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Friday, June 5, 2020

Protest is not Insurrection

By Bill Street
The goal of protest is change of: public policy, the dominant culture and economic institutions. Protest seeks to raise awareness and create a conversation between those in power and those who are without agency or voice. The goal of insurrection is to overthrow the government or those in power.
The Boston Tea Party was a protest. Firing on Fort Sumter was an insurrection.
As stated by President Obama, “The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities.”
What seems key to understanding the protests sweeping the nation, including Oregon, is the depth of frustration and rage. Protestors waiting for unemployment checks tend not to take to the streets. Protestors demanding climate change do so, but usually in smaller numbers. Protestors and their supporters who have experienced a combined 300 hundred years of slavery, forced family separations and discrimination and have been routinely victimized by socially accepted violence from lynchings to murder by cops once again this past week indeed shined a spotlight on America’s original sin.
Other nation’s with similar stains in their past have gone through national “reconciliations.” The Spaniards, following their civil war and decades of Franco; the South Africans, following apartheid; New Zealand, regarding the treatment of the Maori; and Canada, for the abuses against First Nations at residential schools — these are but a brief list of nations seeking to formally have a national conversation about nationally funded discrimination and abuse. The closest the US has ever gotten to such a process was the 1968 Kerner Commission Report. It was ignored.
Such realizations have been ignored before. From the abrupt end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the advent of the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s, the issue of racism simmered under the cloak of white terror. Starting within months after Lee surrendered to Grant, white supremacists took to the streets and waged war against voting rights, property rights and union rights for former slaves. 
On May 1, 1866, white mobs in Memphis rioted, looted and burned black shops, homes and churches. Three days later 46 African Americans were dead, 75 injured, 100 black persons robbed, 5 women raped and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools (every black church and school) burned in the black community. The riot was started by Memphis police (former confederate soldiers) firing on black veterans recently mustered out of the union army.
Similar incidents occurred in  New Orleans and Pulaski, Tennessee, where Nathan Bedford Forrest formed the original Ku Klux Klan (KKK). But we do not have to look that far afield to see the extent and depth of racism in the US. In 1859, the Oregon Territory became the only state to enter the Union with a clause in our constitution banning black people from entering, residing or acquiring property. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest KKK membership per capita in the United States. In 1922, KKK member Walter M. Pierce was elected governor. Oregon did not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their color or race, until 1959.
By the year 2000, we replaced redlining and concentrating Portland’s African American population in Albina with gentrification to undermine any sense of community or neighborhood integrity, just as urban renewal in the 1960s destroyed both Italian and Jewish immigrant communities surrounding Portland State University.
During the past three months in the US, African Americans have died from COVID-19 at a rate 3 times higher than white Americans. In April, the unemployment rate for African Americans  exceeded 16%, while African American women have the highest rates of unemployment.  Without an adequate social-safety net, which has been gradually dismantled since 1980, with a color blind COVID-19 public-policy approach, with the loss of hope, at least as symbolized by the Obama Administration, protest politics seems inevitable. Labeling it “insurrection” will serve only to broaden the appeal for others to join the fight and strengthen the resolve of those already fighting for justice in the streets.
Those raising questions about property damage have no sense of the history of abuse and many are those who put the economy above human life during this COVID-19 epidemic with their dangerous calls to reopen the economy without first building the structures to protect workers of all color.
Maybe now is the time to call for a “Truth and Reconciliation” process. Maybe now is the time to hold hearings on reparations to those never granted access to the American Dream. Maybe now is the time for each of us white Americans to look in the mirror and reflect on what sacrifices we ask of all workers (the majority of whom nationwide are people of color), who go to work everyday and risk their lives, so we can stay at home.
Our role as a political party is to convert protest demands into social justice through public policy. FDR understood this. LBJ understood this. James Earl Carter understood this. It is time for our generation of elected leaders to understand this as well.