Deon Green (in the American flag T-shirt): “I woke up and said to myself, ‘I’m going to get arrested today.’ ”
I’ve known Deon Green for years. I’ve known him as a local comic, as a great person to have on a camping trip and as one of Madison’s finest practitioners of the art of karaoke.
Recently, I’ve had the chance to get to know Deon Green, the activist. Deon has been increasingly concerned with social justice issues for a while. When Tony Robinson was shot only a few blocks away from Deon’s girlfriend’s place, it kicked his activism into high gear.
Deon was one of the protesters arrested last Wednesday for blocking traffic on Doty Street. His photo was everywhere after the arrest — in most of the major newspapers in the state, on local TV news, even in Isthmus.
I sat down with Deon to find out what that very unusual day was like. Warning to those who like their interviews concise: I’m talking with a guy I’ve known for years, so be prepared for tangents.
What was it like seeing your picture get all over the media?
It was weird. I had people posting on Facebook — “I saw you here, I saw you there.” I haven’t looked myself up because I’m sure there are people calling me all sorts of words based on my picture. But some teenagers recognized me on the bus yesterday. It was nice to be able to tell them I’m still feeling positive about everything.
Did you start the morning knowing how your day was going to turn out?
Actually, I did. I woke up and said to myself, “I’m going to get arrested today.” Which was a weird thought to have. I’ve never been arrested before. But I knew I had to be there because the media was going to tell a story about the day, and I wanted to play a part in shaping that story. It’s so easy to shape this as just black people being angry.
Right, if a demonstration turns violent, that’s the only storyline that gets out there. I’m sure if you went outside right now and talked to people on the street, most of them would have no idea what the actual timeline was like in Baltimore.
So much of that started with cops intimidating high school students. Not letting them go home. The cops in Baltimore were looking for a riot.
When did you realize it was going to be a big rally?
It was when we passed under Monona Terrace; the whole place echoed with our voices. It built so much energy hearing our chants reverberate. It was dark under there, too, on a sunny day. So we get energized by our chants and then we walked out of the darkness and into the light. Everybody’s energy level was huge after that.
So what was it like when you reached Doty Street?
It felt like a party. The energy was big, it was hopeful.
I imagine it had to be. If you were angry, that gives people a storyline to use against you.
Exactly, because there were a lot of people watching us. There’s a bunch of people who join in or show solidarity in some way. But a lot of people just watched. It felt like “White Bear” (an episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror), crazy stuff is happening and people on the sidewalk are just watching. But they aren’t looking at you directly; they are looking down at their phones and taking pictures or recording video of everything.
What happened during your arrest?
The organizers went around one more time and told everyone who was still in the street they could go. If they couldn’t afford the ticket or if they didn’t want to get arrested, they could just leave with no judgment. And there was one woman who really did want to stay until they made it clear that she wasn’t betraying the cause by leaving.
So you knew they were going to start arresting people?
You knew it before anybody said anything. You could tell by the numbers of cops who were around. There used to be one cop standing by those steps, now there are three. There were two cops at that corner, now there’s eight. You could tell they were getting ready.
I know they led you into vans and then sent you off to Goodman Pool.
Yeah, and those cops were nice to me. I’m a tall guy but they tried to make the van as comfortable for me as possible. Then, they took us to the pool.
Were you outside?
No, we were inside, all handcuffed in a row. The kid next to me, 17 or 18, said to me, “Just look at all the different people who are in here. All ages, all races, all sexual orientations.” It was like the universe was speaking to me through that kid. That’s a really deep thing to say, particularly from a kid who has just been arrested.
Yeah, I was always terrified anytime I had to deal with the cops when I was that age.
Then we got processed. The cop was a guy about my same age. We talked about the Milwaukee Bucks. It was weird. A lot of the cops were very nice. I liked them as people. At the same time, I thought about how they were so many times more likely to arrest me because of my skin color.
Most cops are wonderful people. It is the system that has problems. Good people can do good things but the good intentions get all twisted around because of a bad system.
Yeah, it’s all so complicated. There’s so many layers to everything. I’m just realizing my own privilege. I’ve got a penis so I’ve got some privilege. This whole movement that’s sprung up over the last few months all over the country, it’s been a lot of queer black women leading the charge. They are the ones killing it on Twitter tearing down a lot of layers of privilege. It would just be so much easier if everything had two easy sides. If I could say all cops are the problem, or if I could hate everyone who posts the “All Lives Matter” hashtag.
The All Lives Matter folks are interesting. Sure, some of them are racists. But a lot of them, the vast majority, just genuinely think we already live in a post-racial society.
Yeah, they have the same dream. They just don’t realize we aren’t there yet.
Sometimes I’d rather talk with somebody who is idealistic but is lacking information than with someone who doesn’t think things can get better.
And it is important to know that things will get better. That’s why I was wearing an American flag T-shirt on Wednesday. A lot of black people don’t like the flag because of what it symbolizes about our history, and I get that. But this country is my home, and I know it can be a better place. I was out there on Wednesday because I have a 1-year-old niece, and things are going to be better for her than they were when I was growing up.