This is just about to go out to my monthly newsletter. Can’t wait to see who unsubscribes!
|Pride Month + Black Lives MatterI’ve been doing a lot of research lately to prepare for writing the third Emperor Norton novella, Shut the Gates of Mercy. Like all the Norton novellas, parts of it are set in modern-day San Francisco and parts of it are set at some point in the past. In Shut the Gates of Mercy, the time travel takes some of our characters back to 1966. That means reading up on what San Francisco was like in the mid-1960’s, and that led me to Screaming Queens (yes, that link takes you to the legal, free, and complete film!), Susan Stryker’s hour-long documentary about the Compton’s Cafeteria riots of August, 1966. If you’re familiar with the origins of Pride, you already know about the Stonewall Inn riots, and the fact the first Pride was a celebration of the anniversary of that rebellion against police corruption and violence. It’s easy to forget those roots in an era in which Pride celebrations feeling more like a party than a political act, but that isn’t a criticism of either take on Pride. Anyone who’s watched Hairspray knows even a party can be political. It can be both. We should revel in who we are andremember how fragile our freedom is.|
This stuff isn’t history, though. This stuff is right now. I have friends, and family, and colleagues and ex-lovers and acquaintances and people reading this newsletter right now who experience the constant threat of violence. I left “police” out of that last sentence because that’s only a part of the problem we have allowed in our society. I know black people who have told me of being followed through the store every time they shop, of having eyes on them everywhere in public, of being denied housing, of growing up in neighborhoods that are redlined, of paying higher interest rates on mortgages or of being denied mortgages altogether despite outstanding financial health. At a job 15 years ago I had a black coworker with identical work responsibilities and better certifications tell me the company said he made “too much” and bumped him down the in-house pay scale. When he told me his old and new pay – something the company repeatedly told us was a firing offense, yet another way they kept us frightened into obedience – he had already been making a significant percentage less than I was. He knew more than I and did more than I, but he was black and I was white.
Police violence is an epidemic, and much like at least some of the folks piling into bars and restaurants in states where those have reopened, the people who assume it will never affect them often decide not just that it doesn’t matter but that it shouldn’tmatter because it will never affect them. Not every community suffers at the hands of their police in the ways we’ve so recently seen repeatedly displayed. I have the tremendous privilege of living in a town where the police really do work to be a part of the community, to listen, and to see their role as public servants. Their presence has enabled Black Lives Matter protests to proceed safely. They show up at Pride to keep an eye on the guy with the 12-foot-tall cross and the sign about how we’re all going to the hell of his fevered fantasies, not to keep an eye on me.
But the reason that happens here is because our community demanded it. Activists in my town got the city council to cut police expansion and increased militarization from the city budget. The police chief was fired when a teenaged person of color died in police custody. That doesn’t happen everywhere, and it never happens on its own. It happens because communities demand it. It happens because something like a protest – or a riot – gets the city’s attention and lets them know this isn’t going away, and then activists and organizers persist and persist and persist, against all odds, until the powers that be are made to budge.
And the fact that police violence has never happened to me in this town does notmean it doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t happen elsewhere. Black lives matter, and I believe it’s our shared moral responsibility to say that aloud and to celebrate the BIPOC people around us as we hold accountable the systems and individuals who harm them.
And the fact that there are many ways in which systemic racism is inflicted on BIPOC, and that not all people experience violence at the hands of the police, does not mean we should avoid seeking alternatives to policing as it is currently practiced, both in how police conduct themselves and in what circumstances we decide are problems for police to solve. Things need to change in many parts of society, and in many of our hearts and minds, but we have to start somewhere and police violence is one place we can make a difference now.
The Compton’s Cafeteria riots resulted in some remarkable changes. Trans women in the Tenderloin started being able to shop in women’s stores without being harassed by the police as often. Arrests for the “crime” of “cross-dressing” went down (though the law stayed on the books and arrests continued to happen for years). The city in general and the police in specific had no choice but to begin listening to the queer and trans people they had been beating, arresting, assaulting, and squeezing for extortion money. A police officer specially appointed to liaise with communities we now call LGBTQ+ worked to change attitudes in his department. Things were not fixed immediately – and still are not fixed for many people, especially queer and trans people of color – but it became possible for those people to carve out a little territory in which they could feel a little less unsafe. And they only got that by pushing back.
That isn’t some outlier, either. The Silent Sentinels are simply the most famous of over 2,000 women who were beaten, jailed, denied counsel, tortured, and vilified in national media for the “unpatriotic” action of protesting to demand women’s suffrage during a complex of national and international crises. Look back across all the “great moments” of the American Revolution – the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the Stamp Act protests – and you find riots in response to violence by militarized police. Those riots put the powers that be on notice, galvanized opposition to oppression, prompted introspection, and started necessary conversations. They were a service to those of us who came later and benefitted from those effects.
If reading this makes you shake your head because you came here for escapism, I can understand that. The world is chock full of reasons to look away, and I sincerely believe one of the reasons to value art and stories is because they give us the chance to turn our minds elsewhere and catch our breath.
I also believe art and stories call on us to reflect on the realities that shape the fiction we spin. I write to entertain you, yes, but I also see my writing as a kind of conversation with you. Last weekend I was on a panel through Con-Tinual about art and politics, and when writers should or should not be political, and my position is – and remains – that not only should we be political, we always already are.
When we tell a story, we go out of our way to describe some aspect of the world and the people whose actions change it: the fall of a Galactic Empire, the rise of an unlikely hero, the struggle of some humble protagonist to make ends meet, the trials faced by a person unjustly accused. We describe the world the way we experience it, or the way we think it works, or the way we think it should work, or the way we fear it works instead. It doesn’t get more political than that.
When I think of books I might describe as not political, I’ve come to realize, I’m simply describing books about people who are already like me. There’s nothing wrong with reading about people like ourselves. It can be deeply affirming to find the pages of a book have become something of a mirror.
But it’s also good to remember that whatever “people already like me” might mean, who I am and how I live has occurred within a larger context, one in which people took advantage of one another, or fought back against those abuses, or otherwise shaped my present by their actions in the past. The circumstances in which I enjoy certain privileges or suffer certain prejudices on the basis of who I am didn’t simply happen. They came about because of choices in the past, and how I respond in the present is what will shape the future.
I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to throw a sugar shaker at Compton’s, or to throw a brick at Stonewall (or to throw a donut at Cooper’s in LA in 1959, another early pre-Stonewall riot that, like the Stamp Act riots of 1765, helped set the stage for wider acts of liberation a decade later). I think I would have been scared of getting hurt, scared of getting arrested. I would have feared for my job, feared for my safety, feared for my ability to go back to whatever life I might have had outside of that event. The chaos of such an event is scary even on TV, much less in person. So many stories teach us, however, that such moments, frightening though they be, are also necessary. Staring the truth in the face is never fun. It’s never easy. It is always scary. But without those moments of truth, what would our heroes – from Luke Skywalker, to Meg Murry (“Stay angry, little Meg. You will need all your anger now.”), to Louis when he sees what Armand’s vampires have done to Claudia, to, well, almost everyone in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to Tracy in Hairspray – ever do, anyway?
If you’re wondering what you can do, I suggest a few things.
First, check out Campaign Zero, which has actionable and concrete policy goals for which people can advocate right now in their own communities.
Second, check out Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, which discusses the many areas of life we have, over the last several decades, added to the portfolio of circumstances we now assign to increasingly militarized police. It’s currently a free download from Verso Books. By coincidence I read it a few months ago and learned more than I can even begin to describe.
Third, register and vote. Voter suppression tactics have been used in all eras and in all places, and that’s as true today as it was in 1872 when Sojourner Truth was turned away for trying to vote in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Susan B. Anthony was arrested – along with the officials who allowed her to register – for voting in Rochester, New York. To quote the headline of a Washington Post editorial by Professor Renee Harrison from 2016, “Think your vote doesn’t count? Then why are people trying to suppress it?”
And if you read this far, thanks for staying checked in and being a part of the conversation. Let’s go change the world, and let’s start by doing whatever we can to end police violence against black people.