Saturday Afternoon Protesting

For me, the urge to protest began on Thursday. Reading about demonstrations and nationwide movements by newspaper, I looked out my window at the serene cityscape of Old Town Alexandria. Why wasn’t there anything happening here? I wondered. I did an admittedly cursory search of social media and Google to find any events to join locally. Nothing in particular came up. I shrugged, assuming nothing was planned, and went about my day. On Friday I began to see social media posts from King Street, the main thoroughfare of commerce and life in Alexandria. Protesters. Thursday evening. What the hell? I thought. I even tried to find an event such as this and failed. How were protests both widespread and underground? I don’t think I’m the only one who struggled that week with guilt, a call to some type of action, and also a sense of helplessness. I was and still am trying to address those issues in my life.

Pressure was clearly mounting everywhere. On the streets of almost every city in the United States. Many across the world too. On my couch, in comfort, I didn’t want people like me to do what they so often do and sit out. I asked on Facebook about how to get information on such events. Quite a few friends direct messaged me Black Lives Matter DC Google docs (with instructions ) and posted informative links. Probably not coincidentally, public articles began to appear as well. Thousands were expected to gather in DC over the weekend, without central organization even. On Saturday morning, Cheryl and I sat down to our morning ritual of tea and newspapers. I was agitated sitting there. Cheryl could tell. She wasn’t pleased, not being a big fan of an antsy Evan. We talked and I agreed to take the Metro into town, without a plan. The heat and personal medical issues were enough for her to sit today out. One of the odder things about this was that I hadn’t taken the Metro into DC in over three months thanks to COVID-19. I masked up, made sure to take a little hip belt with water and snacks. It was 90 degrees, after all. I speculated briefly that if there were issues I wanted to be ready to walk home from DC.

(COVID-19 Aside: I have to admit that despite wearing the mask throughout the day with 95% of everyone else, I didn’t care or consider much more for social distancing efforts or any other COVID-19 concern. Fair enough, I felt like I should somewhat stick to myself and not try to intentionally join with friends out and about. Felt good to be out in the city surrounded by people even as a stranger. I will say, however, that the mask gave an odd sense of being isolated and autonomous. I felt cut off from people. Unable to smile and share. This sense lasted the entire day for me.)

On the Metro, I texted back and forth with Cheryl about where I should head. A young BLM sign-bearing person got on in Crystal City. I asked her where she was headed and she didn’t know either. Another group of protesters got on a couple stops later. The train wasn’t crowded and it was easy to see who was there for what. Another couple got on in suits with bouquets of flowers. Funeral seemed a likelier destination for them. The protesters seemed to have a group and a plan. I briefly considered following them when the train stopped at McPherson Square. Felt right to simply get out and head toward the White House and the freshly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza at Lafayette Square and 16th Street. Overnight, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had the city paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in yellow paint down the street well within sight of the White House. I stepped out into DC. The city was eerie. Streets I’ve spent countless hours on over my 16 years as an off and on DC-area resident were devoid of cars. People wandered here and there. Away from the crowds downtown had a zombie apocalypse feel to it.

Sure enough, at Black Lives Matter Plaza, crowds surged. It looked and felt more like a festival than anything else. Various groups were handing out water bottles and free food. Bathrooms were even flagged here and there. I was in luck that a new protest was forming as I arrived, spearheaded by a foursome of African-American leaders equipped with bullhorns and surrounded by cameras. The main spokesperson was a charismatic, gender-nonconforming person. In the swell of the scene I couldn’t tell if they were trans or in drag. I joined as we marched in the hundreds first within view of the White House and then along city streets to Chinatown. There, we took a knee in silence. We listened to speeches. Polite quasi-uniformed officers emblazoned with DOJ and DEA patches on their black vests and national guard members in ACU standing next to beige HMMWVs blocked the crowd from leaving the closed off pedestrian area of the city. We turned south on 7th and continued to Constitution before kneeling again for a longer ceremony of silence near Archives with more chanting and speeches. When the crowd started up again down the 9th street tunnel, I peeled off to head back over to the White House and Washington Monument. Others milled about in similar fashion. When I read later that protesters casually picked up movements throughout the day in a plethora of locations, it didn’t surprise me one bit. Eventually I ended up back at Black Lives Matter Plaza and McPherson Metro Station to return to Cheryl and Alexandria.

Despite scenes of aggressive police presence from earlier protests during the week, downtown DC was devoid of much official presence. I found the lack of “normal” uniformed police a little surreal. Scattered throughout town were the same “DOJ” types and a handful of National Guardsmen I had directly encountered in Chinatown. They were friendly and engaging to the protesters. At one time I saw them clapping along. At others smiling and taking selfies. In Chinatown, the agent who appeared to be in charge opened up a vehicle and handed out water. It struck me that we were vulnerable as protesters to being hijacked by anyone attempting to incite violence from within our ranks, but nothing remotely odd happened while I was walking around town — or reported in DC after the event. The civilian officers out and about seemed like the older (35+), seasoned special agents across federal agencies with whom I’ve worked and trusted over my years in the government. The city had the right people on the streets this weekend.

The crowd I marched in was between one-third and one-half African American. Protesters seemed polite to each other but also didn’t seem to engage much individually. I don’t have enough experience with protest movements to know how the COVID-19 version differs. I don’t know what I expected when I headed out. I’m heartened that whomever was making crowd control decisions for the weekend made the choices they did. They didn’t look ready for a fight and that helped set a peaceful stage. The crowds lacked the anger and vitriol captured at earlier events for all to see nationally. But they were serious and determined crowds all the same. 2016 reminded all of us that the professionals and others of the DC area constitute a bubble out of touch at times with parts of the United States. That bubble joined ranks across income, age, and social brackets in Washington, D.C. on this Saturday to march together. I have no doubt we will vote and stay engaged. I don’t know what more than that means, though, for the times to come. Like many, I too hope that this movement generates genuine change, reform, and a sustained call to action.

Turning to Paper. Away From Social Media.

It’s time. Recent events have taken my social media fixation — addiction? — and forced me to recognize the impact and the limits of the medium. On one hand, the allure of breaking news and video seemingly direct from people and sources makes a compelling case that to be in the know means being actively engaged on social media. On the other hand, I don’t know what to place value on or not and in what percentage. I have no desire to get into the believe/disbelieve dichotomy or, god forbid, the fake news rant. Information in all forms has always been written by people and disseminated by corporations. That is what it is. Let’s not get too excited about it. Companies worth sending money to for their work make money on the perception of the attempt at accurate reporting and the apparatus to fact check, edit, review, respond, and apologize for reporting. That’s enough for me to give their information the time of day. My head will stay discerning.

Therefore, I intend to stay informed without being stuck on social media to waste my time and sway my intake of information. I’m going old school.

Rather, I started going old school a few months ago. It started with a 2020 resolution to give myself a phone break while commuting. In addition to the hard and paperback books I began to buy and read exclusively, I picked up a subscription to the New Yorker. I get excited for my new edition to arrive each week. I read through it religiously and in the same week of publication. Next came a renewal of the weekend (Friday-Sunday) New York Times. It felt great to absorb articles and reporting in a leisurely, focused manner. Helps me to read articles I wouldn’t otherwise click on. Also, it helps to focus on a paper in front of me and not be distracted by the myriad alerts of the phone or computer. Recently, I added the Atlantic to my magazine subscription. Long form journalism is amazing. More so now than ever. The final step today was making sure I was getting a daily print newspaper. I choose the Washington Post for a second option to the Times and also to help keep me attached to the region I live in. Also, there is definitely going to be news I will want to read daily. I’d take a more boring world at this point. But nobody gave me that option.

No more or throughout the day. Certainly less Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The news can wait until I can consume in a more purposeful manner. Social media can be used to laugh, share, and communicate.

What I’m Reading, May 31-June 6

I posted the image of my slate of books on Instagram. It’s probably better to categorize and describe them here. This helps keep me on top of it. It also helps me make the most of what I’m reading.

Category 1: Non-Fiction. For this we have Orlando Figes’ The Europeans. I tend to read one chapter a week, no matter how long. This book, thanks to its length and content, is a slower read than my others. I’m loving it. Then again, Figes has been important to me as a writer since my Russian history days. Here, he takes on how European cosmopolitan culture came together in the 19th century using three cultural figures as the back drop. I’m loving it. But I’m not racing through it.

Category 1: Fiction: Having a blast reading Cory and Amy Rose‘s Sword in the Stars. It’s the sequel – and really it’s the second half conclusion of the story – of Once & Future. It’s mesmerizing and truly fun and I’m so proud of them for these books. I’m also learning and challenging myself of lot with the young adult queer characters. We need new heroes. Especially young people growing up and looking to others in real life or fiction that resemble and inspire them.

Category 3: Sports: Jesse Dougherty‘s Buzz Saw. I love the Nationals. I love Jesse’s beat coverage in the Washington Post. I love recapping last year’s championship. Savoring this book.

Category 4: Nature/Religion/Philosophy: Thanks to Cheryl, I grabbed Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor. I’m one-third of the way through after one day of reading and enthralled.

Category 5: Reading with Cheryl. We’ve taken to our own household bookclub by reading a chapter at a time and discussing. This book club started with Sharon Salzberg‘s Faith. It has continued to Lovingkindess.

[If somehow you’ve stumbled here. Go buy real books. From Old Town Books.]

Am I Responsible?

It’s Tuesday, June 2, 2020. I’ve been alive for 40 years. Let’s call 30 of them historically conscious. I remember watching decade in review news shows in 1989-1990 as my first cognizant memory of understanding the flow of both history and the present – and finding my vantage someplace in it. I vividly remember my social studies teachers lauding the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as world-changing events. I watched CNN deep into the evening with my family as the first bombs of Operation Desert Storm fell on Iraq. (Though, to be honest, my brother and I thought we were experiencing exciting real life G.I. Joe moments and gladly drew triumphant pictures of planes dropping bombs.) The 1992 presidential election excited me too. I remember voting for Ross Perot in our middle school mock election. I remember my father letting me pull the ballot lever for him too. New seemed exciting, especially to a 12 year old. I got jazzed for the first time, though, for Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. I bought and read his campaign book, Between Hope and History. I was hooked. He felt real. Right. Then the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened. Globalization took center stage. Politics seemed to fall flat. The End of History was upon us.

By the time I had the chance to vote for a president myself, it was the lead up to 2000 in the dorm rooms of Holy Cross and my time abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. George W. Bush and Al Gore were the same person. W seemed more likable. I watched and listened on election day 2000 in an internet cafe in Kazan, Russia. It was surreal. Then I went back to living under a rock of history and 19th century literature. The end of history indeed. We became boring. We continue to look inward for what mattered. We were individuals.

9/11 woke me up. I switched professional gears. I joined the federal government. President Obama fired me up. His election made me feel the most proud I had ever been to be an American. I was serving in Iraq. But I went about my business. Business as normal.

“This is really the problem with Gen X and baby boomers. They’ve championed this kind of individualism. They’ve championed thinking less about the community.” So writes Neil Howe. I read about it in the New York Times article hyperlinked here. It struck. It stuck with me. The implication was that the previous generations – and the ones largely in power – helped to bring about the existential crisis we appear to be in by focusing on themselves, on individual development over community and collective ideals.

I do fall in the Gen X age generation chart. Barely. I feel torn a bit personally about whether Gen X characteristics fit me more than Millennial ones. In the end, I reluctantly agree to be Gen X despite positive impressions of the Millennial ethos. Especially with this quote. Why? In this particular instance because I spent most of my weekend reading Buddhist books and thinking about intermittent fasting and meditation habits rather than concern myself actively with the George Floyd movement gaining momentum across the United States. I happily ate at a restaurant overlooking the Potomac River and took a mini-road trip for fun instead of worrying about COVID-19. Yeah, I would say I was championing individualism instead of community. Even now.

So what does that mean? Am I responsible? Has a lifetime of inward focus on my part (I’ll let others speak for themselves and researchers speak for generations.) helped to create the moment we now inhabit? Has a feeling that the civil rights movement happened in the past, and that all that was left was tying up loose ends, caused my cohort to drop the ball? Heck, to put the ball back in the closet.

That’s certainly what it feels like. At this moment. On June 2, 2020. Sitting at home. Safe, sound, and pampered in Old Town Alexandria. While the United States convulses in a sweeping moment that I feel like my middle school social studies teacher would call out as history happening now. Maybe Faulkner would remind us that history is never dead. It’s not even history.