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Let's Talk About Oppression

History tells us the end results aren't pretty



The Charlotte singer featured in this week's music section grew up with bombs falling and cars exploding all around him. He grew up around people who were put up against walls and executed, got nailed to doors, had their arms sawed off with daggers.

Michael Stephens didn't grow up in the Middle East or in an African-American or Latino neighborhood in the U.S., where people are targeted for the color of their skin or the language they speak. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, where almost everybody was white and spoke English. In Northern Ireland during that dark period, you could be executed for having the wrong name.

Stephens called himself "Mickey" when his band the Mighty Shamrocks played in the no-go zones of Derry, where in the late 1960s the Irish Catholic minority, oppressed by the Protestant majority for centuries, had begun amping up violence in a desperate fight for their civil rights. Stephens grew up Protestant, which made him a target in certain areas.

By the 1970s, some Northern Irish Catholic groups had resorted to unspeakable acts of violence as a way to combat the unspeakable oppression they felt. That led to unspeakable violence in return by Protestant extremists. And the cycle of unspeakable violence continued for three long decades.

"Being in a band, you were at risk," Stephens tells me in "'The Troubles' with Mickey," my story on the singer. "Because you were going into areas — into bars and into neighborhoods — where you weren't supposed to be and where you could end up dead if you didn't watch yourself."

Stephens and the Shamrocks — a mixed group of two Protestants and two Catholics — weren't particularly political. "I was Protestant," he says. "But all my friends were Catholic, and so that just gets into everything — those cultural divisions, that tribal identity."

'Wasteground' cover
  • 'Wasteground' cover

The Shamrocks tried to stay out of the fray, but it wasn't easy, and Stephens' memories from his young adulthood in Northern Ireland has dogged him for decades. This week, his Charlotte band Poor Blue officially releases Wasteground, a new concept album in which Stephens reflects on the trauma that he and his old mates back home experienced in the '70s and '80s.

Too often in the United States, we equate oppression and terrorism with skin color or language differences, but the Northern Irish conflict makes it clear that oppression is not necessarily an issue of color. Oppression happens when tribes of powerful people discriminate against vulnerable people, be they in Ireland, the Middle East, Africa, Central or South America or the United States. And if we don't keep oppression in check, it's almost inevitable that violence will follow.

Issues surrounding oppression is a theme in this week's Creative Loafing, and the problem seems to come down to this: When people are oppressed, they are going to fight back. And when people continue to be oppressed and pushed around at the whims of powerful people or powerful governments, they're going to continue fighting back with ever-increasing vigor.

We're watching that play out right now in Gaza, where everyday Palestinians are hemmed in behind big walls and harassed at checkpoints. We call their reactions "terrorism." We say their oppressors are just "upholding the law."

We also see it in the streets of urban America, where people of color are regularly pulled over by government officials — the police — and sometimes brutalized.

And we're seeing it in the #MeToo movement, where women, tired of being sexually harassed by men, are standing up and saying, "No more." In recent weeks, #MeToo has come home to Charlotte, where several men in positions of power have been accused of harassment. Late last year, a prominent Charlotte doctor, Jonathan Christenbury, surrendered his medical license after he was accused of sexual harassment. Last month, Kyle Conti, the owner of a Charlotte yoga studio, temporarily stepped down after responding to allegations of sexual harassment by posting an Instagram photo of himself wrapped only in a towel, mocking those who'd made the allegations against him.

And now, in Charlotte's arts community, Jim McGuire, a respected photographer who has done work for Creative Loafing and other Charlotte businesses and arts organizations, has been accused of creating an unsafe environment at his 1212 Studio. In this week's cover story, Erin Tracy-Blackwood talks to McGuire and his accusers about allegations that have rocked the city's creative community. McGuire says it's all a big misunderstanding. His accusers say his behavior is part of a pattern of harassment.

However these situations pan out, one thing is for sure: Charlotte needs to talk about them, as we have talked about issues of police violence against people of color and harassment of our Latino neighbors. Because if we don't talk about oppression, pushback is sure to follow, and that pushback can become violent. History tells us this.

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