Let A Thousand Lilies Bloom

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy

Story by Pete Shaw

It is a little early in the Summer for such things, but the lilies are blooming. In the front of my house, there are about 30 of them, some reaching over 12 feet tall. The trumpet varieties reach toward the sky, their flowers blaring unheard but not unnoticed. I am not sure of the names of the other varieties, so I simply name them after my better 99%, followed by a number. It may make Carl Linnaeus turn in his Uppsala Cathedral burial spot, but such is life.

The lilies come in two rounds. The first, already past, tends to be gorgeous, but unscented. This second round, beautiful, although not so intriguingly as the first, produces highly fragrant, near-intoxicating blooms. Every so often I hear people pass by and comment on how wonderful they are.

I like lilies. I like them better than roses, although I have nothing against those plants, and in fact I highly suggest checking out the Peninsula Park Rose Garden which currently is in full bloom. From afar, it looks like a pointillist canvas come to life, and even I, with my extremely limited sense of smell, enjoy its scents.

But lilies also please me for another reason. When I was in middle school, I had a Friend named Lillian. In 7th grade we sat near or next to each other in Mrs. Klein’s first period math class. She may also have been in my 8th grade US History class. Lillian was always Kind to me, and I remember often making her laugh. In 8th grade, I wanted to ask her to the graduation dance, but was too shy. Par for the course: about 24 years ago, I asked my better 99%–who would also tell you that I make her laugh a bunch–out on our first date by letter.

After middle school, my folks shipped me off to a Catholic high school. I often thought of the Friends I left behind–I still do, for that matter–and I frequently thought of Lillian, hoping life had treated her well. When I see lilies, I think of her, and in all honesty, however mawkish, those thoughts are even more pleasant than the flowers themselves. She is the only Lillian I have ever known.

A few days ago, while watering, I decided I would see if I could find out what she was up to. I found someone with her name whose past addresses listed our hometown, banged out a letter, and sent it off on the wings of hope, prayer, and the United States Postal Service.

Two months ago, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, Minnesota police officers, large uprisings erupted across the country. Every night since then, Portland has seen protests demanding the abolition of white supremacy in all its forms, including capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and the police, systems of policing, and prison system that undergirds all of it, violently chewing up Black lives, Indigenous lives, and lives of color, and spitting them out like so much dross when it is through.

Here in Portland, the police responded with the usual brutality they bring to bear on demonstrators, or at least those who are not white supremacists, for whom they have shown a fondness. Night after night, their violence has been on display for all to see. A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump sent federal troops to Portland, and they too have brutalized people, including taking up the use of tear gas that US District Judge Marco Hernandez forbade the Portland police from using on protestors save for instances where “lives or safety of the public or the police are at risk.”

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy

Those federal forces, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but lacking individual identification, have been snatching people off the street and putting them into unmarked vans. It seems none of those kidnapped have been charged with any crimes, so it stands to reason that the purpose of these actions–so reminiscent of the Pinochet regime in Chile–is to intimidate. If indeed that is the intent, it is not working, as over the weekend thousands of people descended upon downtown Portland, a direct challenge to all police forces now lodged in Portland. Since then, the numbers have only grown.

On top of this, the Portland police have been collaborating with the occupying federal force, and Portland Police Association president Daryl Turner has met with DHS secretary Chad Wolf. In other words, the Portland police and federal forces have been colluding to violently attack Portlanders.

While Mayor Ted Wheeler has no authority over the federal forces, he does oversee the Portland Police Bureau. And as the fellas down at the farm say, he has been as useless as a pair of tits on a stud bull. He has spent most of the past two months lazily wallowing in tepid statements of both-siderism and appeals to better angels that make him sound like some acid casualty who walked off the commune one morning and got mistaken for a leader, all the while doing absolutely nothing to reign in the police that are putatively under his control. He has refused to condemn the police, much less take anything resembling substantive action, and the choice of possible conclusions one must reach are stark: either he approves of wanton police violence upon the citizens of Portland, or he has a very bad case of political blue balls and is too terrified of the police to take any action. Criticizing Donald Trump’s sending of federal forces into Portland is easy. But the fact remains that everything Wheeler is upset about regarding the actions of these federal thugs are the very things to which he has given approval when conducted by the Portland police. 

On Wednesday night, Wheeler showed up at the protests, trying to communicate something to the protestors, although what that was is hard to discern, as it is hard to take seriously a man who has a history not just of allowing police to run roughshod over Portland’s citizens, but has also all but rolled out the red carpet for and given the key to the city to white supremacists.  

He told the crowd, “I do not like the deployment of crowd control munitions.” He ended up getting tear gassed by the federal thugs when they assaulted the protestors.  About 50 minutes after Wheeler left, the Portland police declared a riot and tear gassed the crowd.  According to journalist Robert Evans, the Portland police have used tear gas on the people of Portland about 200 times during Wheeler’s tenure as mayor and police commissioner.

During the Civil War, Union general George McClellan was taking what President Abraham Lincoln felt was too much time in preparing his soldiers to fight the Confederate forces, and at one point Lincoln famously wondered if McClellan was not going to use the army, then perhaps he could borrow it. Over the weekend, Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty issued a similar sounding statement closing with, “I demand action right now. Mayor Wheeler, if you can’t control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau.”

I think Hardesty has made some errors, particularly in calling for a curfew in the early days of the uprising. That said, Hardesty has spent decades fighting against white supremacy, including fighting and organizing for reforming the Portland police, as well as rethinking what policing means. She knows far more about these things than I likely ever will, she knows more about how to get things done within Portland government than I ever will, and most importantly, as a Black person she has a life experience that I can never comprehend. She is strong, stalwart, and courageous.

Hardesty has been showing what leadership looks like. If you had to guess who was mayor of Portland, you’d choose her over Wheeler every time. Every time.

Photo by Christina

On Monday, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly issued a strong statement, writing, “We are no longer merely living in uncertain times—navigating a global health pandemic and economic crisis—in Portland, we are now living through a violent federal paramilitary occupation. Over the last two months, our community has experienced repeated acts of violence at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau—from the indiscriminate use of tear gas to the targeting of members of the press—and now the federal government is violating our constitutional rights on our own streets.”

Commissioner Amanda Fritz issued a statement on June 3 in which she wrote a bunch of sympathetic boilerplate. Since then she has maintained a deafening silence.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the tireless and incessant work of Teressa Raiford and Don’t Shoot Portland. It was Don’t Shoot Portland that filed the complaint against the Portland police for their haphazard use of tear gas on Portland’s citizens that resulted in Judge Hernandez’s ruling. Raiford has been unflagging in her demands for justice for all, and in her push to raise awareness of police violence and its hand in glove relationship with white supremacy.

Some of those thousands who emerged downtown on Saturday and Sunday included a large contingent of women, largely white, who call themselves Wall of Moms (WoM) and have come to be known as the Mom Brigade, Mom-tifa, and other appellations. On Saturday night, they put themselves between the federal thugs and the protestors. The federal thugs fired tear gas at them, which surprised some of the group that included a pregnant woman. They thought the largely white mother look would protect them from state violence. It is a lesson that a lot of people learn the hard way, that their privilege will not protect them. As a Facebook friend wrote, “If you go out and confront state power, it will confront you back. A lot of people think they can cash in their white privilege for a LOT more than it’s actually worth.”

I agree with that statement, and it is typical of the Wisdom of the person who wrote it. However, it is important to note that despite the surprise some of those mothers, many of them came back the next night. And the next. Scared? Doubtless. But not scared enough. Bless them.

Quite a few people have been noting that Portland is just the staging area for all this violent nonsense coming from police forces. As well, they also have been stating that what is going on in downtown Portland is un-American. Both are false.

Contrary to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, enslaved Africans were brought upon the shores of what some people now call the Americas a century earlier. And since 1519, violence has been brought upon Black bodies. Upon stolen land and the backs of kidnapped and enslaved Africans, the United States of America was built. Policing in the US has always focused on controlling and brutalizing Black bodies, as well as other non-white bodies.

The state of Oregon was founded as a white Utopia. It was a nominal Free State during the antebellum era and Civil War not because it opposed slavery, but because its founding land thieves didn’t want any Black people around them. That spirit continues through today, something my Friend Walidah Imarisha has covered far better and more thoroughly than I ever could in her Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? program.

Suffice to say, for folks in Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color, what has been happening in Portland the past two months, is old news. It’s just that a lot of white people have been insulated from both the experience and the knowledge of it.

But if you have been involved in some of these struggles, particularly working with organizations led by Black people, Indigenous people, their communities, and other people and communities of color, then you know. You know police have long terrorized these communities. Whips, lashes, bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, water cannons, and numerous other weapons of violence have been deployed upon their bodies in an attempt to make these people obedient.

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy

And you know the effort to terrorize these communities has been bipartisan. Republicans seem to instinctively support that terror, but they are not alone. Wheeler, the latest in a long line of Portland leaders who have not exhibited a whit of material concern for the brutality Portland police bring to bear, is a Democrat. Chicago, long considered a Democratic Party town, has a lengthy list of police violence, including the should-not-be-but-for-many-was shocking revelation of more than 7,000 people–6,000 of them Black–held furtively at the city’s secret interrogation facility in Homan Square. One of the reasons why Trump’s thugs can snatch people off the streets is because President Obama signed the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act which allows the US military to carry out anti-terrorism operations within the US and authorizes it to detain US citizens without trial, both domestically and overseas.

So when Wheeler, along with Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC, Jenny Durkan of Seattle, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, and Quinton Lucas of Kansas City–all Democrats–signed a letter to higher ups in Congress, Attorney General Williams Barr, and DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf calling for the immediate removal of Trump’s thugs, it was hard from a historical perspective to take it as little more than posturing.

But there is golden light. With the thousands of people who have been gathering in downtown Portland to tell Trump to piss off, this should be an organizing bonanza. Because simply showing up in the streets is not going to put an end to this. Even if the feds pull out, as long as Wheeler remains mayor and in charge of the police bureau, the violence will continue.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel on this. As noted above, Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color have long been fighting white supremacy. Black mothers, Indigenous mothers, and mothers of color have been standing on the front lines against fascist sorts in the US since the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. White supremacist state, state sanctioned, and state ignored violence against them, their families, and their communities is as American as apple pie.

But so is their resistance. We would be Wise to take our lead from them.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Due to health considerations, my better 99% has requested that I support this iteration of the movement in other ways than that which would bring me into contact with large crowds of people. It’s painful to me, but long ago I learned that when she thinks something is a good idea, then it is a good idea.

I want to be down there, standing up for what is Right. I want to stand with my Friends, comrades, and community in solidarity with those demanding an end to the inherent injustices of white supremacy, capitalism, and their attendant bigotries and brutalities. I want a world where there truly is freedom and justice for all.

A few days ago I received a reply from Lillian. It was not much, just a general query wondering if I was the Pete Shaw with whom she went to middle school. Perhaps she will get back to me in a more substantive fashion. Perhaps not. That is fine. As far as I can tell, she is well, and that brings me a joy that can cut through the darkness, no matter how thick.

It reminds me as I water my garden that what I want more than anything is a world where justice blooms as beautifully and as sweet as the most fragrant lilies, and the wonderful thoughts and memories they conjure.

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