Our Work in the Age of TrumpBy Walter L. Fields Jr.
Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition at work
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed
The first step toward recovery is acknowledging you have a problem. So, in the aftermath of the presidential election can we admit that the same America that existed on Election Day, existed two decades ago, and exists today? To act like a different America emerged on November 9 is to simply be in denial. This is the America that always was, and for the foreseeable future will be.
So, the “day after” was finally here. It seemed like it would never arrive after months of a cancerous presidential campaign that redefined how low we can go as a nation. We actually discovered a sub-basement in our house where the worse of our human tendencies troll. If we had another month, we would have likely taken another step down into the abyss. It’s been that miserable of an election and now we have to somehow pick up the shards of our broken nation and put it back together. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen in the span of the next presidential administration, but it’s work that must be done because this election exposed just how broken the United States is and the great divisions among its people.
And after all the muck, we have elected the chief muckraker – Donald Trump – as the nation’s 45th President. More than anything, his election signals the brokenness of our society and the isolation many feel from anything that remotely resembles economic mobility. And while Trump wrapped his message in a big blanket of hate, America has been feeling the chill of racism and sexism long before this braggart jumped into the political fray. Some “feelings” are hard to poll because people are often afraid to admit their insecurities, but for some time now it was clear that there was an undercurrent of discontent in the land.
Yes, some of it was a backlash against the nation’s first Black president and sexism, but, not all of it. This is the miscalculation of the Democratic Party in its failure to assess the mood outside its bubble and to honestly confront the festering unrest within the party. It wasn’t hard to see or hear if you simply cared to look and listen. I heard it while walking the streets of Philadelphia during the party’s convention over the summer, and witnessed it standing on the convention floor as catcalls rained down from the rafters of the arena when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned from the podium. It was more than an ‘enthusiasm gap,’ it was a ‘reality gap.’ The reality of the nation’s true character never seeped into the consciousness of the party’s leadership. They simply played the music, dropped the balloons and pretended that by sleight of hand the issues related to their nominee and the vein of white resentment that Donald Trump tapped would magically disappear.
So, where does this leave us? Many are in a full panic, drawing parallels to the worse periods of Black oppression and predicting a turning back of the clock. Well in reality, time has been standing still for quite some time. Whatever forward motion there has been, it’s always been met with a backlash. What we have to come to terms with is that we have to make a long-term investment for which many of us will not live to recoup the dividends. It’s the same posture that warriors like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass took when they confronted a nation birthed in hate. It’s the only reason we can even have this conversation today. We have to detach our personal discomfort, our personal pity from the tasks we are being called upon to perform at this moment.
Change is rooted in the seeds we plant in the soil beneath our feet. We need to redirect the anger so many are feeling after the election of Donald Trump to some proactive steps to strengthen our community. We can begin by becoming immersed in the current issues surrounding public education and becoming a presence in local school district politics. This isn’t a glamorous engagement but it is the area that receives the greatest proportion of your local tax dollars and the pathway to economic mobility for our children. If we can take to the streets by the thousands, we can fill local Board of Education meetings.
At the same time, we can make a commitment to support Black parents. If we support parents, we support our children and strengthen families. Too many of us are either trying to go it alone or simply do not have the skill set to navigate the institutional barriers confronting our children. However, many of us do. We have to challenge our seeming unwillingness to help each other and accept help. We keep talking about the “village” but few put in practice the sharing that is required for that collective consciousness to develop.
While we pray for the federal Justice Department to intervene in incidents of police misconduct, law enforcement is essentially a state and local matter. Right now, we can become more familiar with the provisions of the collective bargaining agreements that police unions have signed with our local governments. They are public documents. Right now, on our own, we can create community committees to monitor local police, file Freedom of Information requests to obtain data, litigate when necessary and put pressure on prosecutors to force them to bring rogue officers to account.
We can also become conversant in zoning practices, and engage local land use boards to make certain that our community is not exposed to predatory development practices or put in proximity to environmental hazards that jeopardize our health.
In addition, we have to educate ourselves on our entire government apparatus, and not simply elected office. Most of us have little knowledge of the regulatory process. We pay utility fees for gas, electricity, and water consumption but few have attended the meetings of their state’s public utility commission, the body that regulates rates. The same can be said about the inner workings of state agencies, as rulemaking takes place that impacts us without our ever having been aware of the adoption of regulations. We seem to only be drawn to our state capitals when there is an issue being considered that we deem a clear and present danger to a cherished program. Meanwhile, legislatures conduct business and our faces are absent in committee hearings and when the gavel is banged in the legislative chamber.
Then there is the question of our money; how and where we spend our dollars. By simply changing our spending practices and developing a culture of strategic investment, we can on our own create a different economic reality for our community. I am reminded of my mother’s advice – just because they make it, doesn’t mean you have to buy it. This is tough behavior to redirect. We see the challenge whenever a new sneaker is introduced by a sports apparel company. The lines at stores often exceed those at polling places.
“We have to build the political infrastructure that will allow a truly progressive political movement to evolve in America. That’s not done on Facebook or Twitter. It requires face-to-face interaction, showing up, again and again.”
These are right now assignments. We don’t need permission; we don’t have to wait until Inauguration Day. This is tomorrow kind of stuff. And it will all have a serious impact on our ability to fight in the main event. We have to build the political infrastructure that will allow a truly progressive political movement to evolve in America. That’s not done on Facebook or Twitter. It requires face-to-face interaction, showing up, again and again. It involves tedious work at the local level, the willingness to educate and organize, the maturity to confront our weaknesses, and the patience to endure losing some battles for the sake of winning the war. What we really must ask ourselves and honestly answer is – Are we willing to do the work? It’s not glamorous and it won’t get you an appearance on a cable news channel, but it will lead to the rebuilding of our community.
We will lose valuable time if we become overwhelmed by the results of this presidential election. It is one thing to express legitimate concern over the direction of the country; quite another to be paralyzed by fear.
Emote if you must but the clock is ticking. I’ve supported candidates, served as a consultant on campaigns that have gone down in defeat, and though disappointed, woke up the next morning ready to get back to work. This is the 45th election of a president, so there have been 44 prior instances of the country handing the power of the presidency to an individual – through wars, economic depression, racial unrest and natural disasters. I suspect there will be future transitions. It’s time to attend to the work that we have to do between elections. Voting is a hollow exercise if that’s your only skin in the game.
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