Wednesday, June 3: Home fires

Much like our politicians, Facebook is evil; but, in the same way that everyone’s local politicians are not quite so horrible (not like in those other places), the places we hang out on Facebook are mostly just fine. Local history Facebook groups are usually a cut above the community groups (where “What are all those sirens?” and “Watch out for the Verizon FIOS people knocking on everyone’s doors” are standards) and, if well moderated, can actually control the repetitive posts about “Remember Captain Kangaroo?”

I’m co-moderator of the awkwardly named Fairmount History and Surrounding Areas, where it is implicitly understood that “The Magic Toyshop” is off topic. It has taken some years to develop the group into a place where memories of sliding downhill behind the mall on naked store mannequins can live naturally side by side with seriously arcane stuff about the 1790’s. Fortunately the co-moderators are of a like mind, and I, personally, think they have made it the best local nostalgia group on Facebook.

Last Saturday, Syracuse’s first spontaneously assembled crowd of demonstrators decided to leave downtown by foot and by car, and for reasons unknown, chose to head out toward Camillus. The word was that they wanted to go somewhere where the cops actually lived. (I’m not aware of there being a high concentration of Syracuse cops in the town, but who am I to argue.) I later found out that I was not the only local resident who rushed down to West Genesee Street to wait for their arrival at Fairmount and witness or perhaps even follow. (I was impressed and a little concerned that kids were also walking with the crowd all that way.)

However, nobody came. History did not come marching by. It turns out that they stopped in Solvay instead and assembled there, and while things were raucous and a little tense, no serious incidents occurred. The marchers went back to Syracuse and mostly went home peacefully, and the rest (the window smashing and tear gas) came later.

The next morning, we woke up to the unwelcome news that — despite it being surrounded by Camillus cops throughout the early evening — a small group of unknown people had snuck over to Fairmount Fair at 3 a.m., smashed a single plate glass door at the Target, and made off with a couple of TVs. Whoever they were, they were probably disappointed that nobody was there to watch them being unimaginative copycats.

However, as Sunday night wore on, the spirit of protest metamorphosed into its current form (tonight is the fifth night of marching). The marchers have vowed to keep perambulating through Syracuse for forty days and forty nights. It seems that eventually they will probably take their message outside of the city and go into the suburbs. It is disappointing to think that, perhaps because of the Target incident, they might not want to come back this way (or that others might dissuade them).

Nevertheless, we still have time to get ready.

I’m hopeful that this time things are different, but all too often, racial justice protests have grown a peach fuzz of “kumbaya” that feels good in the moment in a very nonspecific way. Marchers take their city back — for a while — but when the cameras go away, the fellow-travelers do too. It would be very easy to head downtown and join Saturday’s big demonstration. It’s only 20 minutes away. But I’m going to say that what those of us in the suburbs really ought to be doing is staying home and talking about real, specific things about their own communities — and talking to other privileged people — in preparation for when the march actually gets to where you actually are.

While I’m glad that Syracuse.com recently removed their toxic comments sections, in some ways that couldn’t have come at a worse time. The conversations we have to have now are going to be uncomfortable and any toxins must come to the surface. Otherwise, things aren’t going to move forward. We won’t be able to get our experiences to link up. No ground will be gained. Without a comments section, and with no local forums, we don’t have a place to talk. And local journalists, as good as they are, often do not know what we, the commentariat, know about our own communities and their pasts.

One of the reasons I have no ambitions to write a history of anything local is probably that I have too much worry about creating an “Our Wonderful Town” self-published pamphlet that 75 years from now will smell just like a stale church basement. In my newspaper travels through the early 20th century, I would read about “minstrel shows” in Fairmount and other localities put on as church benefits, and try to convince myself that they weren’t that kind of minstrel show. This stopped when last year I got definitive proof that, yeah, they were that kind of show — when a fellow local enthusiast sent me an obscure history of the Fairmount schools and, yup, there it was. The shows were real, they took place in the 1940s or perhaps even later, and kids were involved. Wearing blackface and more.

I had intended to post this on our group, but hesitated, as the time never seemed to be right. We have some very old-timers on our group, who might have even participated in these shows, and I wondered how they would react. And Fairmount has other, very current problematic optics that have slid under the newspapers’ radar — such as an Indian mascot that is so prominent that it almost hides in plain sight, and is a head-scratcher on several levels. In truth, I wanted to hold on to the minstrel-show information until I could get a better handle on why the Indian mascot even exists, as they seemed somehow both of a certain time of origin. I want to learn about the specifics. I want to ask more questions before attempting to write anything, so that my aim was true.

But you can’t do that with important information. You really can’t pick and choose and strategize about when to discuss it. And in the absence of a neighborhood newspaper, we’re very lucky that we have the kind of local history discussion group where we are accustomed to read about wide-ranging subjects.

This is the moment to go ahead and begin the work that all the local communities are going to have to do, using whatever tools and forums we have. So, now we are beginning to have a discussion about those shows — and, as expected, memories of even more recent vintage are being dislodged concerning racial bias incidents in Fairmount. It has been a calm discussion so far. As certain topics are uncovered, it may grow more heated.

The road to change goes past your own house. In my opinion, if you want to support the marchers, get the rocks out of the road.