On Friday, May 26, a white supremacist began threatening two teenage girls -one African American, one Muslim, wearing a hijab – on the Max train in Northeast Portland. Three men came to their defense, and were stabbed. Two died, Rick John Best and Taliesen Namkai-Meche; the third, Micah Fletcher, was wounded but survived.
The first inkling that something had happened showed up on Facebook, as friends wondered why there were so many sirens, why so many police were racing down Broadway. Then a post that there may have been a stabbing at the Max station. Then the news. Then the disbelief. Then the tears.
What do you even say? That the violence was so sudden and vicious? That hate is ever present, and love is too? The words of my sermon on Sunday felt flimsy; I’m not sure there are even the right words to say.
Except when I read that Taliesen’s last words were about love, his love for everyone on that train. Except when I read that Micah is a poet, and he has spoken since the attack, words that I find encouraging and courageous and challenging. Maybe words do matter.
Later that same evening I learned that one of my favorite crafter of words, author, prose-poet, essayist Brian Doyle, died, having succumbed to the ravages of a brain tumor. I wish I could have read what he might have written about the Max train and the girls and the men.
I went to bed that night with my heart broken in new places. I woke up Saturday and worked on setting aside all the feeling and thinking about all of it. Oregon has a terrible history when it comes to welcoming people who aren’t white. Portland does too, from red-lining to KKK presence to new threats. While researching how to pronounce Taliesen’s name, I ended up on a white supremacist blog, which I quickly exited but not before reading part of a ghastly post.
The president, by his thrown-off, impetuous words, has opened the door to freedom of hate speech, which took the form of harassing two young women who were sitting on a train, doing nothing more than that. Haters are emboldened. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will terrify us.
Words led to actions. Words of hate led to a knife being brandished. Words of love led to quick courage. Words led to death. Words led to fear.
And now words are bringing our community together and tearing at it too. The mayor tried to limit a free speech rally. The ACLU said he couldn’t. Words of sympathy are pouring out, as are donations for the families of the victims. Words of blame, words of being afraid are heard and printed.
What would happen if there was silence? What would happen if all the words written in chalk at the Max station were erased? What if there were only our tears, and the flowers, and quiet? Would our silence be understood as cowardice or defeat or acquiescence? Would silence be healing or hiding?
Are words hollow, or all they full?
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος