Look mom, I’m a radical leftist now.
A personal revolution took place amidst the larger evolution our society and culture at-large is experiencing.
However, I wasn’t radicalized in the traditional sense. The ideas and beliefs that I once viewed with both skepticism and fear no longer feel so radical. In the end, after everything that I’ve experienced this year, these supposedly “radical” solutions to problems—problems I felt like I was seeing with my own eyes for the first time—stopped being pipe dreams.
After months of facing down both armed police and a wannabe militia who beat, gassed, and otherwise traumatized protesters, activists, and journalists alike, I came to realize that these were ideas that needed urgent consideration.
But this is not another piece of journalism envisioning a different world. Rather, this is a journalist taking stock of their own positions with his experiences, and asking others to do the same.
“Journalists are not unfeeling robots,” my insightful editor-in-chief once said. And they’re right, we are people–just like our readers and those whose lives are captured in our stories. As such, journalists should not have to shy away from showing their own humanity.
So, I got to wondering: if my views and beliefs are changing, who else among Oregon’s community of journalists are experiencing the same protest-induced change?
“I would say that this has opened my eyes to the true extent of the over militarized, brutal, and under-trained state of America’s police from before this all happened,” Cory Elia, an independent journalist and managing editor of Village Portland, told me. “I actually thought most officers were about community to a degree from my childhood experiences, but, I guess that changed drastically years ago.”
I remember the night this all clicked for me–the night my eyes were opened.
While enjoying a turquoise American Spirit cigarette on a cool summer night, the words that have ebbed and flowed through my mind for months finally took hold.
I want prisons, as we understand them today, to be abolished. There are better and far more effective ways to treat symptoms of crime and banishing someone to an inhumane and ineffective prison is not one of them.
The activists I’ve seen are simply asking for a system that does not commit acts of ethnic cleansing. They—and America at-large—are simply asking for what they’re entitled to: freedom from racism, degradation, and the weight of an oppressive system built to sustain only a handful while devouring the rest.
It’s hard to feel free when Uncle Sam has a gun to your head, terrorizes your neighborhood, and classifies you as nothing.
“I don’t think my political or social views changed,” said Nathan Bouquet, who spent his last term in college covering street protests. “But covering the protests has given me an awareness of social hierarchies and the relationship between police forces, public officials, and average citizens.
One protest in particular led to the Eugene mayor’s front door at 10 p.m. It happened during the early summer, shortly following George Floyd’s death. People were peacefully protesting and demanding that the mayor answer community members’ questions. It was a pretty intense and wild situation as police forces in the area further aggravated protestors despite them being virtually no threat to the neighborhood.”
Though many journalists can’t always publicly speak their mind for fear of being labeled “biased,” some eventually learned that objectivity comes with limitations when it comes to widespread social unrest like the ones that raged all summer.
“I was already pretty secure in my beliefs about the justice system’s brutality and racism before the protests began this summer,” a Eugene-based journalist told me on the condition that I not use their name. “But I had been lucky enough not to encounter much of this first-hand. I think that experiencing these protests has solidified my opinions about the danger that BIPOC face every day while interacting with law enforcement. But more than that, it made me aware that there are massive groups of people willing to put themselves on the line in order to combat this, which was really cool to see.”
I used to tout myself as the compassionate intellectual type. I thought that the system could be reformed and that I knew what was best as a complacent centrist. The systematic issues I have read in textbooks and discussed—in greatly out-of-touch classrooms—became issues I could no longer be complacent with and continue with the age old excuse: thinking that someone else will deal with it.
“My beliefs haven’t changed so much as I’ve been encouraged to take a more active role in my community,” said my colleague, the photographer John Adair. “I grew up in Shawnee, Kansas: a white suburban town with cookie-cutter homes built in labyrinthine cul-de-sacs. As you’d expect there was little-to-no sense of ‘radical’ displays that I encountered. Even after growing up and escaping that place, I rarely came into direct contact of any rallies, protests, or riots. In this sense, moving to Eugene was akin to being struck in the heart and receiving a direct injection of adrenaline via needle; much like that one movie you’re likely thinking of. It was simply a night and day experience that made me aware of just how complacent I’d been for most of my life.
For the first time, I not only felt like I should do something–but that I could.”
We’ve already seen the beginnings of a different future. In Eugene-Springfield, we have Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS. It’s an alternative to an armed and under-trained police response to non-criminal offenses. Instead of cops, a team of qualified and compassionate professionals handles calls regarding the societal symptoms associated with poverty, mental health, houselessness, and substance abuse.
Whether it be responding to a mental health crisis, an individual battling a substance abuse, or the neighborhood drunk ranting about “ANTIFA” and soup at 3 a.m., CAHOOTS proves successful in situations where police frequently fail.
Policing—and the Justice System at large—has failed to deal with problems and crimes associated with poverty, mental illness, houselessness, and addiction. Forcing someone into a system that walks a thin line between human rights abuse and genuine horror is not justice—nor is it lasting public safety.
And for journalists covering things like police brutality and the fight for prison abolition, witnessing these failures tends to rub off on them.
“You know, I keep wanting to say that my political views haven’t changed in the last few months, but that wouldn’t be true,” said MG Belka, another Eugene journalist (and my editor). “I think, if anything, ‘The Uprising’ has solidified the beliefs that I’ve spent years cultivating. Through it, I’ve seen glimpses of a world beyond what we’ve come to know. My ideology was still malleable up until very recently–I was open-minded enough to accept things like gradual reforms and electoral politics as tools to achieve change. I was idealistic enough to want revolutionary change, but realistic enough to believe that revolutions are terrifying to most people. It’s absolutely wild to think that, as late as May of this year, I still thought that the State and their police forces would willingly give up some of their power through the ballot.”
Now, when I think of the passionate speeches that call for the abolishment of prisons, I no longer “clutch my pearls” over such radical thought. The more I hear and read about what protestors and activists are demanding from our government for over 200 days, the causes they’re fighting for make a lot more sense–both to me and my fellow journalists.
“I feel like attending protests has made the beliefs I already held more sophisticated, which was needed,” said Haley Lund, who covered some of the early protests in Eugene. “It was super valuable to listen-in on conversations about varying approaches to solving police brutality. It’s common to see protesters and counter-protesters get into altercations at marches, and I look at these scenes as illustrative of the political landscape. When I see a Trump supporter swing his American flag pole threateningly at protesters during an event, I find it pretty symbolic of the wider backlash to the movement, for example.”
All but one the journalists I talked to had elaborate answers to my questions about how their beliefs had changed this year. My last interview subject answered me with a single line.
“Now I believe there’s no political solution for real systemic changes.”
Janusz (Lopaka) Malo