Guatemala RPCV shot on the streets of Portland



AUGUST 6, 2020 6:48 AM EDT
This article appears in the August 17, 2020 issue of TIME.


Our president wants you to believe I am a terrorist, a professional agitator stalking the Pacific Northwest.

Four days before federal agents shoot me in Portland, Ore., I riffle through the garage, shooing spiders from my son’s snowboarding helmet. Will it buckle beneath a steel baton? I press my daughter’s swim goggles to my face, testing the fit. Can they repel tear gas? I run my hands over my husband’s life jacket. Can it stop a bullet?

I don’t yet realize how many other moms are slipping oven mitts into backpacks (to minimize burns when tossing aside flaming grenades and tear-gas canisters), how many dads are hoisting leaf blowers from sheds (to clear tear gas), how many teens are gathering plastic toboggans to shield themselves from officers in combat fatigues aiming stun-grenade launchers through temporary fencing around the federal courthouse. This is what happens when you rattle the barricade that policymakers hide behind, screaming “Black lives matter,” protesting for 60-plus nights the brutal tactics officers use to kill Black men on camera and Black women in beds.

The night I am shot, the sky shimmers with a leftover Fourth of July firework lit by a privileged son whose college closed in the spring. He is here because Black lives matter to him but also because he senses the video game he now plays nightly has sprung to life and he won’t be left out. That boy is pretext, he and his friends tossing plastic water bottles at stone walls, justification for an elite force to quell a gathering of Black people and their allies at the door of the same courthouse where four years earlier the white militiamen who led an armed takeover of another federal building in Oregon were acquitted of any wrongdoing in a 41-day siege.

Courtesy Joan Henderson-Gaither/Ellen Urbani

I listen to a Black man on the Justice Center steps invoke the memory of John Lewis while thousands of doctors, veterans, teachers, attorneys stand peacefully, our hands in the air. It is Lewis’ words–“Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society”–that echo as the gas swallows me. I feel men crashing into me as they flee pepper bullets and fires from flash-bang grenades, dragging choking, bleeding bodies away, but I hold my ground because I know the law: a federal injunction prohibits the use of gas unless the lives or safety of the public or the police are at risk, and that is obviously not the case here. I listen and am prepared to obey dispersal orders from authorities, but they never come.

But I am also naively stunned by the suspension of my lifelong privilege. Those federal agents are the brothers-in-arms of men I love–my father the Navy submariner, my former father-in-law the disabled Marine, the police officer I swooned over in my youth–and I am a white woman, the high school cheerleader those feds once fell for, the sorority girl they courted, the one person those officers truly referred to when they swore an oath to serve and protect. If they are willing to turn on me, to fire on me, for finally breaking my silent complicity and standing with and for my Black neighbors, what havoc will be wreaked on the Black bodies left behind if I vacate this street?

For a second the gas lifts, and it seems there are only a few women left, standing arm in arm in the yellow shirts those agents know mark us as mothers, just empty asphalt between us and the men some other mothers raised.

And that is when they shoot us, point blank, with impact munitions. The woman on my right falls forward; the woman on my left is struck in the head; I feel my bone break. My right ankle is encased in a bulky cast after a fall the previous week, and those American sons shoot my other foot out from under me.

Today, now that federal agents have withdrawn, our protests go on peacefully. But America, be wary. Forget Portland at your peril. Everyone thinks they’d have joined the Resistance if they lived in 1940s Europe, when we know that most stayed inside, served supper, tucked the children into bed with a kiss and a lie: “All is well, close your eyes.”

Don’t wait to be knocked off your feet. It may be you they aim for next.


Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall, set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection and winner of the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas fiction award – and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. A grief & trauma specialist, she’s served as a federal disaster consultant and her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future.



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  • Thank you, Ellen, for your courage. I have my yellow shirt ready, as do a number of my friends if they dare to come to NYC. I only hope that I am as brave as you have been, when the moment arrives. I only hope I don’t find some excuse not to stand up to them. But as you say, we only know who and what we will actually do when the moment arises. Again, I thank you for being brave enough to follow through…for all of us!

    • Thank you, Marnie! I so hope you will not need that yellow shirt, but I have no doubt you will don it if necessary. Let us all hope that by wielding ballots as if they are defensive weapons that may save our lives – which indeed they may well be – you will not need to take to the streets. xoE

  • Here’s another grandmother with a yellow shirt lining up behind Patricia.

    Brava, Ellen!

    Leita Kaldi Davis
    (Senegal 1993-96)

    • Good for you, Leita dear! I wish they’d come to Jacksonville – the only yellow shirt I have says Afghanistan on it. Would they then dare to shoot me? I daresay yes.

      Much love to you . .. Steven Orr

  • Oh, all you grandmothers out there, especially Patricia and Leita, I LOVE YOU!

    PS: My own 75-year-old mother is enjoying mothering her grown-up baby all over again, now that I’ve got two feet in casts and am in a wheelchair for a spell. Last night she drove me in the Car Caravan Black Lives Matter protest in Portland (yep: we have a car protest for those who can’t take to the streets) and is wheeling me to the BLM rally in our little rural town south of the city this evening. Grandmas (and Moms) rock!!

  • Dear Ellen,

    What a wonderful piece. Your words trilled down to the bone, giving voice to my own sentiments. Thank you for turning it all into action. I am reminded once again of the power of the Peace Corps. That flame that is ignited in us all shine bright. Be well.

  • Here’s from Apr 9 2020 NY Times that is more apt even now. Camus’s Inoculation Against Hate by Laura Marris April 9, 2020 Toward the end of January, I began to notice a strange echo between my work and the news. A mysterious virus had appeared in the city of Wuhan, and though the virus resembled previous diseases, there was something novel about it. But I’m not a doctor, an epidemiologist or a public health expert; I’m a literary translator. Usually my work moves more slowly than the events of the moment, since translation involves lingering over the patterns of a sentence or the connotations of a word. But this time the pace of my work and the pace of the virus were eerily similar. That’s because I’m translating Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague.”One morning, my task was to revise a scene in which the young doctor Rieux, realizing that plague has broken out in the Algerian city of Oran, tries to persuade his bureaucratic colleagues that they should take the outbreak seriously. He knows that if they don’t, half the city will die. The city’s leader doesn’t want to alarm people. He would prefer to avoid calling this disease what it is. When someone says “plague,” the politician looks at the door, making sure no rumor of this word has escaped down the tidy administrative hallways. The dramatic irony is delicious — like watching characters debate the word “bomb” when there’s one ticking under the table. Dr. Rieux is impatient. “You’re looking at the problem wrong,” he says. “It’s not a question of vocabulary, it’s a question of time.”As I translated that sentence, I felt a fissure open between the page and the world, like a curtain lifted from a two-way mirror. When I looked at the text, I saw the world behind it — the ambulance sirens of Bergamo, the quarantine of Hubei province, the odd disjunction between spring flowers at the market and hospital ships in the news. It was — and is — very difficult to focus, to navigate between each sentence and its real-time double, to find the fuzzy edges where these reflections meet.
    “The Plague” did not come easily to Camus. He wrote it in Oran, during World War II, when he was living in an apartment borrowed from in-laws he disliked, and then in wartime France, tubercular and alone, separated from his wife after missing the last boat back to Algeria. Unlike the shorter, harsher sentences of “The Stranger,” which Sartre quipped could have been titled “Translated From Silence,” the sentences of “The Plague” bear witness to the tension and monotony of illness and quarantine: They stretch their lengths to match the pull of anxious waiting. By the time the book was published in 1947, writers were looking for a way to bear witness as well to the Nazi occupation of France, and “The Plague” was championed as the novel of the occupation and the Resistance. For Camus, illness was both his lived experience and a metaphor for war, the creep of fascism, the horror of Vichy France collaborating in mass murder.
    But unlike many of his contemporaries, Camus took the long view. The heroism of the Resistance was less important to him than how humanity could be restored after the war. In his speech “The Human Crisis,” delivered at Columbia University in 1946, he pushed for a postwar return to the human scale, calling hatred and indifference “symptoms” of this crisis. He refused to let his country off the hook for its role in spreading this illness: “And it’s too easy, on this point, simply to accuse Hitler and say that the snake has been destroyed, the venom gone. Because we know perfectly well that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.” traces could be disarmed as cultural antibodies. In this same speech, he called for creating “communities of thought outside parties and governments to launch a dialogue across national boundaries; the members of these communities will affirm by their lives and their words that this world must cease to be the world of police, soldiers and money, and become the world of men and women, of fruitful work and thoughtful play.” In response to the symptoms of war, Camus saw shared consciousness as a healing force, becoming particularly interested in how people could develop a global collectivity that would protect them against nationalism and fascism. Writing “The Plague” in the form of a historical “chronicle” was a hopeful gesture, implying human continuity, a vessel to carry the memory of war as an inoculation against future armed conflicts. This view met with some pushback. In 1970 Sartre said in an interview, “When I think of Camus claiming, years later, that the German invasion was like the plague — coming for no reason, leaving for no reason — quel con, what a fool!”
    But while Camus was writing for the moment, he was also writing for the future. He was making art out of what happens between antibodies and germs, expanding metaphors from the molecular level. Though many rightly interpret “The Plague” as a novel about the collective spirit of resistance, there is also a deeper collectivity at work: our shared antibodies, the immunity of the herd.
    The truth is, as a metaphor, translation is uncomfortably close to transmission. Translators move words across borders, we open gates between one language and the next. But it matters what is being transmitted. Throughout “The Plague,” old Dr. Castel is trying to develop a serum to share containing the antibodies of patients who have survived. NY Times April 9 2020

  • Here is a suite of my poetry that is all over the place and that is why I call it a “suite” because it is not a sequence nor a series but take in different experiences not alone in time:

    “The power of literature was the power to point, denote, evoke the thing itself….But it was very hard to tell what was the thing itself. How to get at it? By naming it? by describing? by relating to responses–then no longer ‘in itself’? The urgencies of Hemingway, Santayana, Stevens, Williams, different as they now seem to us, all shared at that time the feeling of rediscovery of new values in objectivity, though ways toward it were not always clear.” Josephine Miles page 119, POETRY AND CHANGE, U of C Press, 1974
    Wolf and calf they fart together in another world, a more peaceful kingdom. My embittered heart breaks through these honeyed lips.
    “When he left there was no one. Teacher: Dad. I served my time. I hated school. I shot up drugs. I served my time. Every minute of it. Life is jail. I went to school Lived at home. Observed the rule. I gave a party. Served them glue. Immorality. Homosexuality. I served my time. Every minute of it. Worked in a mine. For free. I believe in astrology, astronomy, numerology. I grew my hair. I cut my hair. I served my time.
    I was outside. I lived inside. My father never did. “Brothers, it is my revolution, too. Even eyes are bullets, blood, and bombs. “Half said, half heard, half done/ days break off and fall/ like rivers rushing after me:
    Carmen in a city, north where politicians speak at civil war monuments to Yankees at stadiums for them on memorial day wakes to horns. Ten o’clock. Parade. She stays in bed. Listening. Then it is over. She is up. It’s noon. Her friends come knocking “Carmen, get up. It’s the crack of noon.’’ She makes an entrance in a rose-red robe.
    All rot earth inheriting everyone Suns slam down days
    All passes muting rotting. Wolf and calf they fart together in another world, a more peaceable kingdom. Blue crystal acid remains It is not reciprocated The dye has no music in it. Wolf and calf.
    The disruptors previous and devious waste their lives in
    Hate and Edith says “will be missed like a sore tooth.”/
    Edith says “As my father used to say, paper is very patient.
    You can write anything on it, adding it will not complain.”

    Richard Steger says dumbbell is the word of the age of Trump.

    As Harry S. Truman said many years ago about another dead: we
    are left with the creation of a myth and the invention of a devil,
    repeating the big lie until it becomes an article of political faith as
    smooth as the varnish on a concert piano.

    Our whatever buttons no longer deploy and so we are left like
    Edith’s farmer standing out there with arms stretching-out over
    fields where America’s shadow is once again taking shape in a
    heroic quest to destroy the devil under life’s unfolding umbrella.
    • Peace is a place
    • we need to fill now
    • while we can.
    • We didn’t invent ourselves
    • back down that long
    • winding longing line.

    • We had been seeking to be a
    • people from our beginnings:
    • will we end here now?

    • Can our toil and struggle
    • re-arc the bridge hope
    • and re-make the rainbow?

    4. Life’s not the horse you rode in on
    disappointments can’t match
    first infatuations

    your self-depictions
    spit you out

    later you learn
    it’s a mug’s game

    drugged, hungry
    you got no menu
    the promised range had no route
    you need a transfusion
    there’s no donor
    the path decayed
    in an irregulated scale

    Chances are America we will return as a Phoenix
    Chances are America hope will spin into morning
    Chances are Extraordinary America we’ll awaken

    All that noisy night the phoenix flamed
    crackling embers into singeing song
    scorching fog, fuchsia, western laurel tree
    razing memories of my flower years,
    smoke clouding what passes, these keys of flesh,
    time the phoenix entered the sun dance
    fragmenting, shattering, grinding-down
    my tired half-dreams of a failed dream,
    scooping from that mist of muffled bones
    one frail and fragrant puff of finished fuse.

    Fleeing, finding stars, sky, sirens screaming,
    years turn, hope spins again into morning,
    so what could never end might yet still come again.
    Chances are America we will return as a Phoenix
    Chances are America hope will spin into morning
    Chances are Extraordinary America we’ll awaken

    the dead have no voice
    but they speak echoing pasts
    cultivating winds in gardens of worlds
    where sable crepe drapes the doors
    where Quasimodo matures from Adonis
    where every scarlet aberration becomes a memory
    where Hastrubal’s wife and kids must flee into the flames.
    The bitter lingers.
    Events stamp themselves cumulatively
    on place, period, progeny.
    There’s no grand opera in a puppet play.
    The soldier marionette is mute.
    The dead have no voice.
    Speak for them

    Chances are America we will return as a Phoenix
    Chances are America hope will spin into morning
    Chances are Extraordinary America we’ll awaken

    We are the early grape
    flat, dry, and cloudy.
    The time is short,
    but some days never end.
    There is no joyous lake.
    There is no incantation
    that can bend the moment back
    into patterns we may see too late.

    Wait for tomorrow?
    Tomorrow never comes.
    Wait for tomorrow?
    Tomorrow never comes.

    Three’s a crowd.
    The spunky one’s the cream in your coffee.
    I know I know we said.
    That’s the thing!
    Do it. Do it now.

    Early wine is flat, dry and cloudy
    and some days never end.
    There is no joyous lake.
    There is no incantation
    that can bend the moment back
    into the patterns
    we have seen too late.

    Chances are America we will return as a Phoenix
    Chances are America hope will spin into morning
    Chances are Extraordinary America we’ll awaken

    You are dancing to the music of your dear life now

    As you partake it, enjoy it, wonder at its rising

    into the clouds out there over the sharp rocks

    dancing to the music of the time that remains

    the story that goes on from there for you is a

    finding and forging an understanding swiveting

    continuing further along processional journeys

    –not the routines a nation’s decline promises—

    under a self-surveillance in your own self-direction

    coming as you partake it enjoy it watching it rise

    into clouds above distant sharp rocks hopes surmount

    as you partake it, enjoy it, wonder at it rising rosy

    you are dancing to the music of your dear life now

    Chances are America we will return as a Phoenix
    Chances are America hope will spin into morning
    Chances are Extraordinary America we’ll awaken

    The rainbow is a glass carnation of perceptions.
    Understanding even when not agreeing,
    remembering that we are not stone children.
    Where rainbows are seen there are new stories.

    We are dancing to the music of our dear life now

    coda: Horse & cart
    Cart & horse
    We must start
    Beyond the source
    Not how it came
    How did it go

    On this tilting/ raked stage where once here
    great ships foundered and their life and death
    sentences remain unfinished symphonies.

    Our own future audience may sail into watch
    this present sea change as stars dust a gusher
    gloaming over our days thickening sea scars.

    Then again roses will silt down through the surf.
    Sleep will wheel round racing over time the winds
    westering our voicing minds coming once more.

    O noxious animals of phlegm
    come now and then and gag

    Wolf and calf, horse and cart

    (C) Copyright Edward Mycue

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