“The thing about Hong Kong, and of course that’s my favorite city,” Edith told me on the phone yesterday, “is that the police threw everything at the demonstrations there. So it was being used by China as a test case, for when there are demonstrations in some random Chinese city, or labor unrest. It’s very much the same feeling here in Portland: that we’re the test case, being made an example of. Of course there’s a lot of Hong Kong similarities. Even the Portland police have pointed that out. And people are like, ‘What does that make you, then?’”
A screenshot from MSNBC coverage of an injured woman being carried away from St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, on June 2, had felt like “déjà vu” to Edith. “It was so reminiscent of the famous picture of the woman being carried away by the medics in Rangoon in 1988,” she told me.
Edith Mirante is the author of several books on Asian subjects, the first of which was the fantastic travel book Burmese Looking Glass, which I used to fantasize about blurbing, were I ever to become famous enough for a blurb from me to mean much, as “a classic of modern Asian travel.” I first met Edith in early 1993, the year Burmese Looking Glass was published, in Berkeley, where I was crashing for a couple months en route to seeking my journalistic fortune in Bangkok. I saw a notice in The Daily Cal for a campus talk she was giving sponsored by Amnesty International, so I went. She gave me the phone number where she was staying (that’s how phones still worked back then), and the next day I called her. In her talk she had explained that she was a painter and had found herself in northern Thailand in search of things to paint, and then one thing had led to another. Well, I asked, was she not also, obviously, a writer?
“I am now,” she said cheerfully.
We exchanged addresses, and every once in a while I got something from her in the mail. (Those were still the days of envelopes and stamps.) She had made herself into a one-woman awareness-raising organization called Project Maje, which she still runs. She used her book as an excuse to give lectures and slide shows; she pushed for congressional hearings on an Agent Orange ingredient, supplied by the U.S. as part of the “war on drugs,” that was ruining villagers’ health and livelihoods; she contrived to interrogate executives of oil companies with investments in Burma. Over a restless decade, she had gone from a young painter seeking landscapes and colors, to a camo-clad connoisseur of a romantic-seeming jungle war, to a concerned friend of a country in flames and an author and activist. She had allowed herself to follow where the moral and political implications of her personal interest led.
This past Saturday, when I sent out the link to my last diary entry with its brief mention of Portland, I got a prompt reply from Edith offering several articles to read for context and this:
An array of extraordinarily courageous local freelance & citizen journalists on Twitter have been covering this all along. Especially fond of plucky preschool teacher citizen journalist Lindsay Smith. Sergio Olmos stringing for NYT as of yesterday. @MrOlmos @DonovanFarley @IwriteOK @alex_zee @TheRealCoryElia @tuckwoodstock @45thabsurdist @PDocumentarians @LindseyPSmith7 @hungrybowtie (17 years old & it was his video that broke the story of Feds here to nationwide attention.)
“Heading out to a march in N. Portland,” she informed me just before, as I see her in my mind’s eye, clicking Send and rushing out the door.
I emailed her back, asking for some time on the phone. We emailed back and forth a few times to set a time, and in one of mine I asked her: “Quick question: Are you optimistic?”
“Haha – I am a Burma activist,” she replied. “I am always ‘optimistic’!” In another email she told me: “A friend of mine just said I am ‘the enemy of juntas everywhere.’”
Edith believes it was the second mass protest in Portland following the murder of George Floyd that was the first that she and her husband, John Paisley, took part in, on the Burnside Bridge that crosses the Willamette River from the east side, where they live, to the heart of downtown. “There were thousands and thousands of people,” she told me, “and they were all wearing masks, and it was super well organized. That was meaningful, to participate in that. John and I felt very safe. There’s very little outdoor transmission. John is admirably cautious, and I have this finely tuned situational awareness.
“In June, I counted, we participated in sixteen protests. Then most of the marches went out of business, as it were. There was a great Indigenous-led march on the Fourth of July. We do tend to stay on this side of the river, though we’ve been all over the east side. June was a whole pattern of coming home at nine-thirty or ten o’clock, and we had this jigsaw puzzle of Acadia National Park in Maine, and we spilled red wine on it. It’s all a very weird combination of odd visits to the grocery store, and not having people over, and then going out with five thousand of your closest friends. It’s hard to tell from here if that momentum is going on in other places. So that’s a point in Portland’s favor: It has never let up here, from the beginning. Things were getting a little quieter before the feds showed up. They stuck the stick in the hornet’s nest. The use of the word ‘quell,’ yeah, good luck with that.”
“I have this certain distance from what’s happening here,” she reflected. “And all the demonstrations have been organized by Black and Indigenous people. Our role is that we carry signs and walk from Point A to Point B, and we yell stuff. Most of the people that we know personally are not physically participating. John, who is this fantastic artisan baker, long before it became fashionable, is raising hundreds of dollars for a community organization called the Black United Fund. There was a one-weekend bake sale thing, that some professional bakers nationally started, and John has become one of the ongoing ones.”
Participating in protest, especially now, provides “some element of what people who are not white go through all the time,” Edith pointed out. “The whole thing is constantly a bit dangerous. Even a kiddie bike ride at three o’clock in the afternoon, that can get assaulted.”
In her initial email, she had asserted that some of the feds in Portland were “zealots who volunteered for this.”
“But they’re not well-trained zealots,” she said on the phone. “Even the sniper that was up on that building, my friend was very critical of his sniper setup. He’s just some random cop. But every counterinsurgency ever, they come in, they meet opposition, and then they send in more.” She mentioned the now-famous “Wall of Moms,” a group of middle-aged women who have been forming lines to protect young protesters. “The cops are so incredibly stupid about optics that they teargassed the hell out of them. And they [the cops] don’t wear masks. We were at a demonstration at the East Precinct. And not only were they not wearing masks, but one of them kept spitting. And people kept saying, ‘Stop spitting!’”
As you might have gathered, Edith is a veteran activist and marcher. Inevitably, our conversation made its way around to the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and the mass demonstrations against the Iraq war. I asked if she had ever been arrested. Indeed she had, in the first Iraq demonstration in Portland in March 2003. She had been sentenced to write an essay reflecting on the wrongness of her actions. So she wrote “a scorching essay that was read on the radio and published in The Oregonian. Also a compliment from the judge!” Edith titled her essay “Bridges: Burnside to Baghdad”:
On March 20th, 2003 I sat, arms linked with fellow humans, at the intersection of Burnside and Second. I stayed there until I was arrested at around 2:00 AM on March 21st. This particular intersection could be considered the very nexus of our city, Portland. Burnside Avenue divides north from south, and the bridge it leads to crosses the Willamette River, which bisects east and west. We were at the center of our urban compass rose. We were also at the dividing point in the pattern of seasons – Winter had just given way to Spring. And our country had just crossed the line from a kind of peace to a pre-emptive war opposed by most of the world.
Sometimes paths cross and one arrives at the exact place where one belongs, whether by chance or by choice. …
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a 14-year-old girl named Amal wrote in her diary (quoted by the Christian Science Monitor): March 20, “On the way back to our house the siren sounded again and we were very frightened and tried to run as fast as we can back home saying ‘God save us!’ At 9:15 PM, the bombing was intense, close to our home. … and we don’t know when Bush’s storm hits again. Fatima thinks that we are living and dying at the same time, but how long will it be like this?” Then, March 21, “I am writing and the house next to our building is shaking. It’s now 9:35 PM, and all the families in the house are terrified and crying for God to bring the morning. … We have never seen anything like this. I’m so afraid, tears are running down my eyes and I’m saying ‘Oh God, dear God.’” …
Baghdad, like Portland, is a city on both sides of a river. Baghdad’s six bridges arch above the Tigris River, that irrigator of early civilization. Now a crudely powerful, lesser civilization, with an unholy thirst for petroleum and domination, pounded Baghdad from its aircraft and occupied it in the name of liberation.
The difference in the current demonstrations, Edith told me, is that “people are not going out of their way to be arrested, or chaining themselves to things. Absent the pandemic, there would be a lot of people offering themselves for mass arrests.” And then there’s the matter of marijuana, which is legal in Oregon as it is here in Washington. “It’s still illegal under federal laws,” she pointed out. “So people were posting, ‘Don’t bring it to demonstrations,’ because if you get arrested with it you can be charged with that.”
“There are some great local journalists,” she said. “And, of course, just like anywhere” – like in, say, Burma or Pakistan – “there are other journalists who parachute in. There’s this weird narrative, now that we have national attention, that we have this plucky, heroic mayor, standing up to the feds. That guy is awful. That he’s being made into a hero is beyond annoying. He is the police commissioner. That’s a subtlety that’s very much lost in the national coverage. He is very much in charge of the police. His cops have been doing the exact same thing [as the feds are now doing], except with marked cars. Their cars are marked, but their badges are obscured.”
From the Seattle Times, July 21:
Federal law enforcement actions in Portland – and Trump’s talk about sending federal reinforcements to other cities – also have raised alarms not just in Oregon, but in Seattle and other places. Trump on Monday told reporters, “I’m going to do something – that, I can tell you,” and The New York Times reported plans are underway to deploy about 150 Homeland Security Investigations special agents to Chicago. Trump singled out several cities “run by very liberal Democrats” as places he might send federal agents.
“While U.S. Marshals have had jurisdiction inside federal courthouses for decades, it is unacceptable and chilling that this administration has formed and deployed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Rapid Deployment Unit and is sending federal authorities to conduct crowd control on city streets and detain individuals,” wrote Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and four other mayors in a Monday letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.
Maybe forty-five minutes into our call, Edith and I caught our breath and shifted to sharing personal news and sending greetings to each other’s spouse. She told me John was attempting to read War and Peace. “He’s a very determined reader,” she commented admiringly. I told her I was hoping – against hope – soon to find time and leisure to read the new revised edition of Stephen Gill’s biography of William Wordsworth, which has been getting good reviews. This led to a side conversation about the Lake Poets, the French Revolution, and my fondness for the great journalist William Hazlitt, who considered Coleridge and Wordsworth sellouts because they mellowed with age and thought the Revolution had gone too far. Edith recommended to me the film Pandaemonium, directed by Julien Temple.
Our hour on the phone reminded me that not only is Edith Mirante a fine writer and a tireless activist, she’s also highly cultured and well read and really good company. So is John. Jenny likes them both and says Edith is like a superhero: She might look like just some nice artsy lady who works in a public library (which she is, or has been), but when she slips into a phone booth she turns into a fearless fighter for justice and adventurous world traveler. In our early years together, which were also my early years in Seattle, a decade and more ago now, Jenny and I used to make weekend trips the three hours down I-5, and we would stay with Edith and John in their cozy, rustic little house in southeast Portland. They also stayed with us at least once. I wish we could still do that. I hope that someday, maybe even someday soon – whatever “soon” means, anymore – we might be able to do it again.