From The Asian Reporter, V28, #5 (March 5, 2018), pages 6 & 13.
Beauty among our broken dishes, broken bones
Nowadays our achy little earth seems she’s slipped a degree or two off axis.
City sidewalks seem to be buckling, tectonic plates are rubbing. People already
on edge, are tumbling right off it.
Tense times like these, can lock us into tribes. Imagine the other as evil.
Check out congress. But human history is inspiring for our new ways of thinking
then going about our daily business when our natural or social environs shifted
off an accustomed center. Our family for example, is from Indonesia. Our quaking
ground and tantruming volcanoes, our awful leaders and those invading armies,
one after another, all hungry for our soil and our oil, have shaped us into a
very adaptive people. We’ve always had to sort for blessings among our broken
dishes and broken bones.
All that, is intended to ramp into my essay about a Saturday afternoon in
January. It’s a story about glimpsing a world of possibility, when old
adversarial ways will no longer do. It’s a story about us. About Portlanders.
It unfolded at River City’s international airport, under that vaulting arc of
glass and tubular iron sheltering PDX’s arrival gates. We were gathering on
three lanes closed for a Saturday protest. Chilly Chinook winds were gusting
through. That irrepressible Bhutan refugee and American dreamer, Som Nath Subedi
had already secured the Port of Portland’s first-ever free speech permit for a
demonstration of our affection for refugees. Families our president just banned
from flying here. Here, to our generous continent’s northwest corner.
Som had received hundreds of Facebook clicks promising to participate in our
protest. Most from civil-society organizations and faith associations (official
protest sponsor list set out at the end). A few shrill posts came from a band of
local bad boys who’ve earned notoriety for demonstrating against our values. And
gotten a lot of press for that.
Gratitude trumps taking for granted
Port of Portland facility managers and public-safety officers had made all
the complex accommodations making it possible to balance our free speech against
the rest of the public’s important business. This is hard to do. Since the
chaotic 1960s when our family resettled here, both the federal and state
judiciaries have been refining this balancing of contrary interests. So, while
gathering to protest our government cannot be prohibited by cops or courts — we
can be regulated by considerations over the time, the place, and manner of our
demonstration. Obviously, no early morning loudspeakers in leafy neighborhoods.
No parades through public schools. No firing pistols in the air.
As anyone from one of Portland’s 70-or-so newcomer communities will tell you,
America’s First Amendment is a beautiful thing. And rare.
So from the perspective of a family from an island archipelago curving along
one of our wobbly world’s most geologically active regions — I was moved by Port
officials’ preparedness. They were ready to expose their buzzing facility, their
working people, and a travelling public already tense over declining airline
services — to us. They secured us a very visible protest space. They raised us a
stage, they even lined up portable potties.
As extraordinary as respectful government is, in a world of hurt, what
happened next is an even more promising human possibility.
As our crowd swelled and packed tighter, as our speakers and performers
queued up for the stage, about a dozen anti-us protestors pushed to the front.
They were big men. They used harsh words and a squawky megaphone. They were
supposed to be sequestered at a distant counter-demonstration space.
This was bad. Our on-stage guys and these off-stage guys were soon shouting
at the same volume. Sharing the same tenor and tone.
Collision and a crack of light
I was worrying about how to manage two hours of this. I was watching our
crowd of church folk, of grassroots organizers, artists, elders, and youngsters,
and a dozen masked anarchistas moving toward those counter-protestors. I was
imagining one side or both losing their tempers, Port of Portland police
arriving, and all kinds of mayhem on local evening news. But then: Something
Off the side of our turmoil stood Dr. Baher Butti, an Iraqi refugee and
father who with his professional peers, before the disintegration of his entire
nation, introduced the theory and practice of communal and familial wellness to
the Arab world. He was chatting with a circle of pretty little girls and
Bambi-eyed boys. Kids he brought to sing at our celebration. I went to him. "Dr.
Baher, can your kids come on stage now? Right now?"
"Now?" Then checking my eyes the way doctors do, he smiled. "Yesss."
I went on stage with a mic. "Fellas, fellas —" I asked those big bad guys,
facing down our demonstrators. "Fellas — listen. Listen please." A few turned
"Fellas please. Everyone please." More turned my way. "Everyone, please know
this. Because this matters a lot. It really does." They listened.
"Coming on stage now are Iraqi kids. Little girls and their little brothers.
Really wounded children, they are. Hurt so bad by all that craziness back home.
All that anger." They listened.
"Please, let’s give them, let’s give their broken bones and broken hearts,
our reverence. Please." They were moved. Those men were. And they moved to the
side. Backs against PDX’s arrival driveway railing, they gave their respect to
We went off our planned run-of-show, and our kids sang earnestly. The way
sweet little souls do. They danced in folk-step as old as Rivers Euphrates and
Tigris, and their elegant civilization in between. For that slim moment all of
us, pro- and anti-immigrant, went off script. A beautiful departure.
We departed from habits of thinking and doing, from reflexes traditional and
modern, from biases left and right. And we turned instead toward instincts
simpler and truer.
Our Saturday was all that. Port authorities permitted us a very public place,
when they could’ve put our protest behind that mammoth parking structure.
Portland Police officers, men and women daily distancing themselves from a
legacy of awful excesses, secured protest participants’ arrival on the same
eastbound MAX ride that ended with the fatal stabbing of a Portland dad and a
Reed grad just last May. Two white men who had shielded two black girls from
Likewise, our pro-Trump protestors permitted our girls and boys their quiet
moment. They backed off for long thoughtful minutes. And our kids sang their
hearts out. These guys did that, for them. They gave this, to all of us. For
which I am humbled. Terima kasih banyak — I offer you our love.
To Tiny, Pro-Trumper and Samoan brother, big as a school bus: Mahalo nui brah,
for letting me duck behind you.
To Portland Peace Team, thank you all for sandwiching yourselves between
troubles. Thank you for your self-discipline.
You kept our peace, our promise to the Port and to Portland.
Unite Oregon; City of Portland, New Portlanders Program; Greater Portland
chapter of the National Organization for Women; Portland Immigrant Rights
Coalition; Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Buddhist
Peace Fellowship, Portland; Portland chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace;
Portland-Shiraz Friendship Community; Veterans For Peace Chapter 72; Portland
Peace Team; Cascadia Pacific Peace Professionals; Anarchist Alternative Media
Collective; Portland Refugee Support Group; International Socialist
Organization; Portland Network Against Racism and Islamophobia;
Oregon Small Business for Responsible Leadership; Jump Jump Music; Terra
Incognita Media; Women’s March on Portland; No Lost Generation UO; United
Nations Association Portland Chapter; Amnesty International USA Group 48; and
Portland Meet Portland.
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