The battle for the soul of this nation

“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.”

This has become the central cry of Joe Biden’s campaign for President. These words have been a stark reality for the past week as protests have raged across the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer while being detained over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. It was all caught on video.

It’s a story that’s all too familiar in America. A black person killed by the police. The death of George Floyd set off a firestorm that comes in the aftermath of horrific video of Ahmaud Arbury being chased down by two white men and shot and killed in what can only be called a modern day lynching. That happened in February, but wasn’t public until months later. There was also Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot and killed by police after they breached her home to execute a no-knock search warrant for drugs they didn’t have related to a drug dealer who had already been arrested. There was also Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, an Air Force veteran who livestreamed being chased and ultimately killed by police and one of the officers could be heard saying, “I think it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.”

These are just some of the more high-profile killings, just in 2020. There have been so many over the years, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Freddie Grey, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice… the list goes on… And on… And on.

It’s a problem. And every time one of these killings takes over national headlines, people demand change. But just like school shootings or any mass shootings, politicians do a lot of talking; pretend that “thoughts and prayers” will provide comfort, rather than doing their jobs and creating new laws and regulations to prevent it from happening again.

What do I know? I’m a white guy from New England. I grew up, and live 40 minutes outside of New York City. Hell, I even went to a private school, but it was one that wasn’t steeped in elitism and it was diverse. I grew up in and around diversity; I grew up accepting people for who they are, not what they look like or what they believe. One of the reasons I won’t move out of this area is because of the diversity my own kids are able to experience. They go to a school less than a mile from my house with kids from all different walks of life and if diversity is important to you in how you raise your kids to be accepting human beings, that’s a hard element to trade away.

I am but an observer and commentator. A student of history. An American.

There’s been a week’s worth of mostly peaceful protesting. Yes, we’ve seen looting. There are always opportunists and those who just want chaos. We’ve seen a lot of property damage and looting that has been actively opposed by peaceful protesters, we’ve seen damage and looting, some actually caused by the police. We’ve seen the police actively start riots. Protests about police brutality have been met with more police brutality. On May 30 and 31, there was documented, live video evidence of the police actually being the ones that started the riots against protesters and against the media. Some news outlets even got the headlines right. There are some communities, like my own city, where the police have listened, acknowledged the peaceful protests as legitimate and even joined them. These are in smaller municipalities and there aren’t as many riots breaking out.

We hear stories of “outside agitators,” but this is a double-edged sword. The “outside agitator” argument is both legitimate – there are people from taking advantage of the protests – and a way to de-legitimize the protests. One of the ways the President, and the right, do this is by blaming “ANTIFA.” The hard truth about ANTIFA is that it doesn’t exist how they want you to think it does. It stands for Anti-Fascist and it’s a blanket term for different, unrelated groups of protesters that believe direct action, not peaceful protest, is the way to motivate change. There’s no singular organization. There’s no headquarters. It’s not Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. It’s not even Cobra. What the President, and ultimately his right-wing zealots, means by ANTIFA, is anyone who opposes them on the left. That’s incredibly dangerous.

No one wants to see the looting. The protesters that want justice for George Floyd and other black people killed by police don’t want to see looting. There’s a case there for governors to call in the National Guard to aid the police in an effort to stop actual looting. There is looting by bad actors, opportunists and punk white kids that think they’re hard. There is some looting, however, that is a symptom of the larger systemic problem we have in America, especially when you consider the economic disparities along racial lines. Income equality is one of the major factors tearing this country apart and moving us further from the Democratic Republic we’re supposed to pretend to be. The inequality plays out all over the country in different ways, but is intensified on top of racial inequalities that have existed since before the country was an actual country.

These protests have been different than others in the past. It’s different than Ferguson in 2014. Never have protests reached the White House to the point where the President was taken to a secure bunker and there were people on social media – myself included – pleading with protesters not to try to breach the White House grounds because regardless of who is President, the Secret Service doesn’t mess around. Yet there’s something else at play and finally after three and a half years, Americans have had enough. In the past month we’ve seen it laid bare. The true problems plaguing the nation have never been more naked.

We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed 106,000 and counting Americans. Many Americans spent weeks in lockdown, quarantined in their homes, fearing Covid-19. You still should, but outside of the protests there are some areas where life is returning to a cautious normal. However, just a few weeks ago, there were mass protests about reopening the country. It was mostly white people, mostly Trump supporters, many of whom don’t believe the virus is real or as severe as has been reported. Republicans started using the talking point of “let grandma die to save the economy.” These are the same politicians who falsely claimed Obamacare had death panels.

Those protests were jarring, not because of the science denials and the anger over places being shutdown, but because heavily armed white people stormed state and federal buildings. There were white supremacist groups, far-right groups and Trump supporters carrying assault rifles and weapons into government buildings, shouting at police. When you compare those protests to the ones following the murder of George Floyd, you will see the starkest and most outrageous example of the American divide.

The “reopen” protesters, the ones carrying weapons to State houses, were not pepper sprayed. They were not met with riot police or the National Guard. Instead, they instigated and tried to provoke the police to do something. Now maybe the difference here is the police didn’t want to engage them in fear of an actual firefight, delivering the much-talked about “Boogaloo Boys” the opening they’ve been waiting for to start their ill-advised Second Civil War. But when you see young people and peaceful protestors from all walks of life met with a militarized police and tear gas, and not heavily-armed majority white folk, that’s a problem.

Maybe it’s a sheer numbers game. Some “reopen” protesters crossed state lines, alternate views of them on social media showed in most cases there weren’t as many protesters as it looked, whereas there are A LOT of protesters against racial injustice and calling for police accountability. Maybe the accountability issue is the major difference.

Now put all of this in perspective. A global pandemic has killed 106,000 Americans after being called a “hoax” by the President. The same President refused testing kits from the World Health Organization. The same President who refused to send aid to any state governors that were “mean” to him. The same President who said “I do not take responsibility at all” in regards to the federal government’s lack of response to a serious health threat. 40 million Americans are unemployed… I won’t turn this into full criticism of Trump’s pandemic response, but I do believe it’s directly related to what we’re seeing now.

People are tired and frustrated. Since 2015, Donald Trump has been relentlessly in our faces with his bluster, foolishness, authoritarian tendencies, tantrums, tweetstorms, lack of empathy, complete disregard for the Constitution and so much more. Even George W. Bush wasn’t in the national conversation every single day. But that’s where Trump’s ego is fueled, when he’s in the headlines. He wants to be a dictator and he’s been denied at every turn.

Now, even in the midst of a global pandemic where Americans need to come together to help one another, he continues to divide. And then George Floyd was killed. It proved that even in a national health crisis that affects everyone, racial injustice still takes the throne as America’s greatest sin. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, police are disproportionately killing black people.

Instead of addressing the nation and calling for calm or even just pretending to advocate for change as Presidents do, Trump was silent. When he did talk, it was divisive. That quickly drew mass protests to his doorstep. These weren’t typical White House protests. This was pure rage and anger. Clashes with police and Secret Service over the weekend were intense and it was reported that Trump went to a bunker not used since 9/11. Ever the narcissistic sociopath, Trump didn’t like the news reports of his cowardice in the face of the American people. All he had to do was address the nation and call for calm. Instead, Monday June 1, 2020 is a day of infamy. This time Trump wouldn’t be denied his dictatorial urges.

He gave a speech in which he threatened to call in the United States Military to use against the American people. While he gave this speech, military and DC Park police unloaded tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbang grenades on peaceful protesters across from the White House, the People’s House. It was tyrannical. Those of us who have warned and feared this day since 2016 were horrified as Trump’s strongman instinct and dictatorial desires became reality in America. The same America that stormed the beaches of Normandy almost 76 years ago to fight against the greatest dictatorial evil the world has ever known.

It played out like a movie – the evil stormtroopers given their order to attack civilians and make way for their Dear Leader, the country now teetering on the brink of full-blown fascism.

He did it, in his words, to “dominate.” It was gross. But what he did next is a weird amalgamation of the most frightening, hilarious, moronic, appalling and outrageous things he’s done in three and a half years of making James Buchanan look like Jed Bartlett on his worst day.

After firing tear gas grenades into the crowd, ordering his troops to indiscriminately fire rubber bullets and club anyone in their path, Lord Trump walked across the cleared-out Lafayette Park to the boarded-up St. John’s Church for a photo-op, awkwardly holding a Bible he has clearly never read, or possibly held. What was the message? Was he trying to make it look as though God saw him as righteous? Was he appeasing the Rapture-obsessed Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo who have been in his ear?

Whatever it was, I think it backfired. He looked like a weak, small maniacal old man. He tear-gassed a church to take a picture. It was quickly condemned by the leaders of that church and religious leaders across the country. Governors, attorney generals and other law experts quickly condemned Trump’s threat to call in the U.S. military and turn them against the American people and said it wouldn’t happen.

Nearly 24 hours later, Attorney General Bill Barr seems to be taking the blame for the clearing of Lafayette Park. The Washington Post reports that he “personally ordered” it. To me, this reads as Barr, a nihilistic henchman, taking the heat off of Donald Trump who is likely enraged his actions were not met with fealty and compliance from loyal subjects.

Rather, he’s received condemnation, his Republican Senate enablers are “no commenting” rather than praising his actions. His opponent in November’s election, Joe Biden, delivered a poignant, powerful and presidential speech that has received a great deal of acclaim.

Whether Trump actually calls in the military remains to be seen, his threats are often empty and it will certainly be one hell of an American social experiment to see how the oft-glorified military fares about being turned on its own people. However, Trump does have command of the DC National Guard and he’s using them to sate his fragile ego by bringing in military equipment usually seen on news broadcasts from Afghanistan.

After the Secretary of Defense referred to the “American battle space” in a call with governors and General Milley, decked out in full battle dress uniform, marched across Lafayette Park behind Trump, it was clear that Trump wanted an all-out intimidation assault on the American people, simply because many don’t like him and want justice for black people.

I’ve never been a fan of Donald Trump. I am highly critical of Donald Trump. But when you are President of the United States and you cower in fear and hide in a bunker rather than addressing the people you are supposed to represent, when you tear gas your own people and then extend a protective barrier around yourself, rather than addressing the people, you have failed. Trump has failed the most basic duty of his office, a duty that even Richard Nixon and George W. Bush understood. And in that, Donald Trump became the President of Nothing.

Donald Trump, like America, has a long history of racism. America, unlike Donald Trump, will call for change when needed, despite varying degrees of success.

I believe – and this is what drives me – that America is not a country. America is an idea. It flows against the current of human nature. It’s an idea that everyone should be equal and that idea must evolve to attain that promise. It’s always a work in progress and that’s by design.

And here we are, still in the midst of a pandemic and a strong majority of Americans have finally come together because of George Floyd. People face down militarized police, a tyrannical President and a deadly virus because George Floyd was an American. He was an American black man murdered by the very police meant to protect him. And for what? An alleged counterfeit $20 bill. Protesters want change to prevent the next George Floyd. That’s what this is all about. White Americans have to do better because if we truly believe in the idea, than we have to work to prove that idea is meant for everyone.

I still believe in the idea of America. Donald Trump could have spent the fourth quarter of his life playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, but he instead tried to grab power and bring authoritarianism to America because Republicans – obsessed with nothing more than power and upsetting the “liberal agenda” – let him. Russia or not, Trump has tried time and time again to remold America in his image. But he fails. And he will continue to fail because he cannot change the idea that is America.

 And ideas never die.

Black Lives Matter.