As I write, there is a man in jail vehemently defending his freedom of speech. He chose to exercise his freedom on public transportation, a Max train, by screaming hate speech at two teenage girls, one African American, the other Muslim. His harassment of the girls so escalated that three men placed themselves between the attacker and the girls. All three men were viciously stabbed, two of them fatally. On the evening news the attacker maniacally justified the stabbings as his right to protect his freedom of speech.
Portland remains traumatized by this act of horrendous violence that made national headlines; an act of savagery that simultaneously documents the very worst, and the very best of our community.
I learned about freedom of speech in the public elementary school of the small town where I grew up. Our teachers taught us to temper our opinions with civility and common sense: “Freedom of speech doesn’t allow you to yell, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater,” we were instructed. Or as another teacher graphically put it, “Your freedom of speech extends to the end of your nose,” meaning you have the right to say it, but your words may earn you a punch in the face.
My nostalgic elementary school memories are charming, yet they were created during a time of great national unrest. I’m probably as young as an adult can be with a bona fide memory (not one created by archival footage) of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. During the years my teachers were explaining Freedom of Speech to me and my classmates, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Robert Kennedy too. On the evening news throughout my elementary school years, we witnessed the Watts Riots, and learned four students at Kent State University were shot to death while protesting the Viet Nam war.
I learned “A punch in the face,” was a euphemism used by my teachers to explain to their students a world they struggled to understand.
Since the Tri Met stabbings, several random, less publicized stabbings have occurred in Portland.
I seldom drive. My chosen mode of travel is on foot. Since the stabbings, I’ve not walked the downtown as much as I used to. I’m not alone in restricting activity to reduce vulnerability to violence.
I’m told Muslim women wearing hajib are avoiding public transportation since the attack on the two girls. For some, public transportation is their only means of travel, and they’ve become isolated in their homes.
A few days ago, the sun rose bright, and warm. I decided to walk to a downtown department store to make a return. A block from the department store, I passed a Tri Met stop. I chose to not over think it.
In the women’s clothing department, I came around the escalator at the same time a Muslim woman wearing a hajib came around from behind a large rack of clothing. Neither of us are tall, which is why we didn’t see each other until we nearly collided. I startled, but she froze in place the way a deer crossing a road at night freezes in the sudden glare of oncoming headlights. Her beautiful, kohl-lined eyes heightened the image. But it was the tension of her body that told me she prepared for verbal attack.
I smiled, and said, “Hello.” The tension melted from her body. She smiled, and nodded. We went on our separate ways.
We were the same: two women venturing out alone, downtown, on a sunny day in the land of the free on 4th of July weekend.
Freedom of Speech, home of the brave, land of the free: This 4th of July I pause to think about what these words mean, and how they apply to my life. They’ve become simultaneously incongruous, and yet familiar.
What is the word for a nostalgia that includes memories of bigotry and hate?
This 4th of July, I honor those who fought for independence, creating America, my home, and who wrote The Constitution to protect our freedoms. I am proud to be an American. I am nostalgic for a country where freedom rings with civility and justice.