Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Memory seems apropos

In the mid 1980s I was involved in political activity against the U.S. invasions in Central America. I helped to build several very large mass demonstrations in St. Paul. Local activists worked with the Catholic church to hold memorial services on March 24, the anniversary of the assassination of Archibishop Oscar Romero by death squads in San Salvador. We'd have an inter-faith service at the Cathedral and a march down the street to a political rally at the Capitol.

One of the traditions in the movement was to carry several hundred white crosses with the names of the dead and disappeared in El Salvador. Sometimes we would pound them into the soil outside the Cathedral of St. Paul. Sometimes we would carry them on our marches. Often we would read the names and shout, "!Presente!" in unison to honor their lives.

One year it was particularly cold and dark due to clouds and an impending snow storm. Somebody got the idea of bringing those tiki-type burners to the rally. They would provide light and keep us warm on a freezing day in Minnesota.

I swear, it was not until we saw a couple of thousand people walking down the streets of St. Paul with flaming torches and white crosses that we realized what a colossal error that particular image presented. Some of the Episcopal preachers leading the march had long flowing white robes as well.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

No, we had not meant to be racist. And we certainly weren't opening a new branch of the klan in our state. Perhaps if we had more black people in on the planning we could have envisioned the outcome better,. But we didn't.

We created an incredibly racist image. Hell, I'm a white northerner and I saw it the minute I stepped out into the street.

Any one of us can inadvertently create a racist image. There is something wrong if we can't acknowledge that. We are wrong if we can't listen to people who have responses that differ from our own. We must try to avoid such mistakes in the future.

I know I will never combine white crosses and torches in a mass demonstration ever again. I feel awful for having done it only once.

And, no, we did not get any blowback from that march. Not one complaint. It was still wrong. And we were lucky we didn't get our asses kicked for allowing it to happen.


belledame222 said...


well, the difference is of course, too, if someone HAD complained and instead of going gee you're right goddam won't do that again, spend more energy on defense than would've gone into the apology AND the original event...

Ravenmn said...

LOL! i was talking to Ravenhub about this and he remembers it being around the same time David Duke was running in a primary for Senate somewhere, so the klan was a topic of discussion at the time. Still, we blew it!

ilyka said...

Thanks for sharing this. I saw your comment at Feministe; I'm not comfortable commenting there, so I hope you won't mind if I say it here: Your it-happens-to-all-of-us, even-me-sometimes manner of talking about racism, and about the occasional screw-ups that are part of trying to be a good ally, has been a huge, huge help to me personally.

If I'm too intimidated and too caught up in feeling insecure about my own "oof" moments, I have a terrible time getting past them and often stay stuck in them for longer than I should. Your stories remind me that what I should be focusing on is fixing mistakes and preventing future ones, not curling up in a ball and crying "oh no, oh no, I'm hopelessly racist!"

I'm really grateful that you're out here talking honestly about it all.

Ravenmn said...

Ilyka, welcome and your comment is heartwarming..

Your post on Sudy's film is amazing and you should be very, very proud.

You know, we're both gonna screw up again in the future, right? And as hard as that will be, it is good to know that other people understand we're trying to get better.