Lying on my sofa at 9:30 pm on November 8th, I was watching election returns come in with a heavy heart. My son Ben came downstairs and saw numbers flash on the screen, and asked what does it mean? I responded, it means Hillary has lost. My ex turned as if to hush me, but forbore when she saw his face. It took her hours to come to the same conclusion that I had, the math of the electoral college had once again thwarted the will of the majority.
This is my story.
The roots of this catastrophe have been analyzed in such great width and depth, rehashing them now seems redundant. In any large endeavor many forces are at play, many decisions are made, each contributing in one direction or another to the ledger of success. Some seem decisive, others are footnotes. But in the Clinton campaign, it seems that so many factors conspired, there is no one theme.
In September I had volunteered on day trips out of New York to go to Pennsylvania to knock on doors for Hillary. I even took Ben at the age of 15 on one of them. The targeting seemed nonsensical compared with the 2008 Obama campaign, for which I had organized trips by three hundred volunteers in carpools. In 2008 I had a good feeling that the local Pennsylvania Democratic party knew their stuff. We were making contact with people and inspiring them to vote. We were sent armed with voter registration rolls, into areas where votes could be turned. The contrast with 2016 was stark – middle class New Yorkers beaming down into impoverished communities, minds already made up, and made up on racial lines. What if the Clinton campaign had invested more and directed energies better in Pennsylvania? Just one of many marks in the ledger of defeat.
But the emails.
But stronger than any confluence of campaign checks was the mood of middle America. How could I have missed this? I had all the information in front of me.
That summer I had gone on a road trip from New York to Graceland, with many stops along the way. Of course the journey was as much a part of the trip as the destination – I could have flown to Memphis far faster and at less cost, but I would have missed meeting a teenage girl waitressing in a barbecue shack by the road side while lost outside Shiloh. I was the only customer, while grandma sat next to me bouncing her two year old grand-daughter, who had never seen a stranger before but was very happy to sit in my lap. Once grandma was gone the teenager came over to talk. She is going to the University of Memphis in the fall, and dreams of becoming an English teacher in a foreign land – she desperately wants to escape this “hellhole of a county”. We talk about FAFSAs and saving money with used and rented textbooks, I hope she can escape the bleak future she fears.
There were rumors of trouble from Black Lives Matter in Memphis.
Earlier on the trip I had stopped at the Grand Ole Opry for a show. Feelings were high with the riots in Ferguson in the news. Someone shot some cops in Dallas. A beautiful young singer made an oblique reference to the strife, introducing her rendition of Over the Rainbow. She was heckled from the audience, “That had better be about the Texas!”.
America is sorely divided. Its original sin still shows its scars, while the heartland of America stares at the coast uncomprehending that country music could not be popular in Brooklyn.
Election night despair turns rapidly to an urgent anger. But then to an urgent feeling that we must try to bridge the gap between the two Americas that I saw on my voyage of exploration. I join the Get Organized Brooklyn grass roots organization that city councilor Brad Lander establishes in the wake of the election, trying to set up a twinning arrangement with a red state community to start the healing process. It is not to be, I eventually abandon the effort. The time is not right, I do not have what it takes to be the bridge.
The action is all on Facebook. I join a number of groups, feverishly scanning for news and actions to be a part of. One group, recommended by a friend from the 2008 Obama campaign, posts that Trump is due in town and they will have a last minute protest at Trump Tower. Intrigued I ask if they are sure Trump will be in town, I have not seen anything about it. Sheepishly they admit that the rumor was false, it turns out that Palm Beach local papers are reporting that he will be in Mar-A-Lago that weekend, but their protest will go ahead without him.
But there is a nugget of gold in this ore. The report in the Palm Beach Sun Sentinel references a Federal Aviation Administration site as its source of information about Trump’s travel plans. Apparently every time the President travels, air space is blocked off days in advance, and this information is published openly for pilots to use for their flight plans. If I scan these reports daily, I can get 24 to 48 hours warning of an actual Trump visit to New York!
Armed with this knowledge, I make my way to the next in person meeting of this Rise and Resist group. In my mind is a vision of being welcomed as a hero for this intelligence, and having experienced activists take the information and use it. But this is not to be – I am greeted warmly and made to feel welcome, but the informal leadership of the group is tied up in a “vague action”, a secret civil disobedience action. They want me to stand up in front of the floor and propose this as a group action, and recruit a group to pursue it.
And here starts my real journey. I throw caution to the wind, and stand up in front of a church full of strangers, proposing who knows what; to happen who knows when; if, as, and when you know who turns up, if ever. I am challenged: how do I know when he will come (but I feel I cannot let this be common knowledge for fear that the source is cut off); why is this not going through the action committee – they (Jaime identifies as a “they”, rejecting binary pronouns) respond that they are too busy with the vague action; how do I know that Trump will ever come?
The action is voted on and approved by the floor. We form a committee, and start meeting weekly at a spectacular apartment on Central Park West. We are Operation Welcome Wagon. We plan as best we can, getting art work for signs, writing a press release, a whole array of tasks; in a role of leadership that I am thrust into, for a project that I have no qualification or experience to draw on. But others do.
Then, in an instant, the quantum mechanical probability function collapses as the live cat is observed. Speculation and hypotheticals are crystallized into action. The White House announces that Trump will visit the Intrepid on Thursday. We have days, not hours, and enough time to involve a coalition of like minded organizations. I attend planning meetings with these organizations, and feverishly arrange sign printing (with no corporate communications department, I have to search for a print shop on the internet), press release, publicity, and so much more. I take time off work to handle all the media calls, I am all of a sudden press relations.
The day arrives. Mad scurrying as Trump’s plans mutate by the minute. The New York Times publishes a whole itinerary in which he will supposedly stop at the Peninsula Hotel on the way the Intrepid (not true). I have to persuade the more excitable members of our group to hold to the plan and make a stand at the ground that Jaime has chosen for us at 44th Street just below the Intrepid. I turn up at 2:15, to be greeted by a solo NYPD captain who is obviously waiting for me. All he wants to know is how many people are coming, and how late will we be staying. I give him the bad news that I don’t know how many people are coming, but I think we will be there until the president leaves around 10pm, and we are organized with marshals. We are not friends, not opponents, but regard each other with mutual respect.
I spend the rest of the day mostly in a daze, hanging out with Charlotte (the grad student who’s interested in non-violent direct action), handing out signs to the over a thousand people who join Rise and Resist’s portion of the demonstration. Being interviewed by a swarm of press, I give out sound bites that my friends at work never seem to tire of telling me about.
Weeks later, in the middle of a Times article about Trump avoiding London due to possible protests, is a mention that Trump is avoiding New York City now. Success.
I am now a full fledged activist. So many actions, so many selfies of me at the action of the week that I ration myself to. And so much fun. For Trump’s birthday we arrange an un-birthday party in front of Trump Tower. Birthday cake (“May all your wishes not come true”), piñata, one way tickets to Moscow for the whole family. The tickets were a lot of fun, my son Jeremy had the idea to make them supersize like a Lotto check. Artwork by Jake.
After we were done showing them to the cameras I led a troop of us into Trump Tower to deliver them. On being told that no signs were allowed, I said “it’s not signs, it’s delivery!”. Did not realize until I saw the photos afterwards that right behind the security guard kicking me out was a Secret Service officer.
Then there was RUSA LGBT at Brighton Beach. They are an LGBT group in the notoriously homophobic Russian community, looking to have a gay pride march on the boardwalk to fight prejudice in their community. Shades of Stonewall, another time, another place. When a call goes out for marshals to help separate the marchers from any hostilities I tag along. Fortunately the rain and about thirty cops keep the incidents down to two, both on my side. A restaurateur who tries to attack the crowd is restrained by his own staff before I or the cops get to him. One woman pursues us screaming “why don’t you want to f— me?”, as the voice of reason I restrain myself from giving the obvious answer: “because you are ugly!”
One morning a Pakistani colleague at work rushes up to me, he has been searching all over for me. He whips out a cell phone to show me my photo on BBC Urdu. It’s really more a photo of the very clever sign Jake at Rise and Resist made: “100 Days of Pampering Billionaires”, with Stephen Mnuchin in a diaper. So now my face is known in shady bazaars in Pakistani border areas.
I almost wasn’t going to go to Gay Pride. One of our members, Ken, had arranged for the resistance to be at the front of what used to be a protest parade before Wells Fargo started sending a stage coach.
But a bunch of kids called Hoods4Justice decided to protest the parade, and we had decided to respect their action and take a knee if they blocked the parade. So we needed marshals.
Marching at the front of Gay Pride was a peak experience. With fresh spectators, the enthusiasm and noise level was incredible. And as it turned out, the kids hid until the gay cops came out, and protested them behind us. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I stringently avoid anything that might lead to my arrest. Consequences to me at work would be likely to be disproportionate, compared to a freelance artist or retired person. But there was the 4th of July Macy’s fireworks. We got a crew with an enormous projector, and impersonated a film crew to get past the police barricades. We projected “Resist Hate”, “Resist Lies”, “Resist Trump” on the side of the UN building visible all the way down the FDR. When they saw “Resist Trump” the cops blocked the projector, but we got it on Facebook.
Then there was littering at Trump Tower. Not me, but I was Facebooking only to see Jaime being arrested at Trump Tower. Apparently they had written the first amendment on a bunch of pieces of rainbow colored paper, and tossed them off a balcony in front of a cop. He arrested them on the spot, and then a gaggle of NYPD, Secret Service, and Trump goons took half an hour to decide what they had arrested them for, since they were not trespassing in this privately owned public space. Eventually they took them to be booked. They are fighting the ticket.
But I was not finished with Pride. At one of our weekly meetings a speaker got up to say that the Hoods4Justice kids were facing enhanced charges and faced jail time. Could we show solidarity, and petition the Heritage of Pride executive to show some leniency. My friend Jay stands up to say that the Heritage of Pride board committee was meeting next door at that very moment, who would like to follow him to pay them a visit?
Crash a board meeting? Don’t even think leaving me out. Give me a good excuse and a board meeting, I don’t care what, I am definitely there. So we crash the meeting. And after a polite discussion we are asked to leave, and hang out in the corridor. And eventually get kicked out by security. All we missed in our meeting was the extended report of the finance committee, important stuff that I was delighted to miss.
This year my road trip with Ben was to see the total eclipse outside Charleston. During the two minutes and 34 seconds of totality, I reflect on my adventures since my trip last year. It has been a long journey, and it’s not yet over, but I have come a long way.
It’s been a long fun ride. 2,839 miles, 60 gallons of gas. But did I find America?
I feel I did. The America I found talking to so many friendly people is full of people who are striving to be something more. From the teenager at Shiloh who had dreams of becoming an English teacher in a foreign land, to the musicians and producers in Nashville and Memphis, to Elvis, who given outlandish wealth first saw to the comfort of his parents, the best of America is about striving for something better.
But I also found evidence still of America’s original sin. The news was full of the events of police killings and revenge killings. And when a performer at the Grand Ole Oprey sang Over the Rainbow to express her sadness, she got heckled from the audience “that had better be about Texas!”
Every establishment I went into seemed to be either all white or all black. Different music, different churches, different restaurants, two races still segregated.
I think there is still hope, there is much to be said for the best of what makes America. But at some point we must acknowledge that black lives matter.
Appomattox Court House, the final surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was attempting to retreat from Richmond to regroup with forces from the Carolinas, but was pressed hard by Grant and eventually surrounded with no source of supply. Minor resistance continued, but this is generally considered the end of the Confederacy. The Civil War cost some 620,000 lives.
Then another 467 miles of just plain driving to Virginia. Just driving, a little sad now that the vacation is almost over. It’s been a fun ride. Tomorrow I will see where General Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War, and then drive home. Debbie will come home from Ireland, we will pick Ben up from camp, and we will be together again.
And the Alabama Capitol Steps where the Selma-Montgomery march ended. MLK apparently was not allowed to speak from the steps, so they loaded a lectern from the church onto a truck, and he gave his speech from there.
307 mile drive to Selma, where for a change from motels I am staying at the haunted St. James Hotel for $79. Except that they didn’t have my reservation, saying that the Internet site link to their booking system had not been working for years. Fortunately they did have a room, Very nice room, but the hotel is quaint, and the wifi connection is so bad that I have to write this post using my cell phone as a hotspot.
Another Civil War battlefield, Shiloh, scene of Ulysses Grant’s first victory over the Confederacy. Very good movie at visitor center, but I got lost several times driving around the battle field.
Seems that Grant really got lucky on this one. He was completely unprepared and defeated on the first day, but by great fortune reinforcements arrived just in time for victory on the second day.
Lunch at a roadside BBQ joint with very friendly people. Grandma was playing with her two year old grand-daughter, who she said had never seen a stranger before, but was very happy to sit in my lap. Once grandma was gone the waitress her niece came over to talk. She is going to the University of Memphis in the fall, and dreams of becoming an English teacher in a foreign land – she desperately wants to escape this “hellhole of a county”. We talk about FAFSAs and saving money with used and rented textbooks, she seems to have a definite plan.
Then into Jackson to a shooting range. Got to find some America. Automatic weaponry. And Jesus- Range USA of Jackson is a family owned small business built and operated on Christian values and faith. Firing an AR-15 is really easy compared to a Lee-Enfield .303. Also fired a Glock19, nothing to compare it to since this was the first time I have fired a handgun.