Sultana Khan

Sultana Khan

Killer Mike and Chance David Baker

Last week, as I was leaving a lousy Tinder date at the Top of the East, I ran into Michael Render in an elevator at the Westin. Better known as Killer Mike, one-half of the critically acclaimed hip-hop duo Run the Jewels (RTJ), Mike became a familiar figure to less rap-inclined voters after endorsing Bernie Sanders in last year’s primaries. His enthusiastic support led to viral talk show appearances where he spoke passionately about racial justice, economic reform, and weed legalization while stumping for Sanders. One particularly charming interview with Stephen Colbert has been viewed more than two million times.

So it was with great enthusiasm I accepted Killer Mike’s offer for a ticket to the sold-out show at the State Theatre. His manager, Joe, kindly texted my name to someone ten minutes before show time and I managed to sneak in and find a spot in front of a very tall man with a beer in both hands.

 

I’ll start off by saying the show itself was dope. RTJ knows how to put on a performance. Mike and his RTJ collaborator, Jaime Meline — stage name El-P — were tight as hell and the energy was electric. But it’s not in my nature to attend a rap concert where an overwhelmingly caucasian audience is throwing up the fist and gun symbol for which the group are known, without asking some questions.

That’s how I found myself outside asking fellow smokers how they felt about the death of Chance David Baker, the 22-year-old man fatally shot by Portland police officer Sgt. Nicholas Goodman earlier this month after brandishing a pellet gun in a public plaza. I’m fun at parties.

After speaking with 15 or so people outside the venue, I went back inside, discouraged. Not a single person I spoke with had heard about the shooting. When I asked one couple how they felt about Police Chief Michael Sauschuck’s comments about the “politicization” of Baker’s death to fast-track body cameras, they replied that they were just there to enjoy the music.

Ok.

Hip-hop is, and always has been, a powerful way to protest police brutality and the prison-industrial complex — N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton came out nearly 30 years ago. And RTJ’s latest album, Run the Jewels 3, doesn’t shy away from political rhetoric. On “Talk to Me,” Mike’s intro mentions the Devil who “wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.” Later in the same verse he raps, “Born Black, that's dead on arrival / My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”

It’s hard to imagine a world in which one could be an RTJ fan and an #AllLivesMatter enthusiast, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few in the crowd, given my brief stint as a crowd pollster. But maybe it’s a better indication of the change white liberals are undergoing that RTJ could host a sold-out show in Portland, Maine. Would a hip-hop duo rapping about “white folk” have found an audience here 10 years ago? Unfortunately, I don’t think any of that matters. The current climate of violence and harassment won’t allow for another 10-year-long shift in perspective.

As a person of color, my impatience with white-centric liberalism feels particularly raw right now. Much of the despair and anguish felt by the white liberal community following President Trump’s election has been a daily part of life for disenfranchised communities for many years. I know this sentiment has been written about ad nauseam, although I don’t feel the least bit guilty repeating it, particularly after Chance David Baker’s death went unremarked by so many in Portland. Here’s hoping the next time RTJ comes to town, people will attend not just for the music, but the message.

Alternate Activism

If there were any remaining doubts about the veracity of President Trump’s campaign promises, they have been quickly dismissed by the past weeks’ events.

Executive orders targeting refugees, “sanctuary” cities, the Dakota Access and KeystonePipelines, the Affordable Care Act, the so-called Mexico City policy (also known as the Global Gag rule), and the border wall, among others, sparked global outrage. It was both heartening and incredibly depressing to see the scale of our indignation played out in airports and street corners across the country this weekend. It has finally become clear that we no longer have the luxury of our complacency; protest is now a necessity.

But protesting alone is not a sustainable long-term strategy. This administration did not come to fruition by chance. It capitalized on systemic oppression and the seeds of white middle-class discontent sown years ago. It is dangerous, frankly, to underestimate the level of strategy that has gone into harvesting the fear and anger that continue to plague middle America as major industries move to automate production and their way of life disappears. We must counteract accordingly.

At the Women’s March on Washington, the sheer number of people shouting, “This is what democracy looks like,” gave strength to the notion that we’re in this together — the earth shook a little on January 21, 2017. But speakers at both the Women’s March in D.C. earlier this month and the Portland Jetport last Sunday (as 1500 people protested Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban) voiced the same point — this is going to be a long fight. We’re not just preparing ourselves for four years of Donald Trump, we’re gearing up for a lifetime of fighting fascism. We must have a cohesive strategy to stamp out the bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and systemic oppression that destabilize this country.

That process has already begun in many ways. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported a record $24.1M in donations this weekend. A pivotal component of activism must be continued funding of organizations like the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR), Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), EarthJustice, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), and the Native American Rights Fund, among others. These national organizations ensure we are representing the interests of our most vulnerable populations facing immediate hardship by this administration. They are essential to our resistance.

We must also work locally. We must support Maine-based organizations like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, EqualityMaine, the Southern Maine Workers' Center, and the Maine Justice Foundation, among many others. There are Maine-based chapters of national organizations that require our time, money, and attention. Local advocacy is integral to substantive change.

We must hold local and state representatives accountable. We must support an ever-skeptical and robust media. We must recognize our own levels of privilege and champion those who do not possess the same status. We must engage in our civic duty by attending city council meetings. We must have uncomfortable conversations about race and oppression. We must educate ourselves about the role our nation plays in the global economy and the responsibilities that accompany our successes and our failures. We must focus our energy on sustainable action.

We must become citizens.

And perhaps most importantly, after a week of protesting assaults on our democracy, we must practice self-care. Physically and mentally, we must prepare ourselves for a test in endurance. After reading this column, take deep breaths and turn off your social media accounts. Make tea. Read a lighthearted novel. Go for a walk. Knit. Meditate. Do the hokey pokey.

Because tomorrow, and every day from here on out, we’ll be resisting, and we need allies who can fight.

The Rules of Engagement: Stand As An Ally

The coming year promises to be a tumultuous time for our country and our state. Few can remember a recent time when the gap between political parties, and the rhetoric that defines them, has ever felt so uncompromisingly divisive. Our collective pride as a nation seems to be crumbling under the weight of our differences and our lack of self-awareness. The future seems bleakly overshadowed by loud voices seeking to outshout one another.

In the coming months, I’ll be using this new column to both listen and speak on the importance of shared perspective. I hope to discuss the avenues through which we can enact change and find common ground. I’ll focus on the reality of what it means to be an effective ally, collaborator, or partner.

These roles, particularly for a population like Maine’s, where disenfranchised and minority communities represent such a small portion of the demographic, are going to be vital in the coming months and years — the ways in which we treat people without access to power are indicative of our society’s morality. Developing a frame of reference for our actions is no less important than actual activism.

Amidst the calls for unity and civility, for reaching across the aisle, are legitimate concerns regarding the normalization of bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. This space won’t seek to legitimize hate or intolerance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1000 bias-related harassment or intimidation incidents were reported in the month following the election.

As a writer, a woman, and a person of color, particularly one of Muslim heritage, I’m acutely aware of these incidents on both a local and national scale, especially as a relative newcomer to Maine.

After nearly a decade spent in bustling cities on both coasts, it’s a joyous thing to be greeted by the clean smell of pine and sea salt every morning. This return to New England has reminded me of the values of my childhood — there is comfort in listening to the familiar accents of my new neighbors. I find their fierce self-sufficiency incredibly soothing.

My slow discovery of this city during winter, when it is uncluttered by tourists, has been a pleasure. From the perspective-challenging panels hosted at SPACE Gallery to the gifted local musical talent showcased at Portland House of Music to the stellar reputation of Portland’s food and drink scene — it’s almost enough to make me consider becoming a food critic rather than the cultural and political blogger I’ve been for the last several years.

Almost.

My love for New England has been tempered by the fact that in Portland, I don’t have the benefit of anonymity. Strangers stop to ask my ethnic background or try to speak to me in Spanish, while others offer sincere but truly offensive “compliments” on my unusual name.

Every sly mention that I must be “from away” has shuttered some of the camaraderie I have felt being back amongst my fellow New Englanders. In my home state of Vermont, "from away" is placed with "flatlander”—we take our green mountains seriously. My time spent in New Hampshire has mostly been hiking in the Whites, where people generally do you the favor of a simple, curt nod to conserve breath, but I’m sure there’s an equivalent phrase that fulfills the same purpose—to separate us from one another.

I’ve been mulling over that phrase, “from away”, ever since I moved here. It’s certainly taken on new context given the upcoming administration, but it’s also given me some perspective on the entrenched ideals that make New England such a unique place to call home. For so many of us, the phrase “from away” is nothing more than a cute term to differentiate ourselves from people who have never worn Muck boots. To others, it’s alienating and disheartening.

Perhaps it’s time to create a new language for how to identify our differences and our similarities.

I’m looking forward to having these conversations with Mainers, the ones who were born here and the ones who have adopted this state as their home.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I look forward to hearing from you and facilitating the frank discussions that will help us grow. I wish us all a happy New Year. 

  • Published in Columns
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