Monday, June 15, 2020

what would finn do?

Among the celebrities lending their voices to the movement for Black lives, John Boyega has stood out. Not just because he’s put his body on the front lines at protests and because he’s shut down Twitter trolls with delightful wit, but because—in our house—he is Finn.

You know: the ex-Stormtrooper stolen from his family and raised as FN-2187. When he refuses to kill for the First Order, he defects and eventually joins the Resistance. It’s not the subtlest metaphor, and I’m not the first to say “Yes, this guy! The guy who took off his blood-smeared Stormtrooper helmet and refused to be a cop for the last gasp of the Empire!” But at this moment in history, I am especially grateful for how much Dash, at age 5.5, adores him.

Before schools closed in March, I had never seen a Star Wars movie all the way through, although AK, Dash’s other mom, flew her toy Millennium Falcon around her childhood living room and, as a forty-something adult, has been known to read Star Wars fan fiction online when she needs to unwind.

Dash’s entry point into the franchise was The Force Awakens. He liked Rey, the scrappy scavenger-turned-Jedi and instant feminist hero, and BB8, the snowman-shaped droid who bleep-blooped adorably. But he was fascinated with the Stormtroopers, Finn, and their leader, Kylo Ren, who is torn between good and evil. 

Dash often puts a trick-or-treat bucket on his head, wields an umbrella as a “blaster,” and extends his palm toward me in an attempt to control me with the Force. We have never given him a toy gun, and we’ve talked about what to do if he ever encounters a gun, even if he thinks it might be a toy: Don’t touch it, tell a grownup, real guns kill people. 

I fear firearm accidents, but I also fear that the police will see my Brown kid—when he’s taller and older, or looks older—playing with a toy gun and shoot him.

I’m not so worried about him running around the driveway shooting me with an umbrella. Power play is developmentally appropriate; it makes sense that kids—who are constantly being told don’t slam the door, don’t climb that fence, don’t put that tiny LEGO Stormtrooper helmet in your mouth—would want to be the enforcers now and then. 

He went through a cop phase this fall: Blame Paw Patrol, or the police officer he met at the train station, who gave him a baseball card that had a Dodgers player on one side and an LAPD officer on the other. He and his friend Jasmine still periodically throw me in “jail” and issue me Post-It-note tickets for things like “being mean.” I talked to him about how police officers needed to follow rules too, and how people who went to jail were not “bad,” but had broken big rules or may have made bad choices. We talked about how courts decide whether people are guilty or innocent. But how to describe the prison-industrial complex to a kid who hasn’t started kindergarten? How to explain that being labeled guilty or innocent has very little to do with being guilty or innocent?

Guilty as charged.

Now that his attention has turned to Star Wars, I’m observing his obsession with two men torn between good and evil—the Black man raised to believe he was a bad guy, who chooses good when he has nothing to lose, and the white man born to heroic but imperfect parents (Leia and Han Solo), whose power and privilege mix with his daddy/grandpa wounds to form a perfect storm of evil (basically our president, if he were smarter and broodingly handsome). 

In the original movies, the lines were more clearly drawn, although Luke and Darth Vader’s “I am your father” moment hinted that good guys and bad guys weren’t so far apart. I hope that pop culture is veering toward a more complicated understanding of how people are shaped by systemic forces (or Forces?). 

Dash loves his Stormtrooper pajamas. He loves stomping around and talking in a deep voice. He also frequently talks about how “some Stormtroopers are nice. Finn didn’t want to kill people.” 

Yet if Finn had stayed a Stormtrooper, killing people would have been all in a day’s work.

When I’m not worrying about my son and other mothers’ children getting shot by police, I worry about—and I’m just gonna say what so many white people are hiding behind defensiveness—losing the nice life I have. America has been largely good to me, an educated, white, middle-class, somewhat-able-bodied person. I have a job. I have a lawn. 

When I saw images of overturned cop cars ablaze in Los Angeles during the last week of May, a part of me was transported to April 1992, when I was a high school freshman in suburban LA. My little white beach town behaved shamefully back then. I don’t even remember how rumors spread, exactly, before the internet, but they were hot as fire: “First they’re coming for three B’s: Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Brentwood,” someone said with faux authority. “Then they’re coming for the three beaches: Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo.” 

Ash from South Central fires rained down on us, but even it was white. All those neighborhoods were fine. Parts of South LA still bear scars.

I was disheartened but unsurprised to see a handful of hometown Facebook friends-of-friends traffic in similar rumors about what “they” had planned. I typed strongly worded comments, but meanwhile, my stomach was a knot of fear I couldn’t quite untangle. Was I, too, scared that a real revolution was coming? Or was I scared of what the cops and the National Guard might do to the revolutionaries? Both? Was it possible to crave order and understand the need for periodic chaos? 

When Finn escapes the First Order and crash lands on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey mistakes him for a Resistance fighter. 

Finn gets a look on his face like he’s bullshitting in a job interview: “Obviously. Yes, I am. I'm with the Resistance, yeah…. This is what we look like. Some of us. Others look different.” 

I’m not usually a fuck-the-police type. Can I be a legit Resistance fighter? The imposter syndrome is strong in this one. I’m a rule follower by nature, but one of my least favorite feelings is being trapped in an unwinnable game—whether it’s my boss asking about the status of a project that was never explicitly assigned or Dash railing against a snack he asked for a minute ago. And that’s what policing has created for communities of color: an unwinnable game. 

Proposal: All cops should wear their undies on the outside.

When AK was in grad school, she left class in West LA one day at dusk, and sat in her car eating a bag of almonds before beginning the long drive back to the Eastside. A cop knocked on her window. What was she doing? Where was she going? 

AK has cinnamon-brown skin and indigenous features. West LA isn’t entirely white, but it’s white enough that there are people invested in keeping it that way.

“You had your hood pulled up and you took it off when you saw me,” he said. 

“No I didn’t,” she said, because she didn’t. 

“Yes you did.”

He was letting her know the rules. He was letting her know who would be telling this story. Never mind that a hoodie on a person of color is considered a weapon in America. 

An unwinnable game. 

When I remember that AK’s experience is the norm for people of color—when I devote time to imagining what I can’t imagine, but must—I can step out of my own wound-gazing, where I just feel like Why does it seem like all of social media is vaguely mad at me? I’m not a Karen.… Am I a Karen?

The other day, Dash was running around as AK and I were doing what he calls “arguing,” meaning any debate conducted in a mildly serious tone of voice—figuring out our work schedules, reacting to the shit-show news feed. 

He grabbed a dish rag and thrust it at us like a weapon. “You don’t know the power of the dark side!” he roared. 

We do, though. And we don’t. And sometimes it feels like we’re armed with a dishrag.

We stopped our serious talk and broke into laughter. 

There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Jeffrey in which the titular gay man, played by Steven Weber, gets mugged. “Whaddya got?” growls one of the homophobic perps. 

Jeffrey looks up from the ground. “Irony?”

Queers, communities of color, kids, and artists have learned how to use whatever we have at hand to push away evils in the shadow zone, wielding laughter and play. 

As a middle-class white lady and as a parent, it’s easy to leap to keep the lid on the status quo. But I’m glad I can still be knocked off my guard, diffused and disarmed.

As Hayley DeRoche and others have pointed out, part of the work of anti-racism is sitting in our own discomfort. For me, that means acknowledging not just American history, not just my own biases, but my deep-rooted fear that I might be a bad guy, simply by benefitting from what other bad guys have done. So who am I to shout fuck-the-police from the rooftops? 

It sometimes feels like biting the hand that has fed me, but it’s not feeding my son and other people I love. It might start as a whisper. I might only have a dishrag and irony and the spare time to call one council member to politely ask him to defund the police. 

Last night, I was texting about fear with my friend Shea and she said, “So many fears are about self-preservation. [There are situations] when you get a gut fear that’s important to follow. That’s self-preservation that’s positive, right? It’s kind of the same thing when you feel privilege threatened--but in that case, that instinct shouldn’t be authoritative.”

I’ll try not to let fear drive this bus. To make a world that is more comfortable for Dash and his peers by, in the words of the wise Fiona Apple, “travel[ing] by foot, and by foot it's a slow climb / But I'm good at being uncomfortable, so / I can't stop changing all the time.”

In the words Finn repeats to himself, breathlessly, as he’s making his escape: “I can do this. I can do this.”

Sunday, June 07, 2020

the only story she knows


On my first day off in weeks
I stand with my son
watching a spider who has spun
a web in the bamboo
a floating silver blanket
that has snared a ladybug.

The spider pedals his back legs
a busy typist or a mother preparing dinner.
The ladybug yields,
all squirming undercarriage
her red jewel of a shell
consumed by white thread.

I wonder if I should intervene
and what the metaphor might be.
This is the week protesters stood up
in the name of Black bodies
and our president wielded the military
in the name of the bible.

I sat home, a typist, tangled
scared and tired.


Dee Dee Blanchard named her daughter
Gypsy Rose, and that's half
of what you need to know. Smile, baby,
she told her child after ordering
a dentist to pull out her teeth.
I let them entertain me.

She pushed her in a wheelchair,
a pink blanket over her strong legs.
Gypsy stood up in the night
took off her oxygen mask
ate frosting by the light of the fridge
looked up "kissing" on the internet.

After ordering her boyfriend
to stab her mother while she slept,
Gypsy Rose tried a few more medical scams
for old times' sake. Just tell the truth,
I coach her from the sidelines
but sick child is the only story she knows.

The web is frayed;
she dangles like a tooth.


On my first day off in weeks
I make a list--write, hike--
but exhaustion snares me
and when I'm not putting toys
back on shelves or scrubbing a pan
my heart races.

My body has come to believe
this story in a few short months:
This is what you were made for,
housework, email, telling children NO.
How quickly I learned, how tiring
the work of unlearning.

I cover my nose and mouth
and walk away from my house
past buildings webbed in plywood
a spray-paint declaration that this business
is Black-owned, which may be a lie.
This neighborhood, once Brown, is paling every day.

My mask fogs up my glasses
as the fog of the everyday lifts, and lingers.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

the toll of chronic uncertainty

On Friday night, I scrolled through a feed of burning cop cars, protesters in cloth masks, and cops in riot gear. On Sunday morning, I looked at pictures AK texted me from the park: Dash next to a glassy green pond. Trees stooped to touch their branches to the water.

I stayed home to catch up on work, which meant writing this blog post about my org's work in the context of police violence. (Official Organizational Statements declaring solidarity with Black people have become a thing in the past few days, which is part of what makes this time--this violence, this uprising--feel like a tipping point, like the moment homophobia finally became an unacceptable default mode. Of course, homophobia has not gone away and even most of my nicest straight friends are casually heterocentric. So tipping points are not victory, but they are a victory, a big wave in a sea of incremental change.) (Official Organizational Statements also bump up against my dislike of platitudes and virtue signaling, but if I want people to accept me when I'm awkwardly doing my best, I will try to return the favor.)

I felt good about the post. I didn't consider going to a protest, and I wondered if it was because I didn't care as much about police violence or Black people as I did about other things I've protested in my life: children in cages, gun violence, Trump's election, the end of affirmative action in the UC system, the failure of McDonald's to put veggie burgers on the menu in the nineties. That's probably something I should think about more. But also there's a pandemic going on, and cops and the National Guard are doing scary-ass shit. A better person would say "I'm going to use my white privilege to put my body between a Black person and a police officer." I am a frightened person who would rather use my hopefully long life to do quiet, decent work in the general direction of justice, to interrogate my thinking and lurch unsteadily forward. It takes all kinds...right?


Working this week has been emotional and confusing and frustrating. We were supposed to have a virtual gala last night, which was already our Plan B. We postponed it because our board and staff agreed it wasn't the right time. But it took a lot of fast-flying emails and Zoom meetings to arrive at that decision, and in the meantime, I drafted a half dozen mass communications that never saw the light of day.

But as I told the handful of people I talk to these days, If the biggest impact that police violence has on my life is that I have to write a blog post on a Sunday, I'm doing okay. 

"Okay" right now means exhaustion on top of exhaustion. I was already fried from trying to work and parent at the same time, which is totally unsustainable yet somehow being sustained, and now plans have shifted again. My life feels like one big inbox of unanswered emails.

Carvell Wallace, a writer whose worldview and approach always resonate with my own, has said his mission is simply to describe what it feels like. Sometimes I think I'm not an activist because the language of protest so often fails to describe what it feels like. I mean, that's not its job. Its job is to be loud and to disrupt and to get attention.

But when I imagine what it feels like to live with complex trauma, I think this is what it boils down to: Chronic uncertainty takes a toll. And the toll, when the repeated traumas are big enough, is not just a dull headache and a constant, unfulfilled desire to spend a weekend watching Netflix under the covers. The toll is addiction, dropping out of school, turning on people you love, and sometimes your own life, in big ways and small.

Photo by munshots on Unsplash

For the first couple of years after cancer treatment, I hated making plans more than a couple of weeks out. Every time AK wanted to book a vacation a few months in advance, I would clearly and superstitiously issue a disclaimer: Yes, I wanted to visit our friend Emily in New Zealand, but I had a doctor's appointment between now and then, and if I got bad news, all bets were off. I still have a complicated relationship with the calendar, but in the seven years since, more things have worked out than not (knockonwood), and so my neuro pathways are like, Okay, we get that all plans are subject to change, but not all plans DO change. 

But what if almost all plans changed? I remember interviewing a Homeboy trainee who lived in Vietnam as a child in the late 1970s and '80s, where he saw people shot and set on fire at the grocery store. When he came to the US, he landed in East LA in the late '80s, another war zone. At school, kids made fun of his English. At night, he drove around town with his cousins because they had nothing better to do. A cop pulled them over and smashed their tail light with his baton.

Or maybe he put drugs or a gun in their trunk. Or maybe both. There were so many trainees with stories like this that I can't keep them straight. For a long time, he did okay--miraculously, thrivingly okay--in a world that, when not actively trying to kill him, was busy reminding him it could. But last I heard, he was living in a tent on the streets.

Photo by Laura Allen on Unsplash

My friend Shea wrote wrote in her book, Exactly as You Are, about the reassurance of Mister Rogers' everyday liturgies: changing his shoes, feeding his fish. As someone who ruminates about The Big Shit (cancer, whether we're on the verge of civil war), I tend to dismiss "do something small for yourself" self-care advice. How can I take a relaxing bath when we're on the verge of civil war?! But then a stressful work thing gets postponed, or I get a good night's sleep, and I do feel better about The Big Shit, which makes me realize that my daily stress dovetails with my Big Shit stress. It's useful to realize, and it makes me feel like a dumb little animal, easily appeased with a treat. (And I am that.)

But also, what if liturgies aren't just about soothing neural pathways (though they are that), but a sort of cosmic reminder that there is constancy in the universe and connectedness to this troubling material world? What if trauma/evil is anything that gets in the way of constancy and connectedness? And, needless to say, trauma/evil is unequally distributed in this world, where Black people cannot be reasonably confident that they won't be shot in their own living rooms.


Right now, I feel too old and cranky for social media, which is like "Don't forget about this issue as soon as the news cycle changes, you big jerk!" (but, like, has that person posted about children in cages recently?) or "White people are not allowed to post anything until Thursday" or--in the case of certain Manhattan Beach types--"Oh no, [favorite yuppie store] is boarded up! Stay safe, [favorite yuppie store]!"

Right now, I also think about my uncle, a former cop who now works as a psychologist, counseling cops and advising police departments. Yes therapy for all cops, please. Yes therapy for everyone traumatized by cops, please. I think about my college friend who became a police detective, and Jill Leovy's thesis, in Ghettocide, that the solution to community violence is to better fund and investigate homicide, and lighten up on pervasive, oppressive prosecution of petty crimes/"crimes."

This statement is really heartening to people like me, who often feel crushed by the weight of perfectionism. But perfectionism is a stupid luxury we don't have time for.

I'm not sure it's as simple as "defund the police." (Although AK just informed me how much the police actually get in LA and, wow, okay, let's look into this People's Budget.) It's not as simple as working for a nonprofit that does nice things. It's not as simple as posting a black square on Instagram; it's not as simple as telling people not to post a black square on Instagram for various hashtag-related reasons. But none of that means we get to stop trying.