Back to Home

At the Supreme Court part 1: Incoming Call

Journal from January 15, 2017: 3 days before oral arguments at the Supreme Court

A few days ago, I went to the airport about 10 hours before my 6am flight due to the massive winter storm that hit Portland. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get to the airport if the storm continued. So, I called an Uber and took a ride that lasted about three times longer than normal. I met Joe (guitar) there and we huddled up in an abandoned corner of the airport to work and sleep. I spent most of the night answering interview questions and trading emails before falling asleep for a few hours before walking to our gate.

I’m on the plane to Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC. I just finished watching a boxing movie called Hands of Stone. For the past seven months, I’ve been training at a fight gym where I’ve been learning a bit of boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, and crossfit training so the film caught my attention. While the sport of boxing was certainly central to it, it was really about a Panamanian street fighter named Roberto Duran who quickly ascended to the lightweight boxing champion of the world. Audiences from barrios and slums throughout Panama cheered him on, especially in light of tense U.S-Panama relationships. For them, he was the pride of the streets. For them, his victories represented overcoming an unjust system – each punch he threw had the hopes of these marginalized communities with them.

I’m not saying that our trademark fight at the Supreme Court represents anything quite as dramatic. It is definitely not. However, when marginalized groups like communities of color have to experience navigating a system that has systemic and institutional inequality embedded throughout, these minor jabs at larger powers carry more significance. Over the past few months, I had been receiving encouraging messages from others who have been pinning their hopes on our fight – no, not the Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins, but other groups who had parallel experiences to our own.

I learned about one of those groups this week: an all-female badass rock n’ roll group who had their trademark registration denied. Their name? Thunderpussy. Of course, the Trademark Office squirmed at the word “pussy” when it was embraced by this collection of feminist musicians…but it had no qualms about approving registrations for pornographic companies with the same word. The frustration isn’t just the misunderstanding about our intentions when it comes to reclaiming words. It is centered around control: who gets to control our language, symbols, words, stereotypes, and ideas? When one lives in a system that does not respect your identity – be it a racial, religious, political, sexual, gendered, or intersection of those areas – being told that the cultural and political decisions about your identity rest with someone else is insulting. Who are they to be the arbiters of our own communities?

Reappropriation isn’t just about an attempt to change the meaning of words or symbols. It’s really about ownership. And that’s why it is so effective. As Eric Liu quips, “wit neuters malice.”

It’s also why it is so confusing.

We’re so used to one dominant group steering the cultural waters of how we navigate society. The laws, how we interact with government and our communities, how we receive information is dictated by cultural norms that are rooted in whiteness (note: different than white people). So when something breaks from that tradition – like a black Santa Claus in the mall or when people reclaim stigmatizing labels – reactions can be mixed. All of a sudden, folks aren’t quite sure who is in control. They’re not sure who gets to say what or how they say it. Destabilizing that control allows for suppressed groups to gain power, the power to change how they interact with the world…on their terms.

We land in DC and it seems like the chaos begins. Even though we took the red eye, I already have another 1200 messages waiting for me. While walking through the airport, a law professor recognizes me and asks for a selfie. Things feel a bit surreal.

Throughout the last few days, we’ve bounced around from one interview to another. We work on legal things in between: going to moot court (it’s like Supreme Court rehearsal), picking up guitars at the Gibson showroom for our shows during the week, finding food when possible. But with every waking moment, it seems it is answering one call or email after another. Nearly every single interview asks the same series of questions – so much so, I wish I could just have an answer sheet pre-filled out for them. It would certainly save everyone more time. I often wonder why journalists don’t try searching for some of these answers first…because there are literally thousands of articles and videos of me answering the one thing everyone demands to know: how did I come up with the name, The Slants?

Eventually, we go to the Supreme Court building. The court room is far smaller than I thought it would be – in fact, it’s smaller than the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (where we last fought and won). Many of the hallways and stairways make the building seem more like a museum than a working office. At one point, we found the office for the Solicitor General, the attorney who will be arguing against us in court. We joke about possible pranks and hijinks, obviously with reference to Harry Potter (and coincidentally, the name of our new release is THE BAND WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED, another nod to the geeky franchise).

The moments between moot court, a visit to the Supreme Court, and sleep have been pretty much filled with phone interviews and more emails. Answering the same questions in the same way, telling the same stories that have been told for nearly ten years now. I’m looking forward to the day when the story will be complete – and hopefully, with full context and truth.