Oregon is bewildering.
Think of Oregon and images might appear of bearded peaceniks, some of the world’s best coffee, bicycle trails, bucolic scenery, logging camps, Nike Town and every manner of Northwest Territory DIY schematics known to modern hipsters.
When I spent a few vacation days in Portland in 2008 during the feverish run up to the Democratic National Convention and the certain nomination of then-Sen. Barack Obama for president, a group of disgruntled white students was making national news for hanging an Obama effigy from a tree on the campus of a small Christian college outside of Portland.Meanwhile, outside of nearly every store I exited, well-meaning, pro-Obama white people with clipboards aggressively tried to get me to sign some sort of petition concerning Obama.
Coming out of Powell’s Books, a woman literally stopped me and shoved this clipboard at me, telling me that by signing “we” would send a message to America that Obama would be something or other who would make America great.
I could not take another minute.
I snapped, noticing she wasn’t stopping everyone possible; rather, she pinpointed folks who probably looked to her like “we” just might automatically be in agreement with her.
“Hey!” I barked, “Don’t try to convince me of anything to do with Obama! Tell your own people. Tell those fools burning Obama at the university. Tell white people. Black folks get it. OK?”
Two things about this scenario: I don’t know if black folks still “get it” today because lord knows there are plenteous
black complainers in the We Are Disgruntled with Obama Chorus.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly,
I learned in Portland that Oregon is rife with confusing white people. I spent three days there observing that everywhere I went, the white folks — servers, baristas, movie theater ticket-takers, public transit operators — dealt with me with expressions of great surprise that I was there, that I had found Portland, though the goods and services were generally good or better than adequate.It went like this — Silently: What on Earth are you doing here? Aloud: “What can I get you to drink?”
The public massacre on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, by yet another thrice-named, isolated white man, is as confusing as anything that has ever come out of Oregon. And not to dare compare a mentally ill young man armed to the teeth with guns spraying down the innocent and unsuspecting with socially awkward people in another part of the state, my point is that the same state that made news with the college campus “lynching” of this nation’s first black president would surely give the world a racist, atheist gun nut.
The only salve for me so far has been Obama’s impassioned, emotional outrage in his press conference that went off the PC rails and turned head-on into a rant about his 15th time holding a “routine” press conference extolling “routine” soundbytes about yet another public massacre during his two-term tenure.
According to whitehouse.gov, there are 10 such public massacres since 2009, many of which I had forgotten about either because of the passage of time, the vacancy of memory or my dependence on news cycles to keep such things relevant.
April 3, 2009: American Civic Association, Binghamton, New York.
November 5, 2009: Fort Hood, Texas, military base.
January 8, 2011: Tucson, Arizona, shopping mall.
July 20, 2012: Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
August 5, 2012:
Oak Creek, Wisconsin,
December 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School.
September 16, 2013: Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.
April 2, 2014: Fort Hood, Texas, military base, again.
February 10, 2015: Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
June 17, 2015: Charleston, South Carolina, church.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” the president said after the Oct. 1 shootings in Oregon, according to CNN. “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it. ... We have become numb to this,” he said.
“What is also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say ‘Obama politicized this issue.’ Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.”
If there is “a good thing” that can come of the hundreds of innocent people maimed and murdered and shooters crowding psychiatric wards for the criminally insane, it will be that in the waning days of his final term, President Obama will take the emotional risks, say the hard things that need saying and push against the bullies in Congress to get something like gun control on the books before he leaves the White House.
I do not even know what gun control is or what it could possibly look like. I do know that if a complete suite of laws blanketing the mentally ill, gun-show vendors, under-age wannabe gun owners and even people who legally have guns in their homes where the mentally ill and the under-age reside are not written and stringently enforced, then we will keep witnessing public massacres and the next president will wear a path to that press conference podium.
It is almost as though the rest of us do not want to piss off the gun lobby.
What are they gonna do? Shoot us?
Or is it that we have become just that immune to public displays of violence, so long as those displays do not come to our homes to roost?
If the slaying of dozens of schoolchildren — lambs, really — at Sandy Hook did not make a permanent dent in the public psyche against irresponsible gun ownership and usage, I fear nothing else will.
What, then, do our federal inactions say to these parents and to the families of all the dead in the carnage of public massacres? That they should heal, get over it, go to Congress and testify? Testify to what, precisely? That their kid was in a class at a school minding her business when some nut woke up that morning with a plan and a gun and a full magazine of ammunition?
This is so utterly confusing to me, but it all has imbued me with a heightened sense of awareness in public spaces and among crowds. Not once do I now go to a movie theater and find a seat without noting my proximity to an exit and where that exit will take me once I get out.
I’ve figured out where to crawl and hide in the grocery store and I will probably never again go back to Portland, Oregon.
UPDATE: Multiple reports about alleged Roseburg, Ore., shooter Chris Harper Mercer suggest that he identified as mixed-race on social media.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]