This past week I’ve been thinking about Washington, DC, a city where I have probably spent more time than any outside Illinois. I lived in Frederick, MD for four years a a child and had the privilege of being able to spend time visiting monuments and museums nearly every weekend. Throughout my teens and early adulthood I took many trips to visit friends, and later my parents, in the DC metro area. With each visit I’ve come to love the city on a deeper level. While the Mall is a reflection of our best intentions at creating an ideal society, Washington’s off the beaten path neighborhoods are a microcosm of what makes America truly great: a tapestry of culture, art, food, religion, and humanity representing the globe.
On a recent trip, we decided to visit the Capitol building, somewhere I hadn’t been since I was in the eighth grade. It was a moving experience. I was most struck by the accessibility of it all. We signed a form, picked up badges, and within ten minutes we were standing in Bill Foster’s office chatting with his staff (he was in session.) We returned to the main building, waited in a short line, and found ourselves standing in the gallery of the House chamber, as a few lingering Congressmen milled about following the recently ended session. In retrospect, we probably should have gone to the chamber first, but you know what you know. All over the building and grounds, elected officials came and went, mingled in with a crowd of employees, constituents, and tourists that spanned all races, religions, and economic classes. I appreciated the smattering of red-hatted Trump supporters, hoping their visit to this building may help ease the paranoid delusion that the business of government is carried out by some mysterious cabal hell-bent on world domination. This building is a symbol of representative democracy and, as imperfect as it may be, inspires us to do better.
Last week I was saddened by the images of a mob showing blatant disregard for this beautiful building and all it represents. I was saddened as I watched symbols of American democracy disgraced by the exact people who claim to have given up their favorite weekend television appointment because a few men with brown skin dared not stand for a song. I was saddened to see another flag paraded through the corridors of democracy, one that was carried in battle by the opposition in our most bloody conflict and still reminds our largest racial minority of a dreadful past and an inadequate present. But these things are just things. They are imperfect symbols that will be refashioned and replaced over decades and centuries as we learn more about our own democracy. Our pursuit to make America a more perfect union, one where each of us possesses the tools necessary to pursue our own happiness, is permanent. At the core of that principle is our right to choose our own leaders to represent our interests. The mob that descended on the Capitol sought to interfere with that right, to devalue the will of the portion of the electorate with which it disagreed. The rioters did not just break windows, but attempted to break the very foundation of our society.
The morning of the insurrection, I woke up thinking about another city I have come to love and appreciate. Like Washington, and the United States as a whole, Atlanta has a problematic history. Like our nation, it was built by slave labor on stolen land. To this day, it bears the scars of voter suppression and an infrastructure purposely designed to limit the upward mobility of its poorest residents. But against this backdrop of hate and inequality, Atlanta’s Black population has not allowed its voice to be silenced. The city became the center of the Civil Rights Movement and would grow to become a hub of Black business, culture, and entertainment. On January 5, for the second time in two months, it also became the center of American democracy as its residents flooded to the ballots, despite unforgivably long lines and well documented efforts to suppress votes. Georgians spent their entire day in line because they believed in the democratic principle that we the people decide where we are going and who will lead us there.
Wednesday’s mob waved a lot of flags and claimed to be on a mission to restore America to greatness. My question for those present at the Capitol, and for those who have taken on the task of defending them: what exactly do you love about America? You entered that building with the intention of over turning the vote of your fellow Americans, to negate the sacrifice made by Georgians who gave up a day of pay in the midst of a pandemic to wait in line for 12 hours to be heard, not to mention the thousands who have given their lives to protect that right. You claim this is the land of opportunity, where no matter your race, social class, or religion you can make a successful life for yourself, but you make excuses for babies in cages and families separated at the border for the crime of pursuing a piece of that success. You say you love and support the troops who defend your rights, but you are throwing yourself on the front lines for a president who has openly referred to those who die in battle as losers. The candidate of law and order? If that wasn’t already out the window, the dead police officers left behind by the mob close the book on that one. So what is it? What are you fighting for?
Perhaps a better writer, or someone skilled in political science, could come up with a great way to tie all this together with an our-best-days-are-ahead-of-us shine. I believe our best days ARE ahead of us, but I’m also concerned that for a segment of society the word “unity”, like “freedom” before it, is taking on a warped definition. The fact that the rhetoric of Nazis, white supremacists, and fascists is protected by the Constitution, does not mean that they are owed a seat at the table of policy making. My hope is that the large segment of society making excuses for last week’s insurrection represents a crisis of ignorance, more than one of malice. Ignorance left untreated may be our doom, but perhaps we still have a chance with the next generation. Perhaps we can address the necessity of providing equal education opportunities to all students. Perhaps we can work to cultivate relationships where elected officials are viewed as regular humans carrying out a job, rather than bureaucratic automatons levying their will against helpless citizens. Perhaps we make significant progress by simply teaching future generations to adequately recognize reliable sources. Perhaps if Americans are not forced to work exorbitant hours for subsistence wages they will find the time and money for art, education, travel, and all the other pursuits that lead us to appreciating our differences.
Joe Biden was not my first choice for president, but I’ve come to believe he may be the ideal man for this moment. Respected by both parties, he should offer a steadying presence after four years of chaos. That said, I hope he uses his Inauguration speech to squash the “back to normal” rhetoric bubbling up from white suburbia. Normal is Americans having unequal access to basic human rights. Normal is America’s poor white population and poor Black population fighting with each other for a few scraps from a billionaire’s table. Normal is Americans dedicating far too much of their time to jobs, coming home far too tired to even give a thought to engaging in politics on a meaningful level, until they believe the democratic process is a farce and they have no say over the operations of their government. Normal is believing that a narcissistic reality television star somehow has your best interests in mind. Normal led us to what happened at the Capitol last week.
The Congressmen, staff, and visitors wandering the Capitol also share the building with the ghosts of those who held legislative office before: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and many other household names that would go on to the White House. None of these men and women were perfect. Many of them weren’t even what we would consider “good”. But all of them are part of our story. They were entrusted with the job of continuing the pursuit of a more perfect union, to expand our definition of democracy. It’s not a destination but a journey. Let’s find some abnormal ways to continue the work.