Some Thoughts on 2020...
As I write this, Joe Biden has just been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and 2020 is in the rear-view mirror. It was a year that will live on in the minds of multiple generations, from my 7-year-old son up through his elderly grandmother and everyone in between.
For me, the year began with the creation of this blog. I spent January developing the ideas and the website itself, and my first “official” post went up on the 30th. I originally considered publishing something bi-weekly but later decided just to post whenever I had something to say. Scott Carrier’s podcast Home of the Brave influenced how I conceptualized my blog by allowing me the freedom to “put things out there” at my own pace, leading to a (mostly) stress-free endeavor.
Over the first year of the blog, I was able to interview some complete strangers and some people I have known for years, mostly in the context of how their chosen path intersects with social change. Penny Devine, Shane Doyle and Dustin Harewood are among the latter, as well as old friends RT White and Pete Cramer for a few minutes about the 2020 election. I also had the good fortune to interview musicians Patterson Hood of the Drive-by-Truckers, Willy Vlautin, and James McMurtry. American Indian activist Ward Churchill and the Irish poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama round out the list of folks I interviewed that I had never met, but whose careers I had followed. I’m not sure what my 2021 theme for the blog will be, but I have some ideas that I’m working on going forward…
Now, about the rest of the year… America effectively shut down in early March, as did many other parts of the world, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime, restaurants and other businesses closed, our schools shifted from brick-and-mortar instruction to virtual classrooms, and most public places closed, including beaches and parks. As of this writing, many places have re-opened and many others are permanently shuttered. Masks are required in most places, some schools are providing on-campus instruction while others are not, and the death count continues to rise: over 400,000 at this point. Newly elected President Biden has pledged an aggressive campaign to get the virus under control, which comes as a relief following the last 10 months of ineptitude from the Trump White House. We have our hands full going forward as we try to rebuild the economy and bring relief to millions of Americans who have been forced to the margins.
At the end of May, a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of an African American man named George Floyd for 8 and 1/2 minutes, killing him on the street while a crowd gathered and other police officers kept the crowd at bay. Civil unrest filled the summer months, across America as well as many other parts of the world. The video of yet another person of color killed at the hands of police outraged an already tense and haggard populace, resulting in calls to defund, or at least reform policing in America. It remains to be seen if structural, not just cosmetic, change occurs as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I can’t say I’m exceedingly optimistic.
2020 came to a close with the election of Joe Biden as president, and, a few weeks later, two Georgia Senate races that tipped the balance of power in Congress to the Democrats. I was sitting with my neighbor Sonja Fitch, the “crazy-fence” lady of Jacksonville Beach, when the presidential results became official on November 7th. As cars streamed by her house, we were showered with honks and cheers from Biden supporters and cursed at and harassed by Trumpers. It was a surreal moment for me, though one she deals with daily, and it offered a glimmer of hope for America. I wasn’t a strong supporter of Biden, but I was very anti-Trump, so it felt like a step in the right direction at least.
I tuned in on December 6th to watch Vice President Pence certify the electoral college votes of each state, typically a formality, but not this year. President Trump had encouraged Senators and Representatives to reject the ballots from a few states that Biden won, claiming there was electoral fraud and that he had actually won the election. There was no evidence of fraud in a single state, and over sixty federal court cases asking the results to be overturned had been rejected, including in the Supreme Court, three members of which were appointed by Trump. A few members of Congress had stated they would challenge the results on December 6th, a move antithetical to democracy which would simply postpone the inevitable. I wanted to see how things would go, so I turned on CNN at 1:00, and less than an hour later, they switched the broadcast to show a mob of Trump supporters ascending the steps of the Capitol building.
For the next 5 hours I watched, mesmerized, as the building which held the Vice President and every member of Congress, was surrounded and penetrated by insurgents. I couldn’t turn it off because I had no idea how things would go, watching in real time. Are they going to harm members of the government? Where are the police or national guard? How is this going to end without bloodshed? A handful of people died in the chaos, but if the rioters were more organized, it could have been much worse. Law enforcement eventually secured the area and hours later, Pence and Congress reconvened to finish the days business.
The first thought that came to mind as I watched the mob approach the Capitol was how would these people be treated if they were Black Lives Matter protestors? This protest was not a surprise, it was planned for weeks, and President Trump encouraged them the morning of the protest. There was plenty of time for authorities to have a better plan in place, maybe something similar to the violence visited upon BLM protestors in that very city months prior. Or in many other cities across the nation. But no, these almost exclusively white, almost exclusively male agitators gave advance warning that they were showing up, and they moved right past barricades and into the building. It was heartbreaking to watch.
After a few hours, President Trump released a one-minute recorded statement, telling the protestors to disperse, and saying “we love you, you’re very special”. For his incitement of the insurrection and his failure to allay it, he was impeached a week later, in that very building, for a second time. So, to summarize: Trump is the only president who has lost the popular vote twice and been impeached twice. On his watch, Republicans have lost the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. It remains to be seen if the Senate will convict him on the impeachment charge, but if they do, they will also likely disqualify him from running for office again. We should know the answer to that in the next few weeks.
So where do we go from here? The first order of business in 2021 seems to be getting Covid-19 under control, and Biden has pledged to do so. Other issues will prove more intractable. We are a nation extremely divided, along fault lines of class, race, gender and a host of other factors. As such, the inauguration was replete with calls for “unity” and “moving forward”, but I don’t know what that really means.
Political polarization has increased as the percentage of nonwhite people in America has increased, and that trend will likely continue. Trump fomented white supremist activities after we had an African American president and we now have an African American/Asian American vice president. I don’t see where this unity will spring from.
I also look askance at calls for unity when historically that has meant, “get in line with the status quo”. These aren’t simply policy debates we are working through. The columnist Charles Blow recently wrote “I don’t want to be unified with anyone who could openly cheer my oppression or sit silently while I endure it. It seems to me, the ‘unity’ of America is often conflated with the silence of the oppressed and the pacification of the oppressors.”
What does unity look like for low wage workers who saw their wages stagnate while tax cuts were given to the wealthy? What does unity look like for people of color when the President characterizes the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville as having “blame on both sides… and very fine people on both sides”? Or for folks who have watched the oleaginous Republican Senator Mitch McConnell contribute to the destruction of our natural environment, the demonization of immigrants, and the attempted reduction in health care coverage for millions of Americans? Unless “unity” is around a progressive agenda that brings relief to the working class while dismantling the current oligarchy, I’m not sure it should be something America aspires to.