Author Mitchell S. Jackson Was Spending Quarantine Writing About the 1965 Watts Riots. Then a New Uprising Erupted Right Outside His Window.

He’s been particularly heartened by the images he’s seen coming out of Portland—both the peaceful demonstrations and the more destructive kind.

IMAGE: John Ricard.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

When protests erupted in cities across the United States last week, Mitchell S. Jackson had already spent a year consumed by an older instance of civil unrest in America.

The now New York-based author, whose 2019 book, Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family, is a widely acclaimed account of growing up in Northeast Portland, has been researching the 1965 Watts riots since last May for an upcoming book project.

Related: "Survival Math" Chronicles the Crime and the Community of Northeast Portland in the Late '80s.

It's consumed his life: Since quarantine started, Jackson, 44, spends up to 10 hours per day at his computer. Most nights, he doesn't call it quits until 4:30 in the morning, if not later.

Then, starting last week, many of the scenes he'd been reading and writing about started to replay on his television screen—some just outside his window.

"Everything is the same," says Jackson. "They were flipping over police cars. There was a long stretch in Watts where they burned down every store there, and they called it Charcoal Alley. It got militarized—they called in the National Guard after the second day."

One difference between then and now? It's not just African Americans taking to the street.

He's been particularly heartened by the images he's seen coming out of his hometown—majority white crowds, literally putting their lives on the line in the midst of a pandemic to fight against racial injustice. That goes for both the peaceful demonstrations and the more destructive kind.

"I think you need both the people laying down on the Burnside Bridge and disrupting traffic, and someone who's actually putting a hurting on someone's economic prosperity," he says. "Because you need their attention."

Mitchell spoke to WW about his own experiences with Portland police, the connections between Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, his very low expectations for a potential Joe Biden presidency, and what he sees as the successes of the protests so far—namely, that they've already caused Donald Trump to cower in a bunker.

See more Distant Voices interviews here.

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