This morning over breakfast, as we caught up on everything that happened while we were sleeping, I could feel my body changing–the anger, the tension, the adrenaline. I wondered where it might go, how it might come out. As the parent, I work hard to make sure it doesn’t go in the direction of our son. It might be a good idea for me to sit this one out. I’ve been writing about the USA and its ever-increasing fascist manifestations for nearly two decades now. And while there’s nothing new about the police murdering someone like George Floyd, the arrest of journalist CNN journalist Omar Jimenez, on camera and despite his deference, represents a big “advance piece three spaces” card for everyone trying to win the game of Fascistland.
But I keep coming back to my physical reaction. And I think about how all I was doing this morning, aside from some social media engagement and a couple of small-scale donations, was looking at footage on a screen. I think about what it’s like to be in the middle of all that, the true terror you feel when the police start pushing. I think about trauma. I think about PTSD. I think about the picture we form in our minds when we think about victims of trauma or PTSD, and I think about how, as a society, we are quicker to recognize that stuff in white people–and how white people are quicker to claim it in public, usually as justification for their shittiness.
Trauma is a burden we carry with us for the rest of our lives. For me, I’ve found it helpful to think of navigating trauma as being a lot like surfing a wave. It feels great when you’re on top of the wave; you feel almost invincible. But because the wave is always moving, and always changing shape, it’s impossible to stay on top forever. Eventually, you fall off. And when you fall, it can feel like you’re drowning. You’re under the water and you’re flailing, and you can’t tell which way is up, and it feels like you might die here under all this water, and that maybe it would be easier if that did happen. But if you can be patient, if you can remain calm and not panic, you’ll start to stabilize, just naturally, and you can swim back to the surface and start to breathe. You can gather your strength and eventually get back on the board. But you can only stand on the board when it’s moving, when it’s going somewhere.
Or something. I feel like this is one of those things that’s easier to articulate in person, with hand gestures and laughter, punctuated by the occasional self-deprecating eye-roll. On paper (or screen), it reads more like a rant. But then everything I write sounds like a rant.
It’s easy to feel powerless when you see this stuff. It’s even easier to tune the whole thing out, because caring makes you feel powerless, and feeling powerless feels bad. And if you can’t do anything, what’s the point of doing anything at all.
I live in Athens, Georgia, a sleepy southern college town that, in the early 1970s, woke up. Back in 1970, shortly after the National Guard murdered students at Kent State, closely followed by students being murdered at Jackson State, the National Guard killed some protesters in Augusta, Georgia and some people in Athens decided to put their bodies on the line.
This is an excerpt from a book that is making its way through the University of Georgia press (coming to a book store near you one day eventually!). The book is about the B-52s. But because it’s about the B-52s, it’s about a lot more than people playing music.
A few days later, the National guard in Augusta, Georgia—an hour-and-a-half drive southeast of Athens—murdered six unarmed black men after allegedly being given the order by governor Lester Maddox to shoot any protesters on sight.[i] The people in Augusta weren’t protesting Kent State, however. They were protesting a 16 year old Augusta boy named Charles Oatman who had been beaten to death by police in a jail cell the night before.
The Augusta riot, along with the lingering anger over Kent State and the Jackson State killings that same month[ii], prompted a May 15th march in Athens led by Jesse Jackson and Rev. Hosea Williams. An uncredited campus flyer promoting the event urged white students to participate in the march. “We same people who opposed the killings at Kent State must stand alongside our black brothers in their struggle to fight against this wrong. The blacks in Athens are mobilized…. It is now time for students to join the struggle….”[iii] That night, 300 protesters showed up at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Nearly a third of the group consisted of white students. Chanting “Soul Power!,” they made it a few blocks before they were arrested by “a wall of policemen and National Guardsmen.”[iv]
The bravery on display in Athens that spring—and take a moment to imagine the terror of marching into a group of National Guardsmen who had killed six protesters only a week earlier—inspired Hoard and Green to take action. Hoard explained, “You can’t hide and live somebody else’s life, you’ve got to live your own life.”[v] In November 1971, they announced at a campus meeting that they were forming the Committee for Gay Education (CGE), to help “promote understanding between gay people and straight people” and “help society adapt to changes in sex roles.”[vi] If approved, it would be the first such club at a college in the south.
[i] D.L. Chandler, “Race Riots Explode In Georgia, Rock City Of Augusta In 1970,” News One, May 12, 2014, https://newsone.com/3009368/race-riots-augusta-ga/.
[ii] 11 days after Kent State, city and state police in Jackson, Miss. killed two students, and injured twelve, when a group of 100 black students gathered after hearing rumors that a Civil Rights leader had been assassinated.
[iii] University of Georgia Ephemera Collection, UA85-001, Box 77, Folder 42, University of Georgia Libraries Special Collections.
[iv] “200 Seized in Athens,” The New York Times, May 16, 1970, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/05/16/archives/200-seized-in-athens.html.
[v] Bartunek, “Dance Revolution.” Bartunek tells the full story in the detail it deserves.
[vi] Jon Ham, “Gay students try for understanding,” The Red & Black, Nov 10, 1971.
White people have the power to save lives, to use their bullshit elevated social status for good–to use the protection afforded them in this racist police state for the protection of those who don’t. If you’re going to feel bad–and if you’re a sentient person reading the news today, this week, the past five years, the past 10 years, the past 100 years, the past 400 years, how can you not?–you can at least do something good with the bad feelings. Humans are capable of so much. When the opportunity comes to put your body on the line, we should be grateful our lives have been given a purpose, a chance to display the bravest and most beautiful parts of ourselves.
And here’s a list of 75 things people can do–the article says “white people,” but I believe everyone is capable of using a phone, no matter the color of their skin. There’s some bullshit in there, but a lot of not-bullshit as well.
And the “Hoard and Green” in our book were John Hoard and Bill Green. You can read the incredible story of their efforts to change Athens here. It will make you feel good, and get some of that adrenaline out of your body. I promise.
So will Suicidal Tendencies, though for different reasons. There were a LOT of punk/underground songs in the USA 80s about the police state. I feel fortunate to have heard most of them as a teenager. To the point where it still surprises me when someone has anything good to say about the police. It’s strange, the things some people consider sacred. And even stranger, the things that they don’t.
Note: I’m writing this with a slightly scrambled brain and a finite time window. In an ideal situation, I’d have a few hours to let this sit, to go back and edit to make sure I chose my words with the appropriate amount of care and sensitivity. But the situation hasn’t been ideal in a long time, and I hope that the sentiments in here are valuable enough to outweigh any clumsiness on my part.