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Protest, Police, Pandemic & Palimpsest—Tucson, Arizona


Jami Macarty

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On Thursday, May 28, despite the global pandemic, protesters in the hundreds marched in Tucson, Arizona in protest of racism, inequality, injustice, and police brutality. Over the weekend, many of the glass storefronts on Broadway Boulevard and Congress Street, the twin East-West arterials through downtown, were smashed. Graffitos tagged facades of bridges and buildings, including the Tucson Police Department.

The graffiti included: “Fuck the police”; “187” (California Penal Code for murder); “Fuck 12,” (Slang for fuck police drug units); “Property damage Ø Murder”; “No More Waiting 4 Now”; “Fight Back Together”; “Black Lives Matter.”

Those messages had been scrubbed away and storefronts boarded up on May 30th. By May 31st, Arizona was under a state-wide, week-long curfew from the hours of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. The curfew expired on June 8, though the plywood covering the glass storefronts remains. The board is serving as protection of the properties, and as a canvas or page.

On the morning of Saturday, June 6th, I walked from my house west of Downtown Tucson to the downtown core to document the posters and writings accumulating on the plywood. Starting at East Broadway Boulevard and Sixth Avenue, I walked east, then west, reading and photographing the messages and signs on both sides of the street, ending five blocks later at West Congress Street and Convent Avenue.

When I returned home, I went through nearly 120 images, high grading the ones that stood out. Several aspects of the signage struck me. Taped to doors and windows of the small businesses were paper signs declaring, “locally owned business.” Many Tucson businesses that had reopened over Memorial Day weekend, and begun their recovery from Covid-19 closures, now had to deal with property damage.

The cheery, if vague, slogan of Ben’s Bells, a kindness-promoting charity in Tucson: "be Kind," was front and center on most plywood. In one instance, the glass company that had replaced the shattered panels with plywood, taped an advertising flyer to the messages of protest—a striking combination of tone deafness and utilitarian boosterism.

Since many of the signs were interacting with, and seemingly written in response to one another, I began thinking about aspects of writing and communication: register, tone, sequence, and narrative. Most of all, what affected me about the writings was their number; virtually every business (~50) in ten blocks hosted messages supporting Black lives. For me, this illustrated: “Fight Back Together.”

Tucson, a 44 percent White city, has an exceedingly small Black population: roughly 5 percent, according to census figures from July 2019. Photographs of the protests seemed to depict Blacks far outweighed by Whites, and for that matter, Latinx people, who make up 35 percent of the city’s population, and who have long been targets of brutal violence and discrimination.

In a comment to a Tucson Weekly article, covering the protests, someone, referring to himself as Bill Gates, put it this way: “Wait?! There are black people in Tucson. I thought I was the only one, been here a year and I have not seen anyone nonwhite or under 65, I'm so confused.”

Tucson has had a handful of high-profile cases of police brutality and use of excessive force. Recent incidents included a widely reported case of a disabled young man in a group home. Yet Tucson remains, in essential ways, a sleepy Western railroad town. Two hours away, Phoenix is the country’s fifth-most-populous city, with attendant big-city problems.

Among those names being spoken at, and written during, Tucson protests: Dion Johnson, the 28-year-old Black man, who was shot and killed in Phoenix on Monday, May 25 by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper.

In 2019, Phoenix led the nation in police shootings. The Phoenix police department budget is nearly three times the size of Tucson’s. Tucson recently released its proposed budget for 2021: $514 million. Like most city’s, about a third of Tucson’s budget is designated to fund police. This week, the Tucson City Council delayed the approval of its 2021 budget to allow community input on the plans and priorities embedded in the line items.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, continues to downplay the coronavirus pandemic, even as hospitals fill up. The uptick in positive cases is sharp; Arizona has gone from 200 infections a day in late May to an average of more than 1,100 infections a day in the past week.

To put these numbers in perspective, New York City, whose population nearly triples the state of Arizona, had a daily average of 920 new cases this week (markedly dropped from a high of 6,375 per day as of April 6th) after rigorous containment measures.

The dramatic rise in Covid-19 cases must surely be affecting Arizonans’ perception of safety. I know it is mine. At best, Governor Ducey sends mixed messages on Covid-19 protocols, and those messages are regularly undermined by his messages on the economy. At a recent press conference, Ducey pulled a mask out of his pocket but did not wear it.

In contrast to the governor's contradictory and often misleading statements, the messages of protest on the plywood are unequivocal. A fascinating aspect of those messages is the sense that they were being written, seemingly for a reader, striving to be responsive and understood. At least that is how I reconciled the timing and additions to the messages.

Though I do not know for sure, my sense of the timing of the layers of messages goes like this: May 30, plywood was erected on smashed storefronts; sometime after that, someone connected to Ben’s Bells (BB), headquartered in downtown, painted “be Kind” flowers in the center of some plywood; then, during a series of protest marches through downtown the BB commands were augmented by protesters.

For example: “be Kind” was asterisked (*) and “DON’T DISMISS BLACK PAIN” was added; here’s another: a comma was inserted after “ be Kind” (,) and “be accountable for racial injustice” was added, seemingly to respond to and expand the original message.

The expanded messages looked to me as if they had been written by two or three different people. Though I’m not a handwriting expert, graphology fascinates me. I easily detected the similarities and variances in the physical characteristics (use of black and purple markers) and patterns (use of lower/uppercase) of handwriting from sign to sign.

While I was reading and feeling the messages, I reflected on palimpsest and erasure. Remarkably, not one sign was effaced. Instead, punctuation was used to denote insertions and additions to the messages. Whether via comma or asterisk, in each case the original sign, e.g. “be Kind,” was augmented.

I had no sense the protest writings would compose themselves into a found poem until two days after my walk, when I found myself typing their words into what is now “Signs of Protest, Downtown Tucson, June 6, 2020.”

The direction I walked, while documenting the signs and messages, offers the linear order within the poem. The words, including the misspellings, capitalization, and punctuation of each message replicates, as best as I could, their original appearance on the board-ups. As I typed the messages, a line length asserted itself and I respected it.

I want to say, again, no words were erased or subtracted from the messages and signs of protest. Instead, the messages were added to, expanded upon by those who came next. These additive gestures suggest consciousness-in-action, conversation-in-action, a pivotal dialogue at the heart of the protest to honor Black lives.

Jami Macarty is Journal of the Plague Year's Poetry Editor. Her most recent book is The Minuses.

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Hey, Tucson

R.I.P. Beloved Tucson musicians, bluesmen Sam Taylor and Stefan George.

His Majesty, The Policeman ::: Lord Buckley

Jolly Coppers On Parade ::: Randy Newman

Black Man ::: Stevie Wonder

Good Morning, Policeman ::: Moon Martin

Nobody’s Baby ::: Stefan George

Lucky 13 ::: Stefan George

Some of My Best Friends ::: Sam Taylor

Juke Train 114 ::: Orchestra Mendioza w/ Salvador Duran

Arizona Skies ::: Los Lobos

Playlist by Brian Cullman.