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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.