Mob Violence – Is it here to stay forever?

A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES

Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.

A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.  

“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.

“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.

“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.

“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”

Photo by Terri Windling

My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”

The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:

“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.

No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.

Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.

Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.      

Living While Boarded Up

There was dancing in the streets all over San Francisco on November 7th. I was walking in the Presidio, trying not to get wiped out by flying cyclists whizzing downhill shouting Biden/Harriss!!! It’s been pretty much party mode ever since.

But downtown — and in a few other areas — preparations had long been made for the mayhem that wasn’t. It would be hard not to agree with business owners who boarded up. Protests following the George Floyd killing and racial unrest at other times in recent months brought out the bad guys along with the earnest. There was widespread, costly looting. I live not far from a BevMo store that looked as if someone had tossed a large bomb through the front door. So if I owned a business I would have boarded up too.

Eyes on the passers-by

Following the election of Joe Biden which was finally declared on Saturday, November 7th, though, there was only dancing. And since then, it’s fascinating to see signs of how life goes on around (and behind and in front of) the plywood. This is a quick Plywood City tour.

High end social distancing

Some businesses behind the plywood have gone under and won’t be back. But others are bravely carrying on. At Louis Vuitton — there are people out there still buying $3,000 handbags? — a polite security guard at the door carefully limited the number of shoppers entering. And inside (the polite security guard let me peek) shoppers and staff kept their masks on and distances measured.

Local billboard creativity has definitely peaked. On some of the plywood sheets there were phone numbers to call or — frequently — “We’re Open!” messages pointing to the plywood door.

Finding shelter from the storms

At some locations, the irony was painful. One nonprofit (not that far from the Louis Vuitton store, actually) which was created to help the homeless covered its plywood with optimistic messaging. But it managed to offer a likely spot for one down-on-his-luck guy to construct a resting place at the same time.

Still, high above the boarded-up storefronts and sheltered-in-place citizenry, somebody remembered to hoist the flag.

Long may it wave

Can Anti-Racism Win This Round?

SIGNS OF HOPE TRANSCEND FAILURES OF HISTORY

Gathering on the Decatur Square, June 2020

We eye each other warily, a group of six adults: two young white women, two older men – one white, one black, one young black woman and one grandmotherly black woman. We live within approximately the same one-mile city area, but beyond a passing acquaintance with the other young white woman I have never met any members of my group. We are one of a dozen similar groups spaced out in the city recreation center auditorium. We’re there at the invitation of the city and a loosely-organized interfaith group, in response to interracial tensions we hope to calm. Perhaps even heal.

After going around the circle introducing ourselves we look at the hand-outs we’ve been given on arrival. The sheets say things like, What would you like to know about others in your group? What would you like them to know about you? Do you have thoughts or questions about the changes that are happening? Please share.

We begin with carefully edited stories of who we are. Within a very short time, though – it’s the 60-something black man who issues the first challenge – our conversations become more raw and our stories closer to the truth. My initial enthusiastic openness quickly turns into defense and self-doubt, tinged with fear. But this is the first of what will be many talks, many tears, and small victories. We believe things are changing. Not without pain, and not as fast or as far as we wish, but all of our eyes are a little more open and there’s optimism all around. Despite so much turmoil here and everywhere, the future holds promise of better days.

But this is not 2020. The above happened in 1964 in Decatur, Georgia, a decade after Brown v Board of Education officially ended segregated schools – it had taken that long for the Supreme Court decision to work its way into reality in my town. I was pregnant with my youngest child, who would go from first grade to high school graduation, unlike her two older siblings, without ever being in an all-white classroom.

In that and subsequent gatherings we eventually got comfortable with each other. A neighbor of the young black woman would become a friend and colleague, and later the first African American Mayor of Decatur. I went on with my life, satisfied that the world was getting better. I eventually moved to San Francisco where everything felt, if not exactly like the Summer of Love, at least like a confirmation that love would prevail. I joined interfaith vigils after senseless murders of young black men. My church hung a Black Lives Matter banner next to its rainbow flag and All Are Welcome proclamations; we became a Sanctuary community, with energetic fellow members going to work in behalf of those seeking asylum and refuge. Even though the federal government seemed usually to be working against what I see as justice, I was certain we were on the right path and that justice would prevail.

Decatur Protesters, June 2020

Then came 2020.

How did I get it wrong for nearly sixty years?

The answer may be in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist. Too many people, especially white allies of black and brown justice movements in which I’ve been so comfortable most of my adult life, self-identify as “not racist,” and then figure all is well, Kendi said in a recent PBS NewsHour interview. But “the opposite of racist isn’t not-racist,” he says; “it’s anti-racist.” Kendi kept returning to the word “policy.” The need to re-imagine policy, the “striving for policies” that will indeed bring justice. I think, in these past nearly sixty years, I may have fallen a little behind in the policy area. That business of getting policies enacted at the local, state and federal level. Sixty years of good will did not necessarily equate to justice.

Ibram Kendi is an historian, a professor of history and international relations, a leading anti-racist voice and the youngest ever (at 34) winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. While I was working on this piece my very wise daughter-in-law posted a link to a podcast Kendi recently did with professor/lecturer Brene’ Brown featuring this tagline: The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, admission, acknowledgment, the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to identify the times we are being racist. In that podcast Kendi again often invokes the policy word.

I think I know what I got wrong. Maybe not the confession, admission, acknowledgment, even willingness to be vulnerable – but too little attention to what’s going on in the policy area. Policies at every level have got to change. The good news is, I believe this is beginning to happen. Abolishment of choke-holds and no-knock invasions are a step in the right direction; if Georgia cleans up its voter suppression efforts it could set a lovely example for other states where voter suppression is just another reality.

For those of us proud citizens of progressive California, the sight of police officers in Oakland kneeling alongside the protesters seemed an optimistic start. But one of the most eloquent statements of the nationwide white/black/old/young determination to change was pictured online, posted on Facebook by my granddaughter and even appeared on an inside page of the New York Times print edition last week. It’s a group of thousands of citizens of all ages and races quietly, peacefully demonstrating – in downtown Decatur, Georgia.

Protests, and Hope for the Future

We considered it a badge of honor. An event I engineered recently (with a LOT of help from my friends) in San Francisco drew luminaries from the interfaith community, women’s rights and reproductive justice groups – and several stalwart protesters holding signs aloft in the chilly drizzle. What’s a champagne reception without protesters?Dr. Willie Parker flyer jpeg

Actually, they were not protesting the champagne reception (though they were there before it started.) They were protesting the main event that followed: Reproductive Justice on the Front Lines. It was a conversation between Director of the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health Carole Joffe and noted physician/author Dr. Willie Parker. Dr. Parker, a deeply committed Christian and an abortion provider, believes it is morally right for a pregnant woman to control what happens to her body. The protesters believe the fetus takes priority over the woman carrying it. To set the record straight, our protesters were hardly worth notice as far as Dr. Parker is concerned – he is used to being the target of threats and angry insults hurled by protesters who regularly surround the deep south clinics where he flies to provide service to mostly young, poor women of color seeking abortion care.

I appreciated our protesters’ civility, but rather strongly disagree with their dismissal of women like me. These sign-carriers would have opposed my back-alley 1956 abortion, demanding that I carry that rape-caused, life-wrecking pregnancy to term.march-crowd

Which brings up this current reality: there are protesters who want to destroy rights, and protesters fighting to keep them. There are sign-carriers wanting to send us back to the dark ages, and fighters for light overcoming darkness. Fighters for human rights, for the poor and marginalized, for the planet, for decency, sanity, truth.

I’m with the protesters who are fighters-for. Their movement aims to get us back to being a country of justice for all, and get the U.S., eventually, back to its long-held place of respect around the world. It’s a movement forward that I joined with the pure-joy Women’s March early this year. Happily those protesters are still out there in force: the Stand-Ups, the Indivisibles, the Occupiers, the MoversOn, the countless other groups all over the country. Young and old, male, female, gay, straight, black, brown, white, they embody that same Women’s March spirit of ebullient hope.

And they are my hope for the future.