An Accidental Organizer: Protest Murals, Tears, and Growth
[From June 12, 2020: Oakland, CA, USA]
Change is messy. Revolution is messy. I don’t even know where to start this story. Do I want to cry? Do I want to drink? Probably both. Either way, that won’t be linear and nor will what I am trying to share. Did I mention change is messy? Did I mention there’s a revolution underway? I certainly didn’t imagine that would include the tears and spit of a stranger in my face while he hugged me tight, without consent, and my only compassionate option would be to comfort and truly see him, while de-escalating violence amongst a pandemic. Yeah, I’m not ready for linear…
For the last three months of strict quarantine, I have been in a tight pod with three of my closest humans. A privilege to choose my household, my family. I am currently single, and they are some of the best friends I have ever had. It’s nice to feel loved, but that is another story entirely. I barely possess the words to tell it. I digress.
We collectively respect and fear this pandemic. We have rules to honor each other’s respective risk tolerances; masks, social distances, limited public spaces, and more. I may even take it a step further beyond all that. Partially because of my data-driven, science-based approach to pandemics. Again, another story. Partially because I don’t want to lose my ‘pod’. The thought of losing my ‘family’ amongst this calamity is unfathomable. In some ways, they have been keeping me alive.
What about the revolution, you ask? Sheesh, how impatient, but okay… I cannot ignore it either. Such is the nature of revolution. They snap you to attention, like the smell of fire, like the urgency of falling, like you’re taking a breath and the air isn’t there. Not paying attention is not an option. At this very moment, I am at my home in Oakland. There is a helicopter overhead, we are just past curfew, and the teargas is again flying just a few blocks away. Yet, none of this will make sense, unless I back the story up to four days ago — Saturday — the morning after the night of the first big protest of the police killing of yet another black man. FULL STOP.
Let’s assume you know what I am talking about. If you don’t, look it up. But seriously, you must, and I simply do not have the energy to get you up to speed. If you haven’t woken up yet, well, f…, just pay better attention, please, seriously!
I didn’t go out into the protest chaos Friday night. Not this time — maybe because the protest flier circulating looked suspiciously incendiary — maybe because of my fear of Covid — maybe I was just tired — I don’t really know. Many times before I’ve sat protesting, locked arms, atop a freeway or in a building lobby or on a bridge. My heart is still in it. I’ll take my stand again and again with people of color, against injustice. Yet last Friday, I watched the live feed from 5 blocks away, could hear the helicopters, and maybe even smelled the teargas.
Sleepless, Saturday morning had little distinction from Friday night. At some point my bed was awash with light. My eyes may have closed. Maybe not. Pretending to rest I laid there another couple of hours, akin to depression. Probably depression. Reasons to get out of bed eluded me. Bladder, a little. Hunger, nope. Optimism, nope. Sunshine, maybe.
I knew my Oakland community laid in ruin just blocks away. I got dressed. Grabbed a broom, gloves, trash bags, and ventured a few blocks into downtown. I tried to be helpful. I cried with strangers. Small business owners, many of whom appeared to be picking up the pieces of their businesses all alone. As expected, yet overwhelming, nonetheless. Is crying like a yawn? It does seem contagious, like so much else these days.
I made my way deeper into Oakland. More sweeping. More human connection. More so than I had in months. Pandemics are disorienting. The tears were for the owners of these businesses AND for the pain of the moment that brought us to this point. For my friends and my community who have lived their entire lives oppressed, in fear. For the family of George Floyd, now dead at the hand of those sworn to protect us. His daughter now fatherless, unprotected even more so. For Breonna Taylor. For Trayvon. Countless others. Sadness and rage abound, rightly so.
I made my way even deeper into downtown. I found myself surprised to be uplifted by the energy. The farther I went, the more people I found helping. There was optimism. A resolve. The tears were fresh, the pain still present, but it was almost accompanied by a collective unity to make this something else. By noon plywood was largely already up, much of the glass swept. As the boards covered the names of the businesses the blocks seem to become one. Usually separate spaces now somewhat indistinguishable from each other. An unintended coming together of sorts. Perhaps the destruction forced unity, but unity nonetheless. What was happening seemed important, as I struggled with the frustration of knowing how many times before, over decades, that we have marched and protested the same-damn-thing. Yet, this felt more energized, more hopeful. Or maybe I was just incredibly thirsty for human connection after essentially being a shut-in for the last several months. Probably a little of each.
I rounded the corner onto 13th off-Broadway, Oakland’s equivalent of a ‘main street’. If you weren’t also born in The Bay, you might not know that this only the symbolic, economic, and geographic center of Oakland. A block away you can also find Frank Ogawa Plaza which was used for many of the protests and constructive public debates. However, Oakland has many ‘central hearts’; Deep East, West, Temescal, Fruitvale, just to name a few. Yet it was here I found my good friends’ restaurant with boarded windows and frustration. They had semi-successfully fended off protesters the night before. They were conflicted between their love of their business and their support of the protests and their love of the movement as a whole. They didn’t like getting punched in the face. It's complex. They were sad, and as I had done many times that day with strangers, I asked how I could help.
Perhaps this where the story actually begins. It’s hard to say. There are many narratives wrapped into one.
My friends asked if I could help find and coordinate a muralist for their fresh plywood. Of course, I said yes. No one came to mind, but nothing is impossible, and of course, I said yes. I was already way past my pandemic comfort zone for interacting with people and I knew this would be more of that, but of course, I said yes. For my friends, my city, the movement, for people of color, of course, I said yes. And then, things quickly got away from me. This story is not actually about the murals, but they certainly deserve mention for context.
I put out a call for help and the next morning 75 people showed up with 50 gallons of paint. Not wanting to lose the momentum, I had the extra people start priming other plywood on the block. The next day 100 people, then 200 people, and so on. Skipping ahead, I had no idea this would lead to 10 days straight at 12 to 14 hours a day, giving away 350 gallons of paint to 500 volunteers, not to mention other areas that caught on as well. Ultimately, we were a part of spontaneously creating a network of murals interconnecting 17 city blocks. As such, I was an accidental organizer. It was an honor. Eventually, this evolved into a massive preservation effort from the community and art foundations to assure these messages would endure for future generations. It was humbling and meaningful.
My role as a white guy and an ally in the movement is to listen, support, and be caring when invited to do so. To take up as little space as possible while facilitating something enormous. It was challenging sitting with the discomfort of some folks on the ground questioning why I was there, but it felt nice winning them over. It was hurtful seeing things on social media that some people were saying about me and our beautiful Oakland, but I didn’t care to win them over. I tried to avoid being interviewed, but still there managed to be several.
If you are curious, here are a few:
(just me with wild hair)
(see me @ 01:10… beautifully done)
(full nightly new interview starts @ 00:55)
During one of the 14-hour days that was particularly chaotic and emotional, I snuck off for a quiet moment and scribbled this down to ground myself:
>>> Humility must be embraced, and ego released to the greatest degree I can do so honorably. Perhaps it’s important for me to be willing to sit with all the stages of discomfort for which I am trying to help others overcome. Maybe I need to sit with the fear that there could be recourse and repercussion — that could be emotional, physical, or economic. I need to sit with the possibility that halfway through this process I may need to step aside and give the role to somebody else, even if I’m still qualified and have poured my heart into it. I need to sit with the discomfort that I’m operating in and around a space that is not specifically open to me being there perhaps because of how I look. Even still, if I find a way to move through all of these things, I’m still doing it by choice, so there are still ZERO comparisons. But if I’m not willing to at least sit through all these levels of discomfort, and surrender to them, and release ego, I’ve got no business being here at all. >>>
Remember above when I said ‘Change is messy. Revolution is messy… that I certainly didn’t imagine that would include the tears and spit of a stranger in my face while he hugged me tight, without consent…’? Well, I’m finally ready to talk about that too. There were many challenging moments, but one stands out.
Nonstop daily, so many people were coming and going. Picking up paint, collaborating on murals, and sharing stories. Lots of repeat artists coming down and comingling with people who would likely be kicking-it on the block usually. Generally fun. Donations of food were constantly being delivered. Often a small march of people would wander past with signs and positivity. There was music. Yet, every evening we’d pack up as the energy started feeling a little more intense. It was like a handoff to the night. It also seemed like a bad idea to have countless cans of paint scattered about the sidewalk during active protests after dark.
One evening, on the same day where I began this whole story, a news crew came down to looking for an interview. They were setting up the shot, and I was ready, Covid-mask off. Again, you may recall I had been very careful for a myriad of reasons, not the smallest of which was that returning to my quarantine pod depended on it, but mainly because I’d rather not die. The news crew of two was nice, the actual reporter was in the studio calling in.
A man starts walking up to us. I recognize him. During the day we usually have a little banter. Mainly him “busting my balls”. He generally has fun heckling the artists, playfully. He sometimes tries to come up and break social distancing, purposefully — pushing for a high five or a hug. I’ll tuck-n-roll, he’ll say I’ll get you next time. Covid inappropriate, but all good. I mean, it’s his block. Sometimes he sleeps right on it, sometimes sheltered, from what I gather from the little we’ve shared. Not judging. I’ve slept on the street before, repeatedly, but I was a child and it was a long time ago, and this is not that story.
At this time in the evening, he tends to have a staggering buzz. This just is what it is. I’ve certainly lost myself in a staggering buzz before, just not anytime lately. As he rolls-up, it’s similar to usual. Generally, he’s lightly poking, but with a commanding nod and a core acknowledgment that you best meet him with respect. I’m big, but he’s bigger and probably 15 years older, and I’ve got nothing but love out of the gates, so we’re good. I know this hard-learned language. It’s contextual. He’s smiling at me and coming-at-them, playful-ish, but zero F’s to give, and no mask.
I suspect the cameraman didn’t realize he looked afraid perhaps sooner than the moment would have warranted him to appear so. Yet, that lack of acuity and general disconnect then became the self-fulfilling prophecy that escalated the moment. It was what it was, and it happened quickly.
Billowing with a vocal range that’ll snatch-the-taste-out-of-your-mouth, “Why are you going to come to Oakland and be afraid of a black man???”. This was on repeat and loud, but he was still giving me little smiles on the side. Their response, somewhat timidly, “sir, please put your mask on, your mask, sir”. Varying degrees of this highly charged crosstalk led to making a close loop chase around a professional news camera and tripod. Comical + Intense & Escalating Quickly.
I watched until I was certain they did not know how to make this stop. They didn’t have the language, or muscle memory, or who knows. They didn’t have the tools or the former context. I did, and it is simple, and I knew at that moment it would mean abandoning my pod or worse.
It required me truly seeing him and hearing him. Softly, kindly moving close, moving us both away the motion of my head, and allowing that hug now three days overdue. We both walked for a bit and each cried in our own way. I’m not going to quote the conversation. It was private. What I will say is he needed to be seen and heard. He needed to know that the artists coming to his block intend to tell his story. As we walked things quickly became clear for me. The murals, the messages, the fanfare, and even the protests themselves are adjacent to what is actually important. I am not here for any of that. I am here for this man in this moment, and if I can’t be, screw-me. Further still, here we are mandating that HE prioritize his life and everyone else’s around, when we as a society have not prioritized HIS life TWICE as a black man and a homeless man. Yeah, screw-us. All the while, the concrete home he does have is filled with tear gas, nightly.
Our struggles are by design. Our differences, manufactured. Our path through all this is simply a decision away from deciding to love each other.
>>> Thank you for reading…
*I was afraid to write this. I was afraid to get it wrong. To fumble the language and dishonor the context. Perhaps I did and I don’t yet know it. My intentions are pure, and also lighthearted. For example, I agonized over “snatch-the-taste-out-of-your-mouth” vs “snatch-the-taste-out-cho-mouth”. The world got weird. Nonetheless, wake up people, and please come together. Thanks. Oh, and, the beauty and strength of people of color shouldn’t frighten you. It should inspire you. Figure it out.
**One of my favorite murals was made into a shirt for a fundraiser with 100% of the proceeds going to local community causes. I’m not affiliated, but I certainly bought a few. Maybe you could too? Cover art credit: Amanda Bliss — Artist, Garna Raditya — Photographer, and Hanna Bliss — Digital Collaboration.
***When not completely losing myself in mural projects, I work to highlight how Regenerative Ocean Economies can be the hero of the story to combat Climate Change while also addressing aspects of social, racial, and environmental justice. There’s an intersection for humanity, equity, and profitability. I’m always seeking to grow that network. Feel free to reach out.