The Legacy of John Lewis

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S1: If you follow me on Twitter at PEOC a.m., I will not follow the gist at Slate just. It’s Thursday, July 30th, 20 20 from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca. President Barack Obama, three other presidents, though not the current one, eulogized John Lewis in Atlanta today.

S2: Obama brought the crowd to its feet by not just remembering the bravery of Lewis, but underlining what the issues were that he was being brave about.

S1: Lewis is nearly universally praised in America today, though not by the current president. But why is he praised for what? Well, for civil rights, for employment rights and housing rights and voting rights, voting rights. And so many, many members of Congress who praised John Lewis and mourned his passing are active opponents of voting rights. When you issue statements of grief and respect Senators Cruz, Rubio, Graham, to name a few. What were you honoring? What were you grieving? Just a nice man, because you consistently vote against bills that expand voting rights, the kind of rights that John Lewis fought for. And of course, you actively work to support judges who will take away voting rights. What was the legacy you were praising? Mitch McConnell?

S3: John Lewis lived and worked with urgency because the task was urgent.

S1: That was the Senate leader speaking in the Capitol Rotunda. Is John Lewis lay in state? Three days ago today, Barack Obama reminded us what the urgent task actually was.

S4: But even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive I.D. laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail in ballots so people don’t get sick.

S1: John Lewis was a politician. He was a man. He wasn’t a saint. He cast votes and favored policies I disagreed with from time to time. He was against the TPP that the previous speaker negotiated. If you are of a progressive nature, you might not remember or know that he voted for the 1994 crime bill was a hard vote, he said, one of his hardest, if not the hardest. But he was not among the minority of the Congressional Black Caucus who voted against the crime bill. He was for it. But on voting rights as fundamental a pillar of his legacy as there was, it is incompatible to say, you honor John Lewis, but at the same time dishonor him by opposing his life’s work. Of course, with free and fair and open voting, many of the same elected officials who offered their condolences and bromides wouldn’t be holding office today. Many would. It’s not as if we don’t have profound fundamental disagreements and differences of opinions in this democracy. Of course we do. And that is why it is so important that our elections work well to make sure those opinions are properly represented, or else it’s really not much of a democracy at all. On the show today, I continue in this spirit in the spiel with the excellent eulogy delivered by Barack Obama. It’s a chance, it was a chance for me to remember John Lewis. Sure. But also to remember Barack Obama not quite four years ago. What he meant, what his legacy meant, seemed a lot different from how it’s remembered today. I would like to claim reclaim a little bit of the promise. But first, some developments out of Portland. Kate Brown, governor of Oregon, has reportedly reached a deal with for the phased removal of federal agents who are guarding the exterior of the Marco Hatfield courthouse in Portland. While Department of Homeland Security Secretary or Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was cautious in his description, vowing he would continue to reevaluate the plan, the Oregon State Police have announced they will indeed be taking over responsibility for protecting the courthouse and federal property. In another Portland development, a rift has developed between the leaders of the wall of moms who have been active in protesting, and a prominent group called Don’t Shoot Portland, which has accused the moms of anti blackness. As a result, the wall of moms have splintered, and there is a new group called Moms United for Black Lives. Here about that last development is a helpful reminder of something I once heard an activist say. A movement and an organization are two different things. So there’s a lot going on with Portland and that’s just today. What about the last 50 plus days? We’re next joined by an OPB reporter who has been out there getting the story all that time, getting tear gassed in the process. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jonathan Levinson up next. Portland, Oregon, has been the scene of nightly, and I do mean this nightly protests and those protests have occasioned federal intervention, although now reportedly the federal government is backing away. Should the local police do their job in Portland? It’s not the police department. It’s the police bureau. I said department on the show. I should have said bureau. It marked me as a rank outsider. So let’s talk to an insider to talk about the protest, the tactics, the city itself. Jonathan Levinson covers guns and now these nightly protests for OPB, which is Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks for coming on. Jonathan, thank you for having me. So just tell me, what’s your what’s your days or nights been like the last couple of weeks or months?

S3: For many weeks, I was going out with the protests almost every night. There were sort of two protests for a while that merged into one later in the evenings. There’s one on the east side of the city that was sort of family friendly. I guess you could say there was lots of speakers and then that group would march through the city, oftentimes across the river to the west side, which is where the Multnomah County Justice Center is and the federal courthouse are. And that’s where a lot of the other protests were centered. And so I would march along with them and then the protest would extend into the night. And early before the federal law enforcement were here, we saw very similar things playing out. There was also a fence around the justice center, which is police headquarters and the county jail. People would yell at the police, shake the fence. The police would say, stay away from the fence. And then ultimately, you know, 11, 30, midnight, somewhere around, then the crowd would get dispersed with tear gas and impact munitions. And oftentimes that would spill over into the streets for an hour or two groups sort of re reconnecting and reforming and getting dispersed again. So I would stay out until very late at night, early in the morning with my editor at home watching live streams and feeding me information on Twitter about where things are happening. We are just reporting every day, all day. And so that has taken up a lot of energy.

S5: Before the federal government came in, were the protests getting worse, worse, meaning more violent, more threatening to federal property, which Attorney General Bart defined as what forced his hand to commit troops to defend the federal courthouse.

S3: So the two buildings are right next to each other, the federal courthouse. And then immediately across the street is the Multnomah County Justice Center. And so there have been vandalism, right? I mean, the building had spray paint, graffiti all over it. But in terms of any sort of escalation directed at that building, no, not really. It had been sort of steady state for the entire time. And then the president issued his executive order like the end of June, that was to protect monuments and statues and to address I think his wording was criminal violence, but something to that effect around the country. And they deployed federal federal officers to a few cities and Portland was one of them. And so it was all part of that that executive order that brought federal officers to Portland. I didn’t see any specific sort of escalation directed at federal property here once the federal officers were deployed.

S5: How did that affect the protests?

S3: It wasn’t immediate, but it was certainly seen as a provocation to the protesters. This is my personal observation. I thought they were considerably more violent than the local police had been, not doing different things, persay, just sort of more of what local police have been doing. It was, you know, it was more tear gas, more impact munitions. It felt a little bit more indiscriminate. There was a brief window. So the local law enforcement, there was a temporary restraining order against them about how they could use tear gas, about how they could interact with media and legal observers, and so that restrain them a little bit. And the federal law enforcement weren’t bound by that. And so all of a sudden, there was a little bit of a paradigm shift where there was this reintroduction of enormous amounts of tear gas and just a little bit less restrained than they had been. And so that was a provocation. Federal officer shot and severely injured a protester who had been standing with his hands over his head, holding a speaker. That certainly did not help at all. And then the story about protesters being grabbed off the street in unmarked vans. It was these escalations over and over that eventually you had you know, you were returning to sort of the early days vibe of an energy of just thousands of people coming out into the streets protesting this.

S5: So when the federal agents hit this guy who had the the boombox above his head with a less than lethal round and caused a lot of bleeding and possibly a brain injury, is that not a tactic the Portland Police Bureau used or did they use it more judiciously, not aim at heads or just maybe you want to say get lucky and not hurt anyone to that degree?

S3: I think it was it was absolutely lucky. They had. People in the head before the Portland police had one protester was hit in the head, it was I mean, seen on video bleeding profusely from his head, they also use something called a stinger grenade, which is the grenade goes off and sends little tiny pellets flying, by definition indiscriminately at everyone standing around it. A protester got one of those stuck in his eye. I mean, I don’t know how he didn’t lose his eye, but was and that was the part. That was the Portland Police Bureau, right? Exactly. Yeah. And they’re they’re detectives say that you’re not supposed to aim above the waist, but they’re firing from 30, 40, 50 feet away into a crowd of people. You know, these things are not perfectly accurate. And whether they’re intentionally aiming above the waist or accidentally hitting people above the waist is to some extent irrelevant. The experts that we’ve spoken to, weapons experts and doctors who have studied this stuff, just say that there is simply no way to employ these weapons safely.

S5: Tell me about what you’ve seen. Protesters. I use the term advisedly, but attacking the police or even the federal building with. So I’ll just lay it out there that I’ve heard protesters say, yes, we throw bottles or apple cores, but tales of Molotov cocktails are overblown, whereas the federal government will list all these projectiles that have been thrown and Molotov cocktails are chief among them. So what have you observed?

S3: It is important to note that certainly there are fireworks fired at the at the buildings. I have seen glass get thrown overwhelmingly. It is water bottles, trash bags lately. Apple, cause I suppose I’ve never personally seen an Apple Corps. Early on, the Portland police every day released a public press release with pictures of like cans of food and rocks. I never saw that that stuff be thrown. There was one protester here sort of famously now swung a hammer at a federal law enforcement officer, which, yes, that’s violence. We’re talking about a crowd of in the many hundreds, too many thousands on some nights. And this characterization that you have what Secretary Wolf said, five to six hundred and violent anarchists or violent criminals across the street from the federal courthouse is just I mean, so far from from reality. And so you have a small group of people, isolated group of people throwing things at the building. And the response is to use stunning levels of violence against thousands of people who are protesting nonviolently.

S5: So the debate lines nationally or something like Democrats or people who are more sympathetic to the protesters will say these are peaceful protests and direct you to the moms who have protested or the chants in a singsong manner, people saying, don’t shoot me, hands up. Whereas the people who are talking about people sympathetic to, say, Donald Trump or who are antagonistic to the protesters will laugh at the notion that these are peaceful protesters and they could show you some images of violence, but they’ll also say anarchists and antifa. Now you’re on the ground. I’ve been in situations like this. The truth is always a lot more nuanced than either side would have you admit. But from being there day after day after day, can you give me a sense of who these protesters are and how much of each group you see out there?

S3: I don’t know what exactly they mean when they are talking about anarchists. I see people saying that we should prosecute the anarchists. And I don’t know what what that charges. I don’t know what law an anarchist would be breaking. But no, that is that is not what I see. These have from day one and continue through today to be black led. Those are the voices that are speaking out there. Those are the people leading these protests. And the demands from the protesters have always been clear. They’ve always focused on racial justice. They’ve always focused on Black Lives Matter. I think police violence has taken the sort of center, but the discussions and the demands that they are making go far beyond just police violence. And so, I mean, there’s a long standing history in this country of people trying to delegitimize and undermine protest movements. I see that this is being no different than the people saying that they’re anarchists, people saying that they’re all violent, the people saying they’re criminals. These are people in power with a vested interest in this going away and undermining the movement.

S5: What do Portlanders and again, there must be a wide variety of opinion here. But what do many of the Portlanders you talk to say about these protests, about perhaps wanting their downtown back or understanding the rage and countenancing these nightly protests? How long do they want to put up with it? How much do they worry about, you know, businesses that might be operating but can’t in the downtown area?

S3: I think that’s actually one of the most remarkable things about the past couple of weeks. And, you know, one of the probably unintended consequences of sending federal law enforcement here is that, like I said earlier, there are these two movements, right? If you were maybe more inclined to. Quote, Peaceful protests, family oriented, or however you want to characterize. There was a protest movement for you if you wanted to be more more direct action, if you really wanted to come and yell at the police, there was a protest for you. And now that has all become one. And you have seen really broad cross-section of the city, whether it’s now the now famous wall of moms, the wall of vets, there’s lawyers have come out. There’s all these groups that are saying, no, that we support this. We what we will come out. We literally I mean, they know what they’re getting into. They are literally risking either injury or, you know, impact. Nations have killed people and they are putting themselves out there and saying that they are willing to stand for this. So we haven’t done a poll. I don’t know what the whole city says, but I know last weekend there were, by some estimates, four to five thousand people out there protesting and participating. And I think that answers your question, maybe without answering your question. Exactly.

S5: Ted Wheeler is both the mayor of Portland and because of the structure of the government, the police commissioner, how popular is he these days?

S3: Well, he’s in the middle of a reelection campaign, so we’re going to have to find out. Certainly not popular downtown with these protesters. I mean, he’s got the nickname now of tear gas, Teddy. And again, that comes from the fact that before the federal law enforcement arrived, Portland police were doing the same exact thing and on some nights continue to do the same exact thing. You know, he made national news. He went out to the protests, talk to the protesters, spent a couple hours out there being heckled. But he he also answered questions and engaged in conversation and then stood at the fence in front of the federal courthouse and was ultimately tear gassed. He in an interview afterwards said that was totally unwarranted. I didn’t see anything that that warranted that sort of what do you say unprovoked response, I think, was his words. And then he left. And then about an hour later, the Portland Police Bureau threatened to use crowd control, munitions and tear gas to disperse the crowd. So, you know, he is trying to move towards innocence by standing out there with protesters, but his bureau is doing the same exact thing.

S5: So I’ve heard Wheeler saying that he would like he he believes in the right to free speech, of course, but there are incidences of violence. So has he articulated his strategy for how he thinks this should play out? Does he want the protests to if they’re not in the perfect world or a world so imperfect that we have this structural racism, but we allow for protests to continue? Does he want the protests, too? I’m sure he’d like them to go away of their own accord because everyone’s happy. But barring that, is he articulating a vision for them to end, for the police, to end them, for them to stop if they remain violent? You know, how does he voice what he thinks the end game should be?

S3: No, he hasn’t. And I think that’s that’s one of the frustrations for people here in general. Over the past two months, the federal law enforcement presence has sort of taken the focus off of that. But there was no plan before they arrived either. There was this just this nightly standoff had developed and the city didn’t have a plan. The police didn’t have a plan. And it was just it seemed to observers like everybody just had thrown their hands up and didn’t know what to do. You know, there was a few times I spoke to leadership in the police bureau and the response was like, look, we need the community to step up. If they don’t want this to be going on, we need them to speak out. And the community wasn’t doing that. Quite the opposite. The community has turned out in the thousands. And so, no, we haven’t seen a good plan. This is this this policy proposal is the first inkling that there is a bigger plan in the making.

S1: Are the protesters out ahead and just vocally representing the will of the people? Do the people feel powerless to tell the protesters what to do? Are the police and the elected officials in the middle or not representing the will of the people? The best? I just have so many questions about what people actually not the protesters or not the people put together the plan. But I have a question. What the, you know, average Portland or man on the street would like to happen with all of this?

S3: There are so many issues coming to a head right now that this was, you know, this perfect confluence of the coronavirus and cost of living, you know, housing and health care and systemic racism and police brutality that all of a sudden it wasn’t just the black community saying the government is failing, the government is killing us. Everybody had sort of realized over the past five plus months or more even that there’s systemic failure. Right, that the government isn’t doing their job and people see that. And so it’s focused around Black Lives Matter, but it is about much more than that.

S5: Do you think that the latest change or proposed change of the federal officers withdrawing will change the dynamic there in Portland?

S3: I mean, that’s the million dollar question. I think one possible major change is that we will no longer be talking about federal law enforcement officers and politicians on. I get to use that as their big focus and they will have to engage with the protesters demands around transformative change and racial justice issues, which they have up until now been able to not talk about. They’ve been able to avoid. They’ve been able to go on, you know, like national news shows and talk about getting the federal law enforcement out of Portland and avoid all the very long standing, consistent demands to pull money from the police budget and reinvest it into the community. So they will have to deal with that now.

S1: Are there any heroes of within government or of the movement or people who have seized the moment to get attention and maybe advance both a cause, but their own persona as well?

S3: The elected official who has been sort of in the spotlight this whole time and closest to the protesters is Commissioner Joanne Hardisty. She’s got a long history of activism in the city, is generally well regarded among the left flank of the city. She, you know, early on pushed to disband the gun violence reduction team. And she did the early concessions in the first week or two of the protests was largely her doing, and these were policies she’d been pushing for for years. And so I don’t know if her star has risen persay. She has sort of cemented her her position, I think, as being the strongest advocate and driver for really transformative change, not just reform around the around the outside, around the perimeter.

S1: So lastly, how much tear gas or I don’t know how to quantify it, how many nights a tear gassing have you personally experienced in the last couple of months?

S3: Many, many. Pretty much every night that I go out there ends and tear gas. I mean, there was one night the other night where my skin burned for like a day and a half after which that can’t be good, right? Yeah.

S6: Like, what’s it like when you’re when you rub jalapenos on your skin?

S3: Is that feeling. But like. Yes, but I mean, worse. But I wear a gas mask and so that hopefully I mean certainly helps with the immediate effect of it and hopefully helps my lungs at the same time.

S1: I guess Jonathan Levinson has been covering these protests and gun policy also for Oregon Public Broadcasting. John, thank you so much. Thank you.

S6: And now the spiel calling John Lewis, perhaps Martin Luther King’s finest disciple, Barack Obama, took to the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He made the case for John Lewis, the activist John Lewis, the man, John Lewis, the congressman, and John Lewis, the politician Obama, whose attitude towards organizers has always been that they need to remember to vote, and Obama, whose message to voters has always been that they need to engage on a deeper level than just pulling a lever in a voting booth. He reflected on the figure who represented a version of his own philosophy, a version but not a mirror image. The differences between John Lewis and Barack Obama are not solely generational.

S1: They had different strategies, though those strategies were born of their experience. Lewis confronted and challenged his oppressors. He took their beatings. He confronted them on their own ground.

S7: Here is Obama talking about that today to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression.

S8: John was only 20 years old.

S7: But he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table betting everything, all of. That his example could challenge centuries of convention and generations of brutal violence and countless daily indignities suffered by African-Americans.

S9: By John the Baptist, preparing the way.

S8: Like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings.

S1: Now I want you to reflect on the context that Obama positioned Lewis within John the Baptist gave way to who? Jesus. So Obama is not likening himself to the Messiah, but in his timeline of American history, if Lewis and the civil rights leaders were Jeremiah and Isaiah and Josiah, then who was he?

S6: Not a miracle worker or the coming of the Lord. But he was the inheritor. Obama didn’t walk on water, but he did consciously build upon the world that people like John Lewis created. Obama was able to deploy tactics beyond the ones that John Lewis was able to use. So Obama is seen by many on the left as an accommodationist because he was working in a different tradition than John Lewis was. But he was able to work in that tradition because of John Lewis. When your position is imbued with power, you wielded differently than if you are trying to achieve power today.

S1: We too often gloss over the Obama presidency as some sort of false signal, a misguided data point on what we now must recognize as our march toward oppression and endless racism. Princeton Professor Epicloud, possibly America’s most influential black intellectual, likened Obama to, quote, a confidence man who, quote, sold black America the snake oil of hope and change. He described Obama’s policies as a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound. Michael Eric Dyson says he wasn’t Moses. He was Pharaoh to professor. William Darity called Obama a coward on this show just a few weeks ago. Those descriptions by three black professors both break my heart, but also a little bit my brain. I think the Obama presidency actually accomplish great things and not just symbolically. I continue to think the Obama presidency will one day be regarded in the historic and world changing terms that attach themselves to it during the years he was actually in office. Now, today, as the current president floats ideas of rescheduling elections as he casually and stupidly promises maintaining the purity of the suburbs as he regards protesters as targets at best, terrorists at worst.

S6: I hear it argued loudly that we were stupid to think that things really changed under Obama. Or do you think that things ever could change with a figure like Obama? The Obama presidency is regarded as the exception to the definition of America, which is a definition of white supremacy in this framing. But I still believe that the Obama presidency will be seen as setting the new rule. The Trump administration is the period of America’s retrenchment. So of course, the Obama presidency is degraded. That has been Trump’s fundamental purpose for three and a half years. But listen to what Obama pointed out in his eulogy about the moments after Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

S8: And the thing is, I imagine initially that De. The troopers thought they’d won the battle.

S4: You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards.

S6: You can imagine them saying, yeah, we showed them they were, of course, wrong, was just hard to know it then, right when you’re in the middle of it, if we’re eulogizing John Lewis, we’re recognizing that he didn’t just stand up for rights and freedoms, but actually secured those rights. And Obama didn’t just represent a blip in our sustained racism. He represented a break from it once a day. Every four years, America gets to register its opinion about who would make a good leader. A lot goes into that. Of course, it’s not random. It’s not a snap decision, but it is a choice made at one moment. And sometimes, such as in twenty sixteen, America chooses incorrectly. It’s hard when you’re living within history to evaluate whether the people made a bad choice or it was the choice of a bad people. It’s hard to know, but in twenty twenty that choice of four years ago can be undone. It should be undone. And then maybe we’ll view the Obama legacy as part of a movement with John Lewis. Is the Old Testament Barack Obama as the new and a new wave of disciples going forth, building upon the message and maybe even forgetting that the period we’re in right now was seen by smart people as anything other than a last failed grasp at denying progress.

S2: And that’s it for Today Show. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts, Daniel Shrader and Margaret Kelly are the producers of the show. They’ve all pioneered the full rich sound mix that you hear on Slate podcast. It’s called The Wall of Moms Sound. Just all the moms coming at the listener via dense orchestration and a packed lunch. The gist. Do you want to make a correction? I asked who’s a leader in Portland and, you know, failed to come up. CJ McCollum My bad also has muscle. Yusaf Nurkic is back in action this two shows in a row ending with semi obscure NBA references. Can you tell someone’s excited for basketball to be back home for Adepero Do Peru and thanks for listening.