Story by Pete Shaw
If 2020 was a trying year, then 2021 upped the ante. Once again, the idea of Thankfulness this year may seem a bit odd. But as I wrote last year, here we are again, most of us if not all, which is worthy of appreciation and gratitude. And for those who have against great difficulties gotten involved in any way fighting for greater justice for all people, including particularly those of us living on the land that held the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, bands of the Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River, appreciation and gratitude are due. On this day that celebrates the white supremacist settler, colonial, and imperial bedrock of the United States, that resulted in the murder and attempted–and failed–annihilation of the Indigenous people here, it is important to offer an alternative remembrance as we move to right what is wrong.
Due to health considerations and the behest of my better 99%, I found myself once again spending much of the year on the sidelines looking on longingly, even with envy, but all the more with fond appreciation and gratitude for those who continued fighting for greater justice, whether by choice or necessity. Watching from afar, often feeling I was trying to penetrate an impossibly thick darkness, there were many moments of beautiful light. I will offer you only the few I experienced, but I thank all of you who fought what I could only watch.
My better 99% is a doctor, and since her days in residency she has always said that nurses are the straws that stir the drinks. The Covid-19 pandemic has borne that out writ large, and it has done the same for all staff involved in the handling of patients. Nurses, doctors, janitors, custodians, and all others involved on the proverbial front lines making sure that hospitals and doctors offices were as safe and efficient as could be–no mean feat at any time in a society where health care and coverage are considered privileges instead of rights–were rightly feted in word as heroes.
But in deed? Not so much. In March, I took part in a public hearing conference call hosted by the Portland Area Workers’ Rights Board in which some nurses working in the Providence-Oregon hospitals spoke about this discrepancy. Their testimonies highlighted the gaping chasm between the rhetoric of professed heroism and the grim realities of a healthcare system that values profit over people. It seems obvious that Providence management should provide adequate personal protective equipment, timely Covid exposure notifications, and regular access to Covid tests. It also seems obvious that the incredible stress of working during a pandemic, not to mention the inevitability of sicknesses that if not Covid, such as a cold or flu, are difficult to distinguish from Covid until a test is taken, would entail changes to policies surrounding days off and compensation. Most of all it seems obvious that the safety of the community is of utmost importance and that management should bend over backward to make sure it is so. Instead, as well as fighting Covid, Providence nurses had to fight an intransigent management that refused to provide basic protection to its nurses and the communities they served.
Thank you to the Providence nurses for standing up, and thank you to all people in the medical field during this harrowing time.
May 12 marked 11 years since the Portland Police murdered Keaton Otis. For the second year in a row, the memorial was held online. It was, as always, moving. Memorials never strike me as the best way to catch up with people, but since the monthly vigils were also largely held online, people had to make do. Actually, they did much more than that, and if sitting at my desk watching and listening to people on my computer was not the same as congregating at Maranatha Church or Augustana Lutheran Church, where the memorial has been held in the past, the resilience and Love of these Good and great people who seemingly never tire of demanding justice was palpable. In particular, the poetry of Emmett Wheatfall called to the past, grasped the moment, and propelled it to the future. His words moved me to tears, as did those of all the other survivors of police violence who have somehow managed to rise and organize for an end to that violence so that others may never know their pain.
Thank you to all who refuse to forget that Keaton Otis, his father Fred Bryant, and all who are victims of police violence mattered and still matter.
In early September, after I had received my booster shot of the Covid vaccine, my better 99% approved my stepping back into the world to cover some events. I went over to the Mondelez-Nabisco bakery on Northeast Columbia Boulevard where plant workers had been on strike for about a month. There were many people there, and even with masks, I recognized many of the faces I had not seen in all too long. Good people fighting a Good fight, and soon I felt as if I had seen them only a few days ago instead of at best, 20 months earlier. There are all sorts of magic, and the feeling of community that comes from being associated with such people is among the greatest of them.
Not long after that rally, Mondelez-Nabisco bakers around the country approved a contract that while hardly perfect, was better than the one they had been offered before they went on strike. Thank you to those striking workers who stood so tall for so many days, and thank you to the community that reminded me how much I had missed it.
April 2016 saw the launch of the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU). It was an ambitious David and Goliath story. Slowly, methodically, and occasionally militantly, the union’s members organized, educated, and agitated. Most importantly, they crafted solidarity. In 2018, having built up that all important solidarity among labor, faith, and other community groups, the union called for a boycott. Every so often, a strike or a picket line blared their message as traffic at the targeted restaurant, or on some days, restaurants, came to a halt.
Just last week, the union announced it had reached a tentative agreement with Burgerville management. Displaying the pluck that brought the BVWU to this point where the union may approve the first and only union contract in the world of fast food, Burgerville worker and union organizer Mark Medina said, “Now workers will vote up or down on the contract or an escalation against the employer.”
Thank you to the Burgerville Workers Union for providing a textbook example of how to organize when the odds are so against you, and thank you to all the people and organizations who supported the union. And please remember that until the BVWU approves and signs the contract, the call for a boycott of Burgerville continues.
On a cold and rainy night about ten years ago, Friend Kari gave me a powder blue ribbon that she had just taken off her sleeve. It sits to the right of where I am typing. We had just completed a long, boisterous march that wound through the city and crossed two bridges. Kari was providing security during the march. In the fashion of a Friend, she had done so for me some time prior to that march, and even though we do not see each other so often, she continues to do so, always a port in a storm. During that time of Occupy, I met many Good people like Kari. Some have moved on and along, our Friendship growing stronger despite time and distance. In other cases, it has faded, but with the knowledge that should we ever meet again, I will greet them with only a positive embrace. Regardless, the memory of those heady days remains and guides, and despite how, to crib a line from Ray Davies, mixed-up, muddled-up, and shook-up this world may seem today, I feel it is better than it would have been without Occupy and the movements it re-energized and brought forth.
I am thankful for all of it.
I began writing for this publication not so long after that march. My editors were and remain cherished Friends, and over the past 20 months I have felt a bit guilty about not giving them much work. I am hopeful I will change this sooner than later.
My father turned 96 this year. I have occasionally written about him in these pages. I have not seen him since prior to the pandemic. As I type, he is in the hospital with a bit of pneumonia, non-Covid related. He sounds good. His nurses keep a good eye on him. So do my brother and sister-in-law. I miss them, and I am thankful for their and my dad’s unwavering Love.
I am blessed to be surrounded by a large caring and Loving community that I know looks out for me. I am not the most sociable person on the planet by a long shot, but it is nice having Friends who check in on me despite my antipathy for phone calls and a near-resolute disdain for answering rung doorbells. Thank you all.
Hanging on a doorknob a few feet behind me are a set of old, grimy guitar strings. Many years ago, with those strings, I wrote a song for my better 99%. It was nothing special in one sense, but it made her smile that smile that takes you in, envelops you, and for a moment makes you think that nothing can be better than This. In a month, I will celebrate a quarter century of knowing that smile and the beautiful person behind it who has made every moment better than the prior one. The dictionary does not possess enough words, nor the universe enough melody, to describe my joy with and my thankfulness for her in my life.