As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, I love to celebrate every occasion. On this blog, that usually is manifested through a special meal I make for that day. But in my actual life, I always strive for our celebrations to also have something to do with the meaning of the holiday. This year, I feel called to share that process with you all.
Because the Fourth of July should not be reduced only to cookouts and fireworks and patriotic musical concerts, as much as I love those things. The Fourth of July is really about celebrating this great American experiment, this evolving community that is the United States of America. Lately, however, we haven’t seemed to be very united. Therefore, what can we celebrate? How should we celebrate? I’ve been pondering these questions, and this is my personal answer to those questions.
The United States was founded on disagreements. The Declaration of Independence, and even more, the Constitution, were exercises in compromise between very different opinions of what the country should be and how the government should operate. A prime example is our Congress, which was set up so that half (the Senate) would have equal representation for every state (the desire of the smaller and/or less populated states at that time) and half would have representation based on population (the desire of the larger/more populated states). I believe that this structure of our national legislative branch, which balanced the goals of different types of states, has ended up working well overall.
So very different opinions is not the source of our current problems, I think. I think the fundamental problem of our moment in history is the tendency to vilify, even to demonize, those with whom we disagree.
One example of that is the conservative topic of the hour––their opposition to critical race theory, a viewpoint that there is systemic racism in the United States. There are numerous efforts right now by some legislators to outlaw critical race theory in schools and universities. Opponents claim that such classes teach students that the US is “wicked” or to deny the good in the American experiment or that it is an educational approach advocated by people who “hate America” This has played out here locally in an embarrassing way with the controversy over the UNC Board of Directors refusing to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of the 1619 Project, when she appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism. Although she ultimately won a 9-4 vote in favor of becoming tenured, the whole thing was a black eye on the state and the state’s university system, resulting in the current Student Body President of UNC-Chapel Hill releasing a public statement urging students of color not to apply to or attend the university. (Note: After I wrote this post, Hannah-Jones turned down the appointment because of all the negative energy around it and took a similar appointment at a HBCU, Howard University. What a loss for Carolina!)
This is personal to me, because I am a teacher. I teach literature, so critical race theory is usually not central to my classes. But do I teach that when it is appropriate? Yes, I do. Do I hate America? No, I don’t. I love this country. I teach critical race theory because I teach students the truth, and my belief is that the truth is that racism in this country is not just something that some individuals in this country practice; it is built into many of our policies and institutions. As just one example, I will borrow from my “Political Internet Boyfriend,” Cory Booker, who has been at the forefront of the fight to eliminate bias against people of color in US judicial policies. Booker consistently points out that having a baggie of crack, an illegal drug of choice among people of color, carries the same penalty as having a briefcase of powdered cocaine, a preferred illegal drug among white people. That is to say, owning a small amount of powdered cocaine as an individual recreational user will not automatically send you to jail, but owning a similar amount of crack will. Policies like this contribute to the fact that while African Americans are around 13.40% of the total US population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. To me, that is systemic racism built into federal law.
An example that came up this past year was when we read a YA book about a set of young Mexican-American sisters living in a border town in Texas who, when they discovered a Mexican man drowned in the river, put his corpse in their car, determined to drive him back to his family. My students, who were all white, couldn’t comprehend doing such a thing. “What would you do?” I asked them, and they replied they would call the police and have them handle it, OF COURSE. We then had a discussion about how their experience with the police in predominantly white suburban Research Triangle NC might be different from young Latinx girls living on the border between Texas and Mexico. I did refer to the Black Lives Matter movement, which they had read about in the news, but hadn’t considered from a more personal point of view.
Now, did I teach them they should hate or fear the police? Of course not. Did I even suggest that all police were prejudiced against Latinx people? Of course not. But I think it was a great lesson for them to realize that not everyone in the US feels as confident as they do that calling in the police will not lead to negative consequences. And after that discussion, they were better able to pick up subtle expressions of racism and sexism among authority figures in the book. Pointing out these issues made them more empathetic about the experiences of people their own age who are also people of color. Are lessons like that something we really want to ban?
The bottom line, beside the fact that teachers should teach the truth, as best they can, and admitting their own biases and filters, is that I approach teaching these kinds of things from my experience as a mother. If our children do something wrong, something that is harmful towards themselves or others or the society or the environment, do good parents ignore that, sweep it under the rug, pretend it never happened? No. We teach our children why that is a bad thing and explain the consequences of those inappropriate actions, knowing that children often can’t project the future impacts of what they do in the moment. Does that mean we hate them? NO, of course not. We teach them to acknowledge their mistakes and to try to do better in the future because we love them. So why in the world would we prohibit teachers from taking that approach as well?
Regardless of your position on this issue, it is damaging to our UNITED States to claim that people who teach about institutionalized racism do so because “they hate America.” But I’ve read quotes from too many people lately who say exactly that.
But let’s take an issue about which liberals can make similarly dismissive claims. Let’s talk about the attack on the US Capital on January 6, 2021.
I’ve said in Fourth of July blog posts in previous years that my son and I like to including in our holiday celebrations watching videos about the founding of the United States, particularly the musical 1776 and last year, Hamilton. This year, however, I’m suggesting everyone watch a different video.
That video is entitled “Day of Rage: An In-Depth Look at How a Mob Stormed the Capitol” and is posted on the New York Times website at: https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007606996/capitol-riot-trump-supporters.html?playlistId=video/us-politics . It is a 40-minute long compilation of all the videos relating to the Jan. 6 attack, along with some explanatory graphics or other content. It is not an easy video to watch, at least not for me. It brought up both anger and tears for me. Still, I think it is an important thing to see, particularly in reflecting on the meaning of this particular Fourth of July.
As sad as it makes me, it also brings me moments of gratitude and national pride. Some of my more uplifting reactions to this video are:
- Our Capitol and DC Police Were Truly Heroes
You know the old action flick trope about how a bunch of usually unlikely but honorable or driven people are outnumbered by RIDICULOUS odds but somehow, of course, prevail? Like, all the Avenger movies, or Will Smith and Co in Independence Day, or Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton in their Sci-Fi movies, or Chris Pratt in the new movie about when people from the future come back to get assistance from people in the past…but, really, almost all the thriller movies.
Anyway, that’s what came up for me as I watched the police stand off against the people attacking the Capitol. I know they are trained for this, but I just can’t imagine standing there on the Capitol steps and watching a mob of angry citizens descend upon the building. The numbers of protesters attacking the building were 10, 100, maybe 1000 times the number of people defending it. Still, the police held their ground (at least as long as they could), defended mostly by a bunch of movable bicycle racks, which really? Too often they were used against them instead of protecting them. The only weapons I saw them use were batons and spray guns, not the guns most of them had strapped to their sides. Their courage and dedication to their job were remarkable.
I’m assuming everyone has seen the video of Officer Eugene Goodman, who made himself a solo target for the protesters and led them away from the Senate Chambers while the elected officials were evacuating (which is included in the comprehensive video above). He has been rightfully honored for that, but so should all the other officers who stood their ground, many being violently attacked, without responding in kind but still protecting not only our elected officials, but our democracy.
Watching this video, to me all those officers were Action Movie Heroes, except in real life. Because it was real life, and not a movie, there were real life consequences. Three officers lost their lives from the attack, and 140 were injured, some quite seriously. All the more reason to honor everyone who protected our government so bravely and so judiciously.
2. Thank Goodness There Wasn’t More Gunfire
To some extent, this is an extension of my Point #1, because I assume almost all of the officers had guns. And maybe this is my US bias, but I feel like in many countries, a protest of this nature would have been met by the people guarding the government by shooting at least the front lines of people converging on the government buildings. As far as I have seen, there was only a single bullet shot by an officer into Ashli Babbitt, who was entering a broken window into a corridor in which elected officials and their staff were evacuating. Babbitt died, which I’m sure we all regret, probably the officer who shot her most of all. But the fact that it was the only shot fired, in a country that seems so gun oriented, is something that I am so grateful for.
I say that particularly because according to the media coverage I’ve read on some of the people who have been arrested and charged with crimes related to this attack, many of the participants have been shown posing with guns in photos from before the event, or were retired or even current police officers and/or military. But fortunately, they seemed to have left their guns at home. I saw signs that said things like “Hang Pence,” but nothing referring to shooting anyone.
But had the protestors come with guns, or if the police and later, the National Guard, hadn’t been so restrained in the use of their weapons, things might have been even more tragic than they already were.
3. I Can Find Respect and Connection with At Least Some of the Protestors
There were a lot of people there, and thus differing levels of concerns and commitments. But watching and listening to some of the individual protestors in the videos really moved me to compassion and sympathy towards them.
To be clear,I totally disagree with the protestors and their actions and believe they were misguided and misinformed. (Did they really believe that Vice President Pence could just throw out the electoral votes from states they didn’t like? What would be the point of having elections if the people in charge could just decide on their own which votes to count and which votes to disregard?) However, seeing and hearing them in person convinced me that it was love for our country and love for our democracy that motivated them to participate not only in a legal rally but in an illegal break-in to the Capitol. I disagree with their choices, but I respect them acting on their heartfelt beliefs, even though I think they are based on false information and/or reasoning.
I certainly did my share of protesting against the policies and programs of the Trump administration, so I feel connected with their passionate determination to speak out about what they saw as dangerous actions of our shared government. I truly believe that many of them believed they were fighting FOR our shared United States, and I can appreciate that. I just don’t tolerate those who took things into violent actions against our government and especially against those charged with physically protecting it (i.e., #1 above).
4. We Got Lucky
Watching the entire video, I came away with the idea that we got very, very lucky. As the Tiimes suggests with its title, “Day of Rage,” many of the protesters were obviously very passionately upset about the election results. I think what saved us was that most had never planned to actually assault the Capitol and/or never thought they would be able to get in. What strikes me most in the video was that when they did enter the Capitol building, they didn’t really have any idea about what to do. Some of them did go find Speaker Pelosi’s offices, or headed towards or even entered the House or Senate chambers or offices. Fortunately, the Capitol Police had been able to get at least the elected officials to safety before any of the protesters found them…sometimes only by moments.
But again, things could have gone very differently.
As I mentioned earlier, Officer Eugene Goodman was a profile in courage, deliberately engaging with part of the mob although he was all alone and made himself a target so that he could lead them away from the fleeing Senators. But if people had actually prepared for the assault and had a plan about, for example, capturing? or harming? Mike Pence, they might not have taken the bait. If I actually wanted to confront the former Vice President or any of the Senators, I would have studied the Capitol plans thoroughly before arriving in DC and would have kept a map with me. I believe I would have realized the officer was headed in the wrong direction, and would have stayed on my path to my goal of reaching the Senate chambers. Based on the video, I might have been able to get there in time to at least see some of the members evacuating. I don’t know what would have happened then, but it probably wouldn’t have been good, especially if I came armed. (That’s a HYPOTHETICAL ONLY statement; I would never plan a violent assault on my elected government, no matter how vehemently I disagreed with its policies.)
This makes me even more disappointed in the Senate Republicans who blocked an independent commission to study this attack to ensure it doesn’t happen again. My thanks go to the six Republican Senators who went against the party leadership to put their principles ahead of their politics: Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. (Our NC Senator, Richard Burr, who voted in favor of President Trump impeachment after the assualt, did not vote, which I suppose is at least an acknowledgement that he didn’t want to go along with Minority Leader McConnell’s instructions.)
The thing is, now people know that it is possible to enter the Capitol through violence. Should something like this ever happen again, I’m sure people will come with a better plan for what to do when they get inside. Of course, even without a Commission, the Capitol and DC Police obviously will be working on better ways to defend the building and its inhabitants. Plus, the House is running its own investigation into the matter, enlisting the help of the one outspoken Republican horrified by her party’s attempt to brush off this insurrection as no big deal, Congresswoman Liz Cheney.
This is where the two things, critical race theory and the January 6 assault on our government, come together. Already, some Republicans or conservative opinion leaders are trying to convince us that what happened on January 6, 2021 wasn’t really that bad. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-GA, who is an ardent supporter of former President Trump, went so far as to say “If you didn’t know that TV footage was a video from January the sixth, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
I don’t know what TV footage Representative Clyde is referring to; certainly not the footage that I’ve seen. I lived in downtown DC for almost two decades, including during the Persian Gulf War when military officers with HUMONGOUS rifles stood on both corners of my block 24/7 because that was also the block where the Iraqi Embassy was located. I have visited the Capitol on dozens of occasions, both for work and for pleasure, and walked or rode by it hundreds of other times. All I can say to Representative Clyde is: Congressman, that was no normal tourist visit.
So do yourself and your country a favor, and watch the video yourself. It is our civic duty to remember the truth when we have elected officials trying to whitewash not just the past, but the present.
“Day of Rage: An In-Depth Look at How a Mob Stormed the Capitol” is posted on the New York Times website at: https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007606996/capitol-riot-trump-supporters.html?playlistId=video/us-politics .
As for me, I think at some point today or tonight, I’m going to watch the action movie Independence Day in honor of those who protected our Capitol for us. Yes, in many ways it’s a ridiculous movie, but no more ridiculous than people who are supposed to serve us trying to convince us not to believe what we see with our own eyes and that the riots of January 6 were not an attack on our American democracy.