Eric Garner

Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage. Plus: polka-dot square, Black & classical, a big gift.

FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.
 

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

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Dangerous Days: Being Black in America

Wondering why "Black Lives Matter" matters? The answer's baked into the nation's racial attitudes and its acceptance of police violence

These are the most dangerous days to be Black in America. 

On May 25, via social media, the world watched George Floyd be brutally murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, America has erupted in racial and social unrest – protests, riots, statues toppled, flags changed, cops out of control. Historically, there’s nothing America hates more than being called out for its racism, and it will do anything to not have to change its ways. The response to calls for social justice have been one hundred percent on-brand. Violence, thick and pungent and unpredictable, is in the air. These are the days when, in the past, churches were bombed and children were killed, civil rights leaders were assassinated, men were lynched, civil wars were fought. At the best of times, Black people live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, everything they have fought for, built, achieved, can suddenly be snatched away because of the color of their skin. We learn to live with that awareness at an early age.* But in times like these, that awareness needs to be turned up to defcon five, because white America is on the defensive.

Tributes to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where Floyd died after a police officer held a knee to his neck for nearly 8 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked a national protest movement that is still going strong. Photo: Vasanthtcs / Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s the Fourth of July. I was asked to write this a month ago. But it’s been hard. I wake up every day angry. A long time ago I had to take an anger management class. In that class they taught us that anger is never the first emotion. There’s always something underlying that drives it: fear, frustration, guilt, pain. This has never been more apparent than in the past month. I wake up some days and my hands are shaking and it feels like I’ve had three cups of coffee before I’ve touched a drop. Turning on the news or social media is like stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. Every day, every hour, every minute, there’s a new video, a new outrage, a new spasm of violence. Responding, reacting, donating, writing. It feels like you’re at the beach trying to mop up the ocean. 

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