Johnny Townsend

 

Before Things Turned Violent

 

I didn’t want to go to the protest. Demonstrations in other cities the previous two evenings had grown violent. I couldn’t even chop up an onion for dinner without wearing swim goggles. How would I get through being tear gassed? And this was Seattle, where a handful of anarchists had turned a peaceful protest at the WTO conference in 1999 into the Battle of Seattle. I’d moved here after that, but friends recounted coming home from work that evening and being beaten by police officers as they stepped off the bus, unaware till that moment that chaos reigned across half the city.

One of my favorite Osmond songs growing up was “One Bad Apple Don’t Spoil the Whole Bunch, Girl,” and maybe that was true. But it didn’t take many more than that to ruin a protest.

It was 55 degrees this afternoon and raining lightly, the kind of weather that could calm a tense mood. “Please, please, please, God,” I wanted to pray, “don’t let agitators and accelerationists ruin everything.” Too many white people across the country were looking for a reason to dismiss the protests. I could already see friends of mine online, liberals as well as conservatives, looking for an excuse not to care.

Gary and I parked on First Avenue near Pioneer Square at the southern end of downtown, a beautiful area but a little scary in the best of times. My husband was volunteering as security for his group of socialist friends, so we’d arrived forty minutes before the protest was to begin at 3:00. He headed off to walk the last fourteen blocks to Westlake while I stayed in the truck. A temporary assignment I’d been given through one of my part-time jobs had required me to remain on my feet the entire shift three days a week and I’d developed plantar fasciitis. I didn’t want to aggravate the condition any more than necessary.

I’d lost my other part-time job when the pandemic started.

I was one of the lucky ones. My loss wasn’t even part of the 40 million unemployment applications of the past two months.

Watching Gary walk off, I also saw homeless people who predated the financial crisis huddled in doorway after doorway. Every store was closed. No one needed to pass through those doors anymore, so folks practiced social distancing as best they could.

A young man across the street leaned against a building, drinking from a cup as he watched me for the next five minutes. And the next ten after that. He was loitering. As I was. But was he waiting for me to leave so he could vandalize the truck? Thieves had broken into Gary’s pickup at least three times in the thirteen years we’d been together.

It was time for me to head to Westlake. I secured my face mask and started walking. A block up the street, I casually glanced back to see if anyone had approached the truck. No one had, so I continued on. Homeless folks had even set up tents where they could. A dozen men and women wrapped in sleeping bags and filthy jackets huddled under the glass pergola near the totem pole in front of the closed Underground Seattle, trying to stay dry.

“Please, God, help this protest be a force for good.”

Seattle officials routinely ordered sweeps of the many homeless encampments throughout the city. Tents and all other belongings were confiscated and thrown away, as if that would somehow force the destitute to change their lives for the better.

I passed another man in a sleeping bag right in the middle of the sidewalk, one hand grasping the base of his roller suitcase as he slept.

Brian, one of my liberal friends, hated homeless people. “They’re breaking the law!”

It’s difficult not to break the law when poverty is criminalized.

But I was scared of “them,” too. As I approached a mentally ill woman shouting obscenities at the universe, I debated on how best to pass by without enraging her even further. Walking too closely would certainly set her off, but creating too large a safety zone by walking in the middle of the street could easily be offensive and set her off as well.

I walked along the curb, avoiding eye contact. Not seeing her was offensive, too, of course. I wished I knew the right thing to do.

Passing a narrow alley, I got a whiff of ammonia, making me aware I was already starting to feel pressure in my bladder. I’d tried not to drink much after noon today, but my diabetes made it difficult to go more than two or three hours without a pee break. We’d left the house at 1:45, yet here it was not quite 3:00, and my bladder was already demanding attention.

More and more people were heading north now, most of them white, several carrying signs. “We stand with our black brothers and sisters.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” “Remaining neutral in the face of injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor.”

Back in middle school, a kid in my history class had bullied me repeatedly. When I told my mother, she urged me to hit him as hard as I could. But I didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was afraid he’d hit me back even harder, though that was certainly a consideration. I simply didn’t want to hurt anybody at all.

But I did say something snarky to the guy, and I remembered his eyes turning cold. “I’ll see you out on the playground at lunch.”

During lunch period, I remained in the hallway, avoiding both the cafeteria and the playground. But a teacher discovered me and, even after I explained the situation, ordered me out of the building. I could see the disgust in her eyes because I was afraid to face the bully.

The bully, naturally, spotted me within seconds and came over to start pushing me about. I think he may have hit me in the arm as well. But what I remember most from the confrontation was the older brother of a friend of mine walking over and telling the bully to leave me alone.

The bully walked away.

All these years later, I still preferred words to physical confrontation. But because of the pandemic, I didn’t have a workplace to go to. Since I qualified as high risk, I’d had to opt for teleworking until my foot healed and I could return to a more normal assignment. Even now, favoring my left foot as much as possible, I could already feel the twinges that indicated possible new damage if I wasn’t careful.

But I could hardly compare the risk of a small tear in one of my tendons to the danger blacks faced every time they stepped out of the house. I’d seen a Facebook post earlier from a man who said he never took a stroll around his mostly white neighborhood without walking his dog at the same time and asking his young daughter to accompany them. It was the only way he felt he could avoid being viewed as a criminal.

As a gay man, I understood the importance of allies. I might not be a great ally for Black Lives Matter, but I couldn’t pretend I bore no obligation to help. The fact that I actually had a choice about participating today only proved my privilege once again.

I passed more and more police cars, officers in bulletproof vests on their bicycles, two EMT vehicles parked in anticipation. Dozens of people hurried past me on their way to Westlake. I walked slowly and carefully. Even the slight incline was making me puff.

Damn, this mask was hot. I could barely—

Hundreds of people packed the plaza in front of Westlake. I could hear the deep voice of a speaker, but the sound system seemed faulty. Though the words were loud enough, they were too muffled to understand. The protest signs, however, declared the message most of us were feeling. “We need an elected review board!” “Demilitarize the police!” “Silence is betrayal!”

I remembered the “Silence = Death” protest signs during the height of the AIDS crisis.

Two young white women in make-up that disguised their faces stopped me on the sidewalk. “Make sure you keep your mask on. They’re using tear gas over there.” One of the women pointed vaguely in the direction of the plaza.

No one was yelling. Protesters weren’t running in fear. I saw no smoke, smelled nothing odd. Were these women just trying to keep people from joining the main crowd?

There were hundreds more people on the sidewalk near me and on the street separating us from the thickest part of the protest. Close enough for white complacency. I backed up against a storefront and tried to gauge the mood of those around me.

Everything seemed calm. This was already the second protest of the day, and nothing untoward had occurred during the first one as far as I knew. Thank god for Seattle rain.

“We can’t sit in silence,” one sign floating past me along the sidewalk declared. “Arrest complicit cops!” read another. “White people—show your work!” At least half of the people here were white.

How many, I wondered, were white supremacists? Gary had attended several counterprotests at Proud Boys rallies the past few years, always volunteering as security for his friends. The Pacific Northwest, I’d found to my dismay, was home to many white supremacist groups. Patriot Prayer had headquarters up here. A group of Three Percenters was in the area, too. I’d moved away from the south fifteen years ago, for God’s sake. Things were supposed to be better here.

I couldn’t see Gary anywhere in the crowd. If things got ugly…

I heard a rushing sound increasing in intensity. OMG, what was happening? Was that noise gas cannisters going off? I looked around quickly.

The crowd across the street was cheering something the speaker had just said.

Stop being such a scaredy-cat.

It was only 3:20, and I really had to pee. But another surprise like that, and I wouldn’t need to worry about trying to find a bathroom.

The two white women near me kept stopping newcomers and warning them about the tear gas.

There was no tear gas.

Forty feet to my right, a black woman began yelling loudly at a white man. Everyone around them watched the altercation in silence. Finally, I heard the woman say, “We don’t need any of you goddamn anarchists here! Get out!” After another minute of her outburst, the white man, clad all in black, walked off.

People turned their attention back to the speaker, clapping every once in a while. Apparently, others could make out the words I couldn’t.

But did anyone believe that anarchist had simply gone home in defeat? And how many others were out there? Some days, I loathed people.

Some days, even myself.

A white man sitting on the sidewalk beside me handed out juice packets to homeless people who wandered by. Maybe they weren’t even wandering. They seemed to know him, went right up to him. Maybe he did this all the time.

Another white man, barefaced, marched up to me in disgust. “Why are you wearing a mask? The pandemic’s a hoax!” He walked away, shouting at other stupid people in the crowd. Most of us wore cloth masks, some wore paper masks, and a couple wore some version of gas mask. One man walked about in a snorkeling mask over his N95.

I patted my jacket pocket to make sure my swim goggles were ready if the warning from the two white women eventually turned out to be true.

 Only 3:30, and Gary had told me the protest would probably last two hours. If I walked back to Pioneer Square, perhaps I could pee in an alley. It must happen there all the time.

 A black man walked by, holding his sign up high. “I can’t breathe!” Several of his friends followed behind as he moved on, each with a sign of his own.

“Listen!”

“Don’t shoot! I’m asleep!”

“I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit!”

Seattleites were all about recycling. I’d seen that last sign at another protest three or four years ago.

Three medics in PPE walked by with their gear, heading deeper into the crowd. Had something happened? Everyone still seemed calm.

A black woman in her late thirties moved up to an empty spot along the wall beside me. Her sign read, “PTSD—Present Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

What the hell was wrong with so many white people? Why couldn’t we just treat each other like human beings? Why were we so emotionally invested in refusing to demand change?

While perhaps 85% of the crowd was divided fairly equally between blacks and whites, a smaller but significant portion was composed of Asians and Latinx, with a few Native Americans and a smattering of other groups as well.

Damn, I needed to pee.

But I needed to stay at least till 4:00. A protest wasn’t a place to just check in, say you were there, and head back out, marking off a box to prove you were “good.” I needed to study more on how to be a better ally. Almost every form of oppression on the planet, after all, was tied either to racism or sexism.

Four young black men gathered along the wall several feet away, leaning in to talk like football players in a huddle. I was getting a bad vibe. They seemed suspicious.

Unless that was my subconscious bias popping up yet again.

This was all so hard. Not as hard as walking home with Skittles, of course, but still challenging. Was that why people wanted to wash their hands of it?

A young white man joined the two white women on my other side. The guy hooked something black to his belt. It was the shape of a soda can, but only half the length, and black. Was that a flash grenade? Or were they called flash bombs? Flash bangs?

With the growing political unrest in this country, it was clear I was going to need to learn some new words.

For now, I was going to use my diabetes as an excuse and start looking for a bathroom. Perhaps a Starbucks might be open farther from the demonstration. At about 3:50, I started heading south. Two blocks later, I glanced to my left and saw a huge crowd up on Fifth marching toward City Hall or King County jail. Or maybe police headquarters. The three buildings were all within a couple of blocks of each other.

Every store I passed was closed, even Starbucks. Several store owners had boarded up their windows. For all I knew, that had happened weeks ago when the city was first put under a stay-at-home order. This was the first time in two and a half months that I’d ventured more than a few blocks from home.

It was impossible to know how much of the tension in protests across the country this week was a result of the relentless police killings of unarmed blacks, how much was a product of the non-stop barrage of hateful rhetoric coming from the White House, and how much was simply a consequence of forced isolation coupled with increasing economic despair.

That morning, a good friend of mine had posted on FB her disgust with the riots. “Listen up, black people! This does nothing for your cause.” And with that, she brushed off any need to care any longer about solving the root problems. If those bad, stupid black people were going to behave like animals, white people didn’t need to concern themselves over something as minor as racism. Criminals got what they deserved.

I remembered my dad, a High Priest in our Mormon congregation, buying a CB radio back in the 1970s, so happy for its help in avoiding cops when we drove two hours to visit his parents in Mississippi. He could finally speed with impunity.

Our home in a white suburb of New Orleans was burglarized twice by white teenagers.

I’d watched on the news yesterday evening as a peaceful, unresisting black CNN reporter and his crew were arrested as they broadcast live from Minneapolis. I watched as a white reporter in Louisville and her crew were shot with pepper balls by officers aiming directly at them.

Whose cause did that further?

I passed a homeless woman in running shorts, shivering in the rain.

I had almost reached Pioneer Square again, but I didn’t want to pee on the street. Gary had asked me not to ride public transportation during the pandemic, and I had no desire to, either, but Metro had begun blocking off seats on its buses to force people to keep a reasonable distance while riding. I was tired, my left foot hurt, my bladder was about to burst, and I just wanted to go home. So when a 7 Prentice pulled up to the bus stop, I stepped aboard and found an unblocked seat.

As we passed the light rail station in the International District, I could see another huge crowd heading north toward police headquarters.

The bus had hardly gone three blocks down Rainier Avenue when a police car with its siren blaring zoomed past us heading downtown, on our side of the street.

That couldn’t be good. But I didn’t want to text Gary. If anything bad was going on over there, I didn’t want to distract him.

The bus was crowded, a white homeless man with filthy pants sitting on top of a “Seat Closed” sign across the aisle, another white man who looked down and out but perhaps not homeless sat next to me and talked to a black woman a seat behind us. Someone boarded with their dog. Another man carried two bags of groceries.

Some guy kept talking and talking and talking, apparently to no one. A few minutes later, I heard a black man address the talker. “We’re gonna give you a pass because you’re crazy,” he said.

My phone rang, and I saw Gary’s name on the screen. “Where are you?” he asked. I could barely hear him.

“I’m good,” I told him. “I’m—”

He interrupted me with a question. I tried to hear him in all the noise around me and then he stopped talking in mid-sentence. I called him back, but there was no answer.

Fuck! If he was in trouble, I couldn’t help him by calling.

Was this the day a neo-Nazi finally showed up with an assault weapon and mowed down thirty people? Neo-Nazis had been caught trying to blow up a gay bar on Capitol Hill several years earlier. And I knew the Boogaloo movement wanted to foment another civil war. In a world where the President of the United States could retweet, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” anything was possible.

Damn, I needed to pee.

Finally, we reached my stop near the end of the line. I pulled the cord, the only thing I’d touched while aboard the bus. After we pulled to a stop, I stood up, avoiding the support bars, and headed to the door. I passed a black man asleep next to his belongings and stepped off.

The rain was pouring now. Thank God. Surely, that would slow down whatever was happening downtown.

I reached the house five minutes later, just a few minutes past 5:00. As soon as I unlocked the door, my phone vibrated and sent out a screech. “Emergency Alert!” The mayor had issued a curfew, effective at 5:00.

I ran to the bathroom and let out a long stream.

Remembering the hundreds of homeless people I’d seen that day who couldn’t even use the bathroom in the public library anymore.

When I turned on the TV a moment later, I gasped. Cars were on fire downtown. Smoke from the promised tear gas was everywhere. A white man who might have grabbed a rifle from a vandalized police vehicle had the weapon ripped out of his hand by a white officer. People were breaking windows at Nordstrom and other stores, running inside and handing goods to people on the sidewalk.

Every one of the looters looked black.

Goddammit.

I’d seen a meme on FB earlier. “Looting isn’t protesting. But murder isn’t policing.” Yet I knew almost all of my friends and family, both Republican and Democrat, were only going to remember the looting, not the murder of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or anyone else. I knew my friends were also going to quibble over the term “murder” but would have no trouble lumping everyone at the protests with “thugs.”

They’d already been saying for days that we shouldn’t judge all cops by the bad behavior of a few bad officers. But they were already judging the entire Black Lives Matter movement by the actions of a minority of blacks destroying property.

On the TV in front of me, one of the news cameras zeroed in on several of the looters in the store. Over half of them were white. They were wearing ski masks that covered everything but their eyes and mouths. Black ski masks. But at least half of those looters were white. Not all of them. There were clearly some blacks looting as well.

And I knew most people across the country would only see black people committing crimes. The only time they bothered to notice black people at all.

And the looting and attacks on police cars might well have taken place without any prodding by white provocateurs. There was plenty of well-earned anger out there.

A reporter onscreen lamented that the protest had been going so well “before things turned violent.” Did he still not understand the violence perpetrated against blacks for centuries?

I wondered if the black protesters I’d seen today wished I hadn’t come down to Westlake at all. Had they been glad to see so many white faces, feeling they’d finally gained allies who’d stand with them when it counted, or had experience warned them to expect a hijacking?

Agents had infiltrated protests and strikes for the past 150 years, when women demanded suffrage, when blacks demanded suffrage, when workers demanded fair wages and safe working conditions. It was always going to happen, especially when the stakes were high.

But women did have the right to vote now. So did blacks. Workers did have unions.

So maybe as a society we’d finally make progress on this front, too, despite the sabotage.

The truth is we’ll never be able to sift out who did what and which group they were part of. The best we can do is keep the focus on the source of the actual problem—structural racism that leads inevitably to individual racist atrocities.

I’d texted Gary the moment I turned on the television to let him know I’d made it home safely. He hadn’t responded, hadn’t answered when I called one more time. I kept my phone in front of me, glancing at it every fifteen seconds as if it were a rearview mirror.

Gary was a smart guy. He’d be home soon.

I remembered the twelve people huddled under the pergola in Pioneer Square.

The phone rang. Gary had made it back to the truck with two elderly women from his political group. I assured him I was fine, he assured me they were as well, and he told me he’d be home as soon as he could drop them off at their homes. “But, man, I really gotta pee.”

I was waiting on the front porch when he drove up in the rain, holding the front door open as he ran past me to the bathroom.

 

(published in LA Progressive on 1 June 2020)


A native of New Orleans, Johnny Townsend wrote the first account of the UpStairs Lounge fire, an attack on a French Quarter gay bar which killed 32 people in 1973. Some of his other books include Human Compassion for Beginners, The Tyranny of Silence, and Am I My Planet’s Keeper?

 


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