Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Black Lives Matter Needs to be More than a Slogan

I struggle. Not like people "in the struggle" struggle, I struggle with how to turn my ideals into action. I have a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard. I have one in my office. I have a BLM t-shirt. I've been to some rallies and marches. I offered to help them with ASL interpreting.

I believe that Black Lives Matter.

But how do I show it? How do I live it? What do I show my kids?

It can feel overwhelming at times. I feel helpless. I can't stop the police from shooting people. I try to observe police actions to the extent possible, but I don't know what I'd do if something went south. I hope that I would film it and verbally protest. I worry that I would try to intervene and get hurt.

That's an extreme and unlikely scenario. How can I show that Black Lives Matter to me on a day-to-day basis? Because I believe that an important aspect of change is how we carry it through on an individual, person-to-person basis. Yes, history remembers the big moments, the grand gestures, but the impact of those history book moments is in how we behave towards each other on a personal level.

This is where this gets hard to write because I don't want to seem self aggrandizing. Coming up next are two acts of common decency that should be unremarkable. I am writing about them because they were difficult for me, not in the doing, but in wanting to do them. Let's be clear, this isn't, "I'm a hero." This is, "Why was this unusual?"

"What the hell are you talking about Berto?"

I'm, getting there, but first, a slight detour.

There's an episode of Mad Men called, The Hobo Code. (No, I am not comparing African Americans to hobos. Please bear with me.) In the episode, Don Draper remembers a hobo coming to his house when he was kid during The Depression. The guy stays for a day or so and teaches young Don to decipher symbols hobos use to communicate information about their surroundings. Don's adoptive father cheats the hobo, who carves the symbol for "dishonest man" in their fence post before he leaves.

A few months ago there was a knock at the door. We get a fair number of young solicitors, usually young men selling newspaper subscriptions to raise money for college. My long standing habit has been to say, "no." Then a young man came by who told me he was a Berkeley High student. He was planning on going to Berkeley City College. He was Latino. He was me. I bought 20 weeks of the Sunday Chronicle, though I wasn't sure it would actually come. It did.

A few weeks later there was again, a knock at the door. Outside were two young African American men. They told me they were from out of state, part of program selling magazine subscriptions for a young entrepreneur's program. The shorter one talked about his dream of opening a BBQ joint. We talked for a long time about their future goals. They asked me about my path through education and career. The thing that struck me was that they thanked me for opening the door and talking to them. I offhandedly referred to the BLM sign in my yard. "Yeah," they remarked, "a lot of folks around here got those signs, but they won't open the door when they see us." I was shocked, then I wasn't. "But this is Berkeley" I thought, until I didn't. I was sad that my wonderful, progressive, mostly white neighbors had refused to talk to these young men. I bought two years of Family Handyman.

It never came.

I don't know if it was scam, or if they were just young guys who forgot to file the paper work. According to The Atlantic, if it was a scam, it may not be their fault. I do feel a little stupid for buying the magazine. The next time someone came with a similar story and a similar pitch, I turned them away. I felt bad about doing that, but I don't have the money to be able to trust everyone. Still, when I look back the thing I remember most was that whatever their intent, these two young men noticed that not everyone with a BLM sign was willing to open their door to talk to an actual live Black person. Whatever the outcome, I'm glad I at least did that.

I have been stopped on the street and asked for assistance hundreds of times in my life. Most of the time I am genuinely too busy to stop. Sometimes my Spidey-Sense tingles and I make up an excuse. Sometimes I try to help. In the third case it ends up being a scam just often enough to make me wary of helping people. My default is, "no."

I was arriving home from a rugby tournament last weekend, I stopped on the sidewalk to chat with my next door neighbor, when a man pulled up on a bike. He was African American, he looked working class, or even below working class. Like a guy who struggles to hold a job that pays enough to cover rent and food. You might read that and think I'm a dick for making that snap judgement, but I know that look because he reminded me instantly, of my dad.

"Hey man, do you live here?" My front door was open, blocked by a dog gate, because the summer breeze is the reason we never needed A/C. "Can you help me? I just got off work and I need to heat these up." He held out two frozen chimichangas, that clearly hadn't been frozen in some time. He saw my hesitation, and my neighbor turned away. "Please man, I just worked a double shift and I haven't eaten. The microwave in the break room busted."

"Maybe you should try 7-11." I offered with a smile.

"I tried man, they won't let me because they say I'm not buying anything." He could see me trying to turn all this over in my mind. He never mentioned it, but he was stopped right in front of my BLM yard sign. "I won't come in, I just need these cooked. Please."

"What do I want carved on my fence post?"

That was the thought that finally tipped the scales for me. I took the food and headed inside. My kids were happy to see me. I said my hellos as I made a bee-line for the microwave. "What'cha making?" asked Buddy. I explained to him what I was doing and he scampered to the door. He came back. He asked me again what I was doing, and why. "We have to help people, Bud. It can backfire on you sometimes, but you have to do your best to assess a situation and see if you can help. I can help with this, so I'm doing it."

I was uncomfortable. I didn't want to go to deep into it. I was worried that he'd get the wrong idea and end up trusting too much. But I also wanted them to see, needed them to see, that we are duty bound to help the people we can help. Even when it takes us out of our comfort zone, even if we perceive some risk, we need to be able to assess the situation for what it is, rather than what we fear it might be. That's what we're asking of law enforcement. That's what we have to demonstrate to our children so that they can grow up with less prejudice.

The microwave beeped. I flashed back to the Star Wars Canteen bit, "You'll need a tray because the food is hot." I grabbed a paper plate, then a napkin, then a plastic fork. I brought it all out to the man on the bike. "Thanks man." he said, and then quickly rode away. I felt guilty about how satisfied I was to have helped.

Again, I'm not a hero. I'm not doing anything beyond what we should all be doing for each other. What makes this interaction in any way remarkable is that we're not doing these things for each other. At least, not enough. It's a sad statement that these small acts of decency, things that should be commonplace, stick out to me. I know it's a hard world. I know we're used to being wary, and we've earned that. Still, maybe you'll read this and take the risk to be just a little more kind, a little more helpful. Not just to African Americans, to everyone, of course.

But maybe a little more to African Americans who, as a society we clearly hold an irrational fear towards.  Maybe a little more because we can recognize and adjust for our inherent and unexamined bias. Maybe a little more because making sure Black Lives Matter on a small scale doesn't mean other lives don't matter, but it acknowledges whose lives are most at risk right now.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independent of Independence Day

I'm usually a big Fourth of July guy. I love the weird baseball uniforms, the BBQs, and shows of patriotism. I've long been the guy who organizes a cook out and dons red, white and blue and runs around with sparklers. I was always a patriot, even when it was unpopular growing up in the Reagan 80s in Berkeley. In high school I was a guest on a local radio show about patriotism. I was chosen as the "pro" side. I was pretty well savaged by the callers. Still, through Reagan and Bush I and Bush II my love of country never wavered. I looked at all the good we'd done in the world, while openly examining and admitting our many many many faults. I always stood for the anthem. I was proud of my family's military service. I saw progress.

This year is different. I'm not feeling it.

That's me in a 1987
MLB All-Star game jersey
and 1984 Olympics cap.
Last night we went to the A's game for the fireworks. I usually wear my Eric Chavez era red, white and blue A's jersey and cap. This year I couldn't do it. I wore black. When they performed God Bless America I didn't stand. I couldn't. Instead, I raised a fist. I was relieved that no on seemed to notice. Today, instead of my usual garb, I'm rocking a Colin Kaepernick jersey.

It's a complex time for me. I'm fighting myself every day. I know that our current administration is an abomination. The president and the jellyfish supporting him in congress are doing everything they can to make our greatest fears from the 1980s into a reality. So I'm disenchanted. I can't muster the energy to celebrate this year as I watch my country get stripped and sold for parts. The administration is compiling a list of dissidents under the guise of investigating voter fraud. My fellow Japanese-Americans see the specter of internment in each new executive order. Every other day I consider whether I'll go quietly to the camps, or refuse to be taken alive.

There's nothing original in noting that the most popular musical and cultural phenomenon in the country right now is a musical about revolution. I had been mostly ignoring Hamilton because I didn't think I'd ever have a chance to see it. I didn't want to torture myself by getting into a show that was inaccessible to me. The times I listened to parts of it I couldn't distinguish the characters enough to get a feel for it. Then a generous friend secured tickets, first for my wife, and then last week for Buddy and I. You can easily find reviews that will tell you all the wonderful aspects of the show. It's everything you've heard, and more. What hit me, and honestly scared me, is that it all sounded like a good idea. I could see the parallels between the political atmosphere then and now. It makes me intensely uncomfortable. When Hamilton exclaims, "Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is" I thought "YES!" and then was immediately ashamed because I wasn't thinking about history.

Buddy discussing revolution with
like minds in Williamsburg
I'm a Civil War history buff. The very idea of secession used to get my hackles up. I despise the Confederate Battle Flag and I have long considered those who fly to be seditionists. I seethed when right wing nuts talked about rebellion under Obama's presidency. I never, ever thought I'd have similar thoughts. I still don't. I don't want to see armed conflict between citizens and the government. I wouldn't advocate for secession or revolution. But for the first time I can envision a conflict being forced upon us. Even in the darkest days of W I always felt like we'd be able to fix things over time. I don't feel that way now. I worry that we are at the brink of the end of the United States that has been. Whatever we become, whatever happens next feels like it's going to be something bigger than any change we've seen during my lifetime. Godwin's law not withstanding, I keep wondering if this is what it felt like to live in Germany in the 1930s. You keep trying to live the same life. You keep thinking that everything will be OK and will right itself. You keep telling everyone that "they won't possibly let this continue" without a real clear idea of who "they" are supposed to be.

For some reason this feels like a dangerous thing to write, to express to the world. I don't want revolution. I don't want to own a gun. I don't want to fight anyone, ever. But for the first time in my life I don't believe that it could never happen.