Abolitionist: Heroes and Sidekicks

A dear friend posted this yesterday. One of our friends said ‘change the ‘but’ to ‘and’, and I also responded everyone needs to show up. And I was told as a “gringa” to be real careful. Okay. I will be. I am. Since a comment on Facebook is about as useful as, well, a fortune cookie strip, writing further to seek clarification may ease some of my defensiveness and fragility. Because that’s what it is.

A reflection on Portland, Seattle, abolitionists, and next steps.


Portland’s history of white supremacy goes back decades. Some of us like to imagine that Portland is some kind of 90s haven as seen in Portlandia. I’ve lived in the Seattle area for the past 25 years, and while I am no Portland expert, there is a vibe from the Pacific Northwest I love. But like most American cities, there is the rot of racism and bigotry. I naively believed I lived in some kind of peaceful, rainbow, mystical peace world, where every day was the Fremont Solstice Parade, and readers and coffee drinkers came together in peace, love and harmony.

What this meme signaled was a few things: first, we white people must be diligent, mindful and centered about our role we play in supporting #BLM.

But it also takes everyone to show up. Showing up doesn’t mean taking center stage. White people can show other white people that supporting fascism is not acceptable, and will fight against it. I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer. Hiram is the hero. Sophia is the hero. Corinne Quinn is behind the scenes, a supporting character. She is the white “Quality” woman who serves as a double-agent to support the Underground. In this quote, Coates sums up many white women’s motivations to join the abolitionist movement:

Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Water Dancer (p. 370). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

This may be one of the most accurate characterizations of white women I’ve ever read, which is no surprise because Coates is, unequivocally, a monumental writer. And yes, I wonder for myself and others if abolitionism comes with the sins of pride and vanity. And it’s complicated for some. We are not one thing. Recognizing the vanity is white privilege.

From a historical standpoint, our nation began with the sin of slavery, and it is that sin we must atone for, make reparations. Consider the numbers. If Portland has 650K people, and these are the percentages, the moms, dads, and vets who protest are part of the larger demographic. From many of the photos, these protestors are predominantly white. If they become the ‘heroes,’ blame the journalists. If they get centered as the ‘heroes,’ blame four hundred plus years of white supremacy and colonization. I am not sure we blame the white protestors, unless we get evidence they are actively trying to center their own story. So, I’ll add a “yet” in there. But perhaps I’ll take this out of the binary thinking for one moment: praise, defamation, shaming, or centering, replace with fight, justice, anti-racism, and abolitionism.

How do we provide space for abolitionist work and progress? I wonder if what the OP is referring to is the white savior narrative? When I was little, I remember my mom telling me about the deaths of Civil Rights activists, and feeling…sorrow mixed with pride. I was a very little girl, around 5 or 6. I think I asked her what was the saddest thing that happened the year I was born, and she told me. When I found out some were white. That there were helpers trying to support others. I knew that it would require bravery. But the white people were not centered. They were adjacent. Often ministers, college kids, a housewife. But they are not heroes. Or saviors. Mostly just people trying to do the right thing. But the whiteness must not be centered.

The current race/ethnicity data for Portland:


It is my fear that Portland, and now Seattle, are Trump’s dress rehearsals. I am not sure what his thinking, or that of Stephen Miller, or Trump’s other puppeteers, are planning as their end game. Maybe it’s just this: “practice” in Portland, see how much they can get away with, move to Seattle, and then onto cities with larger populations of BIPOC, like Chicago, (50% white, 30% Black) Detroit, and Baltimore. They will keep pushing, harming, and even killing as many they can get away with to maintain control and power. This is how it happens. This is where we are.

Why numbers? Because if 53% of white women voted for the abomination that’s currently in the Oval Office…this is a catastrophic failure that lands squarely on the shoulders of white people.

And I guess I’ve lost a splinter of patience. While I recognize the need to balance accurate, historical framing in real time, why do I sense a tinge of preciousness? Okay, the naked yoga lady was silly.

If the “Corrine Quinn’s” of Portland came out, stood arm in arm, against fascism, we white people must remember to check our own motivations, the same check we give our internal biases. Anti-racist work is messy and not a monolith. Checking my own truth. I still say: everyone needs to show up against the current state of our nation. We must show we care, seek growth and change. The white abolitionists in our history didn’t always get it right. That’s why many teachers like myself craved works like the #1619 project, Facing History, #DisruptTexts, Zinn Education Project, and others.

Then and Now:

We need as many to show up as possible, in ways they are able and can. I show up by writing. My sons show up by, well, showing up. My husband shows up by supporting my time to write, and our sons protesting. The white moms, dads, and vets are speaking directly to Trump: you do not have us. You do not have our country, or our futures. Anti-racist and abolitionist work is an urgent act. And there is space for protection and preciousness: we need the sensitive, empathetic warriors, too, to make sure the story is told with accuracy. And I will allow myself space to be the big mouth, the thinker, and the writer. I don’t always get it right, but I do care to try. Because ultimately it’s not about me: it’s about my sons, my students. Giving them the futures that is their birthright. And when the US government gets it wrong, so very wrong, I feel a small amount of hope when I see everyone showing up, shouting down fascism, racism, and bigotry, and be it vanity, pride, or justice, until Black Lives Matter, we will not be able to heal or move forward.

And a link to my post, Who?

Featured Image credit: https://www.dailysabah.com/world/americas/thousands-crowd-outside-central-police-precinct-as-portland-protests-continue