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Democracy in America: a day in infamy
The State of the Union, at the dawn of 2021
I didn’t intend for this to be my first newsletter post of 2021. But here we are.
Watching the events unfold yesterday I felt a wave of emotions pass over me.
First, the familiar bolt of adrenaline: something is going down. Then, deep concern for all the public servants doing their jobs, fear for their lives, especially for Hill staffers and legislative aides, roles many of my friends continue to serve in. Concern for folks in the neighborhood: I started texting my friends who still live and work there. Then disgust with Trump. Not surprise, not even anger, just disgust — there is no end to his narcissism. Then, anger, hot anger, primarily directed at his enablers, principally Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. Then anger, less hot, directed at the protestors, especially the armed white nationalists. Then a cascading set of emotions for the other protestors: anger yes, but also pity — yes they are accountable for their actions, but they have not been well-served by people they should be able to trust.
Then anger at the Capitol Police: how could they be so unprepared for an event that was literally broadcast by the president on a national platform, with weeks of advance planning? Mixed with ambivalence about the response: the obvious contrast to how law enforcement responded to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, anger at the recent memory of police giving the shooter in Wisconsin water before he murdered innocent people. But: nor do I want the military engaging in a shooting battle on the crowded streets of our nation’s capital.
Finally: embarrassment. And sadness. For our country, and the symbolism of Confederate flags and antisemitic propaganda marched across the Capitol rotunda, the disrespect of a man putting his feet up on the Speaker of the House’s desk, or taking the dais in the Senate… indelible images striking at the symbolic heart of our democracy.
Holding multiple truths
Two things are true at the same time: this is who we are. And this is not who we aspire to be. Both things are incredibly important. There is no path forward that does not begin with an honest reckoning of where we are, and how we got here. That requires a reckoning: truth must precede reconciliation.
But it is not where we want to stay. The fact that this event shocked the collective conscience, the fact that it makes us sad, and angry, and embarrassed, tells us that we expect better, that we want something different. It illuminates the potential for change: the gap between our aspirations and our reality.
We are a country that less than 12 hours earlier had elected the first Black Democrat to the U.S. Senate in the South, finally beginning to step out of the long shadow of the Confederacy, and America’s original sin. It was Black women leading the way, doing for our country what we have never done for them, breathing life into the possibility of multiracial democracy.
But that long shadow is still here, and yesterday we saw what it looks like: desperate white people, mostly men, clinging to the symbols of power in the form of guns and flags, seeking someone to blame.
Toward “just mercy”
As I tried to process everything I was feeling — going for a walk, calling friends, allowing myself to feel, listening to what was underneath my feelings — I came back to this: we don’t have trusted leaders.
I thought about who I wanted to hear from, who I wanted to listen to, who I wanted to help make sense of what I’m seeing and feeling. And our offerings don’t serve us. The dominant discourses don’t offer the complexity, nuance, and depth of care I’m looking for. I’m lucky that I know who I want to listen to. I decided I wanted to hear from john a. powell, Bryan Stevenson, and adrienne maree brown. There are others, of course. But I sensed that those three in particular could help guide us through this dark night.
In particular I found myself reflecting on Bryan’s concept of “just mercy”: pairing justice — which requires repairing the harm, first centering those who have been harmed — with mercy, which requires atonement and accountability, centering those who have caused the harm. Too often we center those causing the harm, and split along punishment (no repair) and exculpation (no accountability).
I found myself returning to his metaphor of stone-catchers. He revisits the parable of Jesus saying “let he without sin cast the first stone.” And notes that in the heightened polarization and trauma and tension of this current moment… we can’t rely on people to put down their stones, to do the right thing. But nor can we allow someone to be stoned. What is needed is something incredibly difficult: people to intervene, to step into the fray, and catch the stones.
My favorite practitioner right now on this is Kazu Haga, who works in the Kingian tradition of nonviolence. Here’s how he frames the challenge; it’s not for the faint of heart:
We are in need of a truly nonviolent revolution, not just of systems and policies, but also of worldviews and relationships. We need to understand that people are never the enemy, that violence and injustice itself is what we need to defeat, and that the goal of every conflict must be reconciliation.
How do I want to show up in this moment?
This is the question I returned to. This is a hugely consequential moment: it requires acknowledgment. We cannot go on with business as usual as armed protestors seek to overthrow an election.
But: how to show up in the world in a way that moves in the direction of justice, that embodies my deep yearning for a world where everyone belongs?
A friend asked me yesterday whether the day’s events changed how I think about Building Belonging. The answer is no. Building Belonging for me emerged specifically out of my concern with the global rise of authoritarianism, and its incarnation here in the U.S. with white nationalism. Yesterday’s events shocked me… but they didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen this play out in many countries around the world, and it’s been clear to me that this is the path we have been on. But it’s not inevitable: humans have agency. We made these systems… we can remake them.
But it does remind me how hard this is. Can we create an “us” without a “them”? I believe the answer is yes, but in a world with Parler and Qanon and Trumpism, aided and abetted by the Rupert Murdochs and Josh Hawleys, funded by the Kochs and the Robert Mercers, enabled by Facebook and Twitter… it’s also extremely difficult.
But we shouldn’t mistake the backlash for the trend. January 5th in Georgia is the trend, led by courageous organizers grounded in Black communities and communities of color across the South and the country. January 6th in DC was the backlash, led by scared and desperate White people. And today, the early morning hours of January 7th, the U.S. Congress reconvened to certify the results of our election. Trumpism is not gone, and Biden will not save us… but we are moving forward.
I am reminded that the arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice on its own; we need to act with intention, making real our aspirations in our actions.