A protest, the Latino Awards and an unexpected connection – it’s been a full weekend.

Yesterday Matthew and I went to the counter-protest to stand against the protest organized by white supremacist groups around a Confederate monument in Fort Sanders. As the article I linked to shows, it went wonderfully – I can hardly imagine a better outcome – we outnumbered them wildly with close to thee thousand of us and about three dozen of them. The protest was peaceful. There was a great “let’s unify and show these guys that we don’t want hate in our city” vibe. The city was very well prepared for it and kept the two sides separated.

Of course, going in we couldn’t have known that it would go so well. I expected that it would, and I also expected that the showing on their side would be small – apparently when white supremacists have shown up to protest in Knoxville it historically hasn’t gone well for them – but this isn’t a time to make assumptions. I mentioned in my last post that the post-Charlottesville rally I went to wasn’t my first protest but wasn’t far from it – this was definitely the first protest I went to that involved police in riot gear.

We only found out that this was happening last week – it all came together very quickly – and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about it, or that a part of me didn’t want to find a justification to stay home, or to go to another of the events in town. One group put together a gathering/rally to promote love and peace at a completely different location for people uncomfortable going to the direct counter-protest – and I respect that, I’m glad that that event existed, for people who for any reason just weren’t up for the face-to-face thing and the tension, and also for families who wanted to take their kids out to an event that would be safe for them. For me, though – me personally – going to that event would’ve been a cop out. I knew as soon as I found out about it that I needed to go to the counter-protest. That I wouldn’t be anywhere else. This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve been saying I would do if something like this came up, and it was time to live up to those words. Matthew, of course, was right on board with me.

And we did some preparation – I wore cargo shorts so I could carry the things I needed without a bag. I bought some sunglasses to take and wore sturdy shoes instead of sandals. We both took bandannas soaked in vinegar in sandwich bags – something we agreed was likely way over preparing, but a friend told us that they can make a huge difference if pepper spray ends up being involved, and better to over-prepare.

None of that turned out to be necessary – and I could’ve taken my bag after all and it would’ve been fine – but I felt better heading out knowing that we’d taken a few precautions.

The protest itself turned out to be a lot of fun. We were there for a while before anyone even showed up on the other side – when it had gotten to be past the time they were supposed to appear and no one had shown up, folks on our side started chanting “Hate is late!” That was one of my favorite chants of the day. There were also a few rounds of “Not about the monument!” which was very true. It wasn’t about the monument – it was about showing white supremacist groups that they shouldn’t feel empowered to show up in our town without expecting massive resistance.

There were people with signs that were brilliant and many that were funny – we didn’t take a sign but a group had made a bunch ahead of time and were handing them out; we took one that said “There’s Life After Hate.” Next time I’ll make my own sign. I’ll definitely use better poster board; ours was a bit on the floppy side and was a bit challenging whenever a breeze went by.

We saw a bunch of people that we knew and I saw a ton of people that I’ve seen around town at other events. The claim of paid protesters is hilarious to anyone protesting in what is essentially a big little town. It ended up feeling like a big ol’ social event, and I was perfectly fine with that. I think these outcomes are important – I think the headlines about us outnumbering them 70:1 are important, and I was proud to be a part of it.

We ended up leaving the protest before it ended to make sure we had enough time to get home, get changed and get to the Latino Awards Gala early enough to help out with ushering. We managed it without having to rush too much, and the Gala was a lot of fun – the ushering was a bit like Diner Dash but once everything got into the groove we got it done and got everyone to their tables. We were some of the last folks to get to our tables after helping everyone else get seated, but the tacos were well worth the wait.

It was great seeing several of my ESL students there, all dressed up and with their families. Applauding the badass Centro staff when Claudia, the Executive Director, recognized them in her speech was great – and standing when she called for volunteers to stand felt really good, too.

The timing of it ended up being interesting. It was only the previous night that the news about Trump pardoning Joe Arpaio came out (I won’t rant about that now, plenty of people have talked about it way more eloquently and with way more information than I could, I’ll just say that the news made me absolutely sick) and I just hope that having the Latino Awards the very next day was a balm for some folks’ hearts. I know it was for mine.

After a super full and active day yesterday (I got in over 25k steps without any intentional exercise) I tried to keep it really low-key today, and I succeeded at that, but I did have one interaction that’s going to stick with me for a while. I took a walk downtown and was about to walk past two scruffy middle aged guys walking together when one of them asked me if I had any cigarettes. I said I didn’t smoke; he thanked me anyway and then thought to ask if I had any spare change. I said “That I can do” and gave him a couple bucks. He thanked me and I wished them well and was going to just keep trucking past when he asked me to spare a good thought for his friend, who is going through a rough time. He’s been sick, the guy told me, and then the friend spoke up for himself to say that his wife left him and took his dog, too. I said that that was really really rough and that I was sorry he was going through all that, and he talked about how he’d gone from being “on top of the world” to nowhere very quickly. I told him I’d definitely send good thoughts his way. He thanked me, and didn’t say much more after that, but his friend – Red, as I learned (his real name is Dave but people call him Red because of his long red – now shot with white – beard) – kept talking to me for a while.

It’s an interaction I would’ve avoided not long ago. Not because he wasn’t nice or because I felt threatened – I didn’t, not even slightly – but just because, at first at least, it made me feel awkward and I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I’m really trying to stop just fleeing these situation where I feel awkward, especially if my own privilege is what’s making me feel awkward. Avoiding connecting with people because it’s awkward isn’t doing me any good.

So we talked. We were walking in the same direction, there was no need for me to hurry off or take a different route just to get away from him. And I was very glad I didn’t, because we ended up having a really nice conversation, wherein he recommended I check out Justin Cronin’s The Passage and when I told him I’d already read it, and the sequel, but that I hadn’t read the third one yet because I wanted to re-read the first two first, he was pretty floored that it turned that I also loved one of his favorite books. He told me that he’d gotten kicked out of a treatment facility (after telling me “I’m an alcoholic, I know you know that” – and yes, I’d known that) because they wanted him to participate in some activity or other but he just wanted to read his book and wouldn’t put it down. He ended up leaving, buying a 40 and finishing the book.

When it was time to part ways, we ended up hugging and fist-bumping. He called me “person,” and asked me if I knew that Native Americans (he used the term “Indians”) only refer to people of their own tribe as “person.” (I have no idea if there’s any truth to this or if it’s an urban legend and a quick Google search wasn’t helpful so more research is needed.) I said that I didn’t know that, but said “It’s good to know you, person,” and told him to take care of himself. We headed off in separate directions. I’ll likely never see him again, but if I do I’ll stop and talk to him, and give him a hug and a fist-bump.

It’s been a weekend of experiences.