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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Us vs. them gets us nowhere right now

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

We have now been told repeatedly that Sunday night’s chaos in Spokane – the storm after the calm, the vandalism and confrontation, the tear gas and rubber bullets – was not us.

Not us. Not who we are. Mayor Nadine Woodward and a phalanx of community leaders held a press conference to reinforce that point Monday, standing before the boarded-up Nike store to deliver that message.

Not us.

Out-of-towners. Outside agitators. Provocateurs.

Them.

I get this desire. I wrote something similar on Twitter, saying that the window smashers did not represent what this city did Sunday, when thousands of people rallied peacefully and passionately to protest the killing of George Floyd and the ugly history it represents. I think that’s true – that most of us, the best of us, are not represented by the people who were, for whatever reasons, spoiling for a fight, itching to destroy, trying to get the cops to overreact.

But that doesn’t mean none of us – no one who is part of this city and region – was involved in that debacle. It doesn’t mean we can exempt the probability that what happened Sunday night was, at least in part, us too – carried out by people with anarchic views, with simmering, misdirected rage, with ulterior motives, who returned to their homes right here in Spokane, in Eastern Washington, in North Idaho, in the Inland Northwest.

If we pretend that none of them are us, we ignore the reality that these nights and nights of mayhem across the country are illustrating: This violent schism is us. It grows from the country we have made and the divisions we have sown.

I’m sure some of those window-smashers don’t have Spokane addresses.

I’d also bet you anything that some of them – maybe even a lot of them – do.

Some of them were us. The spirit that motivated them, the anger that drove them, the outsiders’ infuriated attempts to tear down – that’s here, too, among us.

We make a serious mistake if we think it’s not. We make a mistake when we try to “other” away the problem. It’s not all that different from the mistake we make when we assume – as some of us do here – that we live outside the problems of race in America.

The truth about Sunday night is that no one, not the cops and not your overconfident friends on Facebook, knows with any certainty who was responsible for which acts. It was chaos. The looters didn’t wear name badges. The people who ignored the calls to disperse didn’t show their IDs. Among the tear-gassed hundreds – including several journalists doing their jobs and others protesting or observing – you could not remotely begin to perform such a sorting.

One of them. One of us. One of them. One of us.

Nope.

There’s been too much confidence shown by those drawing these lines. Too much confidence in declaring who is us and who is them, and whence the problems came. There is something wrong in the insistence that this was only antifa, as some leaders who apparently did not notice what was visible and obvious before the event even started: the presence of militia and Proud Boy types, armed.

These groups are now being cited more and more around the country as instigators trying to fuel division and overshadow the protest movement. And these people – the radical right, in whatever shade you like – are definitely us.

I saw at least two guys in the tell-tale Hawaiian-shirt-and-military- surplus-costume that tells you they are eager for the next civil war – the so-called boogaloo, in the argot of the idiot online. You saw that outfit at the protests of the stay-home, too. I also saw two little clutches of tough guys in bullet-proof vests and the whole nine, and if they weren’t right-wing militia boys, I’ll eat my hat. More than one person reporting from the mayhem downtown noted the presence of Proud Boys and militia members. Militia leaders later bragged online about being there.

If you omit them from the story, your story is wrong. I also think there has been a simply extraordinary insistence by progressives that the unrest had nothing to do with antifa or people representing an anarchic left. As with the right-wing extremists, antifa is amorphous, leaderless, hard to pin down – but however you define it, it was obvious that some of those folks were there, obvious they were preparing for battle, and obvious they were there to go all the way into the night.

Betcha at least some of them live around here, too.

I don’t doubt that there were outside influences, external provocateurs. I definitely don’t doubt that there was a split between the large majority of people who protested peacefully here Sunday and others with ulterior motives and more radical aims. And I absolutely share the anger and frustration at those who helped to undermine what so many others did all day long – what they did in anger and frustration and exhaustion and moral outrage and in peace.

But we are kidding ourselves when we draw the boundaries of our community only around our own good selves.

Us is all of us, like it or not. At this moment of extraordinary national tension, so full of the potential for violence, so fractured at the core, so full of venom and incitement radiating from the White House, and so vilely attended by bigoted online calls to shoot protesters or run them over, us versus them is a disastrous formulation.

It’s hard to tear-gas a street full of us. Harder to fire rubber bullets into us. Much harder to shove us to the ground, spray us, club us, kneel right on our necks.

For that, you need a them.

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