremacy, we testify at city council and share stories in online book clubs seeking to understand how to work as an anti-racist and deal with our deep-rooted racism, taught to us since we were babies. One city council meeting, in which the city unveiled exactly how it is seeking to skirt a federally-mandated agreement to provide restitution to Black families whose homes were taken by the city in 1970 (instead offering these families first chance at what are surely white-owned “affordable” rentals on the site of what once were their homes), yielded so many real estate agents advocating that the city stop the gentrification that the councilors themselves commented on it. We ask that the systems of the city stop oppressing its Black, Indigenous and Latinx community members and we are given platitudes and white-owned corporations and we return to the streets.
Let me say again: we return to the streets.
The police on several occasions have told members of the community that they intend only to chill speech. Nancy Rommelmann, a local writer who has become a fan of the right-wing, reported on what the police told her in August, “What, I ask the officer, will it take for the nightly demonstrations to stop? / Maybe violence, he says. “You have a 24-year-old white kid who lives in his mother’s basement get hit upside the head? He’s not going to come out the next night.”” She meant this as a takedown of the protestors; claiming to be a journalist, one would think that brutality as a cure for the exercising of free speech might seem more problematic.
“You’re going to get doxxed,” said another officer, maliciously, to still another friend on a night dozens were arrested because, the police said in a press release, they were dressed as if they might do crime.
This movement is the coals that are still lit in the back of the stove when you think the fire has gone out; when you blow them gently they flame up, they crack, all they need is the right fuel. This movement is the truth you know in the pit of your stomach, you acknowledge to yourself only in the middle of the night when your partner has long since fallen asleep but you wonder if you ever will; you know this will never give you joy. This movement is the thread that has been caught for so long on the hem of your garment you have become used to brushing it away, to the tickle that sometimes seems like a thread and sometimes like a biting insect that might give you some fever from which you’ll never recover.
Light the fire! Break free! Tear off that errant thread even if your whole garment unravels, succumb to the cleansing fever! Go naked if you will into the streets with me.
Rise up, rise up, rise up. Everything this country is built on is poison and we must root it out, end the abuse, give aid to the people, set each other free.