By Frida Berrigan
February 16, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – “Tom Dispatch” – So reality has inexorably, inescapably penetrated my life. It didn’t take long. Yes, Donald Trump is actually the president of the United States. In that guise, in just his first weeks in office, he’s already declared war on language, on loving, on people who are different from him — on the kind of world, in short, that I want to live in. He’s promised to erect high walls, keep some people in and others out and lock up those he despises, while threatening to torture and abuse with impunity.
Still, a small personal miracle emerges from this nightmare. It turns out that, despite growing up an anarchist protest kid who automatically read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States alongside the official textbooks, I love this country more each day. So I find myself eternally upset about our new political reality-show, about a man so thin-skinned he lashes out at everything and so insulated in his own alt-reality that no response to him seems to matter.
Above all, I am so mad. Yeah, I’m mad at all those people who voted for Trump and even madder at the ones who didn’t vote at all. I’m mad at everyone who thinks the sum total of their contribution to the political well-being of this country is voting every two or four years. I’m mad at our corporate-political system and how easily distracted people are. I’m steaming mad, but mostly at myself.
Yep, I’m mad at myself and at the Obamas. They made empire look so good! Their grace and intelligence, their obvious love for one another and the way they telegraphed a certain approachability and reasonableness. So attractive! They were fun — or at least they looked like that on social media. Michelle in the karaoke car with Missy Elliot singing Beyoncé and talking about global girls’ education! Barack and a tiny Superman at a White House Halloween party. Michelle, unapologetically fierce after Trump’s demeaning Access Hollywood comments came to light. I loved those Obamas, despite my politics and my analysis. I was supposed to resist all his efforts at world domination through drones and sweeping trade deals and instead I fell a little bit in love, even as I marched and fasted and tried to resist.
Falling in Love With My Country
Now, we have a new president. And my love is gone, along with my admiration, my pride, and my secret wish to attend a state dinner and chat with the Obamas over local wine and grass-fed beef sliders.
What’s not gone, though, what’s strangely stronger than ever, is my love for this country.
I didn’t love the United States under Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Bush the First. I was a kid and they were names on protest banners and headlines in the news. My parents were the Catholic peace activists Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan, and I grew up in an anarchist collective of Christian resisters. My parents and their friends went to jail repeatedly and resolutely. We demonstrated, rallied, and railed at every institution of power in Washington. Those presidents made the adults around me angry and agitated, so they scared me.
I didn’t love the United States under Bill Clinton either — I was young and in college and opposed to everything — nor under George W. Bush. I was young and in New York City and still opposed to almost everything.
I started calling myself a “New Yorker” three years after moving there when, on a sunny Tuesday morning, airplanes became weapons, tall towers fell, and 3,000 people died. I emerged from my routine subway ride at 14th Street, unaware and unscathed, to stand still with the rest of the city and watch the sky turn black. I spent the rest of that day in Manhattan with friends trying to reach my parents and following the news, as we all tried (and failed) to come to grips with the new reality. Once the bridges reopened, we walked home to Brooklyn that evening, terrified and shell-shocked.
9/11 provided the rationale for sweeping changes in Washington. War by fiat, paid for in emergency supplementals that circumvented Congressional processes; a new Department of Homeland Security (where did that word “homeland” even come from?); a proliferation of increasingly muscular intelligence agencies; and a new brand of“legal” scholarship that justified both torture and indefinite detention, while tucking secret black sites away in foreign countries. All this as the United States went to war against “terrorism” — against, that is, an idea, a fringe sentiment that, no matter how heavily weaponized, had been marginalized until the United States put it on the map by declaring “war” on it.
The U.S. then invaded and occupied big time, including a country that had nothing to do with the terrorists who had attacked us, and we’ve been at war ever since at a heavy cost — now inching toward $5 trillion. Conservative estimates of how many people have been killed in the many war zones of what used to be called the Global War on Terror is 1.3 to 2 million. The number of U.S. military personnel who have lost their lives is easier to put a number to: more than 7,000, but that doesn’t count private contractors (aka mercenaries), or those (far more difficult to quantify) who later committed suicide. Now, President Trump has begun adding to this bloody death toll, having ordered his first (disastrous) strike, a Special Operations raid on Yemen, which killed as many as 30 civilians, including children, and resulted in the death of an American Navy SEAL as well.
September 11th was a long time ago. But I finally fell in love with my country in the days following that awful attack. I saw for the first time a certain strain of patriotism that swept me away, a strain that says we are stronger together than alone, stronger than any blow that strikes us, stronger in our differences, stronger in our unities. I’m talking about the kind of patriotism that said: don’t you dare tell us to go to Disney World, Mr. President! (That was, of course, after George W. Bush had assured us that, while he made war, our response as citizens to 9/11 should be to “get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”)
Instead of heeding that lame advice, some of us went out and began to try to solve problems and build community. I had read about it in books — the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — but I hadn’t seen it myself, hadn’t been a part of it before, and I fell in love.
Of course, the drumbeat for war started instantly in Washington and was echoed throughout the nation, but many of us — the intended victims of that attack — said “our grief is not a cry for war.” We circled around the victims’ families; we reminded America that it wasn’t only lawyers and hedge-fund managers who died that day, but cooks and couriers and homeless people and undocumented immigrants, too.
We pulled people from the rubble. We made the “pile” a place of sacred memory long before a huge monument and gift shop were erected there. We honored the first responders who died, we stood up for Muslims and Arabs and all those whom ignorance scapegoated. We marched against war in Afghanistan and then in far vaster numbers against war in Iraq. We called for an international police response to those acts of terrorism — that weapon of the weak, not the powerful — instead of the unilateral, militarized approach adopted by the Bush administration. We celebrated, and saw as a strength, New York’s incredible diversity. We made art and music and poetry. We prayed in all languages to all the names of God.
The Donald, a One-Man 9/11
I guess I’ve been thinking about September 2001 again because, only weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump already seems like a one-man 9/11. He’s ridden roughshod over business as usual without even a geopolitical crisis or calamity as an excuse — and that’s not so surprising since Trump himself is that calamity.
With a razor-thin mandate, considerable bluster, and a voracious appetite for alt-facts (lies), he’s not so much tipping over the apple cart as declaring war on apples, carts, and anything else beginning with the letter A or C.
It seems almost that random and chaotic. In these weeks, he’s shown a particular appetite for upending convention, saying screw you to just about everyone and everything, while scrapping the rules of decorum and diplomacy. With a sweep of his pen and a toss of his hair, he takes away visas, nullifies months of work by advocates for refugees, and sends U.S. Special Forces off to kill and be killed. With a few twitches of his thumbs he baits Mexico, disses China, and throws shade at federal judges. With a few ill-chosen words about Black History month (comments that would have been better written by my 10 year old), he resurrects Frederick Douglass, disparagesinner cities, and slams the “dishonest” media again (and again and again). His almost-month as president can be described as busy and brash, but it barely hides the banality of greed.
Flying Our Flag
Sure, Donald Trump’s a new breed, but perhaps in the end our resistance will make him the aberration he should be, rather than the new normal. So many of his acts are aimed at demeaning, degrading, demonizing, and denigrating, but he’s already failing — by driving so many of us to a new radical patriotism. I’m not the only one falling in love with this country again and this love looks like resistance — a resistance that, from the first moments of the Trump era, has seemed to be almost everywhere you looked.
Even at his inauguration, a group of young people stood on chairs wearing matching sweatshirts spelling out R-E-S-I-S-T in big letters. They had positioned themselves in the inner ring of the Capitol and were loud and visible as Chief Justice John Roberts swore the new president into office. The environmental group Greenpeace greeted Trump’s White House with a daring banner drop from a crane across the street — a huge, bright banner also emblazoned with RESIST. Pink woolen “pussy hats” were popularized by the Women’s March, a global event and possibly the largest demonstration in American history, one that rekindled our hope and strengthened our resolve on inauguration weekend. Now, those hats help us recognize and salute one another.
We’re working hard. We’re tying up the phone lines all over Capitol Hill, turning town halls into rowdy rallies for health care and human rights, shelling out money to support Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the immigration lawyers fighting for people barred from the U.S. and the closest Black Lives Matter chapter. We’re getting organized, getting trained, getting prepared, and getting connected. And we’re doing it all with a sense of humor: the Bowling Green Massacre Victims Fund? Priceless!
We are, in short, resisting in old ways and new.
Given my background, it’s no surprise that I’m not a flag waver. While growing up, I learned a lot more about what was wrong with my country than about what was right with it. But I’m seeing so much that’s right about it in this new Trump era of engagement or, if you prefer, call it radical patriotism. I’m mad… I’m scared… I’m hopeful… I’m still in love — more so than ever — with this country Trump is trying to hijack.
I don’t live in a big city any more. I’m not a scrappy kid in my early thirties either. I’m a mother of three kids and a homeowner. I’ve sunk my roots in a small, struggling, stalwart community along Connecticut’s eastern shoreline and I’m planning to live here for the rest of my life.
New London is a community of 27,000 or so, poor and diverse. It’s almost a majority-minority community, in fact. We’re home to three refugee families settled from Syria and Sudan. We have a good school system, getting better all the time. Every Wednesday, the chefs at the middle school up the street from my house cook a meal, open the cafeteria, and invite the whole community to eat dinner for five dollars per person. I went with my girls a couple of weeks ago for Cajun shrimp stew and white rice. The room was full and the mood was high. Young professionals and hipsters with kids ate alongside folks who had just stood in line for an hour and a half for a free box of food from the United Way across the street and gotten a free meal coupon as well for their troubles.
New London’s mayor held a press conference soon after in the lobby of City Hall where the heads of all the city departments asserted their support for immigrants and refugees in our community. The last city council meeting was standing room only as people pushed an ordinance to keep fracking waste out of our area.
The weekend after the inauguration, my husband and I raised a flagpole on the second story porch of our house and hung a rainbow peace flag from it. I look up at it every morning waving in the breeze and I’m glad I live here, in this country, in this moment of radical upsurge and a new spirit of patriotism.
I’m talking to my neighbors. I’m going to city council meetings. I’m writing letters to the editor of our local paper. I’m taking my Sudanese neighbors grocery shopping and to the post office. I’m loaded for bear (nonviolently, of course) if anyone tries to mess with them.
My kids are the anti-Trumps. “We went to the women’s march in Hartford, Mommy,” two-year-old Madeline shouts every time she hears the word woman. She knows enough to be proud of that. “Look, Mommy! They have a flag like ours!” says four-year-old Seamus with delight whenever he sees another rainbow, even if it’s just a sticker. He’s learning to recognize our tribe of patriots.
We’re engaged, we’re awake, we’re in love, and no one is taking our country from us.
Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.
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Copyright 2017 Frida Berrigan