It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since Eugene spontaneously combusted on the night of May 29, 2020. So much has changed, and yet nothing has changed, not for the better, at least. Are we better off now than we were two years ago? I don’t think so, but maybe two years isn’t enough time to fully understand the ramifications of a single spring evening. I suppose that’s the dynamic aspect of aging — time simultaneously compressed and elongated by an increasingly fickle memory.
Still, that night dwells in my memory. In a way, it haunts me. Not because of the trauma of seeing windows smashed, fires ignited, and tear-gas deployed on the streets of a quiet city, but because that night offered a vision of a future that seemed so unlikely, so unattainable before then — the Ghost of Revolution Future, if you will. It was only a brief glimpse, but it was enough to unlock a hopeful projection of a world beyond the one we’ve been handed.
Already, the little details are fading and growing fuzzy. I remember getting there kind of early, when there were just a few dozen people, and watching the crowd grow and grow. I remember that electric feeling of atmospheric anger, as if rage had turned airborne and contagious. It’s a common refrain among people reflecting on monumental occasions in life and history, but it’s true in this case – that night just felt different.
And I remember the big moments: gathering in the Free Speech Plaza in front of the Lane County Courthouse, the first smash of glass on the freeway on-ramp, the first oil drum rolled into the intersection of 7th and Washington, the first tastes of pepper-spray and tear-gas deployed by cowardly cops – tastes that would become all too familiar in the months that followed.
It takes longer to remember all the moments in between, like the guy who pulled down my mask and snapped a picture with his phone, or the sight of a different man walking alongside the crowd with a loaded submachine gun, the way the journey home after the cops finally broke up the radical block party was fraught with paranoia. I guess that’s alright. The details are personal, immaterial to the broad outline of the night. Everyone there that night has their own little details that color the story inside their own lines.
But I remember one specific moment more clearly than the others. It was before everything kicked off, before people started marching, before the cops blocked the freeway on-ramp and started pepper-spraying people, before the fires and broken windows and the looting.
As people gathered in the plaza, unsure of anything except their own righteous anger and frustration, a small argument broke out on the sidewalk. A passerby, seeing the crowd preparing to demonstrate against the police, wanted to join in the action. He seemed a perfectly average dude, just taking a stroll through downtown Eugene on a warm spring evening. But, because he wasn’t wearing a mask, a handful of people kept him from walking into the crowd, for obvious reasons. This clearly frustrated the man, who responded by yelling about his own memories of the past — about how previous generations of antifascists would never turn away a body who wanted to join in the action. The argument kept escalating, right up to the point where both parties started to accuse the other of being the real fascists.
But right then, someone in full bloc emerged from the crowd, holding a little bundle of surgical masks. They offered the man two masks, which he gladly put on. Then, with all parties satisfied, the man strolled over to the opposite side of the crowd, away from the group that had admonished him, and disappeared among the bodies. As he walked away, someone shouted some parting words at the man.
“That’s what anarchy looks like!” they shouted. “We take care of each other!”
For most of the last two years, I didn’t really understand why that moment stuck with me as vividly as it did. For all the shit I saw that night, I couldn’t explain why a single act of generosity stood out more than the fires and broken windows.
But then, I left Eugene for the glitz and sunshine of Los Angeles, from where I write to you today.
I moved to Los Angeles because I thought I wanted a fresh start in a place with abundant new opportunities. When I left Eugene, I thought I was putting everything behind me, relegating everything I’d seen to the annals of memory. I turned 30 this year, and I thought that maybe I’d entered a new phase of my life, where the machinations of politicians and activists were less important, where the fighting wasn’t so obvious, where the gnawing influence of rising American fascism was more diluted and therefore less apparent. And, in many ways, that’s all true.
But as I approach the first (and likely my last) summer in Los Angeles, with the memories of past revolutionary summers fading and foxing in my memory, I realize that it’s not as simple as moving away and moving on. I can’t just move to L.A. and pretend that I don’t know all that I know to be true. The people here, for the most part, are burying their heads in the sand, concerned with their own lives, careers, comforts, and problems far more than the growing influence of hate across the nation and the world. Not every stereotype about Angelenos is accurate, but one is certainly true: many of the folks here really do consider themselves separated from the rest of the world. It’s a bubble within a bubble, and it’s mighty depressing.
It hasn’t even been a full year yet, but this sabbatical in Southern California has put everything into stark perspective. I had to remove myself from the Northwest scene in order to understand what makes Eugene (and Portland and Seattle and Olympia and all the other towns and cities caught in this existential fight for our souls) different from everywhere else.
I hope you all come to understand, sometime soon, that your greatest advantage over those who wish you dead, buried, and forgotten is love – love for your community, love for your city, love for the people who inhabit it, love for the natural wonder which surrounds you. Love is why you fight, and love is why you do this thankless, dangerous, and brutal work day in and day out. It’s love! None of you—not the antifascists, the anarchists, the communists, the eco-radicals, the Queer liberators, not even the democratic socialists—would be doing this work if there wasn’t love in your hearts for your fellow humans, or a burning desire to reshape the world into something that makes even a lick of sense!
I could spend a whole essay discussing the strategies and tactics and everything that went right and wrong on May 29, 2020. There are plenty of things to celebrate and plenty more to critique. But, two years later, I’m not sure how useful that would be, and I don’t really want to do that. I’m sure everyone has an opinion, and I’m sure that night has been discussed to death in all our various bubbles and circles. Lord knows I have.
All I really want to note is that M29, more than all the other days of rage and protest that followed, was the most honest. It was the most genuine outpouring of grief, anger, and deep-seated frustration of the entire uprising, precisely because it was so spontaneous and autonomously organized. I don’t think we talk about that enough. All the other marches and protests and direct actions were planned and plotted — they had intent and motivation backed by various ideologies. M29 had far less of that. That’s why it looms so large in our collective mythology of resistance–because deep down, that’s one of the few nights we can all say that we were honest and in touch with how we were feeling. It was true, honest-to-Goddess rage.
And that’s not nothing. That’s why city leaders got so spooked after that weekend. That’s why EPD started to flex their lefty-busting muscles in the weeks and months that followed. That’s why the far-right elements in the Willamette Valley started to openly organize and counter antifascist action. That’s why the machinery of repression kicked into high gear and why the political bosses worked as hard as they could to co-opt the movement for their own benefits. We the people scared the shit out of them.
Already, M29 carries its own mythos — the way all nights of resistance and rebellion eventually descend into myth. We, as humans, do things just so they can be mythologized at some distant point in the future — we don’t want to be so easily forgotten once our primes come and go. The “battles” of Lexington and Concord were minor skirmishes. The Bastille was a symbolic but easy target for cranky French radicals. The Winter Palace fell without much of a fight because the Bolsheviks were only opposed by a handful of military cadets and some volunteers. All of these moments became monumental only in hindsight. It is unlikely that M29 will ever carry the same historical significance as those examples, but its importance in the collective mythology of a small Oregon city in the 21st century is no small thing. M29 was about fighting back against injustice and standing in solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, but it was also about putting a big, bold, black stamp on a specific moment of local history. It was about reminding people that not everyone is willing to accept the state of things–that all this state violence and repression was going to happen without at least some people putting up a fight.
And that’s an important piece of the puzzle. It may not always feel like it, but people will remember M29–just as people remember the Occupation at Warner Creek in ‘96 or the many chapters of the Occupy movement across the country. These moments, no matter how small or ignored in the moment, become extremely consequential for those who were there.
People will remember what happened here, for better or worse.
It’s easy for me to look back at everything that happened after M29 with despair, to fall into the trap of believing that the last two years were all for naught. I’m sure other people feel the same way. Try as we may to kill the capitalist consumers in our minds, we’re still primed to desire instant gratification over long-term dividends. Even if we acknowledge that the work of changing the world for the better is a slow-going process, we’d much prefer it to be quick and easy. That’s just in our nature.
But it takes a long time to topple a system. A spark is useless if there’s no tinder to catch the flame. If you zoom out and look at everything that’s been building over the last two years, you might find, as I have, that M29 was not a spark, but another bone-dry piece of wood tossed onto the funeral pyre of the system that holds us down.
And that stack of firewood is getting mighty big.