Joseph Wolf
Bringing kindness and staying with the truth

105 days of protest in Portland: What are we missing?

I’m davening Shacharit here in Portland, Oregon.  Oddly, in the leadup to the Song at the Sea, the Siddur zeroes in on God’s promise to Abraham, then skips straightaway to slavery.  In a heartbeat, it says “God saw [their] oppression in Egypt and heard their shouts by the Red Sea.”

But, hey, there’s a backstory, right?  How did oppression take hold in the first place?  It’s missing.

This morning marks 105 days of protests here, and although friends who live elsewhere call and ask if I’m safe, I’m only suffering from what “everyone else” is in America – which is to say that I can look away from it.  White privilege.

Even during a pandemic, I can overlook what’s wrong.  I can hike a city trail or visit friends with masks on in their backyard.  I can even move freely downtown and gawk at murals, though I should be careful not to trip over a homeless person on the sidewalk.  And there’s plywood and graffiti, insignia of the chasm between the comfortable and the poor and unemployed, disproportionately people of color.  Though hard to ignore, “it’s not my problem.” Or is that itself the problem?

Across America, we “reset” and move on.

Similarly, the conceptual distance between the protests and the magical wish for restored law and order is a feature of today’s public narrative.  In Portland, passionate cries for justice waft through parks and a few blocks downtown near the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, named for a Republican who took on Nixon.  It’s inspiring and exhausting, at the same time.  I hear both radicals and bystanders who say they’re fed up, but the former have a vision and the latter seem to want things back the way they were.

As a retired faith activist, worried about COVID-19, I have stood on the sidelines, while younger leaders have poetically lent their hearts and souls to a movement for justice, although I too have been pepper-sprayed and couldn’t sit at home when camouflaged jackboots paraded into town.  I’ve seen clearly that the next generation doesn’t want to put up with the same arrangements that keep Black people in place.  They’re not ready to skip over the concessions made to commercial property owners or developers or the police who “keep things in line.”

At the same time, under the guise of freedom of expression, I’ve witnessed white supremacists, so-called “patriots,” harangue those who have joined arms for Black Lives Matter.  (And, yes, Oregon has a long history of white supremacy that clashes with its image as a hipster heaven.)  According to a draft report to the Department of Homeland Security, these right-wing extremists are deemed “the gravest threat” to national security.  They’re weaponized and they drive a false argument that our nation is being disinherited by the people who themselves have been cut out of opportunities to build wealth, get housing, give their children a good education.  Right now people of color are being denied the opportunity to vote.  And this means the country will be back where it started from, we’ll all be “free” and except for those who aren’t.

As Isabel Wilkerson lays out in her book Caste, while the benefits of an inclusive society would be abundant for everyone, the idea engenders fear and resentment. People whose lives lack psychic and often (but not always) economic mooring are ripe for exploitation.  They are susceptible to the lie that they will be supplanted by people they deem (and need) to be of lower status.   Need it go on this way?

Enter today’s pharaoh. . . He turns the Bible upside down, runs roughshod over his citizens.  Absent historical memory, he doesn’t recall Joseph or whether Frederick Douglass is alive or dead.  He doesn’t read.  He batters language, can’t complete a sentence or tweet a coherent thought.  False equivalencies, indeed, the shredding of metaphors, undermine people’s ability to track causality.  No surprise his grievance-laden blather circles back to ironclad support for police unions, law and order, and covenants in need of refinement or revocation.

But there’s an irony, in that he himself reneges on all covenants, nor did, for that matter, Abraham yet have a high bar to meet – his covenant came unconditionally.  He was not yet bound by the moral imperatives that the Torah of Exodus inspired, about knowing the hearts of strangers, including them in our midst.  That took some learning, still does.

Oppression gave rise to empathic insight, a new way of envisioning community, of fixing, of healing.  Of brokering justice, not just pretending to.

In this incendiary moment, I know there are many Jews, owners of small businesses too, who feel threatened by the vandalism that flares up.  I am convinced that it’s in the interests of the extreme right to provoke attacks on people – it has no place in this resistance.  And if protecting property is the priority, we should remember that taking and keeping property were always the prime motivators of those who enslaved other human beings.  Of course, it’s a consequence of the fiery rage and despair that some will destroy what belongs to others.  We’ll need to help other Jews and those who are vulnerable get back on their feet, as we keep the flame of justice burning.

When there are flames, Jews fear an upsurge of antisemitism.  However, it’s this pharaoh who goads right-wing extremists and thrives on hate.  Disappointingly, some Jewish leaders have wrongly doubled back to carefully forged relationships with the police and City Hall.  They should know that the pharaoh has his taskmasters, enablers who have been at it for decades.  They operate with surveillance and brute force, and nothing besides shining a light on their methods will make democracy work.

And how did the founders – indeed the same is true for Abraham –  let their covenants devolve into a morass of human depredation?  It’s the backstory we’re beginning to write.

Maybe we should think of them as precursors, whose consequentiality would be magnified over time.   They were, in their nascent struggles, like we are in the present moment.  We have yet to understand that keeping things the way they were until now is a shallow substitute for making sure they will soon, hopefully, begin to be the way they ought to be.

About the Author
I am Rabbi Emeritus at Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon. I have spent the last 35 years bringing Torah insights and practices to bear on social justice issues and spirituality.
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