Black Lives Matter Tokyo March – June 14, 2020

Black Lives Matter Tokyo March – June 14, 2020

In January 1991 I was attending college in Chicago when the first Gulf War started.  I was opposed to this show of military force and decided to join a protest on a chilly, windswept day.  I marched with a sign that read “No Blood For Oil” and chanted the requisite slogans.  As we marched along Lake Shore Drive, policemen in riot gear kept swooping in, screaming at protestors, creating pockets of chaos which shifted the direction of the march, keeping people off-balance.  Literally, off-balance.  I found myself popped, like a watermelon seed shot from between sticky fingers, off the path and into a patch of ice — in a comedic moment, I ran in place, my feet cycling in the air until I landed with a hard thud on my ass.  I was immediately surrounded by mounted police, their horse’s hoofs stomping the ground by my skull.  I curled into a fetal ball and was kicked around by the horses until I heard chants of “The Whole World Is Watching” and “Shame! Shame” and some people broke through the equine circle and pulled me to safety.  It did not actually hurt that much — my adrenaline saw to that — but it was terrifying.  I thought to myself, well, I may be good at a bunch of things, but definitely not protesting.  I remembered those words and that fear over the next couple of decades, marking myself as a liability for protests.  Happy to write a check.  Not so happy to protest.

A week ago I saw a notice for a Black Lives Matter march in Tokyo to be held on June 14th.  I sensed that this would be a low-threat proposal — no mounted cops, no mace, no teargas; I hoped no batons or violent counter-protestors.  So, I asked my kids if they had an interest in coming with me.  They agreed.  The march seemed very organized, with daily updates on marching routes, bold graphics for posters that could be printed at your local conbini, and even legal tips for foreign nationals in case of any run-ins with the police. My daughter really liked the idea of making signs.  We went through a couple of different ideas. “Stop Killing the Black People” was a good message, but a bit ill-defined when exhibited in Tokyo where, so far as I know, no black people have been killed by police. We settled on: “Treat Others As You Want To Be Treated” and it was duly colored in with all the colors in the rainbow.  My son’s was stark: “Black Lives Matter.”  When Sunday arrived, it was raining and I got some grumbles.  Gathering up my deep knowledge and skill at guilt provocation, I made it clear that it would be embarrassing if, in 25 years, my future grandkids were reading about this period in history and asked my son if he marched, and his response was, “No. I was afraid to get wet.”

After 4 months of basically isolating, it was a little unnerving to be surrounded by 4000 people at the meeting point in Shibuya’s Yoyogi Park.  The organizers were very helpful, making sure everyone was masked, obeying some degree of social distancing and handing out little bottles of “Black Lives Matter” hand sanitizer.   The crowd, which was perhaps 70% foreigners of all ethnicities, was organized into columns, with people standing side-by-side in groups of three (“We will be walking on the sidewalk, so please be aware,” said an organizer).   As I looked around, somewhat amazed by the amount of foreigners, I saw a few dogs, a bunch of kids, some pretty cool signs and no cops whatsoever.  Zero.  The masses of people were startlingly young and pretty calm, quiet.  A couple of loud Brits were beaming a live Instagram and seemed pretty hyped about the possibility of getting into it with counter-protestors.  The first and second columns took off marching and suddenly we were at the front.  And there were the cops.  Lots of them!  Lined up, answering questions from passers-by and wearing raincoats but no riot gear.  Members of the Shibuya City Ward Office also milled about.  A single police officer came to the front of the group, and precisely like a tour guide,  blew his whistle and led us forward. The splitting up of the marchers into columns allowed for the police to keep traffic moving while allowing the marchers to march.  We walked from the park into the heart of Shibuya’s business district.  We took up part of one lane of traffic and people walking on the sidewalks looked on partly with confusion and partly in solidarity — raising their fists, clapping and shouting encouragement.  I felt we must have made an odd sight, a huge group of foreigners marching through Tokyo.  “I thought we were going to chant something?” said my daughter.  “Yeah, this doesn’t really seem like a protest,” my son chimed in.  It was true, we were kind of just parading, holding up our signs, politely stopping at traffic lights as the police officer directed.  I told the kids that I thought the organizers may have been overwhelmed by how many people showed up and weren’t prepared to lead chants.  When we arrived at the Hachiko Statue, a lone organizer, stationery with a megaphone began to intone “Black Lives Matter!!” which we all repeated, loudly, some people raising their fists.  Gradually, we all tapered off.  Few moments of silence, then someone began to shout “No Justice, No Peace!!!”  and again we all raised our voices in unison for five minutes or so until another chant started. (“Say Her Name! Breona Taylor!” and “Sabetsu Hantai,” which means “No Racism” in Japanese.)  The chants were hard to sustain as if we were all collectively feeling a sense of self-consciousness, shouting slogans and names in English; our very reason for marching, directed not towards Tokyo, but over the oceans to the US or even the UK. This is not to say that the problems of racism do not exist in Japan, they totally do.  But this specific racism — the killing of black people by police officers — made me feel our actions were honestly a bit off, wondering if maybe we should be marching to the US embassy, directing our slogans there — something a bit more protesty.   In a moment of silence, I heard my son say, in a voice just a touch louder than his normal tone: “Say His Name.”  I shouted “George Floyd!” and then another chant of “Black Lives Matter” started up.  “You gotta be louder next time.  SHOUT!”  So, as we got pretty close to the end of the march, my son asked if he should try again.  A guy walking next to us, perhaps African, said “Maybe we should say ‘Rayshard Brooks’?” Another guy, German, said, “Is that the guy who was hung to death near the police station?” No, no we explained, he was the guy sleeping in his car, drunk, who was shot to death by the Atlanta PD the night before.  It was, I reflected, a profoundly sick conversation.  I felt dirty even having it.  Even within a two-week time-frame, so many black people have been killed, that all of us marchers had to discuss whose name to say. “He was just sleeping in his car,” the African guy said.  “They didn’t have to kill him.”  No.  No, they didn’t.  “In Tokyo,” he continued, “the police will fight with a guy for 25-30 minutes and they don’t kill anyone. Just fight.”

My son broke the silence, belting out “SAY HIS NAME!”  Me, the African guy, the German and a few others  shouted back “GEORGE FLOYD!”  He picked up steam, bellowing to the heavens, to the gathered onlookers on the walkways spanning the broad avenue, to the tops of buildings and across oceans: SAY HIS NAME!  We   answered “RAYSHARD BROOKS!”  He kept up the chant until the strain and confusion of being just a kid, still new to a life in Japan, and processing the images of the last weeks – knees on necks, cops spraying mace in the face of 8-year-old girls, police vehicles driving over protestors in Brooklyn — and the many conversations about the grinding pain and bloodshed of an American History steeped in racism,  caught up to him and caused his voice to crack as it did when he was 10 and just hitting puberty.   His embarrassment was palpable as his broken voice echoed out into the milling crowd.  He lowered his head, his hand covering his reddened cheeks.  And, then the marchers on all sides, in a moment of empathy that I hope all can emulate, clapped him on the back with encouragement and praised him for taking part, albeit minor, in the necessary work of making the world a little better than it was just minutes before.

Keep raising the dead my friends.  Their cold silence, louder than a gunshot.

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