People don’t know quite what to make of it.
That’s the sense I have watching 10 or so people march down Pacific Avenue Sunday afternoon, braving the heat and the uncomfortable response that comes with drawing attention to racism and police brutality in the middle of downtown on an otherwise quiet afternoon.
The marchers — a mix of colors, genders and ethnicities — carry signs, many bearing three now-familiar words: “black lives matter.” They shout in solidarity and raise fists to the sky.
All around them, the reaction varies. Some try their best to ignore the demonstration. Others pause momentarily, then go about their business. Still others honk their car horns in support.
Later, the marchers block traffic at South 9th Street and Pacific Avenue, joining hands and getting just about as disruptive as 10 peaceful marchers can. When this happens, much of the reaction turns from casual interest to concentrated irritation.
It’s all part of the plan.
“It was a hard day, but it’s why we persist,” Cathy Nguyen tells me later. Nguyen is Tacoma’s poet laureate and one of the founding members of Tacoma Stands Up, a grassroots organization that started organizing last year in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Missouri.
Much has happened since then, but not the end of racism in America. Reminders have been all too common, from Baltimore to Charleston and the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag to the string of burning black churches in the South.
So Tacoma Stands Up, which started humbly with Nguyen and her co-worker Matthew Wilson holding an impromptu two-person rally on a street corner last August, has continued to push the conversation locally.
Most recently, the group has helped launch what’s being called The People’s Assembly, a weekly Sunday gathering at Don Pugnetti Park downtown that includes a march down Pacific Avenue.
“Our goal is to interrupt the status quo and this business-as-usual culture so that people deeply recognize that there is an urgent need for change,” Nguyen explains. She points to “a disconnect between community concern and social injustice” and says that chasm gets in the way of efforts to address issues of racism and oppression.
The first People’s Assembly meeting on July 5, she tells me, drew about 25 people. The next Sunday it was closer to 15, but “half of those folks were new.” The group’s Facebook page, meanwhile, currently has nearly 600 “likes.”
“We’re not really driven by the number,” Nguyen says when I ask her about the response. “It’s about opening up a window for community members to come together … and challenging systems of oppression along the way.”
In doing so, the group employs a multifaceted approach. The march and the blocking of traffic, falling under the umbrella of “direct resistance and interruption,” might be the most visible (and invoke the most ire), but there are also aspects of art and community-building woven into the program.
Next Sunday, for example, a poetry circle will be part of the People’s Assembly program. Given Nguyen’s position as Tacoma’s poet laureate and her identity as a self-described “artivist,” it’s a natural evolution.
“Art is a platform we center many of our events around, because it opens up the space for storytelling, bearing witness and creative expression,” she tells me. “I am constantly looking at the ways in which we can create spaces for storytelling in order to humanize marginalized people and make personal the lived realities of oppression.”
While Tacoma Stands Up is the group leading the charge and getting people’s attention Sunday afternoons, Nguyen is quick to credit a host of other local organizations — like The Conversation, the Tacoma Urban League and the Tacoma Action Collective — for working in different ways to bring the issue and implications of racism to the forefront.
“Many of us doing this work are connected to each other as friends, neighbors, co-workers and peer organizers,” she says.
Don’t expect any of them to quiet down soon.
Which means even as headlines focus on stories of racism from across the country, the serenity of Sunday afternoons in downtown Tacoma will continue to be disrupted. “It matters everywhere,” Nguyen says.