Notes from a Slide into Totalitarianism

The snatch-and-detain situation in Portland terrifies me. This practice run for terrorizing Americans and seizing power is playing out in real time on our social media and in the news.

If the US had been invaded by a powerful enemy and was now under siege, I would expect to hear stories like the ones coming out of Portland. But, then, I shouldn’t be surprised because that is exactly what has happened. The US has been invaded by a powerful enemy … they just happen to be the ruling party in Washington. Caligula and his masters and minions are taking what little is left of our democracy and grinding it under their heels. Well, not really, though. They’re far too weak to do the grinding. They are happy to sit back and let the military do it for them.

Unidentifiable military police are disappearing people off the streets of an American city … and we all just go on with our days — place another Amazon order, wonder if the Key Food has toilet paper, hope we can get to the bakery before the baguettes sell out.

Not that I have any kind of idea about what to do. Yes, write to my senators, post rants on FB, rock myself to sleep in fear … beyond that, I’m at a loss. What can I do?

Portland is just a test run, a dress rehearsal. There are, as I see it, multiple goals:

  • See if Caligula can get away with laying siege to a city within our borders.
  • See if this terrorism succeeds in shutting down protests.
  • See how easily people can be swept away … and what it would take to sweep up large numbers of people.
  • Make people think twice before speaking out about anything.
  • Testing the will/strength/capacity of the opposition party and the courts to see how the situation might play out in other cities, in November.

Is there anyone who doesn’t think Caligula has an encyclopedia of dictators in the residence … or, well, board books with one brightly-colored tome for each despot? He’s clearly been captivated by the volume on Pinochet.

I don’t think I’ve ever kidded myself that the US is the “more perfect union” the founders dreamed of in the Constitution’s Preamble, but I never thought we’d be here, either. Never thought I’d have to think seriously about dictatorial rule in this democratic republic I call home.

I’m puzzled by one thing, though. How are the military police okay with carrying out these orders? How are they not standing in support of the freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy, the freedoms they’re supposed to have enlisted to uphold? How are they so comfortable and casual about enacting violence on their countrymen? How is this possible?

I am, actually, this naive. Yes, it turns out that I am. I wouldn’t have thought it so, but here I am.

Who fights for us, the fools like me who thought we had a firmer grasp on how things could work in this country? Who fights for us if the people who signed up to defend the country are now actively fighting against us?

Turns out, I’m even more naive than I just realized. After federal law enforcement attacked the BLM protesters in Lafayette Square in June, General Mark Milley acknowledged that he should have participated. And lots of folks saw that as a signal that we could count on Milley to side with the country and not the titular head of the country. I let myself be lulled, figured all those people who make a living analyzing this stuff must know what they’re talking about. And Mark Esper said some words, and those same thinkers papered those words over top of Milley’s statement and said we should all feel a little bit of optimism.

And I grabbed onto that optimism. So naive.

And here we are, on the knife’s edge, watching people who could so easily be any one of us grabbed off the street, bundled into unmarked vehicles and taken away.

As I said, Portland is a dress rehearsal. Not a full dress rehearsal, though. This is a first run, a chance to see how everyone reacts. The disappeared have been released (so far as we know), and they have mostly been unharmed. In the next run-through, there will be far more violence so that Caligula can see how we respond to that threat. And then, in the full dress rehearsal, we’ll see the kinds of for-real disappearances the people of Chile could tell us stories about. Where will the mothers of the disappeared gather in this country? Who will create the American version of Madres de Plaza de Mayo?

Yes, yes, yes. Maybe you’re thinking I’ve gone from dangerously naive to histrionic. But have I? Have I really? Does what’s being done in Portland seem like business as usual to you?

And I sit here, choking on my impotence. Because, really, what do we do? I have been able, until now, to convince myself that my pen is my answer, my weapon in this fight. But what can my pen do for me now? My minuscule readership isn’t likely to mobilize and take on the anonymous troops in Portland, and I wouldn’t want them to. But there has to be more I or any of us can do other than look on in horror.

Fist in the Air in the Land of Hypocrisy

Yes, still reporting from the heart of my anger, the anger in my heart. This is a difficult challenge for me, allowing myself to stay present in my fury. Staying present in my sadness and bewilderment has been easy. I have far more experience with that.

I have a long and troubled history with accessing and accepting my anger. This is a legacy of solid, good-girl training, a set of lessons that were reinforced by nice-black-woman training. While both courses of study have surely been extremely helpful to people with whom I’ve had to interact, neither has been particularly useful to me. I have learned to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I’ve learned to smile when I’d rather be doling out dope slaps. I’ve learned how to keep conversations well-oiled so that we’re able to move smoothly (ish) from safe ground to politically incorrect racist/sexist/heteronormative gaffe to safe ground. I’ve learned how to get along. Often at the expense of my heart and soul.

“Getting along” seems like a worthy enough goal, doesn’t it? If everyone could just make nice, wouldn’t the world would be a better place? I’m actually not so sure. In my life, “getting along” often means breaking my own heart over casual ugliness that I let slide simply to avoid conflict. Casual ugliness, the kind born out of and supporting a system built on my othering, on the assumption of my lesser status. Alone at home after these moments, they bubble up, replaying again and again as if some irksome sportscaster in the back of my head keeps saying, “Let’s go to the video tape!”

Maybe you’re thinking this is my problem, that I just have to stop dwelling on these things. Okay. How good are you at that? Let’s try some role-playing. In this scenario, you’re Italian.

You’re having a discussion about developing programming for young people to help prepare them for college and work. The conversation has been interesting and productive. And then someone says, “All this sounds great, but we’ll have to do something different for the Italian kids. You know how they are. There’s no way we can get them ready for college!” And then that person looks at you and says, “You know I’m not talking about you, but you know I’m right.”

You might brush it off in the moment so as not to derail the working session. But would you forget it entirely? Would you put it out of your mind only to find yourself ambushed by it as you’re about to make an important presentation? Do people really think Italians are troublesome or unteachable? Do people think I’m difficult, I have trouble learning? Do they think I can’t do this job well, that I was hired as a token or to meet a quota? What does my supervisor really think of me, of my capabilities?

Let’s regroup. How did that feel? Were you surprised that someone would say something so foolish and cruel about Italians? Could you see how a comment like that might bother you beyond the instant of hearing it? Can you imagine finding yourself getting angry about it at odd moments of the day? And can you imagine getting angry with yourself when you caught yourself wondering if some aspect of it might be true even when you know perfectly well that it isn’t true?

Sometimes, it’s really challenging to swallow the casual ugliness, to set it aside and keep things moving. Sometimes the casual ugliness has amazing dig-in-and-stay power. And maybe that’s because the ugliness is particularly ugly. And maybe it’s because I’ve heard these things so many times that I’m full, don’t have room for one more, so they keep hovering around my brain, keep poking at me.

And all that poking makes me angry. Leaves me with a simmering-under-the-surface anger that is almost constant, always one microaggression away from tipping me into the hot zone.

So, how to deal with this anger. I’ve never known. There has been so much pressure not to deal with it, to stuff it down, to ignore it, that I’ve never learned what a healthy response might be. Early in this blog’s life, I wrote about two instances from middle school in which that angry-making ugliness pushed me to violence. But here’s the problem: neither at the time of those incidents nor now do I  think my response was inappropriate. Yes, I said that. Slamming John in the head with my book not only felt good in the moment, I was good forever after that moment — he never spoke to me again — and it still feels good now, almost 40 years later, to know that I shut him down so effectively. The same is true for my present-day feelings about Michael. Although I would probably respond differently today if the same situation were to arise (probably), I cannot find any fault in those long-ago responses.

But that kind of lashing out can’t be the all-the-time answer. Not just because I am a peaceful person at heart but also because a) eventually a violent response is going to get me into real trouble and b) violence doesn’t leave room for conversation, for change, and that’s what I want. Yes, hitting John meant that John stopped talking to me, and that was a change that worked just fine for seventh-grade me. But hitting John didn’t magically make him understand what was wrong with anything he was saying, didn’t make him change how he thought or felt about black people. More likely, it confirmed some other things he thought and felt about black people.

I don’t think it’s my job to change the minds of racists, but not all people who say racist things are racists, and lashing out closes the door on them looking honestly at their words and actions. My support for non-violent action isn’t as much about the fact that I’m a “nice” person as it is about my desire for real dialogue. So, violence. Not always the best answer.

And aside from being taught that my anger is “bad,” or “dangerous,” or “unladylike,” there is the fact that anger makes me a stereotype. Here I am, yet another Angry Black Woman. And my nice-black-woman training means I’ve tried to avoid seeming angry, being angry, precisely to avoid fitting and feeding that stereotype.

But there’s still my anger. I have a LOT of it. It’s here and it’s real. And avoidance doesn’t do anything for me. Except make me more angry.

The world is harder now. Cracking some wannabe bully in the face with my out-of-date history book worked in middle school, but there are no handy villains to slap around today.  New times call for new tactics. Using my words instead of my hands has sparked some conversations, has felt right even if it hasn’t felt like enough. Staying public with this anger has shown me that I can be furious, that I can give voice to this fury … and the world continues to turn, nothing bursts into flame, no one drops dead. And that’s good. It’s at least a start.

My anger and I are on a first name basis today — finally, after all these years — and this feels like the start of a long relationship. I’ll have to keep my eye on my anger. She’s far more beautiful than I am and is incredibly seductive. But as much as she needs watching, I have no interest just now in reining her in. I’m getting comfortable with Angry Stacie. I suggest you do the same.

__________

* Once again mining Rage Against the Machine lyrics for my titles. This one is from “Wake Up” … which is exactly what I’ve been doing these last weeks, rousing the sleeping giant of my fury.

Open letter to folks who knew me when.

It’s 2014. The last tired days of 2014. I am no longer that soft, biddable girl you knew. I am no longer willing to go along to get along. I will no longer laugh if, when I’m at the water fountain, you tell me I can’t drink there because it’s whites only. I will no longer bite my tongue when you tell me Mick Jagger would be better looking without his nasty nigger lips. I will no longer bow my head at your command as if I owe you the freedom to touch my hair. I will no longer waste my breath educating you when you ask me why, if I wash regularly, my skin is still so dark.

It’s 2014. It’s 2014, and we are all grown up now. And I have grown into a woman who speaks when she has words, who believes in the value of that speech and refuses to clog her throat choking down all the things she’d like to say. I have grown into a woman who won’t let her voice be taken. I will say what is in my mind, what is in my heart, what is burning through the lining of my stomach after so many years of holding my tongue to make nice.

It’s 2014, and I am tired. More tired than 52 years warrants, tired like almost 400 years of rape and murder, like 400 years of holding my tongue, swallowing my truth, waiting my turn, waiting for the society I live in to finally-and-for-all accept that I am here, that I am who this history has made me and who I have made myself, that I am worthy, that I can think, that I have a heart full of love, that I am beautiful, that I’m not going anywhere.

It’s 2014, and I am not going anywhere. I won’t be put down, I won’t be made small. I will take up every inch of the space that I need. And then I will take the inches and feet and miles of space that I want.

Michael Brown is dead, and I can’t change that. Darren Wilson will never have to pay for killing Michael Brown, and I can’t change that. But I can honor Michael Brown, I can honor Tarika Wilson, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpurs, Ramarley Graham, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. I can honor all of those lost by being here, by opening my mouth, by saying their names, by remembering, by taking up space, by being the truth of the Angry Black Woman. Because I am angry, angrier than I am tired, angrier than I am sad. I am angry, and you don’t know me angry. You only know my smile, my shyness, my willingness to let you be right, to let you go first.

It’s 2014, and that girl doesn’t live here anymore.

Imagine

Today I was walking through the subway station at Atlantic Avenue (for those who are unfamiliar with this station, it’s huge, like a tiny city underground) and, as I transferred from the 3 to the N, I heard somone playing “Imagine” on the cello.

I love the cello. Love the cello. The sounds it makes resonate in my heart and feels like home, like peace. I actually stopped for a second, turned to try to find the musician, but he or she was hidden, maybe on an LIRR platform. The sound was so clear, so elegant and sad. All morning I’d been blasting Rage Against the Machine in my ears (“Wake Up,” “Take the Power Back” and “Know Your Enemy” in particular). I don’t remember why I pulled my earphone out, but I did as I walked up the stairs, and that’s when I heard the cello. I pulled the other earphone out so I could listen and think about the words as I headed for the N.

Yeah. Imagine. Imagine living in a city where things like the killing of Sean Bell never happened … or happened once and we learned enough from it to make the changes in our hearts and heads that would mean it wouldn’t happen again. Imagine living in a place where the police officers who killed the innocent, unarmed man were actually held accountable for that killing. Imagine.

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

Forty years gone. April 4, 2008.

Zach de la Rocha (1970 — )
 
I’ll give you a dose
But it can never come close
To the rage built up inside of me
Fist in the air, in the land of hypocrisy
[…]
Networks at work, keepin’ people calm
You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot.
 

Forty years ago, my family was getting to know my new sister, five days old and the center of attention.  Forty years ago, I was in kindergarten at Catholic school, miserable and alone, the only black child in a class of children and teachers who wanted nothing to do with black kids.  Forty years ago I was discovering that books were friends, saviors.  I could disappear into one at recess and not have to deal with the parroted-from-their-parents slurs my classmates flung at me.  Forty years ago, I was too young for assassination news to mean anything to me.  I have a hazy memory of my mother crying, but that’s all.

And now it’s forty years later.  It’s today.  It’s 2008, and there’s the utter surprise of a black man as a serious contender for the presidency of these United States.  My students never really got why that’s such a big deal.  And sometimes even I don’t get it.  But then I do.  Forty years gone.

(The lyric up top — my poetic posting for the night — is from Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up,” one of my favorites.)