Thursday, January 21st, is my birthday. Here's what I would like. PLEASE DO IT. #StaceyAbramsDay
I woke up this morning to the news that Children’s Hospital has contracted with Eric Holder and his law firm, Covington & Burling, to assess Dr. Ben Danielson’s claims of racism and make recommendations to Seattle Children’s. I had a flashback.
From 1990 to 1997 I served as Associate Director for Social Justice, then Director for Antiracism Programs, of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Once a year, our leadership team took a group of constituents to Washington D.C. to meet with their legislators around issues they identified as priorities. The leadership team had a standing annual meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy lasting thirty minutes and ranging in topics each year.
One year we arrived for our scheduled meeting with Senator Kennedy and were met by three members of his staff. We were told he wouldn’t be joining us. The three then introduced themselves. I couldn’t tell you today who the first two were, because when the third one introduced himself all the air left the room: Thurgood Marshall, Jr., then serving as part of Kennedy’s team on the Senate Judiciary Committee. We all experienced mixed emotions: irritation at meeting with Kennedy’s staff instead of him; awe at the name Thurgood Marshall.
That, of course, was the whole idea. Give the dog a nice, juicy steak to distract. Thankfully, we were all fairly professional and, while moved, unimpressed. He was not the decision-maker we came to see. A couple of seconds later everyone caught their breath and we continued with our agenda. After voicing our displeasure, following year we met with Senator Kennedy again.
This was exactly what I thought when I read this morning's news. Slip in the name Eric Holder, forever associated with his tenure as U.S. Attorney General in Barack Obama’s presidency, and Seattle’s Black community could get distracted, maybe even let down its guard. But don’t count on it.
Too many of us have been on corporate and non-profit boards not to see behind this ploy. Too many of us know the tactics of Human Resources departments. Reaching for a lawyer is a bully move. It’s an act of intimidation. It also shifts the emphasis to the legal liability of the institution, rather than making a good faith effort to learn about the atmosphere within and identity of the organization. When I worked for The Bon/Macy’s we were required to attend yearly legal training about harassment policies, not so we wouldn’t misbehave, but so if we did the institution could say, “Gosh, we tried. See, they even signed in to the workshop, so it can’t be our fault. We followed the rules.”
Reaching for a high profile Black lawyer is the ultimate, cynical gaslighting. It’s the equivalent of a rapist hiring a woman lawyer to defend him. What better way to cancel a local Black community hero than to bring in a national figure? Shame on Holder for allowing himself to be used that way. Shame on Children’s Hospital for using him.
And nothing says, “We really care about how our community feels” like reaching for an out-of-town lawyer with no local roots under the guise of having someone “independent.” Are there no anti-racism organizers and trainers in the Seattle area qualified to do an internal assessment for Children’s? I can think of a half-dozen off the top of my head who are more than qualified. Does Children’s actually believe their staff will speak freely to a law firm hired by their employer? Do they think indigent families will interact comfortably with people brought from out of town, who have no connection to or established credibility with the local community? It’s hard to believe that level of naiveté exists in the leadership of a billion dollar organization.
Watch the About Covington introductory video on Covington & Burling’s website. Their dedication is to solving their “clients most challenging problems” with an “unwavering dedication” to their clients. And who is their client? Seattle Children’s Hospital, not Seattle’s Black community.
These are steps corporations take when they want to cover their asses, not when they sincerely see a community problem that needs to be solved. Everything about this is alarming.
I want to be wrong, really I do. Time will tell.
How did the GOP get here?
This most recent undermining of our democracy begins with Grover Nordquist. After tangential involvement in the Iran-Contra arms deal, and participating in attempts to undermine the anti-apartheid movement, in 1985-86 Nordquist founded Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an organization ostensibly dedicated to tax reform.
Like many conservative organizations, ATR focuses on eliminating social programs, which are a relatively small portion of the national budget, while leaving big-ticket items like military spending intact. They appeal to low-income people by insisting the government is taking food from children’s mouths by overtaxing their parents. They built a mythology that white people were paying taxes so people of color, especially Black people, could live happily on the government dole despite the facts. Like much else politicians have done since time immemorial, they gaslighted poor, ignorant and newly-middle-income white people by misdirecting their insecurity and fears. Fact-checking website Politifact even keeps a running list of their lies.
In the 1985-86 election season, Nordquist and his team came up with a new tactic. They demanded any Republican running for public office sign a pledge saying they would never raise taxes. They were also required not to remove existing tax deductions without also lowering taxes. Any candidate refusing to take the pledge would not receive funding or support from conservatives.
George H.W. Bush used the phrase, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” in his GOP presidential nomination acceptance speech, but refused to sign the pledge. After a ballooning budget deficit during this term forced him to raise taxes, he lost his bid for a second presidential term. Nordquist was quick to take credit for the defeat and tie it back to Bush’s disdain for the pledge. Ever since, the pledge has been seen as one true measure of a candidate’s conservatism.
To my knowledge, this was the first time a candidate for federal office was asked to put a party principle above the needs of the country; to pledge allegiance to party first and put the priorities of the country second; to calculate the tactics for winning above the ethics of governing. Since then, the GOP has developed a series of conservative purity tests eating away at any promise of serving our entire nation, or our constitution, above all else.
From Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, the anti-science agenda, evangelical Christians’ attacks on women’s bodily choices, lies about President Obama’s birth, on to the 2020 rebellion against mask wearing, the once courageous party of Lincoln has devolved to the muddle of manipulated, misinformed rabble seen on the Capitol steps. Bit by bit, they forgot that government is for all the people, not just their constituents. Subsequent actions within the party have been built on that errant foundation until here we are four decades later; Republicans continue to elevate their party above the country. Wednesday’s Republican riots were the natural, inevitable culmination.
Were there opportunities to stop this downslide? Of course. There always are. Turn first to those conservative media pundits whose silence, or carefully worded evasions, paved a smooth path for the party radicals’ ascension to power. They have repeatedly used pundit double-speak to evade important objections to the purity tests. They could have asked the difficult questions, challenged the orthodoxy being required of those aspiring to leadership within the party. Instead, they silently watched as the party became more constricted.
Some of those same writers and speakers, regularly seen on PBS and other news networks, now decry the horrible state of our democracy, as if they had no part in getting us here. If ever there is to be truth and reconciliation, they must go beyond handwringing to name their own complicity.
Next, we must address the raging egos. No one seems to want to tell the whole truth about how the current president came to be the Republican candidate in 2016. Had the other candidates put their egos aside and stepped off stage when their poll numbers were low, votes could have consolidated around a single competent individual. I can’t speak to who that would have been since I’m not a Republican (or Democrat), but it likely wouldn’t have been the current resident of the White House. Instead, each candidate held on month after month, primary after primary, splitting the votes into such tiny factions that it took a small percentage of votes in each state to win.
Finally, our society’s culture of “win at any cost” must be challenged. It has become the way law at every level is practiced in our country and must be replaced with “justice at any cost.” Lawyers are taught to win. They are paid on billable hours and their ability to attain decisive victory for their clients. Our own mayor in Seattle, who used to be a federal prosecutor, is a perfect example. Her need to win so blinded her to the need to create justice she made a mess of last summer’s protests and their aftermath. But that’s for another op-ed. The GOP leadership is so focused on winning even Ted Cruz, an accomplished legal expert in his own right, is knowingly spouting lies about the election process in order to court the sloppy seconds left by the current president.
If Republicans and their conservative allies want to restore any measure of their connection to democracy, they need to admit where their purity tests took them and give them up. By impeaching the existing president, immediately seating the two new senators from Georgia, publicly unmasking the lies they and their colleagues have told, and censuring and expelling those members of their party who participated in the attempted coup, they can begin to put aright their ship and work to heal this nation.
Short of that, there is no hope for their future, and no quarter should be given them.
At the end of the lessons on World War II we learned about the Nuremberg trials. It was the first time in the school year I felt relief. The world had come together and declared, “This is unacceptable.” Accountability restored the balance of justice. The justice-seeking soul within 9-year old me felt the arc of justice renewed. Over the years, as more Nazi leaders were found hiding around the world and brought to trial, my sense the world was being made more whole increased.
Yes, I know now there was plenty of other injustice happening around the world. But the knowledge a multiplicity of countries were willing to unify behind accountability gave me hope even those injustices, maybe even those I faced daily, would someday be made whole.
Without the trials, the historic narrative would be about one group of countries fighting against another until one of them won. The horrific atrocities committed by the Nazi’s would be myths rather than details televised for the world to see. The documents revealed and the testimony given at those trials gave depth to the Nazi’s true evil and exposed how they developed it.
Now, there is a debate about whether the current president should be impeached. My unequivocal answer: Absolutely yes! The trial, however short or long it may be, would reveal and record, for all posterity, the depth of his depravity and treasonous actions toward our nation. The future of our country must know that we who were on the planet in this moment and responsible for sustaining our systems of accountability have done our best.
We, the people, have been violated. Our trust in the arc of justice must be restored. In our democratic system, the avenue for restoration when the violator of our constitution is the president is the judicial process of impeachment. While the present asks it of us, the future requires it.
In my mid-thirties I worked as implementation coordinator for the Cash Management Department of RepublicBank Dallas, responsible for ensuring the technology being sold by the department’s staff actually worked for their customers. Most of the staff were women, also in their thirties. Unlike me, they were all white. Of the 3,000+ executive-level staff at the bank’s headquarters, only two were people of color: the Senior Vice President for Human Resources (SVP) and the much younger vice president (VP) of another department, both men.
I don’t remember either man’s name, and couldn’t pick them out of a crowd today if my life depended on it, but my interaction with them is seared forever in memory. I’ll call the SVP John and the VP Jamal, for ease in storytelling.
Jamal was a former professional football player who had aged out. Everyone in the company treated him with a glowing reverence. When he entered a room, all the light turned in his direction. This was especially true of the young women, professional and not, who tittered and giggled in his presence.
Whenever Jamal entered our department, he made the rounds from cubicle to cubicle. He shook the men’s hands, but when it came to the women, he hugged. But not just hugged. His hands freely roamed their bodies. Publicly. In the open. They would sigh and simper, sometimes even give him a peck on the cheek. Then he would move on to the next woman. Blessedly, he never tried this with me. He always left with a triumphant look on his face.
Once he left the department, the women would talk about how sorry they felt for him. “Poor Jamal,” they would say, “there are no women of his kind available at his level. He must be so lonely.” “Poor Jamal, no girlfriend and no prospects.” “Poor Jamal, he’s such a nice guy.” Every comment began with the same refrain. While Jamal thought he was perceived as powerful and being welcomed and accepted, while he thought he was exhibiting power, the truth was quite different. He was, in fact, being tolerated and pitied.
Because I am a very light-skinned Black woman, I am often privy to interactions of this sort. White people say and do things they wouldn’t say or do with darker-skinned people of color present. It’s with this lens I watch Senator Ted Cruz make an utter fool of himself as he grabs for control of the GOP by appealing to white supremacists and white nationalists. He seems to think they have forgotten he is Latino. Or maybe he has forgotten. Or maybe he thinks his white mother is more special than Barak Obama’s and affords him a different level of protection from racism.
The GOP has a history of adopting people of color they can use as truncheons against other people of color. Time and again they lift up individuals, like former Oklahoma congressman JC Watts or entrepreneur Herman Cain, and use them as window dressing for the party, never letting them anywhere near the actual reins of decision-making and power. It never turns out well.
Right now, across the country, Latinx people are in the same social caste the Irish and Italians were a century ago: some are trying to make a case for being white, or at least white-ish enough to be trusted by the white power elite. Unlike the Irish and Italians, though, they are hampered by their multi-ethnic nature. Latinx from Colombia is not the same as from Cuba is not the same as from Rio de Janeiro’s slums is not the same as from downtown Rio. So, using a common analogy, the crabs claw over one another to escape the barrel, never acknowledging those who built and control the size and location of the barrel.
Because the GOP has let him come into their inner circle and rub up against them intimately, Ted Cruz seems to believe he is being taken seriously and passed into white-ish status. How does he not see: no matter how much he tries to prove he’s not like ‘those other people of color,’ the white supremacist mob he is courting knows exactly who he is, and he is definitely not one of them.
Like banker Jamal, Cruz has deluded himself. Just as Jamal believed he was a special kind of Black man, immune to institutional racism, Cruz has forgotten the same group of people he is now trying to seduce cheered when their president insulted his wife. He has forgotten they chose the insane man currently in the White House over him in the last election. I cannot imagine the stories he’s had to tell himself in order to stand in front of a fomenting crowd and give it credence, all the while thinking they are going after those “other” people and would never come for him. He would do well to pay attention to how well that worked out for Mike Pence, the genuinely whitest of white men.
After trying to get change from Jamal, I went to his mentor, John, and described Jamal’s behavior and the impact it had on me, as a Black woman, and on staff’s perception of him. John gave me the “there, there little lady, boys will be boys” speech de rigueur in those days. I then told him what the white women were saying and how much they disdained and pitied Jamal. After a momentary silence, John thanked me for coming to him, and I left. Jamal’s behavior changed immediately. Two weeks later he announced his engagement to a “long-time girlfriend” in Atlanta.
I don’t know if Ted Cruz has any honest friends or mentors, but someone needs to remind him who the Republican riot participants were and, maybe more, who he is. Just hand him a copy of this post, if you need a conversation starter. I’ll wait.
So what happens next? Now that the coup has failed, do we return to regularly scheduled programming?
First, let's be clear. The coup has not failed, it has been rescheduled. History shows us these first attempts at coups are just that, the first of more to come. Just as we tell a woman who has been hit by her partner for the first time that it isn't going to stop, we must acknowledge this violence is only going to escalate. Of course this isn't the first time in the last four years that Lady Liberty has been violated. Children are still separated from their parents and Flint still doesn't have drinking water.
Sadly, and gratefully, we can look to histories of failed coup attempts to see what happens next. Either we devolve immediately into the civil war being called for by the American fascists, or we wait for them to regroup and try their next attempt.
Let's be clear, there will be another shot at this. This was a rehearsal, an opportunity to identify the flexure and breaking points, identify unknown allies, test linguistics. Germany wasn't overtaken by the Nazis on the first try. The majority of Germans didn't support the Nazis. Still, they managed to break the country using pure and simple fear. These are the time-worn tactics of bullies.
The good news... bullies play to an audience. The attention they get, positive or negative, gives them a sense of power. It is their oxygen. The best ways to beat them is to cut off their oxygen supply. The kids who stood around and cheered the bully in grade school did so because it gave them a sense of referred power. Remove that power from the bully and those fans start looking for another power source to leech from. The minute you pacify a bully you lose.
So how to do we cut off the current president's oxygen supply (Dear Secret Service... I only mean this metaphorically (I think))? Social media organizations have begun the process, and that's good, but what can we ordinary folks do? Here's an allegory:
Question: A group of violent giants stand atop a mountain, surveying everything around them, threatening to kill anyone who approaches. They have fought their way to the top, and bodies are scattered all along every side of the mountain. How can they possibly be defeated?
In short: build tunnels. Wherever you may be, find inroads and build tunnels.
Welcome! I am an essayist, poet, and facilitator, passionate about social justice and integrity, who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. These observations are based on a lifetime working in the private and non-profit sectors, in a variety of organizational development capacities.