There’s a classic experiment in the 1940s that unmasked the true depth of racism in America. Two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, gave black children in New York City four baby dolls, two with dark skin and two with light skin. Then the researchers asked the kids to pick the “good” dolls and the “bad” dolls. The black children generally saw the white dolls as good and black dolls as bad. The experiment was later used to convince the Supreme Court to hear the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1951.
The black doll experiment has been repeated numerous times, well into the 21st century, and still results in gut-wrenching displays of the internalized white supremacy in black children. (Just watch a few on YouTube.) The demonstration has an added value as our attention returns to the Supreme Court and the issue of race, and the coming vacancy of Justice Stephen Breyer. President Biden has said he would nominate a black women to the bench. That means something to the little black girls in Harlem that picked the white doll.
Racism takes many forms. We easily associate it with cross-burning Klansmen and “Whites Only” signs from the Jim Crow days. But it can be a slight as a clutched purse when a black man steps on an elevator, or as insidious as predatory lending from banks who prey on black and brown people. We see it in the causal commentary about “Mexican immigrants” and the bloody tally as hate crimes rise.
But it is also present in absence. For every black boy who has never seen a male teacher who looked like him, or for every Asian girl who as never seen an Asian woman in the media portrayed as anything other than “exotic,” representation is a game changer. We white people never notice this because, quite literally, there are people who look like this in every filed we can imagine. A white fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out of the damn water.
That gets coded as “white is normal,” and every other race is the exception. You don’t have to say, “white person.” You can just say “person,” because their whiteness is assumed (as is their maleness). In the nearly 233 years of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s pretty much been a nonstop sea of white people. That changed in 1967, when President Johnson swore in Thurgood Marshall, who was on the bench until 1991, when he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas and his Pepsi can. Thomas, hasn’t exactly been a civil rights lion, not even offering an opinion until the 2003 Virginia v. Black cross-burning case.
But race is not gender and blackness is not femaleness. Representation is an intersectional matter. Just like there are no actual afro-Caribbeans in Lin-Manuel’s film,In the Heights, (a musical about an afro-Caribbean neighborhood in New York), there have been no black women on the high court. While you might find plenty of black female judges in local courtrooms, 80% of federal judges are white and black women magistrates make up a tiny sliver of the remaining 20%. The addition of a black woman would not only be meaningful to those little black girls (and the thousands of black female attorneys), but it would make a difference to the non-black people, too.
The subtle prejudice of absence is in the lack of affirmation. People thought blacks could never be faster than whites, until Jesse Owens was. People thought a black man could never win the presidency, until Barak Obama did. People thought that a black person could never become a billionaire, until BET founder Robert L. Johnson made it. The Supreme Court is the brain trust of our democracy. The absence of black women sends a subtle message about they capabilities.
The white supremacists over at Fox News are already having a field day, playing the “reverse racism” card to their elderly white audience. The rhetoric goes like this; If Biden picks a black woman for the court, he’s screwing a capable white man out of a job. I wonder how many capable black women have been screwed out that job so a white person and/or a man could be hired. But the white snowflakes are apoplectic over the thought that a black women might have an informed opinion on constitutional matters more rooted in reality than something they heard spewed by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Ted Cruz or any of the other white men who, in the words of James Brown, are talking loud and saying nothing.
As we head into Black History Month we can underestimate the power of firsts. The first black airline pilot (Marlon Green, 1964). The first black pole vaulter to medal at the Olympics (LoJo Johnson, 2000). The first black woman in space (Mae Jamison, 1992). Second and thirds are equally important. Like the court was made up of all white men from 1789 to 1967, there may be a future court where all nine justices are black women. Until then, whoever President Biden picks, will be a reminder to those little black girls to pick the doll that looks like them.
There are a lot of well-meaning people who’s well-meaning actions just make things worse. I’ve certainly been one of those people. Portland is filled with self-proclaimed anti-racists who believe that by smashing windows and setting trashcans on fire, they are somehow making black lives matter. Have they bothered even asking any of these black lives if this is a good strategy? The people of color that I’ve talked to see is it as purely white performance. Now working on policies that help people of color buy homes and operate local businesses, that helps. A lot.
My challenge to anti-racist activists, of which I am one, is to take a break from chasing down neo-Nazis and Proud Boys, and take a look in the mirror. Until we start on the long process to undo our own internalized white supremacy, we will be blind to the racial trauma we cause while we’re chanting “Black lives matter!” There is a simple sociological formula that goes like this:
Internalized white supremacy
In 2021, still, we all learn various versions of “white is normal and better” lessons. That seeps into our subconscious where it lives as implicit bias and then emerges as micro-aggresions (a clutched purse, an off-handed comment, a joke that shouldn’t have been told). And that small thing lands as another wounding message to people of color that they are still not full members in this society. And the endless barrage of those “micro-assaults” become cumulative trauma. And that’s why BIPOC folks were in the streets in 2020, because enough was enough.
As I’ve written in this blog, 2021 has provided a great opportunity to move inwards from the barricades as Delta, and now Omicron, send us back into our shelters. Mindfulness and meditation give us strategies to interrupt our hard-learned tendencies to act in racist ways, even while we lecture others against their racism. I had a great week training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion here and Portland and consumed Mindful of Race by Ruth King. Both had huge impacts on how I move through the world as a white person.
King, a Buddhist woman of color, offers useful strategies to manage those situations that can cause racial distress. It could be finding yourself in an uncomfortable conversation with a Trump-loving uncle who wants to make America white again, or, on the other side, those white fragility moments when a person of color is taking apart your liberalness as just a vacant act of wokeness. One of her mindfulness strategies, that goes by the acronym “RAIN,” has been helpful for me in not only navigating my racial interactions, but also being more present in my relationship with my wife. It works like this:
The “R” stands for recognize. A big part mindfulness is paying attention to our emotional states as things to be observed. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, where is it? Is it a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or an angry tension in the middle of your forehead. Recognize it. “There’s that feeling. Hello again. I see you there.”
A is for allow. Buddhists teach us that everything is temporary, especially our emotions. Instead of letting them control us, let them float past, like a cloud. Accepting impermanence (“anitya” in Sanskrit) allows us to not, as U2 once perfectly sang, get stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. So in those racially tense moments, we can see it and then remind ourselves that they will be in the rearview mirror shortly, so hold off on any emotionally driven impulses (including micro-aggressions).
I is for Investigate. Mindfulness teaches us to be curious about our thoughts. Where did this discomfort come from? Could it be projection, or due to a lack of true reflection? Could it be rooted in mis-learned lessons from our childhood? Maybe it’s those implicit biases we all hold.
And finally, the “N” is for nurture. What do you need right now to pass through this moment without adding to the racial harm? And what do others need to address their harm? It could be developing a strategy to address a problematic policy or person, or it could be a hug and a short walk around the block to calm down.
At the root of King’s teaching is kindness. Kindness to ourselves and to those traumatized by racism, and, yes, kindness to those who perpetrate racism in the world. They, like us and as us, are products of this racist society and capable of becoming forces for racial healing themselves. The Buddhist principles of racial mindfulness might be a tough sell to a black clad 20-year-old who thinks vandalizing a police station somehow helps black people, but that 20-year-old has the capacity for personal transformation and the ability to participate in stopping the harm so there can be true racial healing.
Note: Sometimes, “idiot” is the only word that applies.
There’s been a lot of right-wing nuts, Trumpists, and QAnon moms freaking out lately about something called Critical Race Theory. Ask these troglodytes what CRT actually is and you’ll get some hastily prepared bullet points from conservative tools, like Candace Owens; “It’s Marxist re-education!” “It’s anti-white racism!” “It’s teaching our children to hate America!” “It’s Barak Obama’s secret plot for a Muslim takeover of America, financed by Chinese communists!” States like Oklahoma and Florida (not known as bastions of anti-racism and/or intelligence) have tried to outlaw CRT from classrooms, causing concerns about the civil liberties of teachers. As we mark Juneteenth, let us stand against the anti-education hordes. (CRT-foe Owens bashed Juneteenth yesterday, tweeting “I’ll be celebrating July 4th and July 4th only. I’m American.”)
As an educator who actually teaches Critical Race Theory, it’s a bit sad seeing the hysteria that seems way too much like last season’s hysteria about Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. I see a lot of inflamed idiots who know absolutely nothing about CRT convinced that some evil cabal is going to destroy “their” country. It’s tiring. If there’s one thing worse than feeling the country has fallen into idiocracy, it’s that it’s fallen into a racist idiocracy.
First of all, Critical Race Theory has been around since the 1970s. All that it is is a set of assumptions, backed up by a massive amounts of data, that the damage done by racism is not by garden variety white supremacists, like Klansmen, Nazi skinheads, and Tucker Carlson. It’s done by institutions that carry the white supremacists ideology that this country was founded on. (Google “Three-fifths Compromise,” cracker!) These institutions include, but are not limited to government, the police, courts, housing, healthcare, education, and the media. That’s it. You’d think that fragile white people would love that. “You’re not racist, the system is!”
But Lordy are these white people (and their well-paid enablers, like Owens) fragile. They believe that telling the truth about race relations in America is unpatriotic. These people don’t want Americans to learn that the ideology of slavery was central to this nation’s founding. These people don’t want Americans to learn about the 120,000 Japanese immigrants, most American citizens, placed in concentration camps by the Roosevelt Administration after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These people don’t want Americans to know about the forced assimilation of indigenous persons. These people don’t want Americans to know why the average white American lives seven years longer than the average African American. Ignorance is bliss.
The reality is that those that support Critical Race Theory are more true to the promise of America than these woke-ophobics” spazzing out at school board meetings. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, recently said,
“Critical race theory is not anti- patriotic. In fact it is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th and the 14th and the 15th amendment. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”
The reality is that the legacy of slavery is with us in 2021. It is present in the wealth gap between whites and blacks. It is present in the data from traffic stops to the death penalty. And it is with us in every African-American whose last name is Smith, Jackson, or Washington. It’s not just the mouth breather in a Trump hat, waving a Confederate battle flag, it’s also there in unequal hiring practices, redlining, and the lack of doctors in poor urban areas. That’s why we celebrate Juneteenth. 1865 was not the end of racism in America, it was the beginning of healing. But it’s hard to heal when there is another Jim Crow-fashioned attack coming at us. Just ask black voters in Georgia in 2021.
So what’s behind the kooky white-wing backlash against CRT by moronic reactionaries who don’t even know what it is? It’s more of the same thinly disguised racism. Just like the idiots 60 years ago who were burning rock and roll records because it was “jungle music,” there is a fear among white supremacists in acknowledging the impact and manifestation of racism in America. In 1966, the Ku Klux Klan and radio stations organized “Beatle bonfires” across the South. (And don’t make me make you watch Footloose.) White fear of black bodies has been used to justify everything from slavery to racially objectifying porn. Greater than the fear of black bodies is the fear black truth. That reality holds up a mirror to white faces and fragile whites know they aren’t gonna like what they will see. So smash the mirror.
Therefore it’s not surprising that the anti-CRT mob chants, “CRT is racism!” That’s called projection. It comes from the same place the myths of the black rapist came from – from white men who were raping slave women.
But teachers are smart. They know the old – “Columbus discovered America – Pioneers tamed the west – Lincoln freed the slaves” myths require context. Their classroom is less white these days, so instead of teaching a curriculum that serves to empower white students and marginalize everyone else, teachers will address systemic racism, whether it’s been banned by they racist lawmakers or not.
I know I will.
Happy Juneteenth, Candace. Let me tell you how free people like you were in 1776. And the white kids will be alright.
You gotta admit, “Make America Great Again” was a brilliant slogan. Besides doubling as a handy acronym (MAGA!), it was a “politically correct” way of masking the deep racism of Trump supporters who wanted to make America Jim Crow America again. Since Trump left office, Trump supporters in 47 states have introduced or passed voter suppression laws. (Shout out to my ass backwards home state, Georgia!) MAGA fit on hats, t-shirts, and hashtags and immediately conveyed where the supporter stood on transgender bathrooms, racial equity, and the 2020 election. Who came up with this perfect (if fascistic) slogan?
Speaking of “political correctness,” there’s a perfect example of how the left has a language problem. All political correctness is is an attempt to be mindful of the way words and practices marginalize and hurt people in our community. If African-Americans what to be referred to as people of color instead of “colored people,” show them the basic respect of doing it without whining. Those folks have been through some shit! But truth be told, nobody wants to be “corrected.” Ugh. And bothered about getting the he/she thing wrong? A recent study found that nearly 42% of non-binary and transgender youth attempted suicide. By just using a person’s preferred pronoun, you might save a life. Suck it up, snowflake! But there is a cottage industry dedicated to bitching about political correctness as if it was some grand conspiracy to suppress your first amendment right to be an asshole. Your constitutional right to be an asshole remains sacred and defended by both the Supreme Court and the liberal ACLU.
The progressive movement is full of terms, phrases, and slogans that get at the depth of inequity in our society and are intended to start conversations and affect change to transform America into a nation where there truly is liberty and justice for all. But these turns of phrase also trigger right wing trolls and news networks. Over 4 million people watch white supremacist Tucker Carlson each night. If something bothers him, it becomes an instant internet meme spread far and wide by the “proud” boys that want to make America 1950 again. Some of these slogans (and the responses by people who don’t take the time to understand them) include:
Black Lives Matter (“All lives matter!” – Or as my father tried to tell me, “Black Lives Matter means white lives don’t matter.” And yes, he’s a Trumpie.)
Defund the Police (“These anarchists just want criminals to run free!”)
Toxic Masculinity (“Masculinity built this nation!”)
Implicit Bias (“Don’t tell me I’m biased, I have a black cousin!”)
White Privilege (“I’m not privileged. I lived in a car!”)
Micro-aggression (“It’s MICRO! Get over it, libtard! Jeez, you can’t even make a joke anymore.)
And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” line that became adopted by the not-too-bright Trump base as a badge of honor. If Clinton had tried to be less cutesy and just said, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the cesspool of bigots,” you probably wouldn’t have seen an army of white people with “I’m a bigot!” T-shirts at Trump rallies. (Wait, I may have to rethink that.)
Sometimes the left’s slogans seem as if they were penned by right-wing agent provocateurs. Case in point, ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards.” Now I understand that provocative slogan is meant to highlight the tendency in the policing world to prevent officers from addressing the systemic racism that has left countless George Floyd’s dead in the streets. (Police unions, I’m looking at you.) But I personally know many police officers, including BIPOC police officers, who desperately want to infuse policing with social justice values. Let’s not forget that several police officers testified for the prosecution in the trial of George Floyd’s uniformed killer. Are all black cops bastards? Are are all women cops bastards? The average woman who sees a cop carting off the man who assaulted her probably doesn’t spray paint ACAB on local businesses.
Anecdote: In 1987, my roommate and I called 911 in Atlanta. Yuppie ninjas had kicked in our apartment door and we’re going to attack us with num-chucks. Our call the the police scared them off but I had to turn off the music we were blasting before the cops arrived; NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” True story.
Perhaps the best example of this is the term, white fragility, which derives from Robin DiAngleo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The book is simply about the defensiveness that white people express when you alert them to the reality of racism. They say silly things, like “I was raised to be colorblind” (You weren’t) and “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama! (You can). The innovative text is required reading in my Diversity class and has sparked insightful discussions among both white and non-white students. It was a best seller among people who read books and rose back to the top of the charts during the churning summer of 2020.
However, bring up the concept of white fragility to white people who haven’t read the book or have no interest in reading any book about racism, and you get a lot of, well, fragility. For easy reference, watch the June 2020 interview DiAngelo did with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. A seemingly interested Fallon allows DiAngelo to explain that all she is trying to do is ask white people to act with humility and grace and address their own internalized white supremacy. The YouTube video’s 27,000 downvotes sets up the 14,000 comments by fragile white people, accusing DiAngleo of racism herself. “The left: Let’s solve racism with more racism” (John Spinelli) “If ‘self-hatred’ was a person, it’d be Robin DiAngelo” (Jack) “This is what happens when you make a career out of gaslighting.” (SWJobson) Each comment perfectly proves DiAngelo’s central thesis about white fragility. Since “fragility” is feminized in our culture, there’s a macho pushback against it. The term “fragility” literally causes men to become fragile.
The “anti-woke” crowd is pretty good with staying on point. From “Drain the swamp!” to “Stop the steal,” it feels like the right has a high-power Madison Avenue team coining their slogans. What if the left had their own progressive Don Draper, instead of the Antifa Darren Stevens is who pens confrontational taglines on cardboard signs? (How about MCAB? Many Cops Are Bastards! Or what about BLMT? Black Lives Matter, Too!) I mean, whatever intern came up with “Stop Asian Hate” should be run out of the slogan business. “What have you got on your resume? Stop Asian hate. So just who do Asians hate and why should they stop? Come back kid when you’ve got something that makes sense.”
I generally loathe advertising, but we’re in a rut here. It’s time to rebrand white fragility. Maybe “I’m Not A Racist Freak Out Syndrome.” Or how about, “I’m Not A Racist But Those People Scare Me Dysphoria.” I don’t know. I’m a sociologist, not a marketing director. We got close to it with “Pro Choice,” but they beat our pants off with “Pro Life.” There’s gotta be better verbiage that doesn’t drive every Karen and Tucker into a “That’s reverse racism!!” spasm-fest.
The reality is these issues are more complex than a handy slogan could capture. They are nuanced and contextual and all the things that scare superficial thinkers that still think “pro-black” means “anti-white.” In my trainings, we get into the weeds, but it takes me an hour just to define the terms. You can’t get all the bullet points of my training on internalized white supremacy on a street banner let alone a bumpersticker.
So let’s pass the beanie and take up a collection to hire a radical marketing genius to help make America not horrible again.
Monday was harder than I thought it would be. We’re on a cross-country family road trip, driving from Atlanta to Portland, via Savannah and New Orleans. Part of our route was designed to skirt the Mexican border to find the spot my wife crossed into America when she was a child. Andi is a brilliant writer, working on a book on the immigrant experience so that stop was crucial.
While it was nice to see the Trump signs gone, whenever you drive through the South, there’s always racial tension. Andi got a death stare from a white woman in a Waffle House in southern Alabama who was probably also triggered by the fact our six-year-old daughter was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. We probably fooled ourselves into thinking we left that bigotry behind when we crossed from Louisiana to the formerly Mexican territory known as “Texas.”
We started Monday in a Red Roof Inn in El Paso, awoken when a white guy drove his Toyota through a wall in the room below ours and then calmly drove away. I’ve made it a habit on my cross country drives to stop by famous crimes scenes that I lecture about. (In 2009, I made an entire Portland to Atlanta to Portland trip based on over 40 crime scenes.) But this wasn’t about me. It was about Andi and how she experienced the day and all the people that didn’t live to experience the day. That’s why our first stop was one of the worst crime scenes of all.
On our way out of El Paso, we stopped at the Walmart where a 21-year old white supremacist went on a shooting spree, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. After posting an anti-immigrant manifesto that referenced the xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump on 8chan, he drove from Dallas to El Paso with the express purpose of killing Latinx people. Semi-automatic rifle in hand and activated by Trump’s alarm about an “immigrant invasion,” he began firing in the parking lot and then walked into the store, shooting every brown person in his path. It became America’s worst hate crime. It was in 2019 and you probably haven’t heard much about it since it happened. After all they were only brown people.
I walked into the Walmart and asked a police officer (whom I was glad to see) if there was a memorial to the victims of that day. She said it wasn’t much of a memorial, but it was on the far side of the parking lot, facing I-10. Andi, Cozy, and I walked over to what was a large metal candle, with a plaque in English and Spanish. It was stark but effective and brought Andi to tears. The names of the victims were the names of her people, including one who shared a name with her father who passed away a few weeks ago. She couldn’t go into the store itself because it would be filled with people who looked like her, like the people who were killed that day. It was a superstore-sized reminder of the hatred of hispanic people. And Walmart still sells guns.
I could feel the pain in Andi’s body and, as a white person, all I could do is say I was sorry for the hate and ignorance of white people and pledged to do this work on bias crimes with more fervor.
Then we hit the road for New Mexico and got off I-10 in Arizona to take backroads to Douglas, which is across the border from Agua Prieta, the place Andi crossed from in 1998. As soon as we got off the highway, we began to see Border Patrol trucks, La Migra, on the hunt. There was even a lonely National Guardsman, shirt on his head to protect himself from the sun, leaning against a vehicle holding up a giant surveillance camera. The news had just come in that President Biden was working with the Mexican government to “strengthen” border security. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Andi crossed in the middle of the night so this daytime view gave her another perspective of the harsh nature of the land she walked across as an 8-year-old. It also began to trigger memories of sage brush branches cutting her skin. I could see her body change as we got closer to the border, the hard journey coming back to her. We reflected on the thousands of people who died trying to reach a better life, 7,000 since since Andi crossed. (2020 being the worst year on record for migrant deaths, but that’s what Trump and his people wanted.)
Douglas is a quaint little town that appears out of the vast desert, full of franchised America, like McDonalds and, of course, Walmart, and completely populated by Latino-Americans who probably long for the days when the open border was a reality and nobody (including white people thousands of miles away) cared about it. We stopped by a playground so Cozy could stretch her legs. The wall with Mexico was a hundred feet away. I just watched Andi smell the air and look at the faces of the people living their life in a border town.
After picking up some tacos, we headed west to try to find the exact spot where my wife entered the country. We found a road off of Highway 80 called W. Paul Spur Road that took us to a dirt road simply called Border Road. As we approached the border a massive wall emerged. The Trump wall. We stopped on the side of the road to have our tacos and let Andi walk in the brush that she made her way through when she was a child. I took a video of Cozy standing in the wind as her mother felt a flood of emotions. She became nervous about being there as Border Patrol helicopters and planes flew over our heads. Her first night in that place she and her group were captured by the Border Patrol, detained and taken back across the border. She was unsure of going any farther, but I urged her to make it to that point, the eternal return.
We drove all the way to the newly constructed wall, with it’s erection date written on it, 10-10-20. Trump’s last act of anti-immigrant violence, less than a month before election day. How many more would die because of that wall? Slow painful deaths. Children dying without water, in the cold desert night. Parents who just want to work and find a better future for their families, alone, to become bones in the sand. I watched Andi reach through the slats in the wall to the Mexican side, touching the air of her home. She placed a picture on herself on the other side. On the back of it she had written, “Yo crucé” (I crossed). “I just want to give hope to someone like me,” she said.
We stood at the wall for a while, taking it in, taking pictures, including one of Andi and Cozy that seemed to bookmark the night Andi and her mother crossed. The weight of it all was on her. The weight of all those who died alone in the desert and the weight of a hateful nation that chanted “build a wall.” I thought about all the amazing people who would not be adding to American culture because of that wall or because they died trying to make it to their American dream. Andi just said, “If this had been here then, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
The Border Patrol helicopter must have become suspicious that we were going to smuggle some migrants in our Prius and became more present, so we put the border wall in the review mirror. About 500 miles later we were in Las Vegas, where the water dances in fountains and the deaths on the border and in El Paso Walmarts are never thought of. But we will think of them and more.
I’m watching the second day of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin and I want to throw up. Chauvin is the 44-year-old former Minneapolis police officer who is on trial for the murder George Floyd on May 25th of last year. I want to throw up because of the excruciating videos of Chauvin torturing Floyd to death. I want to throw up because of the young people who witnessed the police officer kill a man in broad daylight. I want to throw up watching Chauvin’s attorney trying to discredit the witnesses as “angry blacks.” And I want to throw up because there are already countless white people on social media trying to blame the murder of George Floyd on George Floyd.
Police kill roughly a thousand people a year, and, on average, about 44 police officers are convicted of anything in those killings, usually on a charge less than murder. That’s why this trial carries so much weight. Floyd wasn’t fighting or fleeing. He was on the ground, handcuffed with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for nine minutes, while he called out for his children and his dead mother and repeatedly told police “I can’t breathe!” There is no ambiguity. No “maybe he had a gun.” No implicit bias. There was only explicit cruelty. It was the revelation of that cruelty, caught on video because of the number of witnesses, that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
Those videos traumatized every person of color who understands from first and secondhand experience the reality of race in America. Their experience with law enforcement is deeply different than the experience that white people like me have with law enforcement. I see the police as my protector. They have learned to see the police as their potential executioner. The murder of George Floyd unlocked the very real generational trauma that is rooted in the dehumanization of black people initiated in centuries of chattel slavery. I witnessed this in the weeks following Floyd’s killing, seeing black men on TV in rarely shared tears, wondering aloud when they would be seen as human beings in America.
Day Two of the trial has featured a number of prosecution witnesses who, for various reasons, were in front of Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street that spring day. Most were underage at the time. One was a teenager named Darnella Frazier, who was there with her 9-year-old cousin. This young women was sharp enough to pull out her phone and record what was happening. In tearful testimony, she reported that she saw in the dying face of this black man, all the black men in her life. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black … I look at that and I look at how that could have been one of them.” She begged the police to help him instead of killing him. Her young cousin testified that Chauvin didn’t remove his knee from the already dead Floyd until the paramedics pulled him off.
Frazier then testified to the guilt she experienced for not doing more. “It’s been nights I stay up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life. But it’s not what I should have done,” she said, looking at Chauvin, who was writing on a yellow legal pad. “It’s what he should have done.”
Similar testimony from other young people at the scene told a similar story. They begged police to help Floyd has he faded from consciousness. That’s what the police are supposed to do. Help. They detailed, often pausing to weep or collect themselves, how the life was slowly choked out of George Floyd. They were just feet from him as his life and urine were squeezed out on to Chicago Avenue. To the four police officers, including Chauvin, it was just another day on the job, but for the witnesses, the moment is frozen in amber.
Each witness, including the off-duty firefighter who crossed the chaos, provide accounts that were devastatingly powerful. Maybe none more than bystander Donald Williams, a mixed martial arts fighter who repeatedly begged the police to take the pressure off of Floyd’s neck and render aid. Williams, there on the sidewalk in his Northside Boxing Club sweatshirt, exercised great restraint while telling Chauvin that he was enjoying the torture. He called 911 because he believed he had witnessed a murder. “I called the police on the police,” he testified.
Chauvin’s defense attorney tried to characterize him as an angry black man, perhaps threatening the officers on the scene. He calmly answered the cross examination. “You can’t paint me as angry. I was in a position where I had to be controlled, controlled professionalism.” If Chauvin’s defense was that a “riot” or an angry crowd of bystanders caused the police to forget that they’re not supposed to murder people, it fell apart at that moment.
I don’t know what will happen after today. If history is any guide, Chauvin will be found not guilty on a technicality or found guilty of a lesser charge, like not filing some required paperwork. But I do know three things.
First, is that the the United States Constitution guarantees due process rights of anyone accused of a crime. It is a founding principle of our American democracy and distinguishes us from the world’s tyrannies. The right is guaranteed to anyone within the boundaries of our nation, including undocumented immigrants and people with previous criminal histories. Due process is afforded to those accused of white collar crimes and street crimes, and it doesn’t matter if you are a “menace to society,” as one of my “I’m not racist” white Facebook friends described George Floyd in attempt to blame him for his own murder.
The police are not judge, jury, and executioner. That’s common in dictatorships. Derek Chauvin did not have the right to execute George Floyd for “his actions and lifelong poor decisions,” as another white Facebook poster tried to rationalize. We have a justice system and it’s supposed to be blind. Do police have the right execute you for jaywalking (Michael Brown), selling loose cigarettes (Eric Garner), or allegedly passing a fake bill (George Floyd)? Black America has an answer to that question.
The second thing I know is that the 2020 murder of George Floyd woke a lot of people up to the very deep reality of black trauma in America. The weight of the dehumanization of slavery foist upon African-origined people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. It morphed into Jim Crow and then institutional racism that explains the wealth gaps and death gaps and the incarceration gaps that disadvantage African-Americans in the twenty-first century. George Floyd was every black person and, in his name, Americans flooded the streets. Americans also read books about racism and found ways to respond to the empty bleat that “all lives matter.”
But the trauma experienced by the young witnesses who testified today is even deeper. Like witnesses to a lynching, these people, including the children who were standing on the corner of Chicago and 38th, watched a group of white police officers (and an Asian-American cop who failed to intervene) kill a black man. Their trauma will last a lifetime. Their deeply held beliefs about police, white people, and the value of black life will be shaped for a lifetime. Even MMA fighter Donald Williams was in tears as he testified, as was off-duty white firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, who witnessed the crime.
The third thing I know is that Darnella Frazier should not feel guilty for not doing more. Her recording of George Floyd’s murder went viral and sparked a massive civil rights movement that transformed America in the summer of 2020. A recent study from Northwestern University found that cities that had sustained Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 experienced a 20% decrease in killings by police. Because of what she did on May 25th, Darnella Frazier saved countless lives.
And I will add one more thing I know. If Derek Chauvin is not found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Americans will be right to return to the streets to express their frustration over this country’s inability to end the reality that there are two justice systems in America, one for white people and one for everyone else. You can work to heal trauma or heap more pain upon the open wound. If you think more wounding will silence black pain, you don’t understand the mighty resilience of a people who have had it with centuries of this trauma. America is on trial.
I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he posted on my Facebook page, “You can either support Antifa or be my son.” I replied, “You know I’ve worked to oppose fascism my entire adult life. I am, by definition Antifa – anti-fascist.” His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. Unfriended by my Trump-loving father.
I know this scenario has played out in thousands of ways in American families as the lines of division have been drawn up. “Trump cult” brother against “libtard” brother, QAnon daughter against “communist mother,” or in my case, Antifa son against “Anyone who listens to the mainstream media has drank the Kool Aid” father. I was going to call my dad after election day, and then after inauguration day. I keep putting it off because I don’t want to hear his fragile old white man “sky is falling/Joe Biden is too old” blather. (For the record, Joe is eight months younger than my father.) If I can’t heal my relationship with my old man, how can America heal this chasm that separates us? And is this how families felt before that last civil war?
Like a lot of Americans, while watching the January 6 storming of the capitol (It’s its own Wikipedia entry now) unfold on TV, I more than half-expected to see someone I knew (including my older-than-Biden father). We might have heard some great calls for unity on Inauguration Day but it feels like we’re more divided than ever. Trump still holds the reigns of the GOP from his gilded palace in Florida. A large percentage of the 74 million people who voted for Trump think that a large percentage of the 81 million people who voted for Biden were dead people. And complete nut jobs like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green are either seen as prophets or complete nut jobs.
It seems so hard to cross this divide. The mother of one of my childhood friends (who I had a mad crush on when I was 12) just posted something about Biden letting in “illegal immigrants who carry diseases.” My first response was to call out her racism. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But am I just driving her back into her fragile white castle? I’m good on a Facebook smackdown. I’ve got links to New York Times articles, persuasive statistics, hilarious memes, and, if all else fails, a facepalm gif.
Then I remember what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years, helping people leave the white supremacist movement (WSM). There are two ways to think of the WSM. The first is a fractured subculture of hate groups, white nationalists, and anti-immigrant organizations. The second way is to see the white supremacist movement is as America writ large. The real advocates of making America white again are not Klansmen and Proud Boys, they are people like my friend’s mom who would never own her own racism. “I’m not racist, but…” So maybe the things I learned about extracting Neo-Nazi skinheads could be helpful to talking to people stuck Trump’s in narrow nationalist vision of “patriotism.”
How has this improved your life?
One of the questions that has helped to get racist to rethink their commitment to racist activism is, “Has anything about this choice you’ve made made your life better?” They’ll sputter a bit and maybe parrot some line about finding “pride.” But then you push them with questions about their family relations, their economic prospects, their legal problems, their love lives and they’ll start to see they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The silly “white utopia” that they are physically fighting for isn’t coming and they are increasing socially isolated. I had one troubled young skinhead tell me, “It’s so hard to be racially pure and know what to eat. I love Mexican food but I can’t eat it anymore.” He left the movement shortly after that.
I wonder how my father’s life has changed with his devotion to this failed businessman from Queens. He chose that over a relationship with his son. It must be hard to be a Trump loyalist, having to believe so many things that are obviously untrue; that COVID-19 is “just the flu,” that the January 6 insurgence was a false flag plot by Antifa, that Trump won the election. The emotional labor it must take to ride the wave of disinformation while everyone around you watches you fall down the rabbit hole must be taxing. Just like the QAnon cult that saw their prophecy fail when the “Storm” failed to materialized to prevent Biden’s swearing in, Trumpists must have to expend a lot of energy to just not look crazy.
We’re always telling racists that life is better on the other side, with our wide open cuisine and limitless playlist. Maybe an open invitation to Trumpists to break bread at the mosque and talk about Jesus in a black church would work. When you take off your Giuliani-stained blinders, so much great comedy, music, and NPR is there to enjoy. All that Ted Nugent and Scott Baio must get old. There’s so much celebration of life over here. Invite a Proud Boy to a Gay Pride parade. They kinda seem like overlapping circles anyway.
The power of the open hand instead of the clenched fist
I get it. It’s fun to fight. I’m always up for a few rounds with my high school posse, most of whom have become pot-bellied Trumpies. Sarcastic insults worked in high school so let them fly. I have a 50-something classmate who still calls me “Ballsack.” I won’t say he’s been emboldened by Trump’s bullying. This guy was always a prick. The political banter can take on a sport-like quality. Who gets the best jibe and obscure historical fact in last? I have dialed down my social media time (at the request of my wife and humanity), so I get a lot of “He stopped responding. I won.” Cheerio, desktop gladiator.
But the stories of haters leaving their racist lives have a similar element. Most had someone who they were supposed to hate reach out to them. A Muslim, a gay bashing victim, a black man harassed by Klansmen. In The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, former skinhead Frankie Meeink tells the story of a Jewish boss who helped him out of a tight jam and how he never wore another swastika after that act of undeserved act of kindness. I published a book chapter in 2004 after numerous interviews with former Neo-Nazis remarking on the pattern that females in their lives (girlfriends, teachers, daughters) had helped them out by showing the hate that they experienced as females was no different than the hurtful hate their men expressed as racists, opening the door to empathy.
I’m currently reading The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. She describes how both sides of the political divide are pretty good at dehumanizing each other. Internet trolls can lay some pretty hateful rhetoric on their victims, but referring to them as trolls makes them less human as well. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment dehumanized Trump supporters who she accused of dehumanizing others. (We don’t put people in baskets, Hill.)
Remember when Barack Obama said in 2004 that. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states”? In fact we’re all shades of purple. We’re not so divided as we pretend to be and there’s more that unites us. As a life-long anti-racist, I can have a pretty good conversation with a racist skinhead about our common love of Slayer albums or classic WWF wrestling stars. Then, if we have time, we can get to the deeper stuff. I promise you this; no Nazi has ever stopped being a Nazi because they were told they were wrong just the right amount of times. You’ve got to win hearts and minds. I have to remind myself of this fact when I’m armoring up for a Facebook battle with my Georgia homies.
Being a part of something that matters
The teenage skinheads and the old white men who stormed the Capitol have one thing in common. They all want to belong to something that matters. The skinheads I studied wanted to save American from Jewish communists and the Trump loyalists want to save America from, well, Jewish communists. The both see a country that is about to “cease to exist” because of perceived enemies of “real Americans” and feel the rush of engaging in a great historic cause to the “save the country.”
The left has a similar raison d’etre, as we call others to, “Man the barricades!” and burst into lyrics from Les Miserables and Hamilton. “We’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round!” When I was getting teargassed by the police last summer at the George Floyd protests, I had a feeling that I was a part of something that really mattered, a page in American history. A younger version of me might have seen fit to hurl a projectile at the symbols of oppression. (Older me has several friends who are cops.) We want to feel like we are bigger than just our small one man/women shows. That we can change the world for the better.
The Trump loyalists and Nazi skinheads feel the same way. They see an injustice, however upside down or lie-based it might be, and they want to set it right. “Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again!’ as they sing in Hamilton. What if they were brought into our great cause, the cause that expands the rights millions of Americans, not one that expands the right of one bloated con-artist to become America’s first dictator?
One of the best weapons against hate is an organization called Life After Hate, made up of former extremists, like Frankie Meeink. They use their time in the rabbit hole of racist violence to pull others out and advertise the waste of the dead-end world of hate. There are plenty of former Trumpies, Proud Boys, and QAnon cultists who can serve a similar function. I’ve interviewed militia members and former militia members, and the formers have all said the same thing, “I wish I could meet my younger self and talk some sense into him.” The Life After Hate members are a part of something that matters. Former racists make the best anti-racists, because they understand the humanity of the racist.
Adapting to these times
We’re in strange times. The uncertainty of life makes the comfort of a perfect conspiracy theory seem all that more appealing. It creates a world that is easily understandable. But unfortunately it also creates a world where half of the country thinks the other half is brainwashed, and vice versa. This may be the time to reach out.
My friend’s mom felt like I was picking on her on Facebook and I responded that I loved her and that her ignorant comments broke my heart. I forgot that calling a white person in the South “ignorant” is essentially calling them “black.” (The phrase “ignorant black” has long been a part of the racist Southern lexicon.) She immediately shut down and ended the conversation. I forgot how to talk to fragile white people. I should have said, “I don’t think YOU are ignorant, but I find some of your racial comments not based in fact.” I apologized for my poor approach hoping to have another opportunity to reach out to her. Nobody said this would be easy. Part of me wonders why I should waste any time with people whose thinking is so entrenched in fear and hate and conspiracy theories and just incorrect information. But another part of me thinks that nothing is ever going to change unless we try. As Axl Rose once sang, “I don’t want a civil war.”
I understand this approach centers the haters and doesn’t address the trauma caused by the hate itself. But one way to allow the victims of hate to heal is to stop the wounding done by the haters.
I’ve written much in this blog about the threat of right-wing extremism and the through-line that connects the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The 25,000 National Guardsmen and the collapse of the ludicrous QAnon prophecy helped us to deflate the threat this past week but that doesn’t mean the barbarians are not still at the gate, hoping to cripple our democracy. The election of Barack Obama (and a Democratic congress) in 2008 gave raise to the Tea Party movement. 2021 will see a post-Q antigovernment movement that, with the help of social media, will fuse all the bad actors of the past. It’s already a broad counterculture the ranges from Trump’s “suburban housewife” that still thinks Joe Biden is fronting an underground pedophile ring to the self-styled Timothy McVeigh-wannabe who plots to bring down federal office buildings to strike a blow against the “Zionist Occupation Government.”
So what do we do now?
If President Biden is sincere about confronting political extremism and white supremacy and defeating domestic terrorism, now is the time to create an organized, cohesive interagency plan to get in front of this issue, or we’re going to need a lot more than 25,000 National Guard to protect our institutions of government. As a researcher and organizer working in this field for 30 years, I’ve started sketching out what a countering violent extremism strategy might look like. Similar to the institutional shifts that occurred after 9/11, it recognizes the capacities of existing agencies, including the Department of Education, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. This initial approach contains four organizing principles; suppression, education, extraction, and vision.
Suppression: Addressing active threats
After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Clinton Administration immediately pivoted to confront the threat of violence from the patriot militia movement. The reality is that, on October 25, 1994, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Attorney General Janet Reno to alert “all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by unauthorized militias that have recently sprung up in at least eighteen states.” While that warning may not have been heeded, after the terrorist attack the following April, Reno made the suppression of domestic terror groups a priority. The FBI broke up several plots, including those leading up to the “doomsday” prophecies connected to Y2K on January 1, 2000.
The events of 9/11 propelled President Bush to move many of those law enforcement resources to the investigation of international terrorist plots, particularly after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “patriot movement” didn’t go away after 9/11. It retreated to the corners of the internet. In the Obama years it scooped up many Tea Party activists and by the Trump years it was in the streets, heavily armed and promising a revolution, rebranded as the “Boogaloo.” In 1997, I interviewed several militia members in western Montana and one told me, “We’re patient men but this war will happen in our lifetimes.”
The suppression plan of the Biden Administration must include 5 important areas. 1) The interruption of ongoing plots. While we still don’t have a federal definition of “domestic terrorism,” criminal conspiracy statues have been used and must be utilized with increased use of intelligence services and investigative resources. 2) The monitoring of e-chatter of threats, including open source social media posts, the dark web, and encrypted communications. Research from the Rand Corporation has found that this chatter increases before acts of hate-motivated violence occur. 3) Turning extremists into assets. Life After Hate is a group of former extremists who now work in the field of countering violent extremism. The Prevent Program in the UK has utilized former jihadists in the working of interrupting jihadist plots. “Formers” are a vital resource available but under used. 4) Disrupting extremist prison gangs. There is a pipeline that runs from white gangs inside prison to hate groups outside prison. A national strategy on these security threat groups would cut off a channel of extremist recruitment. 5) Monitoring foreign involvement in in-person and on-line extremism. Foreign actors, particularly from Russia, have been active in both bolstering the American white supremacist movement and spreading disinformation that increases hostility towards the American government.
Education: Confronting the issues that divide us
In this age of disinformation, we must honestly address the sins of the past while reaching out to those who are drawn into the conspiracy theories of radical right because of their lack of understanding of social and demographic changes (and how government itself works). The summer 2020 protests following the George Floyd killing highlighted the work that remains to be done to address institutional, cultural, and personal racism.
If we are going to have a national conversation about race, it needs two very important audiences. The first audience is people of color who need an honest acknowledgment of the generations of trauma that racism has cause. We’ve never really dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary psyche. It’s not like anti-black racism magically disappeared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Similarly, we also haven’t confronted the trauma caused by Japanese internment, the Bracero Program, or separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The second audience must be white people, especially white people who have been economically dislocated by globalization and economic shifts. Lecturing about white privilege is a hard sell to a coal minor who has lost his job in the push for “renewable energy.” We don’t reduce the normalization of white supremacist thinking that pushes white people into thinking “their” country is disappearing if we don’t help white people see the value of inclusion and the futility of extremism.
Education must revolve around four key agendas. 1) Racial reconciliation. As Germany did after WW II and South Africa did after apartheid, we need a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation that links the dark past to the problems of the present. This work is hard but must be done. 2) Diversity, equity, and inclusion training and celebration. The Biden team doesn’t have to give America a long HR diversity training, but there are some valuable skills that can be taught widely, including the understanding of implicit bias. This work can also be a lot of fun as we come together, not to melt into a national pot, but celebrate the diverse ingredients of our national gumbo. 3) Community healing and dialogue. Much of this work must be done locally, recognizing the intersectionality of different communities. “Asian-Americans” are not one monolithic group. 4) Outreach to dislocated populations. Equity requires actively bringing people to the table. We must recognize that many of those marginalized communities are white. They are better served at a table with their non-white neighbors than in a basement plotting attacks on their own government.
Extraction: Dealing with the internal threat
Nearly one in five of the participants in the Capitol attack were members of the U.S. military. There is a long list of police officers who have had ties to white supremacist groups. There is an alleged group of prison guards who work to support racist gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood. The infiltration of groups sworn to protect us by extremists is the worst kept secret in America. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet who handed out copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist revolution handbook, to the white members of his platoon.
Addressing this problem is vital to this strategy for two reasons. The first is the utilization of the military for training by right wing extremists. Additionally, having people on the inside (cops, prison guards, National Guard, Air Force officers with access to nuclear weapons, etc.) makes waging a civil war at lot easier. While I was undercover with a group of racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989, four Stinger missiles disappeared from the armory of a nearby Army base and were recovered from the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho. And if you’ve got a Josh Hawley who can open the doors for you, all the easier.
The second is all about perception. The belief that police and the military reinforce white supremacy didn’t die with Bull Conner and is central to the protests for racial justice. We can’t move forward until we’ve proven this important work is incompatible with organized racism.
So this plank of the strategy must both respect government workers’ first amendment rights while managing extremist infiltrations in three areas; 1) the United States military, 2) municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and 3) correctional officers in local jails, and state and federal prisons.
Vision: Who are we as a nation?
If the “America Century” began at the end of World War I, the century is ending. Will there be a second American century that is different? Or will it just be a high tech version of Jim Crow and people begging for black lives to matter. For the last four years there has been a massive vacuum of leadership. All we heard was a call to make America 1950 again, a time when millions of Americans were institutionally disenfranchised. We need a clear message about what America is going to look like. The hard fact is that demographic trends don’t lie. The country is becoming less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and less Protestant. Will we sink into an endless battle between WASPs and everyone else? A clear articulation of what the other path looks like is desperately needed. It seems like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are willing to formulate that vision.
We need our national leaders to think about four central agendas in this “re-visioning.” 1) A clear articulation of our values. What does mean to be an American? We are a nation of people of deep empathy, willing to confront our demons and work together on meaningful solutions. If the military reminds us “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” we can do the work to lift all those in our country to “be best” (Sorry, Melania.) 2) Addressing intersections. These issues are complex and overlap with other important issues. For example, global warming is pushing environmental refugees into extremist groups around the globe and is having real impact on the American farming community. 3) Addressing the truth and pain of the past. Donald Trump tried to erase the past with his 1776 Project. We must confront it head on and that will include some sincere acknowledge of harm done. President Reagan’s 1988 apology to Japanese-Americans for the mass internment in the 1940s went a long way to heal the wounding that was done to so many families who had their lives ripped away because of racist war hysteria. 4) Envisioning the path forward. What will a “less white” America look like? Our president can guide to a stable, diverse, beautiful pluralist view of the future that won’t doom us to endless division and extremist violence.
We have the ability to achieve this. We can both prevent domestic terrorism and bring disaffected Americans back into our wonderful, diverse family. The second American century can be spectacular, not just for few, but for all. There is a heavy load to be lifted by the Biden Administration, but it will be made lighter if we all help carry it.
I’m not one to say I told you so, but I told you so. Since 2015, I’ve been writing and talking about how Donald Trump was leading a cult of personality that wanted to bring fascism to America. But I’m not here to take credit. I’m here to urge action.
History tells us that failed coup attempts are followed by successful coup attempts. The 1/6 siege on the Capitol Building was not the last gasp of the Trump base. It was first attack by so-called “patriots” who have been arming and training for their revolution to overthrow our duly elected government. It won’t end on Inauguration Day. In fact, January 20th could be one of the bloodiest days of American history. Trump has spent 5 years emboldening (God, I’ve used that word way too many times since 2015) his rabid right-wing base with veiled (and not-so-veiled) racist declarations, and calls to attack the media and anyone who is not 100% loyal to him (including former members of his administration). He took something that was a fringe political movement of “Wackos from Waco” to a mainstream social movement of self-imagined 1776 revolutionaries. He’s done his work and now can stand back and stand by while the chaos destroys America. His father/fatherland didn’t love him, so he’s going to burn it down.
It’s not a matter of when Trump’s civil war will start. The fact that his troops were roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol with zip ties, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” while the vice president was certifying Biden’s victory, is evidence that we’re at least in “soft” civil war that’s about to get very hard. So what do we do to save the country from sliding from democracy into totalitarianism, as so many nations have before?
Recognize the threat
There is a straight line that runs from the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to Wednesday’s insurgence. To the outside viewer, Wednesday’s mob might have seemed like a crowd of sub-moronic good ‘ol boys who just got caught up in their angst that their “manly man” (lol) lost the election. But there was a method to their madness.
A small band of similarly minded “patriots,” guided by the blueprint provided in a racist novel called The Turner Diaries, intended to start a civil war to rid the government of “Zionist” control. It was their conspiracy-fueled version of the “deep state.” In one moment on April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts were the product of the patriot militia movement. Twenty-five years ago it was a fringe underground that was largely squashed by public rejection and federal policing. Now it’s a massive overground, fueled by internet, right-wing news outlets, QAnon, and the President of the United States. But the end goal is the same, a right-wing revolution to purge America of any vestige of liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and religious tolerance. And it probably includes somebody in your family.
It’s not surprising that several white supremacist groups were involved in Wednesday’s attack, including the Oath Keepers, the Rise Above Movement, and, of course, the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, Trump’s shock troops, have shed any pretense of not being a racist gang. The Oregon Capitol has been besieged by right-wing extremists, including one Proud Boy with a notorious past. Apparently, Kyle Brewster has been engaged in the actions in Salem. Brewster, besides an avowed Trump supporter, was one of the racist skinheads convicted of beating an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat in Portland in 1988. The white supremacist scene has rebranded itself as a “Western chauvinist movement” and invited a few men of color along to prove it’s not your grandfather’s Klavern.
I’ve written plenty in this blog about the “militia funnel” and the real threat of civil war. Just understand this. Some of these people are nut jobs. I mean the “Q Shaman”? Brother, please. But there is a core in the center of several concentric circles of anti-government fury that is heavily armed and has been training since the day they saw Timothy McVeigh take down a federal office building in Oklahoma.
This threat is domestic in nature but don’t think there is no foreign involvement. Numerous adversaries stand to benefit by pushing America into great discord, even if this soft civil war doesn’t go full Gettysburg. This includes Trump’s buddies (and creditors), the Russians. Don’t be surprised if we see Russian actors involved in the call for Trump loyalists to come to D.C. on January 6th, if not actually breaching the security at the capitol.
Now that the White House, and both houses of Congress will be in Democratic control, expect extremists to use Wednesday’s attack as a recruiting call for a national uprising. They know they have sympathizers on the inside who will open the doors for them. And we thought 2021 was going to be so chill.
Recognize the roots of the threat
Once we’ve come to terms with the threat level, it’s worth understanding the roots that got us here. Complex problems have complex causes, but Wednesday’s white riot has three factors (+1) that led to the destruction and death that occurred in the halls of Congress.
First is the massive social change that America has experienced in the last 50 years. The “natural” authority of the straight, white, cisgendered, Christian men is no longer assumed. Civil right movements to make equity a real thing have challenged (but not eliminated) their social position. Feminism, black lives matter, inclusion officers, and the rest has threatened their (male) God-given right. So Trump, a “macho” (stop) man, appears and says he’s going to make America “great again, ” speaking directly to their insecurity. Let’s make America 1950 again, before all this civil rights business. And quickest way that men gain authority is through violence. Just ask that “bitch who opened her mouth one too many times.”
This upsetting of white male power has occurred in the context of globalization. The manly factory jobs have all moved to non-white countries. In their place are low wage service sector jobs, with no union card and no benefits. Before COVID hit, there were actually more women working in America than men, and they were mostly working at Walmart, not at the plant. So what does the king of his castle do when the HR lady fires him for sexually harassing a co-worker? And then his job is sent to China?
The third factor is the coronavirus. It’s both turned everything upside down and magnified the race to the bottom. On the one hand, the virus has caused economic devastation, pushing formerly “king of the hill” white men further down into desperation. All this being blamed on, as Trump calls it, the China virus. On the other hand, the lockdown (and layoffs) has plopped people in front of their computers, looking for information and ending up in less than legitimate news sites like Newsmax, OANN, and Epoch Times, who traffic in endless conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election. (I can’t believe I’m going to put Fox News in the “legitimate” column.) And then here comes the web fad QAnon to tell you that the deep state is “communist” and controlled by baby-eating Democrats. Desperate people will believe pretty much anything that gives them a leg up on the uncertainty.
The fourth “bonus” factor is Trump. In a crisis like this, a leader would take on the task of bringing the nation together and steering those at risk away from the radical fringes. Instead, he has pushed these sad souls right into the militia rabbit hole because it suits his need for ego feeding. A bunch of yahoos who would never be let inside Mar-a-Lago are worthy props. They’ll be mowed down by the National Guard waving their stupid Trump flags, but it all serves substitute for the love he never got from his parents.
Neutralize the threat
What we do about this is a much larger discussion. The first order of business is to shut down the immediate threat. After the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno got in front of the militia threat and moved FBI resources to go after it. The bureau had its hands full shutting down terrorist plots, especially leading up to Y2K. (Ask your granddad about that one.) I don’t doubt that the Biden Administration, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, will take this issue seriously. The Trump Administration essentially ignored it, allowing it to fester. When members of the militia movement in Michigan plotted to kidnap and execute Governor Whitemer, AG Bill Barr acted like he had no knowledge of any of it. The difference between 1995 and 2021 is the anti-government threat is now massive. All 50 state capitals are facing assaults by right-wing extremists. Several Democratic governors have had armed extremists on the grounds of their homes. Shutting down these barbarians, who think they are on the brink of their promised white revolution, is going to take a well planned coordination between Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies, and community groups.
The other strategy has nothing to with police and everything to addressing to the root causes of this wind that has blown so many Americans over the right-wing cliff. We’re probably not going to recreate a massive manufacturing sector to get men back into GM factories, but we can help those men learn to manage the social changes instead of freaking the F out. One of the best resources here are people who have actually been through the grinder and come out the other side. Groups like Life After Hate have created a place for former extremists to share their journey into the dark side and help pull other racists and extremists off the ledge.
Rebuild the middle
America needs to have several hard conversations that deal with trauma and reconciliation. If we want to “smash the binary,” we can include the pointless division between red and blue. This isn’t 1861. We’re all shades of purple. There’s such a need for leadership to guide us to unity. That leadership can come from the White House or it came from the liberal who reaches out to Trump supporters and invites them over for dinner (when that’s safe again).
The first civil war didn’t really end in 1865. We remained divided, especially on the issue of race. Jim Crow and the electoral college were the South’s revenge. But we’ve learned a few things in the years since then. We are on the edge of something that will turn this county into ash (and delight Mr. Putin and Mr. Jinping). But we also have the capacity to create a second, better American century. This is the moment for bold, if not a bit desperate, action.
When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.
That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.
The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.
The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.
I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.
I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?
I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.
I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?
I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.
I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”
And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?
But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.
With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.