Photo: Obama supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, celebrate his win in November 2008.
Do you remember the photos of people weeping with joy on the night Barack Obama was elected? Were you feeling it yourself—the almost-impossible-to-believe euphoria of a change that had seemed out of reach? The sense of a fairy tale come true? Gravity overruled? All of us floating to the ceiling laughing?
A black man as president? Not in your wildest dreams! Everything about our collective past said no. Then this dignified, intelligent man—one who promised change we could believe in—came galloping out of nowhere. The winner.
There were many who were not happy. But even more of us were ecstatic. We wept. We leapt to our feet and wept, screaming with delight. Everything, finally, would change. A new America. An end to the endless war. An end to the international bullying and the shameful treatment of prisoners of war. An end to the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. And, of course, an end to the racial prejudice. After all, Obama himself had proven the impossible was possible.
Flash forward 12 years, though, and what has come of all that celebrated change? The promised health care is being withdrawn and the U.S. is rattling its sabers and asylum-seekers are being thrown in detention centers and white militia members are storming into the Michigan statehouse with automatic weapons. Then, unbelievably, a black man named George Floyd is being asphyxiated before our very eyes, pinned to the pavement by four Minneapolis policemen. One of the police puts a knee on his neck, leaving it there for more than eight minutes even though Floyd pleads for air, saying “I can’t breathe”—even though he cries out for his mama. The knee stays clamped after he falls unconscious and after bystanders cry out, “Did they fucking kill him, bro. . . Check his pulse. Check it right fucking now. The man ain’t moved yet, bro.”
This is not the America we dreamed of. On the contrary, this is a nightmarish return to the lynchings of old. Right there on the street in broad daylight, the authorities can strangle a man for allegedly using a counterfeit bill? A black man like the other men whom we hoped would be, surely, the last ones, the very last killed this way—in Florida and New York and Ferguson, Missouri?
Outraged residents took to the streets of course, a few of them breaking and burning things, and the new president responded clumsily, sliding into his standard stance, “We can have troops on the ground very quickly. … There’s a lot of radical, left bad people, and they’ve got to be taught that you can’t do this.” That’s all the comfort offered by this man who, just a month earlier, had told the governor of Michigan that she should negotiate with weapon-carrying militia after they basically commandeered the Michigan statehouse. “These are very good people, but they are angry,” he instructed her. “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
How, how, how did we end up here? With this puffed-up partisan peacock and his cowed lackeys. How did we descend from two scandal-free terms of reasonable, old-fashioned decency to this pussy-grabbing pretender and all his knee-jerk, trust-me, God-is-speaking-through-me Tweets.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That’s all he has to offer? This posturing WWF pseudo-warrior with his ever-scowling imported wife and his boastful slogans?
The nation is erupting, but it is more important for his Highness to get another photo-op, so off Donald Trump goes, to watch a shiny new rocket shoot into space. And as he climbs aboard Air Force One, headed to the bright skies of Cape Canaveral, here are some of his last words, which laud the people who are supposedly the true Americans: “MAGA says ‘Make America Great Again.’ These are people that love our country. . . By the way, they love African-American people. They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.”
How small but significant are those last words. First of all, “the black people” are “other.” They are not MAGA. And secondly, the singular verb—“loves”—reveals that MAGA is not really a group of people at all. MAGA is an owned entity, a monolith of Trump’s own making. MAGA is in his pocket and doing some stroking, it would seem. And this “thing” that is his and his alone—“it” loves black people?
How in hell did we end up here?
And so soon after President Obama stood up, asking us to join him?
How can we be here after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood so powerfully and truthfully? How are we stuck here, when you can go back centuries—to brave Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and lesser known leaders like Richard Allen, who had to buy himself out of slavery in 1780 before beginning the Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia and writing articles for Freedom’s Journal? How can we still be so stuck here in 2020, when 400 years have passed since the first anonymous slaves led their own secret meetings on the plantations, whispering, “It’s time. We must take a stand”?
Maybe, in some sense the change that they all stood for has come. Change has occurred, after all. We can see it, right? But in another sense it hasn’t come at all. And now it seems further away than ever.
The posters are waving. They are up in the air again. “No Justice, No Peace.” “Black Lives Matter.” “White Silence Must End.” They are up in the air, waving. And the people are moving under them, calling out. The words are hard to read because of all the commotion. The people—most of them young and new to the cause—are moving, moving, always moving. And their posters will, of course, move right out of the frame eventually. They won’t be in the picture tomorrow. But if nothing else is clear, there is this: other posters will follow. And others. And they will all keep saying the same thing, in essence: “Stand.”
So let’s keep doing it, okay? For what other option do we have?
Stand. Stand. Stand.