Reaching the Summit

Of a pile of bodies

Back in January I rented a hole in the ground in downtown Missoula to serve as a place I could retreat to to write without distraction. The decision has been marginally effective but hope remains for it. Earlier this week its security was breached. There are only two ways into the room; one through a connecting door with my neighbors and the main door that I use. I already knew that the space formerly served as the dark room for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. What I didn't know is that the lock had never been changed after they moved out, so who knows how many keys to it are floating around. That is being rectified, or so I'm told. I'm not going back until it has. A couple things were taken but I'm also fortunate because somehow these bumbling miscreants must have locked themselves back out because they left behind a couple of their own backpacks packed with more of my stuff, which included my laptop and a bunch of my (meaningless to anyone but me) papers. They did steal my DDC Brand All-Purpose Zipper Pouch ("Holds All Sorts Of Stuff") that I used to store chargers, cables, etc., and my bluetooth speaker thing for playing music while I work. Whatever, I’ll live.

A couple days later I discovered that here at my house, in a spot outside below my window—kind of a little garden area of sorts—the little Goddess statue I'd place there last summer has disappeared sometime since the snow melted in the last couple weeks. That really bums me out, probably more than losing the speaker and pouch. The violated sanctity of personal space still feels really off in both situations, though, and my efforts to live a love-filled life, already under assault, aren’t made any easier.

After the dark room break-in, when I told the building maintenance supervisor guy about the missing items, he asked if I thought we should call the cops. I said, "No, because they ... well ... I don't like the fucking cops." He was amused by that; given I suspect he is an old hippy of sorts, and resembles one of the good-hearted villains from a vintage Scooby-Doo cartoon (you know, the guy revealed when they pull the head off the monster suit and everyone exclaims, "Tor, the maintenance man?!" who is only trying to disrupt whatever is happening because there is a displaced family living in the basement of the building being sold or whatever), I wasn't surprised. Keeping cop energy out of my space is worth more than having them investigate the stuff I'd lost.

I don't like cops. I never have. I've never had any serious run-ins with them (though I was arrested by a whole pack of them about 30 years ago out in front of my future-ex-mother-in-law's house the day I met her) but I've always been different enough and living close enough to the sketchy outer edges of society to have had my share of smug bullshit directed at me from them. Playing loud music in shitty bars will get you that. Being a little different in high school in small town Montana will get you that. Often, just being a person in a mild conflict with someone who thinks they have complete power over you will get you that, and for no good reason. Maybe I just don’t like people who carry guns, whether it’s a cop or some ignorant jackass from Ravalli County.

Over the last few years my gut level discomfort with much of American society has left me radicalized in many ways. An immersion into a couple hundred years of Federal Indian Policy is an excellent starting point. I wrote an article a couple years ago for Montana Quarterly about the discrepancy in Indigenous incarceration rates vs. white folks; the numbers are sobering and if you don't see racism contributing there you are willfully blind. Nationally, our constant state of global war, the horrors we visit on people at our borders, the deep level of hatred and racism that stepped out of the shadows during the Trump nightmare (but has always been there and encouraged, if only with a bit more subtlety, all along) has contributed as well. I know I'm not alone in having the fires of my anger and frustration vigorously stoked.

I'm an avid supporter of the Defund the Police movement. The institution of policing was created in racism and white supremacy and still lives there. Even if there are "good" cops the closed-mouth culture when it comes to corruption that they all seem to live within makes one question how "good" they can even be. How "good" they are allowed to be. In the wake of George Floyd and all the #BLM activity that has burst, necessarily, from his tragic murder, the biggest change in me was the removal of any shred of an idea that the police are a relatively benevolent part of society that occasionally makes a mistake. Quite the opposite, in fact. I will direct you to this gut wrenching, magnificent piece last month from my friend Leah Sottile, "Did James Plymell need to die?" It will break your heart.

My point when it comes to defunding the police (and allocating resources to other vital societal institutions to prevent and treat, not merely punish and murder) is this: if you think cops aren't a problem, that "our cops aren't bad" (hello, Missoulians), then you are hiding behind the privilege of never having to worry about being hassled by cops just because of how you look, who you are, where you're from. When it comes to cops and the terrible things they are prone to do, in every community, every community, it's not a matter of if something dreadful happens, but when. Unless something drastic changes.

I am also conflicted. Because I don't like my stuff getting stolen. It's one thing if someone needs something I have in order to survive, because I'm privileged and can replace a lot of things I might lose and I do what I can to help. Even so, my lifestyle and day-to-day existence is closer to those folks living in a camp down by the river behind the big Wal Mart than it is to anyone reading this from the sanctity of a 2000+ square foot home with cameras around the perimeter in a manicured cul-de-sac, and I do my best not to pass judgment on folks from either extreme. I don't like the women I work with being hassled over the phone by a rightwing asshole who makes crank, threatening calls. I'd like something done about him; I know who he is—we all do—and where he gets groceries and I know what town he lives in. Frankly, I'd like to solve the problem myself but I'd be the one to end up in jail. That probably sounds like toxic male bullshit but holy moly does this guy piss me off.

Last week I also witnessed an altercation in the alley behind the bookstore. I was in the back room and heard shouting. I opened the service door just as a cop caught up to a person—a youngish white guy, he looked like any one of a number of the house-less people in Missoula at any given time—she was chasing. She was telling him to get on the ground. He was hollering over and over, "Why is this happening?" and not complying with any of her requests. A bit of a wrestling match ensued. He went to his knees then almost got away. At one point it looked to me like he was reaching for something in his pocket but I realized she had his arm twisted behind him.

I felt obligated to stand and be witness to whatever happened. So many thoughts were going through my head, especially as it seemed he might escape. Would she draw a weapon? Did he have a weapon? Would I intervene on behalf of either of them if it got ugly either way? The lines blurred and I just saw a human struggle and I didn't want either one of them to be injured. Finally a second officer arrived and they were able to secure the guy. Soon there were about eight cops or so in the alley. What I gathered from listening to the conversations in the aftermath is this was a person they had been actively looking for, who had warrants for arrest for "about thirty" burglaries.

If something like this has to play out, it did so about as well as it could have. The guy was arrested and no one was injured. The cops didn't do anything wrong, weren't overly violent, etc. Would it have unfolded this way if it was in the middle of the night with no witnesses? Who knows. Even with that many warrants for burglary, the dude doesn't deserve to be severely injured, whether he is complying with commands or not. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess this dude wasn't Robin Hood stealing stuff and giving it to the needy. He was preying on people who probably don't deserve to be preyed on.

We are mired so deeply in a society that has been lumbering along like this for hundreds of years. We can't abolish our military entirely, but we don't need 700+ military bases scattered around the world, nor do we need to spend more money on "defense" than the next ten countries combined, nor do we need to be in a state of constant war. We can't abolish law enforcement entirely yet we don't need a mayor in a city like Missoula to essentially have his own military force. All this money, and yet so many mental health problems going untreated. So many people living on the street. So much hunger, and poverty, and hopelessness. I am deeply troubled by all of this and yet I don't see the will to change much of it, not even here in Missoula, a community absolutely baked on our own self-righteous sense of progressiveness.

When I see people on the edges, scavenging for food and resources, ignored or brutalized, even wept over at times, I see my people. Because that's who we Little Shell were for a few decades, our communities destroyed by uniformed thugs and murderers, our lands taken, and families scraping by however we could just to survive. More than one hundred years later the story is the same, if with different players, all over the world, and the United States and the vast majority of its citizens are culpable. Including me, really. It bums me out.

I wonder what this coming year or two will look like. Right now it feels like people are just frothing at the mouth to get back on planes, get back into restaurants, into stadiums, get "the economy back on its feet" and in that respect I think the difference between the mask wearing, pro-vaccine folks eager to resume their “before” lives and the anti-vaxxer morons is marginal at best. We are all out to climb over bodies, we are just laboring to summit different piles.