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.
You say you want a revolution? Andrew Tolman says the Deaf community better be involved.
"When we talk about Black Lives Matter, that means Black Disabled Lives Matter and Black Deaf Lives Matter," says Tolman, an American Sign Language interpreter and founder of Portland's Fingers Crossed Interpreting. "When meetings and workshops and know-your-rights trainings are being held without engaging those communities, we're just doing the same thing and building a new system excluding a lot of intersections."
After participating in the Occupy ICE protests in 2018, Tolman, a self-professed "linguistics nerd" who taught themselves sign language at a young age before majoring in it at Pima Community College in their hometown of Tucson, Ariz., started Fingers Crossed primarily as a means of connecting ASL interpreters with social justice movements—the organization's tagline is "Revolutionize the Revolution."
And with a revolution currently unfolding on the streets across America, Tolman has been busy.
In between interpreting for speakers at more formal actions organized by groups such as Care Not Cops, Tolman, who uses they/them pronouns, has spent many of their nights the last three weeks on the front lines of the protest, helping Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing demonstrators navigate a situation that can turn chaotic at any moment. That means not just relaying the Portland Police Bureau's warnings, but conveying the intent behind them.
"As an interpreter, I'm listening for that escalation. I'm listening for the way the crowd sounds as things are happening. I'm listening for how people are responding," they say. "We're not only interpreting the words but also the feel of the things going on around us."
It's a good deal of pressure, Tolman admits. But as they told WW, increasingly, they're not having to take it on entirely by themselves.
WW: Give me the mission statement for Fingers Crossed Interpreting.
Andrew Tolman: The official mission statement of Fingers Crossed has yet to be determined. It's kind of a shifting as the community needs thing. Our mission itself was born out of Occupy ICE PDX, out of Philip Wolfe's City Council campaigns and a number of other actions around town that needed ASL interpreters but weren't sure where to get them. Our goal is to provide accessibility as a means of inclusion regardless of budget restrictions or any other systematic restrictions.
The group's tag line is "Revolutionize the Revolution." Do you feel the Deaf community has been overlooked in the activist community?
Ableism is very prevalent in general in our society. I don't think it's specifically against one side or another. Most groups and most movements right now have inaccessibility and inherent ableism. I've also seen a push over the last few years in a lot of these movements to undue that and actively find ways to engage the community that I don't necessarily see on the right wing side or any other side, frankly. People forget disability and deafness, which are two separate things, can intersect with any other identity. When we talk about Black Lives Matter, that means Black Disabled Lives Matter and Black Deaf Lives Matter. When meetings and workshops and know-your-rights trainings are being held without engaging those communities, we're just doing the same thing and building a new system excluding a lot of intersections and forgetting a lot of intersections. It's intent versus impact as well. So I want to call people out for saying things they're involved in are revolutionary when they're very inherently ableistic. And if they're not prioritizing that, that's a dialogue we need to be having for sure.
Does interpreting for protests or social justice actions require a specific skill set for an interpreter?
One thing, a lot of concepts we're talking about, like capitalism, imperialism, big jargon words like that in activist circles, don't have established sign language vocabulary. A lot of the time we're having to sign around the concept or finger spell it, or work with members of the Deaf community to come up with a sign that might be appropriate. For example, the other night we had Deaf people who were hit physically by crowd control munitions, and the sign we were using was this [signs a gun shape], which usually denotes a gun or actual firearm. We didn't want that concept to be confused when sharing information later. So the group of us came up with a thicker gun sign that's not established and no one else uses it, but in that moment and now in these circles we're using it to explain a phenomenon that doesn't really have a word. So interpreters have to be able to understand conceptually what they're talking about and have that be as culturally competent in Deaf ASL as we can. As second language users, that's very hard.
Another level of it is vicarious trauma, and probably direct trauma as well, depending on their involvement. We interpret for families of people who have been murdered by the police here, we interpret for people who themselves are survivors of police brutality. I myself interpreting have experienced police brutality firsthand. So the movement of a story, and the trauma to make it dynamically equivalent as an interpreter requires a level of empathy we can't avoid. When we are in the middle of a very tense escalation or situation, we're sort of an empathy sponge, and pulling in all of that. Interpreters need to be aware of that before they enter any space like this. It's going to be heavy, and regardless of how you feel about one issue or another, who you agree with or not, it's moving through your body and moving through your psyche. I wouldn't say all interpreters are called to do that in the same way I wouldn't say all people belong on the frontline.
What are the challenges of interpreting while on the frontlines of a protest, in a chaotic situation?
I want to make sure whatever's important for me and my safety auditorily, that I'm giving that information. I can hear when certain crowd control munitions are being shot, even if it's not in our direction. I can hear the air cannon rebounding off the fence. I can hear how far away the bang is. I can hear the helicopter has circled back over us and is no longer on the other side of town. I can hear the police giving instructions in general, saying, "This is a peaceful protest," into "please don't touch the fence" into "this is unlawful," all the things they say within 30 minutes. None of that is inaccessible, there is clearly no consideration for accessibility at all. Frankly, it doesn't feel like they care if someone can hear it or not, it's more for them to say they can do it, so they can say, "Well, we tried, now we're going to beat the fuck out of people."
As an interpreter, I'm listening for that escalation. I'm listening for the way the crowd sounds as things are happening. i'm listening for how people are responding. If the cops say, for example, "This is an unlawful gathering, remove yourself from the area or you will be subject to arrest or use of force including crowd control munitions"—that's tethered into my brain now because I've interpreted it so many times—I can hear the way the crowd responds to that, whether they're going to listen, whether it's going to be an escalation and when that's going to happen. We're not only interpreting the words but also the feel of the things going on around us.
It sounds like that puts a lot of responsibility on your back. Is there a lot of pressure on you in those situations?
It's pressure I feel like I chose. Anytime I'm in an action that way, I have eyes at every hour—my 6, 3 and 9—and I'm watching comrades and protesters, especially because we have so many new people. There are so many people who are experiencing this for the first time. And because the Deaf community is experiencing it with them together, there's a bond that happens as well. The pressure is not so much completely on me, because the [National Lawyers Guild] is now knowledgeable that there are Deaf people in the crowd, medics know Deaf people are over here, people are signing the chants with us in solidarity. There's this whole community response that happens too, so I feel while I have pressure, it's more a responsibility I'm willing to take on, and as we show up more and more, the community is taking that on together.
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