Day 6: Revolution

I started this daily blogging last week as an exercise to help me get back in the writing groove during the “shelter at home” while unemployed reality of the pandemic. I had thought about writing about my photography, or my new sourdough breadmaking skills, along with an occasional political rant. Little did I realize just what was going to happen in the coming days.

You don’t have to look very far to see the coverage of the widespread protests around the country. In many ways it feels like a perfect storm of events, in a way that is summed up astutely by Trevor Noah.

I have read a lot of this coverage, but one particular thread on Twitter really summarized it best. Here is the first post of that thread; I encourage you to click on the tweet below to see the whole thread. Watch the videos, remembering that unless you are one of the protesters, the police in those videos represent you.

These people are protesting the brutality of their police forces. And how do those police respond? Watching these, it seems as though they think that even greater levels of brutality is the answer.

The thing that struck me reading and watching all this is numbers. The numbers of protesters vs. the numbers of police. Sure, the police have weapons, but all it would take is for the crowd mentality to be enraged enough for those people to fight back. I remember images of the Arab Spring almost a decade ago, when the citizens of those countries had had enough, and through sheer numbers overthrew several military-back dictators. If the protestors here in the US ever got similarly enraged, and decided to attack back, the police wouldn’t stand a chance. Sure, they would kill and wound many, but the sheer numbers of protestors would quickly overwhelm the police, and much blood would be spilled.

Much has been written about how we have no leader in the White House, but I see it differently. We do have a leader, but he is not leading us. He is leading the white supremacists, inciting them to assert themselves. We saw that when he encouraged the armed protests against the lockdown measures for COVID-19; we saw it back in Charlottesville with his “very fine people” comments. We see it in his embrace of strongman leaders around the world, and his disdain for the free press. They hear his words and are provoked to act.

Unfortunately, many of the police are also white supremacists, and are also hearing his words. They hear him say “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, and take it as their marching orders to attack the protestors with ever-increasing levels of violence.

I don’t know what the next few days and weeks will hold. I have little hope for national leadership stepping up to calm things down; rather, I fear that they will continue to stir the pot. My only hope is that leaders begin to emerge from the people, and that these leaders can direct this energy into a positive direction. I saw one great example of this:

I hope that many others like Killer Mike come forward. And as I mentioned earlier, the police represent you. They do all of this in your name. Turning away from this with an “oh, I’m not political” is your cowardly way of saying that “I’m fine with all of this”.

Day 5: Protests and Anger

As the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd spread across the country, I am inspired by the energy. I came of age during the protests against the Vietnam War, and have always associated those actions with a positive correction – analogous to running a fever to fight an infection. Racism, corruption, hatred… these are all diseases that, when unchecked, require a strong immune system response.

Anger is an energy.

Rise, Public Image, Ltd.

Not every part of these protests is perfect, of course. When anger is your fuel, it can express itself in destructive ways, especially in groups of people.

In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many will continue to refuse to hear. They will focus on the negative: the looting, the destruction, etc., and completely ignore that which pushed people to react with such intensity. They will clutch at straws that somehow explain why it was necessary to kneel with your full weight for 9 minutes on the neck of a man who was handcuffed and face-down on the ground.

Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall

How can you refuse it?

Let fury have the hour. Anger can be power!

Do you know that you can use it?

Clampdown, The Clash

Growing up, I watched the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and by the 70s I thought that that was settled. But those forces of hatred weren’t eliminated; instead, they were pushed to the background. In my naiveté, I never imagined that ignorance like that could persist. I mean, wasn’t it clear that segregation was completely wrong? Wasn’t it clear that people were people, no matter their skin color?

They never did go away, though. They went underground, and spoke in “dog whistle” code to avoid being ostracized, since overt racism was not tolerated by the public. The election of Obama to the Presidency was the moment that galvanized these hateful people, and the Republican Party was all too willing to tap into it. I have written how the ascension of Donald Trump led to these people feeling free to once again be publicly hateful; my hope is that these protests start the pendulum swinging the other way, where racism, hatred, and bigotry are no longer tolerated.

Day 4: Racial Blindness

I’ve always hated the expression used by well-meaning white people: “I don’t see color”. They think that it means that they are open-minded, and treat everyone the same no matter their skin color. It’s a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it?

It’s also one that is only possible if your skin color doesn’t disadvantage you. For everyone else, they have to deal with the reality of being visibly different than those in power, and being treated differently (ok, worse) as a result.

Back in the late ’80s I had a friend who was black. He was in his early 30s, like me, had a young child, like me, and lived in a house he owned in northern NJ, like me. He was also very light-skinned, and dressed, well, like me. His appearance was the furthest thing from the “gangsta” style. We worked together, played tennis together, and got to know each other very well.

At work we were both on the evening shift. Since we lived near each other, we took the same route for the most part, and one particular evening I saw his car pulled over by a cop. The next day when I saw him, I started to give him shit about getting a speeding ticket, and he told me that he wasn’t speeding and didn’t get a ticket. I asked him why he got pulled over, and he told me that the cop wanted to know what he was doing driving through that part of town.

The look of confusion on my face must have been apparent, and he started to explain the problem of what we now call “driving while black”. This was the first that I had heard of such a thing, and told him that there had to be more to it than that. In those days I still hadn’t learned to listen when someone tells you of an experience that you can’t possibly fathom because you aren’t in that group that experiences discrimination. Fortunately, he was patient with me, explaining that this happens often enough that he knew how to respond in as non-threatening a manner as possible so as not to provoke the police, and that they always let him go.

Over the next few weeks we talked a lot about what it was like for him. Me, in my ignorance, assumed that since he was the least-threatening-looking person around, no one would harass him, but he had story after story about just that. One day we were hanging out at his house, and his wife asked him to run to a local department store to pick up something. When we got there, he told me to not stay with him, but stay close enough to watch the store security follow him. Once again, I thought he was exaggerating things, but I played along. He went to one side of department, and I went to a nearby aisle. I saw several people who I assumed were security, and they did seem to be looking at him and ignoring me. He then walked to the opposite side of the area, and sure enough, two of the security people moved with him to keep him in their sight. I walked around several areas, including crossing directly in front of them, and never got a second glance from them. But as my friend moved around, they followed.

From that day on, I always try to see color. Pretending that it doesn’t permeate our experience is only possible when you’re white and ignorant. The luxury to ignore race is what people mean when they speak of “privilege”.

Maybe some of you are feeling a bit defensive, thinking “I’m not racist!”, and I’m sure you aren’t, at least consciously. I wrote about unconscious bias before, and it is really important to be aware that it exists, no matter how kind and loving you try to be.

Don’t be blind to our differences! Instead, recognize them, celebrate them, and embrace them! And if you, like me, are lucky enough to have been born into privilege, don’t feel bad – it’s only a bad thing if you don’t use it to help those who weren’t as fortunate. We can’t overcome the racists of the world by turning a blind eye to these problems.

Day 3: Sheltering In Place

It’s been about 3 months since we began to limit our travel due to the pandemic, and while it’s been trying, I have to say that it hasn’t been as bad for me as it has for many others.

For one, I have been working from home for most of my career. I have a dedicated work area, and am completely used to the lack of everyday interaction with others (some might say that I prefer it!). Having been laid off from work due to the pandemic was tough, but I still spend much of my time at my keyboard, either working on projects that I’ve put off for lack of time, or for exploring new skills or tools, or ranting on Twitter. The one positive thing about the pandemic is that it makes it easy to keep a perspective: my wife and I, as well as our kids and their families, are healthy. I wouldn’t trade that for any job.

The change is harder for my wife, who works in the local school district. Before this, everything was done face-to-face at the office or various campuses around town. She and everyone else had to learn and adjust to the new ways of working remotely, which is stressful. She is also much more outgoing than I, and as wonderful as I may be 😜 , she does miss interacting with co-workers and family.

So many of the people I interact with, though, are much younger, and many have small children who need to be kept busy, which can be exhausting without being confined to home. I am grateful that our kids are all grown and out on their own!

We also have a house. It’s small, but still – I can’t imagine being confined to an apartment. I can go outside to the yard, tend to the garden, clean up fallen tree debris from last night’s storm, or just sit and watch the birds. That helps maintain sanity.

I’ve also gotten into baking, as many others have. I have developed a great sourdough starter, and really enjoy mastering that process. But that will be fodder for a different post.

So all in all, I think we have it pretty good overall. I can’t wait until the pandemic is over, but until then, we’ll manage.

Day 2: What is an Artist?

I consider myself an artist, as do many others. But that title is thrown about quite a bit, and its meaning has been diluted. So let’s look at it.

In my mind, the essence of being an artist is creating something that not only is original, but captures or excites the interest of others. Often someone who paints or draws is automatically called an “artist”, and their product is called “art”. But that’s way too low a bar to set for that title. And for the record, I can’t paint or draw with any skill level whatsoever, and admire those who can.

I am a photographer. I recognized my attraction to photography as a child, and began taking it seriously in college. I attended a photography school for two years, and learned all about portraiture, lighting, studio arrangements, different films (yes, it was all film then!), color, tone, and print media. While I was able to master those techniques, I wouldn’t say I created art. Well, maybe with a few exceptions, such as:

Potato, 1981
Potato, ©1981

What I found I enjoyed the most was simply walking around and looking. Things would strike me as visually interesting, and I would use my photographic technique to record them in a way that made interesting images. For example, my photo school was about 6 miles from my home, and I used my bike to get there. Shortly into my first semester, though, someone cut the chain I had locked it with and stole my bike. I now had to walk a mile to a bus stop, take the bus to downtown, and then walk another mile to the school. As I was walking I would look around, and things would occasionally catch my eye. Since I was carrying my camera, I began to record them. At the end of the semester we had to produce a portfolio, and so I created one called Sidewalks – all of the images were taken of sidewalks I walked on my way to/from school.

Not only was the portfolio well-received, it was noticeably different than the others. Most of the others were what I would call “traditional” photographic subjects: sunsets, landscapes, weathered barns, pets, etc., but mine were anything but traditional. So not only did the portfolio receive a good grade, it was chosen to be displayed around the campus – my first exhibition!

This is when I began to understand my creative process: instead of creating a scene by arranging items, or posing people, or any other conscious construction of the subject in front of the camera, I would explore the world as it existed, and find beauty in what others don’t see. I take special pride in images that are unremarkable in themselves, but from which I can create an interesting image. As an example:

Castle Sidewalk, ©2011

Back in 2011 I worked at Rackspace, and the headquarters was in a refurbished shopping mall, nicknamed “The Castle”. Near the main entrance two different-colored sidewalks come together. You can see it in the center of this Google Maps view.

Over a thousand people walked past this point every day. I happened to walk past it on my morning break, looked down, and was struck by what I saw. I didn’t have a camera with me… or did I? In my pocket was my iPhone 4, so I took this photo with my phone. I’ll save my thoughts on photography gear for another day, though…

This is why I consider myself an artist: thousands walked past that spot that day, but only I saw this bit of transient beauty, and was able to capture it in a way that others could enjoy. Being able to take photographs, or paint pictures, or play piano, or sculpt clay – those are examples of crafts. But when you are able to use your craft to create something that moves other people – well, then I consider you an artist.