Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rioty: the Language of Violence

My street, cordoned off by police cars and crime tape.
This was supposed to be a December post about the violence and protests in Oakland and San Francisco, the reactions to the violence in Ferguson, Missouri. But then it became about the murders in Paris at a magazine office. And now it's about four people shot dead around the corner from my home.

But let's go back to the Ferguson protests. You remember them. They were about the other senseless violence. I didn't feel comfortable reducing such a national movement with my own little perspective.
One of my Daily Kent Stater editorial cartoons, 1980

But then the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened in Paris. I thought, as a journalist, I had a connection.

But I didn't feel comfortable writing about that, other than posting some supportive million-forwarded meme jpg graphic or crowd shot from France. Because my situation as a much safer writer couldn't compare to the horrors in Paris.

But then I remembered a political cartoon I created for the Daily Kent Stater in 1980. Although a theatre major at the time, I think the budding writer in me had an inkling for journalism, and I approached it from a seemingly innocuous angle; editorial cartoons. 

Working with the student editor, we decided on topics; local (campus housing) or national (nuclear energy) and politics (Reagan vs. Carter).

Another of my Daily Kent Stater editorial cartoons, 1980
For one cartoon, I depicted the embers of another Paris bombing. Back in 1980, anti-semites were bombing Jewish businesses. That was the flavor of hate then.

So this connection to never-ending horrors, guns, bombs, violence, continues. I offer my lame comparisons, my connection to my disconnection, and should call it a night.

But then, tonight, Friday January 9, after getting home before 10pm, I heard sirens nearby my home, thinking it was just another emergency I would read about or see on the TV news. When the helicopters arrived nearby, I dreaded the thought of yet another protest, only because it meant annoying helicopters.

Laguna Street after Jan. 9 shootings
But the news helicopter stayed overhead; directly overhead. And blue and red flashing lights bounced into my window, through the shades. So I went back outside to see my small street being cordoned off in both directions by police cars and yellow tape.

"You need to stay inside, sir," said police men and women at either end of my small block. 

"It was a shooting," said another cop, who traced the street and gutter with a flashlight as he looked for shell casings.

I hadn't heard the guns, this time.

It wasn't until an hour later that I found a source and a few facts

San Francisco police confirm four African-American males were shot dead in Hayes Valley at Laguna and Page streets."

That's it.

Four men shot dead at an intersection I've crossed thousands of times. The Zen Center is there, a place of peace, meditation and tranquility. The mailbox on one corner is where I drop off my Netflix DVDs.
Crime scene tape in the gutter down the street.
The pleasant comfort of my little neighborhood has been interrupted by shootings many times in past two decades I've lived in San Francisco. But it's always a few blocks away, a few hours distant, late at night. Residents who haven't anything to do with the violence, usually gang-related, live in a cloud of self-delusion, that it has nothing to do with us. It's a shame. It's the gangs. It's illegal drugs and illegal weapons.

But after two hours of hiding inside, of nothing happening except the helicopters going away, the tape remains, the police cars remain, and allegedly no assailants found.

I'm near the center of a shooting spree that you won't hear about, except on a local blog or news website. You also didn't hear much about the NAACP bombing in Denver. You didn't hear about a few thousand people massacred in Africa.  I didn't hear the bullets around the corner.

Charlie Hebdo kiss.
And we'll forget about the next shooting, or riot, or mass murder, or terrorist act. Because they accumulate, and build, and blur into each other, until we change the channel, scroll past, or ignore it altogether. 

You can feel justifiably threatened by police. I can feel conflicted; comforted by their thoroughness, uneasy about their "request" for me to hide indoors while they seriously do their work.

Will the blood on the asphalt be mopped up by tomorrow morning, or will it still shimmer? Will it be darker than the bright red of my Netflix DVD envelope, the one with a movie full of "action?"

And it may not seem to connect to you; random violence here, gang violence there; police violence on people protesting violence nowhere near you. Here a one-time cartoonist communing with French cartoonists over there.
One of 100s of cartoonist reactions

My writing has been slighted, vilified, complained about, but rarely confronted with a violent reaction. And when it was, I fought back, with words. But no one's ever pointed a gun at me...yet.

Statistically, these fragmented similarities could polarize, but I keep hoping that's not going to happen, even though it has, right outside my door.

It's 2 a.m., and the police cars are still up and down the street. Does that comfort me, or make me more afraid?

Anyway, here's the post about last year's protests and violence, which many tried to forget. I tried to forget this all happened, because it was just an inconvenience, not a reason to be locked up inside my own home because my street (It's 1am Jan 10 now) is still surrounded by police cars and yellow tape.

December, 2014:

"This happened last night. It won't get rioty till about 10," said a calm well-dressed young woman. She said "RIOTY" – Marga Gomez, on Facebook
The night it first broke out, I was with a friend, headed to a play, Kathleen Turner’s portrayal of Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot at Berkeley Rep.

Earlier that day, the Ferguson grand jury decision had been announced. We expected the timing of the protests like weather predictions.

Kathleen Turner as journalist Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot
But at first, our way to Berkeley was interrupted by a “major medical emergency,” which usually means someone died. But people on the platforms just mutter it.

At MacArthur, we herded onto an opposite platform to one train, with twice as many others ahead of us. Standing amid backpacks to the face, one guy entered late, said loudly, in telling of the protest in Oakland, “They smashed the window of a nonprofit on Broadway that’s trying to solve this problem.”

By 7:45, I knew we might be late. We left the crowded train car, dashed down to the curb, and got a cab within seconds. Our cabbie joked that where he was from, riots ended in beheadings. He got us there with time to spare, as the theatre delayed both their shows’ curtain times.

And it was worth it, to see Kathleen Turner tell the tale of a hard-fighting journalist taking on one incompetent political asshole after another. Ivins’ voice rang through Turner’s husky monologues, interspersed with a time-keeping teletype machine.

My college journalism experience included reading churned out updates via a wire printer, where the news editor would pitch ideas to me about my weekly political cartoon. Themes ranged from national to campus politics, and I took great pleasure in drawing them by hand, with tints carved by an Exacto knife.

As an adult journalist (who doesn’t draw enough cartoons anymore), while my nights had been spent in bars with gogo dancers don’t compare to her roster of political drinking partners, I feel a kinship by profession. Like Ivins, I’ve been allowed to write about whatever I want and say it my way sometimes with editing, but mostly free reign.

And like Ivins, when I encountered situations where over-editing approached annoyance, or an atmosphere of sociopolitical duplicity in a publication (or website), I departed from the situation.

On the way back, we walked a bit, the crowds from both Party People, the Black Panther play’s apparent college night, and the Molly Ivins patrons, mostly older couples. Two generations of theatre fans having enjoyed politically-themed stories.

But the BART station was closed, yellow tape and glow-sleeved agents blocking the escalator.

It turned out there were not one but two deaths on the tracks of Berkeley and possible Embarcadero stations. But at the time, nobody at the barred gate was talking. It ended up being a handy rehearsal for upcoming station closures.

Riot geared police at a BART station in Nov. 2014
As the news became almost shouted back and forth a few times, “No BART?” An air of confusion set in. One small woman almost latched on to us when she overheard our proposal to get a cab.

“We’re gonna see about the bus,” I said. She followed, and half a dozen kids from Party People were behind us headed to where I thought was a bus stop.

We set upon the bus stop like a hastily assembled reality show cast. Two tall guys checked out the map, while a trio of others mapped directions.

But then, I heard a little voice below me.

“You can take the F or the twelve to Ashby.”

A little old Jewish lady, tiny, in a little rainhat and jacket with a small cart.

“Excuse me, ma’am; which bus?”

I crouched down. She repeated herself, softly. I looked up, said, a bit too loudly to Mark, as if to quell the confusion, “So, the F or the 12.”

“Thank you.” She nodded, smiled.

From a young guys’ cell phone: One bus would depart in 30 minutes, the other in six.

The bus driver, a thin black man with a deep voice, took on twenty or so, and assured our impending stop, a mere two blocks from Ashby station.
The bus gleamed, the wheels moved. People seemed relieved.
A few kids checked phones again. I looked out the window, streaks of rain.

One of several 'copter-lit Dec. 2014 Berkeley protests
I knew the route even by night, having ridden my bike, and my friend seemed calmed when I pointed out the Ed Roberts Center, and the parking lot where by day on weekends a little market and drumming circle take place.

We waited at Ashby. Two trains NOT IN SERVICE passed.
My friend seemed still confused. So was I.
Trains were running in opposite directions on the same tracks.
Facebook posts showed pictures of smoke and batons.

Our train did arrive, and it was diverted and did not stop at Twelfth Street. No one among the growing protestors entered or exited the train. Most people were bowed in phone-tertainment.

And by the time we were home in our beds, another night began, seen from far away via helicopters, posted and tweeted at protests from around the country, peaceful mostly, for a while, then burning.

It’s strange just missing the other two nights when things got “rioty” in the East Bay.

Oakland highway protests in late 2014
My brother, driving up from Los Angeles, was among a dozen motorists trapped on an off-ramp between a phalanx of cop cars behind, and in front, a herd of sideshow tire burners whipping up clouds of smoke.

And again, last Saturday, after dinner in Oakland, another friend and I submerged our hope that what was going on that night in Berkeley wouldn’t stop exit from Lake Merritt.

All the violence appeared to us muted, on small devices, yet prevalent.

Loudspeakers announced a “public disturbance” at Berkeley station, and a train change. People reacted slightly confused, clucking with news of condensed phone versions of news, updates, posts. Another was revving up at Mission and 16th. We took Civic Center, parted underground, safe.

It all reminded me of the new rather dark episode in the Hunger Games saga. The entire Orwellian creation of news sent to underground-dwelling minions, and the quelling of riots took on a meta-fact quality. Who was being peaceful? Who was being just a herd of vandals?

Police attack protesters, except the cops who infiltrated the protest.
It’s all around us, even when we passively manage to dodge it. We’re all being effected by the sonic boom of these protests, as armed cops aim sonic crowd-dispersing tech and pellet guns at them.

I couldn’t help but think of Molly Ivins’ plea for justice at the finale of the show. The people are speaking out, Ma’am. Loud and clear.

The veteran activist in me would love to participate, were it not for the potential hospital bills. You see, in my day, they didn’t shoot at protestors.

Actually, I could have stood a better chance of getting shot if I’d gone to a show at Brick and Mortar, where six people got a bullet that week. Even closer to home, a man was mugged, shot and killed by four attackers.

But still, the fearful part of those who avoid mass violence, usually, is the theatrical aspect of a protest/riot, reducing it to a performance. I’ve been in protests where three blocks away, nobody cares. It’s an echo. A cluster of hundreds shouting, dozens tear-gassed and arrested, and half a mile away, people are shopping.

Vandalism in Berkeley, Dec 2014. photo: Press Herald
For it to matter, for it to work, as in other cities, it’s got to be more than just a rampage. Because it’s obviously not over.

But forgive us who are too old or privileged or seemingly indifferent or ‘been-there, done that’ for not getting rioty.
But if you’re going to organize a protest, you have to weed out the chaos makers, the spray paint masked cowards of ugly. Make a point, not a liability. Otherwise, it’s no different than a baseball team winning a series.

When I protested, we had rehearsals on how to sit in, do die-ins.
We infiltrated buildings and hung banners from rooftops.
But we never had to deal with tear gas, or tanks.

I think of that little woman, whose rain hat hid her little face, until I bent down to her all of five feet, her little cart beside her. Her assurance of the bus route was so quietly said, but the answer to our quest. She’d been through worse.

* * *

Further reading, in particular, this recent quote about again, a separate group of violent criminals, and everybody else:

"Billy Parlay, owner of Sandwich Spot on Shattuck Avenue said he had his staff stand in front of the store last night, so his storefront was okay.

“They started taking all the cans on my block and setting anything on fire,” he said. “There were 30 to 40 people, all messed up. They were breaking everything. Throwing cans in the road. Spray painting. Behind them was a young generation of protesters and they were cleaning everything up. The cops could have easily arrested that group. There was zero police presence on my block last night. Early on there were two police on bicycles. I said to one of them, “Would you mind staying here and helping protect me and my business?” He said, “No. Shut up shop and hope for the best.”
Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle


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