This past weekend, Veloprovo had its inaugural ride. It was quite an awesome experience — a long, educational ride throughout the city, culminating with a radically positive direct action. Afterwards, we gathered for a celebratory beer, before heading our own respective ways. It was a positive, uplifting experience. Some of the people involved were friends I have made in the activist community. Others, were new friends.
There is also a cloud that hangs upon that day. If you’ve read the articles in Bike Portland or the Willamette Weekly, or were following Veloprovo on social media, you may have seen some of the fallout.
There was a man, unknown to myself (and to anyone else in the group), who joined us. Actually, roughly half the people in the group were unknown to me, but I’ll return to that thought later. This man was special. He stood out. He had a brand new bike, and brand new biking clothes. He had a hat with a bike on it. He didn’t talk much. He filmed a great deal of the event. He was built. He had Asian features. His bike made beeping noises.
There was something about this man that raised the hackles of some of the membership of our group. For many of us, this is not our first proverbial activist rodeo. During the Occupy phenomenon, as well as other protest & action events, we’ve had the experience of affinity groups being infiltrated by undercover police. We’ve had the experience of being surveilled via social media. We’ve occasionally picked out cops that we have come to recognize, in civilian clothes, walking amongst us in photos of the early days of the Occupy movement. Some of us, myself included, have even learned that we have FBI files.
We can call what happened hyper-vigilance. We can even be a bit more self-effacing, and call it paranoia. But the truth is, there’s a word for what we did, and we have to own up to that. That word is: snitch-jacketing.
There really was no official group consensus or decision. We’re all autonomous individuals. This was one of those things that began to grow under its own inertia. I myself played my part in it, for which I am ashamed.
When I saw the first post, suggesting this man was a cop, I was concerned that this conversation was happening in public without first being verified. I said the worst thing I could have under these circumstances: nothing.
But my own complicity in this matter is far worse. Eventually, a video was found of Portland Police Captain Uehara. A cop, built, with Asian features. At first glance, he did seem to bear a striking resemblance. This seemed to pretty much wrap it up. Our group, advertising itself as a vehicle for transformative radical direct action, had been infiltrated by the Portland Police. Every belief we held about the security state was proved true.
Except for one little detail. We were, all of us, completely wrong.
What Went Wrong
This man was not Captain Uehara. In fact, this man — Kris — was new to Portland. He doesn’t speak a great deal of English, hence why he was so quiet. He just wanted to meet some like-minded people, and ride his bicycle. We know this now, because his wife saw his photo posted on the internet, suggesting that he was a cop.
Kris handled this by employing a radical and unexpected tactic: direct, open communication. He told us that he heard about this, and that he wanted to set the story straight. (We can learn a lot from him, about how to resolve a misunderstanding.)
He probably wins the prize for being the nicest guy in the world. Everybody in the group was replete with embarassed apologies, offers of beers, and some explanations of what we’ve been through in the past two years that contributed to our paranoia. Kris accepted our apologies, and is joining us on our next ride.
What Went Wronger
Alas, this was not the end.
The trigger had already been pulled. Kris’ photo had already been posted, and even photoshopped, via social media. BikePortland.org had already run a story on the allegation of an undercover cop, complete with photo. And now, the Willamette Weekly was running a story on the entire shameful debacle.
We looked pretty bad.
Then some of us replied, via article comments and social media.
Now we looked worse.
In private, many of us responded by apologizing. In public, the tone of many of our responses — at least to me — was quite defensive. It seemed like Veloprovo was taking the stance that, in the name of security, that this sort of thing was to be expected. That it wasn’t “wrong.” That it will happen again, and that this is the price of eternal vigilance. Ugh.
To be perfectly frank, there is a very ugly truth that we need to confront. Maybe something we don’t want to admit to ourselves, because of the self-evaluation and change that it requires of us to admit it. I think it would be helpful for those of us (myself included), who mostly look remarkably alike ourselves, to say this out loud: “all Asian people don’t look alike.”
I mean, in hindsight knowing that they’re different people, look again…
The dearth of a public commons, of liveable urban public spaces, has many negative consequences to our society. That belief is core to the philosophy of Veloprovo. One of those consequences is keeping us segregated in our bubbles. What happened with Kris is a product of just how separated we have become from one another. This is an insidious truth that has a long history in Portland — longer even than the collusion between the auto/oil industries and our urban planners.
The handling of this issue is a blocking concern to me, and so, I felt compelled to write this, to attempt to shift the discussion away from protecting our egos… and towards improving ourselves.
Sometimes it’s more appropriate to apologize unconditionally, than to explain our justifications.
A Few Words on “Security”
It’s important that we analyze our cry of “security,” as justification for what happened.
To start with, let’s examine the concern that this man was filming us.
What’s curious about this concern is the fact that he was not the only one. Many of us were taking photos throughout the entire ride — eager to post these photos to social media, to show our friends how cool we are. (Why else do you think I go through every photo to tag myself?)
As far as I recall, there was also no discussion of security culture at the beginning of the ride, nor on the event invitation — which was public.
He wasn’t the only person I didn’t know at the ride. He wasn’t the only quiet person who barely spoke. He wasn’t the only person documenting the ride. He wasn’t even the only person proclaiming to be fresh from a new town. But he was the only person who raised a suspicion. What was different about him?
“Security culture” can often be a buzzword for shutting down debate within the activist community. Like “transparency,” it is more of an ideology than a practice.
So, in the name of “security,” what have we really accomplished?
- We contacted Portland Police, asking them if they placed an undercover in our activist group, thereby ensuring that the Portland Police are aware of our group, as well as the fact that we’re doing things that make us paranoid about being infiltrated. (This is, in reality, the only genuine security issue of the entire affair.)
- We snitch-jacketed an innocent man, quite publicly. That’s not OK.
- We acquired rather embarassing bad press. (And not undeservedly.)
- Some of us have made questionable — even subtly racist, in my opinion — comments on Twitter, Facebook, and published articles.
- We cried wolf, thereby compromising the investigation of future questions of security.
What We Must Do Better
Splitting hairs between “remarking on an allegation” versus “making an allegation” is a pedantic way of avoiding responsibility for what we very, very clearly did. The age-old cry of “security” cannot trump the values of justice and accountability, or else our fight is meaningless. This line of reasoning can’t become a precedent for us, unless we’re simply here to replicate the power structures we claim to oppose. We are just as subject to the human capacity for ass-covering as our well-paid, button-down psycopath counterparts in the state capitol. Any time our line of reasoning lines up with theirs, we need to reevaluate.
Kris: when I watched that video of Captain Uehara, and thereby came to share the belief that you were an undercover cop: that was an example of the institutional racism that is so often invisible to those of us with privilege. This is a rampant phenomenon in Portland, and, indeed, our entire civilization. I would not have so easily confused two well-built white men. Perhaps it’s because I’m surrounded by white men all of the time — sure, I can pull out the old “but I have Asian friends” card, but I can also count the number of those friends with one hand. I am sorry. What we did was wrong. Period.
I may not be personally responsible for creating this institutional, cultural racism. But, particularly as someone who was born into this world armed to the teeth with privilege, it is my duty to call myself out on it when it manifests through me. As someone who genuinely believes in a revolutionary movement, it is my duty to call my friends out, as well. It’s not about us. It’s about the institutions we live in, that we were born into. We can own up to that, and change our relationship to those institutions, without feeling like it is an attack upon our character. Indeed, it is a sign of character to do so.
Don’t take it so personally, my friends. I’ve got this on my hands just as much as you do. We have to do better. And if we are willing to be as fearless in questioning ourselves as we are in questioning the state, we will.