In September 2020 I received a call from an old friend I had not talked to in years. Sam and I first met in 2009 when with ten others we took part in a civil disobedience action against Colisimos Gun Store, which was notorious for supplying illegal guns used in street crime. We spent several hours together in jail, went through a highly publicized trial in which were acquitted, and eventually Colisimos was shut down. Going through an experience like that binds people together in a way that transcends time. So even though I had not talked with Sam in a long time, when I heard his voice I was both surprised and eager to hear what he had to say.
As it turned out, Sam had been talking with longtime activist George Lakey, and he invited me to a training in nonviolent direct action, specifically in preparation for the expected coup attempt by President Trump if he lost the upcoming presidential election. It seemed like a wild and crazy idea at the time. But the president had publicly stated that he would decide whether or not to accept the election results once he saw what those results were. Given Trump’s alliance with white nationalist and militia groups (who had said they were standing ready to support him) and his lame repudiation of the Proud Boys (“Stand down, stand by”), he had signaled clearly he was not going to accept anything less than a victory for a second term. Early on he decried the use of mail-in voting, appointed a Postmaster General who immediately made changes slowing down the delivery of mail, and accused Democrats of planning election fraud. All the indicators of an attempted coup were there, so when I thought about it, it wasn’t such a far flung idea. I decided to join the training.
In late September I joined hundreds of people across the country in a two-session online training. We learned about attempted coups that were put back in Russia, Argentina and Thailand. We reviewed the basic tenets of nonviolent direct action, and were presented with possible scenarios we might encounter. Following those more general trainings, I attended other sessions sponsored by POWER, the local affiliate of the national organization Faith-in-Action. There we talked about the spiritual foundation of nonviolent direct action practiced in the Civil Rights Movement and practiced scenarios that might occur. At the suggestion of the organizers, I pulled together 15 people into what we called a Democracy Pod who committed to work and plan together for any eventual action. By the time the election was near and we were preparing for action.
We met several times as Trump and his lawyers sought over 60 times to overturn election results in several states that ended up going for Biden. The last hurdle it seemed was the certification of the results on January 6. So when Trump, Trump Jr. and Giuliani whipped the crowd in a frenzy and sent them toward the capitol, I was not surprised when the protest turned into an insurrection as thousands broke into the Capitol and disrupted the Congressional certification proceedings. This is what we had prepared for. My only regret is that we had not planned a counter-action. But as it turned out the attempt to take over the Capitol was chaotic and within a few hours people were driven out and arrests began happening.
Reflecting on What Happened
For the past several days I have felt a range of thoughts and emotions. I wanted Mike Pence and the Cabinet should invoke the 25th Amendment. While that does not appear to be happening, I hold out hope that Trump, like Nixon 40+ years ago will resign and remove himself. Short of that, I believe that Congress should impeach the president or at the very least pass a bill that will prevent him from any further political activity, I would add Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, Jr. to that list as well. Even as strongly as I feel about these issues, I realize that all these actions are only treating the symptoms of much deeper systemic and cultural issues.
What happened last Wednesday should not surprise us; rather it reveals who we are.
Last summer following the deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, protestors took to the streets in record numbers to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” and to call for changes in the white supremacist policies and practices of law enforcement and many other sectors of our government. Those who invaded the capitol made clear that were responding to those calls for change from last summer. They represented the overwhelmingly white segment of our U.S. society who support Trump and have said they are willing to take up arms against those who would call for significant change in society.
In her book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson refers to a study by Anne Case and Deaton which showed that the death rates of middle-aged white Americans has been on the rise for the first time since 1950, while the death rates of all other demographic groups have decreased. In their report, they state: “These are deaths that do not have to happen. These are people who are taking their lives, either slowly or quickly.” Case and Deaton call them “deaths of despair.”
In seeking to explain this troubling trend, Wilkerson suggests that in addition to the economic pressures that have added stress to groups who once had good-paying blue-collar union jobs, the shifts in racial demographics of the country are causing white Americans to feel they are losing their preferred, dominant place in American life in relationship to Black and Brown folks, as well as immigrants. Wilkerson writes: “In a psychic way, the people dying of despair could be said to be dying of the end of an illusion, an awakening to the holes in an article of faith that an inherited unspoken superiority, a natural deservedness over subordinated castes, would assure their place in the hierarchy.”
Trump rose to power with his promise to “Take America Back” and “Make America Great Again.” He made claims of bringing back jobs from overseas and keeping out foreign elements that might threaten those jobs. So he banned Muslims and caged undocumented refugees at the Mexican border. But there were no new jobs and those working-class folks continued to suffer.
Last Wednesday the white folks storming the Capitol building claimed they were taking back something that had been stolen from them. They were comprised largely of those middle-aged white Americans who not only have lost their security, but their sense of racial superiority over BIPOC who have successfully made the case for changing the racist policies and practices enshrined in our nation’s laws and policies.
Vigilance is Needed
When seen through this lens, last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection was not only unconscionable, it was also pathetic. Like Trump, who they see as some sort of economic and cultural savior, they are trying to maintain and reassert a right to a dominant place they never should have had. What we might be seeing in our country right now is a shift in the tectonic plates at the foundation of our identity as a nation. Time will tell if last Wednesday was just a tremor or the beginning of a much greater disruption.
I do not think that what occurred on January 6 is a one-off event, but rather reveals a much deeper disruption occurring in white America that we must be willing to challenge each step of the way. At the same time we need to help them see that like many Black and Brown folks, they are victims of a political and economic system that has used them and discarded them. They have been deluded into thinking when Black lives matter, their lives don’t. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. When the lives of those most oppressed and marginalized matter, everyone else wins as well – except the comfortable elite who pull the strings.
However, groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who came armed and ready last week, will not open to dialogue. Their identities and sense of worth are wrapped up in their white supremacist ideology. They continue to be a threat and should be kept under close watch. Their attempted kidnapping of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer demonstrates the lengths to which they will go. So we must not be naïve and stay constantly vigilant.
Relationships and Cultural Change
However, there may be some not so hardened who might be willing to consider another perspective. The nonviolent direct action training did not look beyond the failed coup. Perhaps we need to consider what those next steps must be. While I am glad Joe Biden is going to be president, I think the kind of change we seek must start at the grassroots, in coffee shops, schools, churches and neighborhoods with people talking one to the other.
While there are many laws and government policies that much be changed, that alone is not sufficient. People who study social change, say that cultural change happens at the relational and social group level. Changes in laws and policies may force people to act differently, cultural change causes them to want to act differently. So our work must begin at that level. For starters I have reached out to the Trump supporters I know simply to ask them for their reaction to what happened in DC last week. I have been very explicit that I don’t want to debate, I want to understand. Perhaps as we seek to understand, we can enter into a dialogue that can lead to the cultural change that is also needed. We may not always agree but at least we can seek a common ground of respect and openness from which we can move forward.
Anne Case & Angus Deaton (Spring 2017). “Fear and Despair: Consequences of Inequity, “.n Knowledge to Action: Accelerating Progress in Health and Well-Being, New York, Oxfore University Press, pp. 11-15
sabel Wilkerson (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Random House