Through the tear gas, darkly
“We are in a marathon, not a sprint.”
Yes, it’s felt like a slow-moving marathon since the Covid-19 crisis kicked in – a trudge through a dream of a river of mud. But Damaris Webb, the Portland actor and director, was talking about something more than that. Webb, an African American woman who was born in Tanzania, grew up partly in Portland and spent about twenty years studying and working in New York before returning to Portland. She was talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and Portland’s weeks-long protests that began after the murder via police knee of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the amount of work that looms beyond. “I resonate with the statement that we’re grappling with two pandemics simultaneously, and they’re both international,” she said.
I wanted to talk with Webb partly because she’s a founder with Laura Lo Forti of Vanport Mosaic, an innovative organization that looks deeply into the historical roots of cultural issues in Oregon and elsewhere, and because her work in general has landed in the fertile meeting-place of art, culture, and politics. As the city’s nightly protests move into their third month and the presence of heavily armored federal agents ratchets tensions higher and higher, she is deeply aware of the underlying issues of dissent in a city that is 77 percent white and not quite 6 percent black. “It’s so nuanced. That is always a concern,” she told me in a phone conversation on Wednesday. “There is a sort of disorientation. Especially when being Black is a minority of a minority of a minority in Portland.” As dramatic and attention-grabbing as the nightly protests have been, she said, the issues are deeper and longer. “Keep staying engaged and serious,” she advised. “It’s not going to be over. Not even when the feds leave.”
IN FACT, THE TENSIONS ARE LONGSTANDING, and they run in multiple fractured lines. On Monday I ran into an acquaintance, a smart and capable and ordinarily wryly funny Black woman, who had heard an hour earlier that her brother had tried to slit his wrists and had been rushed to a psychiatric ward. She was waiting to be allowed to go and see him, and she was of course upset. It was everything, she said – the protests, the pressure, the pandemic. It all just came down on him. Lots of people are feeling that way, she said. A few evenings earlier, she added, she’d gone downtown to see what was happening, and was shocked: “It felt like I was in the middle of a Third World country.”
If you’re Black and American, a lot of that unrelenting pressure that my friend’s brother felt comes from police culture. How do we expect police to solve the problem when to such a great degree police are the problem? I cannot begin to count the number of Black Portlanders who’ve told me over the years of their encounters with the police: being stopped while driving or walking, for no reason other than going about their everyday lives, often in their own neighborhoods; being arrested and illegally searched because they “looked” like a suspect in a crime somewhere else; being on the bad end of cynical and unprovoked stop-and-frisks. Sometimes these stories made the news. Usually they did not. They were just part of the background noise of life as usual – the so-called “normal” of this unnerving stretch of contemporary history.
One story that did make the news, several years ago, was from the side streets of North or Northeast Portland – I don’t recall the precise location – which is my sector of the city, and I’ll preface it by saying that in many neighborhoods the streets are unofficial peoples’ property: People stroll in them, idle their cars in the middle of them to stop and chat with friends, treat them as common space, just another part of the village. If you happen to be driving along one of these streets, you simply stop and wait a bit. That’s how things work.
On this particular afternoon two teen-age girls were walking home after basketball practice, down the middle of a side street as was their habit, when a pair of officers in a patrol car spotted them and jumped out and took them down, sprawling them on the pavement and handcuffing them. For walking in the street. And all these years later the inescapable question with the inescapable answer remains: Would two white teen-agers, walking down the center of the street in their own neighborhood, laughing and chatting and bouncing a basketball, have been stopped, let alone assaulted?
BLACK LIVES MATTER MEANS, of course, that Black deaths matter: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, so many others. It also means that Black lives matter. Inside a fractious political and cultural debate lie individual tragedies. How do you go about living your life in a nation in which you are constantly looking over your shoulder, in which you are legally free but in actuality unfree in so many ways?
And how in the world can the injection of heavily militarized federal troops – because many of them appear to be mercenaries, it seems far too much a stretch of credulity to refer to them as “police” – be anything but a deliberate and incendiary provocation and escalation of tension on the part of an administration taking dead aim on cities it considers to be enemies to its partisan pursuits? How can anyone plausibly argue that the invasion of these troops into Portland has done anything but make everything worse? This has also been a war on information, with both the federal officers and Portland police taking deliberate and violent aim on reporters and photographers, injuring or jailing several in spite of court orders to desist. InA Journalist in Jail: What I Experienced After Being Arrested by Portland Police, reporter Andrew Jankowski tells one such story for the Portland Mercury. And while it’s true that most of Portland is calm and untouched, and that the standoff is confined mostly to a two-block area downtown, from the standpoint of national political theater that’s a little like saying that the burning of the Reichstag was, after all, only a single building in the very large city of Berlin: The Nazi Party amplified and manipulated the arson for highly political purposes.
The big news on Wednesday was that the political theater may be coming to an end, or at least reverting to a locally produced affair. “After my discussions with VP Pence and others,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced, “the federal government has agreed to withdraw federal officers from Portland. They have acted as an occupying force and brought violence. Starting tomorrow, all Customs and Border Protection and ICE officers will leave downtown Portland.” That would be today, and we’ll see: Does this mean all of the federal occupiers, or does the agreement include loopholes large enough for a rented van to drive through on a kidnapping mission? Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, had a seemingly conflicting view of the agreement, proclaiming on Wednesday, “As I told the Governor yesterday, federal law enforcement will remain in Portland until the violent activity against our federal facilities ends. We are not removing any law enforcement while our facilities and law enforcement remain under attack.” We’ll also see, as we’ve already begun to, sharply edited footage from the “riot scenes” in Trump campaign ads into November. In their fascinating piece Unlikely allies: How Kate Brown and Mike Pence ended stalemate in Portland, OPB’s Dirk VanderHart and Lauren Drake give an inside look at a third scenario of what has actually happened, minus the fist-shaking public theatrics.
In the meantime, an incalculable amount of non-graffiti, un-fence related damage to the body politic remains to be dealt with, and, we can hope, built from. Surely our perceptions of “normality” and the varieties of human experience have been sharpened, and newer, keener communal stories about our places in the culture have begun to take form. Shortly after talking with my friend and learning about her brother I found myself driving through a leafy and predominantly white neighborhood where all seemed right in this best of all possible worlds. Neighbors in running gear with masks hanging loosely about their necks were out walking their dogs. A chatter of happily absorbed grade-school kids was setting up a lemonade stand on a corner, like an animated version of a Norman Rockwell cover painting for the Saturday Evening Post. In Portland as in so many other places, where and who you are makes all the difference.
WHAT IS OUR NECESSARY RESPONSE, as artists and citizens, to the extraordinary clash of wills and beliefs that is engulfing us? Whatever justifiable anger might be driving us, somewhere rises the matter of civility, which comes from civil, which means the rules of conduct by which we organize ourselves as a culture. There rises the matter of decency, which means, quite simply, how we treat one another: In one well-known summary, whether we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. And although I believe the balance of transgression tips heavily to one side, transgression is not absent on the other.
“To see people standing in Portland destroying property and not actually doing the work of advocating for Black people was disturbing,” Rachelle Dixon, vice chair of the Multnomah County Democrats and an organizer in the Black community, told The New York Times. “I think they’re a distraction from the everyday needs of people of color, especially Black people. My life is not going to improve because you broke the glass at the Louis Vuitton store.” Some protesters have lobbed powerful fireworks at federal troops and sometimes Portland police officers, aimed laser beams at officers’ eyes (in response, it must be said, to similar or more egregious provocations from the armored forces), tossed rocks and water bottles at officers. Such acts have created controversy among protesters, some decrying them or arguing that they are tactical mistakes, alienating potential supporters; others arguing that they are acts of civil disobedience necessary to bring about true change. On Tuesday, a 32-year-old man was charged with starting a fire inside the Justice Center on May 29, when 289 inmates were being held there.
There also is a sense, particularly among a lot of Black people, that the aims and methods of the protest movement have been diverging – that Black Lives Matter has been getting downplayed as white organizers take too much control of the movement. News broke on Wednesday of a sharp split between Wall of Moms, the group of mostly white women who have been active in the nightly protests, and its Black-led former partner group, Don’t Shoot Portland. The Oregonian has the report.
Is BLM getting lost in the heat of things? The prominent Portland actor Victor Mack, like Webb, takes a long view of things as he homes in on the Portland protests’ split purposes: “Taking nothing away from the folk who have been out there every night since May 26,” he told me via email, “this business downtown has devolved from demanding the POLICE STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE, into this stand-off with Trump and apparently the fate of democracy is at stake, so it’s important. But once the tear gas clears, and Trump’s troops march off to their next assignment, how much closer will we be to stopping the police from killing Black people?”
What’s being protested in Portland is a reflection of a casually aggressive business as usual across the nation. On Tuesday The Oregonian reported on a lawsuit filed by actor Tony Sancho alleging excessive force by three Jackson County sheriff’s deputies in April 2019, when Sancho was a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s acting company. Prison video shows the deputies rushing Sancho, who was handcuffed and not resisting, in his cell, where one deputy presses his knee against the actor’s neck and keeps pressing for about a minute. Later, the lawsuit alleges, Sancho was handcuffed to a metal grate and left there for two and a half hours. The allegation of resisting arrest that landed Sancho in jail in the first place was later dropped. Whatever Sancho might have been “guilty” of – and it appears it might have been nothing at all, save for being Latino and on the street – the level of excessive brutality revealed in the video is both shocking and depressingly familiar. Justice and decency are not served.
WHAT, THEN, MUST AN ARTIST OR ANY OTHER CITIZEN DO, besides filing a lawsuit? Artists are citizens like anyone else, and they do the things that citizens do. Onry, the Portland opera singer, goes to the Black Lives Matter protests and sings, leading the crowd in “Stand By Me.” Theater figure Nate Cohen (among many other things, he was a co-producer of Oregon writer E.M. Lewis’s play The Gun Show, which toured nationally and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) was working the protest as a medic, “with red crosses on both my legs, both my shoulders, two different places on my hat and across my med-pack,” when he was knocked off his feet by a tear-gas canister shot at his chest, and sent to a hospital emergency room. Actor and director Isaac Lamb, while “listening to a drum circle, dancing with other protesters, talking with friends, chanting ‘Black Lives Matter'” outside the courthouse, was shot in the side of the head with a pepper ball. The stories go on and on.
I write with controlled fury and cautious optimism, waiting for the optimism to be earned. Where do artists in these times begin? There will be rage, I think, and sorrow – sorrow sinking below the rage and toward the heart, where the two might meld into a focused and revelatory compassion; where stories will take seed and be born. There are indications that politicians and creative thinkers are beginning to meet and perhaps make things happen: As Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, a Black-led group of Oregon organizations and activists has unveiled a set of “sweeping demands for combating systemic racism in Oregon,” and whatever political action comes out of it, public officials from Governor Brown to Metro Councilor Juan Carlos Gonzalez were on hand on Tuesday for the rollout.
BUT THE STORIES THAT ARTISTS TELL will be crucial. On the Powell’s Books blog, Kim Johnson, the Oregon novelist (This Is My America), who is African American, suggests 8 Memoirs and Essay Collections on Black Freedom and Liberation. And in Crime Fiction Is Complicit in Police Violence – But It’s Not Too Late To Change, a compelling essay brought to my attention by Portland novelist Rene Denfeld, thriller writer Aya De Léon writes about how the cops-and-robbers tales we consume twist reality, and what audiences and writers can do about it.
There will be fresh stories, too, born of this time and these experiences in Portland. Some will burn hot. Some will burn with the slow cool heat of reason. Some will shock us, or surprise us, or anger us, or even make us laugh. Some will take us to places we did not know. And we will listen. “I can’t help being constantly aware of the war that is raging in our world at this moment,” the Portland writer and actor Josie Seid, who like Webb and Mack is African American, told me when I asked her what impact the extraordinary events we’ve been living through might have on her work. “Keep your eye on the artists, and especially artists of color. We are on the brink of a renaissance. … It is we who dream bigger than the shadows. We shall prevail.”
THROUGH THE CAMERA LENS, KEENLY
WHILE MUCH OF THE WORLD’S BEEN ON LOCKDOWN OR CRACKING AT THE FISSURES, a lot of artists have been quietly turning to their work – continuing it, or modifying it to fit the moment, or creating new ways to look at things. That includes two regular ArtsWatch contributors, photographers Joe Cantrell and K.B. Dixon, who’ve been continuing long-term projects and have now published some of the results:
THE CHEROKEE LENS, UP CLOSE. Cantrell’s spent several years on a pair of fascinating projects, both involving deep microscopic dives beneath the surfaces of objects, discovering patterns that seem as big as the universe. In one, he uses special software to heighten and define the pictographs of Indigenous America. In the other, he explores the hidden interiors of rocks and fossils, uncovering unsuspected beauty. And he does so within the living tradition of his Cherokee heritage, calling on the example of the innovative syllabary of Sequoyah, “one of only a handful of geniuses in human history who have single-handedly invented a written language for their people.” Cantrell writes: “In my personal blend of art/science/cultural expression, there is no separation between them. Of life, time, space, none of those things exist separate from everything else. I live in 2020, not 1880 or a John Wayne flick, so all is eligible, it all relates. I’m writing this on an iPad, not parchment. My computers are Cherokee, too.”
THE ARTISTS SERIES 4: VISUAL ARTISTS. Dixon, the Portland novelist and photographer, is devoted as a photographer to black and white as his method of exploration and expression. And he’s devoted to the idea of exploring the artistic nature through close-up, sharply edged portraits of the people who create art. ArtsWatch has published two of his portfolios of Oregon writers’ portraits, and this is his second portfolio of studies of prominent visual artists – this time around, Stephen Hayes, Mary Josephson, George Johanson, Elizabeth Malaska, Christopher Rauschenberg, Gregory Grenon, Laurie Danial, Thomas Prochaska, Melinda Thorsnes, and Robert Dozono.
A BLACK OPERA SINGER ON ENVISIONING THE FUTURE
“I GREW UP IN THE GHETTOS OF PORTLAND,” the operatic baritone Onry writes in his essay Black Opera: Singing Over Ourselves. “There were ghettos here, believe it or not. One summer, there were six killings—people didn’t happen to die; these were murders. To grow up in an environment like that, and then to arrive and work within an opera community, singing week after week inside auditoriums with predominantly white audiences, is quite a tension, quite a dichotomy. I address that tension by using my voice in public. I sing in clubs, bars, churches, on street corners, anywhere I can reach people with the unique joy of making.
“Artists, not politicians, will be the ones to envision, collaborate around, and organize around whatever our future reality might be, especially post-COVID. The future is our potential, our right, our responsibility. I invite all artists across America to respond to this cultural moment. Please harmonize with me. Let’s continue to show up and engage with the crucial questions of race, class, and equity that face us now.”
IN NEWBERG, A BRIGHT SPOT TO SEE VISUAL ART
A VISUAL-ARTS BRIGHT SPOT IN COVID SUMMER. While much of the world’s gone visual, David Bates writes, Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center is offering a trio of shows to get up close and personal with, in the flesh, which is almost always the best way to experience a painting or any sort of visual work of art. The center is offering a retrospective on the plein air paintings of Michael Gibbons, the legendary Toledo artist who died July 2 (see Lori Tobias’s appreciation of Gibbons and his artwork here), plus mixed media works by Kerri Evonuk and a show of basketry, CACHE NINE: the hope material (how to feel not scared in a pandemic), by Hannis Coos artist Sara Siestreem. Also: Bates notes with regret the passing of the adventurous gallery and artistic gathering place McMinnville Center for the Arts, done in by the pandemic.
DOWN BY THE SEA SHORE, WAITING OUT THE VIRUS
CAUGHT IN THE CORONAVIRUS DOLDRUMS. It’s not just theaters and concert halls. The Oregon Coast Aquarium, one of Lincoln County’s primary cultural centers and a popular attraction for visitors from around the state and beyond, is also shut down because of Covid-19 restrictions, with no reopening date set. Lori Tobias talks with aquarium chief Carrie Lewis about the whys, what-fors, and what’s-to-comes as the aquarium waits its turn to welcome visitors again. The Oregon Zoo in Portland, the High Desert Museum in Bend, and the Sea Lion Caves down Highway 101 a stretch from Newport are open now, Lewis notes. She, and a lot of potential visitors, can hardly wait.
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