I am afraid and I am fearless. I am a humble wordsmith with ideas and a proud activist with a bullhorn. I am, and plan to always be, an American. I am also a pluralist, a social ecumenicist, if you will. This is my country. Believe what you will. Be whoever you want to be. Above all, be responsible for what you put into the world.
Today I am a flame, a mix of angry torches and solemn vigils.
What is in a flame, that in its most modest form, at the end of a narrow wick, we use it to express hope, sentiment and prayer, yet in a swirling column at the end of an oil soaked cloth, it threatens destruction? Fire is a language, an expression of joy and sorrow, and of hate and vile threats.
The saint is in the fire, and so is the Devil. A candle is lit so healing can find us. A torch is lit so we can find our way to that which hides in the dark places. Evil or strangeness is meant to flee when exposed to such abundant light, replaced by what the light brings. Yet when such a flame is brought and the hunted divergent do not cower like Frankenstein’s monster and secret away, one explanation might be that there is no evil there, only people.
Still they come, because they cannot let go of the tale of the bogeyman.
They come at us with their fear, we who believe that America is a living organism that adapts and changes with time, but never loses her founding principles that all are created equal, and endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We offer those rights to all people, including, and especially, to those whom we have shunned, segregated and lorded over.
Slavery is acknowledged to be our Original Sin as a nation, and it is. The nonsensical ideas which enable the notion of cultural superiority – Manifest Destiny; the right to kill, cow and isolate the people from whom we took this land; the need to entomb people in a static, homogeneous culture for their benefit (they should be grateful!) when it is really to benefit the enslavers – are merely different recipes for preparing and consuming someone else’s dignity.
That cannot happen anymore. Neither my nor my neighbors’ dignity are meals for your ego. If you try to consume us, or even subsume us, you will choke on our resistance.
I firmly believe we have it in ourselves as human beings to come together at the table, if we let go of cultural biases that separate us. Join us, and we will all feast. Extinguish your torches. Let unity snuff the flames. We will give you a votive to hold, and together we will pray to heal.
Bernie Sanders fought for a social revolution with the goal of economic prosperity for every American. Instead, we got an economic revolution with the goal of greater prosperity for wealthy Americans and the global oligarchy, and motivated more by a need for power for some than a call to serve all.
That revolution is led by Christian conspiracists Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, who belong to a “first rule of Fight Club is you don’t say anything about Fight Club” kind of group the Southern Poverty Law Center once described as:
“…an important venue in which relatively mainstream conservatives meet and very possibly are influenced by real extremists, people who regularly defame LGBT people with utter falsehoods, describe Latino immigrants as a dangerous group of rapists and disease-carriers, engage in the kind of wild-eyed conspiracy theorizing for which the John Birch Society is famous, and even suggest that certain people should be stoned to death in line with Old Testament law.”
Our new dystopic reality is also supported by billionaire Robert Mercer and other well-heeled idealists and “extremist” supporters. Oh, and these religious zealots are represented by Donald J. “Golden Shower” Trump.
Their revolution was successful. Our revolution is regrouping. Why?
It’s ridiculously petty and simple. First, we have to understand what a political revolution is. It’s people coming together and passionately pursuing changes to a system that, either out of ignorance, malice or design, isn’t meeting their needs.
But there is another thing about revolutions, particularly in our country, that people forget – revolutions never end. Alexander Hamilton layed that out directly in the Federalist Papers (28). In the United States, when “rights are invaded by either” the state or the federal government, we “can make use of the other, as the instrument of redress.”
The right to redress means those who govern us are not infallible and can be challenged. There is no heresy in a society that has free expression as a pillar, and revolution is expression.
“How wise will it be in them by cherishing the Union to preserve to themselves an advantage which can never be too highly prised!”
So what happened to Sanders’ progressive revolution this election cycle? It was stopped in its tracks, held at bay by a stubborn, tone-deaf, risk-averse establishment that assumed the status quo was good enough to win the election. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, even President Obama – who should have known better – had blinders firmly affixed to their temples and their fingers stuck deep into their ears.
It’s similar to the conventional wisdom about the difference between a conservative and a liberal/progressive: the conservative wants to conserve, to keep things as they are; the progressive wants there to be progress, an exponential growth in social justice and economic opportunity. But this election, the so-called progressive party, the Democrats, were the conservatives, the don’t-rock-the-boat-keep-things-as-they-are party, whose only message was things are good and getting better, but they won’t be if Trump and the Republicans win.
That’s the attitude that lost the House of Representatives in 2010 – the fear that bold action, when that’s what we sent them there for, would cost them the next election. Although the Affordable Care Act was a heavy lift, it shouldn’t have precluded the Democrats of the 111th Congress from moving forward on immigration. minimum wage and other important social issues. Sure, they may have lost anyway, but at least they would have accomplished things that they knew the Republicans would never take on. Instead of going to Capitol Hill to serve, they are more concerned with getting reelected.
The Democratic establishment always thinks they know better, but their way doesn’t work anymore. The new Congress doesn’t get it, either. With all due respect, if they did, they wouldn’t have reelected Pelosi as minority leader.
It’s time to fight the Republicans with a revolution of our own, one with the bold vision and audacious hope of young progressives, many of whom, according to a column by a 22-year-old in The Nation, the other day, are not afraid to embrace a more socialist agenda.
“[W]hile Trump has dominated the headlines, there is still plenty of momentum around the socialist ideas that Bernie used to inspire America,” wrote Julia Mead, whose first presidential vote was for Obama, in 2012.
She said that her generation doesn’t have the anti-socialist, Cold War bias that was part of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations:
“When I heard Bernie say, out loud, that the billionaire class was ruthless and exploitative, that sounded groundbreaking. Not only did he name the right problem — inequality, not poverty — he named the culprit. I didn’t know you could do that. To me, and to hundreds of thousands of my peers, Sanders’s… socialism doesn’t feel antiquated. Instead, it feels fresh and vital precisely because it has been silenced for so long — and because we need it now more than ever.”
This isn’t sour grapes surrounding the allegations that the Dems’ political actions screwed Sen. Sanders. I don’t know if he would have beaten Trump, but most thought Chief Small Hands Pussy Grabber couldn’t win, either.
Quite a few years ago, I learned the value of commitment to a cause, how it must continually be reviewed and renewed. Time doesn’t stop. It keeps moving, and the victories (or losses) from actions taken yesterday must be set aside for the work to be done today.
In a country where free expression and the right to redress/revolution are guaranteed, we cannot rest, for our lives can change in an instant. Time doesn’t stop and neither should we. She is as constant as nature.
“You cannot say, ‘I will not fight.’ Nature [karma] compels you to.” – Krishna to Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
– President Barack Obama, from his farewell speech, January 10, 2017
There was sobbing, actual wailing, in homes all across America, Tuesday night, including mine. President Barack Obama’s poignant and touching farewell address may have been the backdrop for this river of sorrow, but it wasn’t his poetic words, or the sunset of his challenging presidency, or even Malia wiping tears from her eyes or the president when he dried his own.
When the speech was over and the lights came up in McCormick Place, and President Obama moved slowly through the room, thanking each of the smart, dedicated, civically minded people who had given all they had to his administration and election races, the reason for the melancholy became clear. This wasn’t about what we’re losing, but what we are left with.
As someone who has had to mourn too often, I know the waves of sorrow that pound at the heart like a storm surge washing away a dune, eating and coming back to feast again and again, until all that’s left is the indestructible, the warm memories of what was lost.
This is not that kind of crying, that kind of aching absence of a lost parent. This is not solely about what is gone. It is about the terrifying uncertainty of what is to come. It is about a government being presided over by a fool who follows the advice of oligarchs, evangelicals and dominionists, each with their own Machiavellian agenda, whispering sweet nothings in his ear.
Like the Persian king of old, he is guided by vanity, ego and conquest (sexual and otherwise). It is how he values himself among men, to rise above them.
There is a period for mourning, but there comes a time when we must stop our sadness and empower each other to go on – not to “get over it,” as the more strident of our fellow Americans ridiculously insist , but – to face the inevitable future, as challenging as it may be for our country and values.
“We have everything we need to meet those challenges,” the president said. “After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people.”
The challenge is whether to be numb with fear in the face of a possible religious and/or cultural dystopia, or to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against those who would make it so. I choose the latter, because it is our right and, as I see it, our duty to make the world, our world, our neighbors’ world, better.
The promise of our democracy can be fulfilled, Obama went on, “only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”
“Our founders,” he said, “knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
We are citizens, after all, and not subjects. This country and its leaders belong to us.
“It falls to each of us,” the president admonished, “to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.”
The sadness must and will fade with time, so damn the past! Every fight we engage in now is for our future.
We will be loud, but civil. We will fight for our neighbors when their rights as Americans are trampled. We will, as President Obama said, be vigilant.
And because I know you’ve been humming this ever since you read the header, a bit of Everybody Wants to Rule the World:
“It’s my own desire, it’s my own remorse.
Help me to decide.
Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world.”
“It wasn’t lost on everybody—including some in the press—that her principal transgression actually seemed to be that she was a woman who said what she thought instead of quietly receding into the conventionally accepted political staging.”
– from a Politico article about how a 60 Minutes appearance in 1992 planted in the minds of Americans their relative opinions of Hillary Rodham Clinton
What a crazy, screwed up election this has turned out to be, not that that’s news to anyone.
I’ve said it here before, but in the context of this wacky, 2016 election, it bears repeating. I am a Baby Boomer, albeit a late one. Like the song goes, I was born in the fifties. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter during the primaries because I am nothing if not a political idealist; free healthcare, free education and an end to income inequality are all important to me because they’re important to building a strong middle class and to the continuing progress of our great country.
In a year like this, when Bernie Sanders’ idealistic populism clashed with not only the angry venting of Donald Trump, but also conflicted with the twenty-five year old, paranoid, must-get-elected centrism of the Clintons, the decline of options for choosing positive change leaves progressives, and especially committed liberals, in a wilderness of hopelessness.
When I was in St. Louis this summer, attending the annual Netroots Nation gathering, it was the same week that Bernie endorsed Hillary Clinton, and two weeks before the volatile Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The incomparable Washington Post reporter, Dave Weigel, was there, as always. He came up to me and asked if I was a Bernie supporter. I said that yes, I was.
“So who are you voting for in November?” he asked me, after we went over some of Clinton’s negatives.
“Hillary,” I said, without hesitation.
“Because,” I answered, “Trump!”
That exchange bothered me for a long time. I was uncomfortable that my main reason for voting for her was the utter unpalatability of what Trump would do to our country’s moral, ethical and political standing in the world if he were elected President of the United States. It’s a valid reason, to be sure, but it was wholly unsatisfactory, from an analytical point of view. I wasn’t looking for a more affirmative reason, but I was open to it, so when I read the Politico article cited above, it resonated, in the way that if you’re ready for the lesson, the teacher will come. What I found was the case for Hillary is more about me, who I am, than I realized.
The headline of the Politico article is, “The TV interview that haunts Hillary Clinton,” but it’s about more than just about her strong, Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” moment after the Superbowl, in defending Bill against Gennifer Flowers’ accusations. It’s an overview of the political life of someone who is, believe it or not, naively honest about what she says when she talks about being a professional woman, a mother and a public servant.
When she was first told about the country music star’s negative reaction to the future first lady asserting, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she reportedly face-palmed, and was surprised and dismayed. “I didn’t mean to hurt Tammy Wynette as a person,” she reportedly told a small Colorado newspaper. “I happen to be a country-western fan.”
She was equally surprised by the public’s reaction after her infamous comments, six weeks later, about choosing her law career over being a woman who “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.”
Politico quotes Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, who, in 2000, explained that he had trouble, during the 1992 campaign, convincing Hillary her comments would be a problem:
“‘I pulled her aside, and I said, ‘You know, Hillary, you’ve got to go restate this. People are going to think that’s an attack on stay-at-home moms.’ And she had the most wounded and naïve look on her face. … She had no idea that might be taken out of context. She said, ‘No one could think that.’ She said, ‘I would have given anything to be a stay-at-home mom. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I just didn’t have a choice because Bill was making $35,000 a year and we needed to support the family.’ I said, ‘I know that.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you worry too much.’”
So what does this have to do with me being a Baby Boomer, like the Clintons? I believe there is really a kind of liberal/progressive redemption in electing her. At every step of the way, with her strong character and self-assuredness, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the strongest voice of a liberated, feminist generation. With her sharp intelligence and being a “woman who said what she thought,” Hillary was at the top of the wave. If she fell before she stood up on her groundbreaking surfboard, people would put her down for not having what it takes. If she rode through the wave successfully, people would say she’s too assertive. Ask any woman about that catch-22, where one is empowered by education but subjugated by prevailing sexism, and how difficult that reality is to navigate.
Or, as she put it to the class of 1992 when she gave the commencement address at her Alma-mater, Wellesley College:
“As women today, you face tough choices. You know the rules are basically as follows: if you don’t get married, you’re abnormal; if you get married but don’t have children, you’re a selfish yuppie; if you get married and have children, but work outside the home, you’re a bad mother; if you get married and have children, but stay home, you’ve wasted your education.
“…So you see, if you listen to all the people who make these rules, you might just conclude that the safest course of action is just to take your diploma and crawl under your bed.”
The affirmative case for Hillary Clinton is her shear incredulity that an educated woman should be stopped, could be stopped, in fulfilling her maximum potential. We wouldn’t ask that of a man. It is certainly wrong to ask it from any woman, any person, especially one as smart and experienced and, yes, humble (relative to her profession), as Hillary.
The Politico piece was written about a month ago, before the first presidential debate. Since then, Donald J. Trump has not stopped attacking her for being weak and lacking stamina (even while saying he admires that she is a fighter), has attacked the veracity of women accusing him of unwanted sexual contact by saying they weren’t attractive enough for him, and has accused Hillary of stepping out on Bill.
While that only sharpens the distinction between a blowhard misogynist and a woman more ready to be president than almost any other American, what clinches it for me is what Bill Clinton said in that 1992, 60 Minutes interview, when Steve Kroft asked if the Clintons had “an arrangement,” implying, obviously, that they allowed each other sexual indiscretions.
Bill was having none of that. “Wait a minute,” he interrupted, “You’re looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage.”
Standing by each other, being committed to each other and to your common goals, is undeniably uplifting. Just because some don’t understand that kind of devotion doesn’t make it less valuable. It also implies that no matter how much garbage they throw at Hillary – and they have thrown a lot – she remains a person committed to her goals, and committed to being someone who does all she can for people as a public servant. That is why I am voting for her. It’s a much more empowering reason than my fears of seeing giant gold lettering on the White House, next year. But if that’s what you need to get your butt to the polls, by all means, it’ll do.
Saturday, September 17, was the fifth anniversary of the first day of Occupy Wall Street – two months of protest against economic inequality, based in a small plaza in Lower Manhattan known as Zuccotti Park. The movement spawned other Occupy protests from Seattle to Miami and launched an unstoppable revolution to stand up for the ninety-nine percent for whom the economy doesn’t work.
For the organizers in New York, as for many of us, when you are committed to social justice, you cannot help but raise your voice in the face of racism, classism, and many other institutionalized behaviors that casts one segment of society as less worthy of the respect of humanity than another.
This is the story of one self-described “Occupy die hard,” Cecily McMillan. She is the young woman who, after being violently assaulted by the New York Police Department during a peaceful, Occupy Wall Street six month anniversary event in 2012, unintentionally became the face of the movement when she was arrested and went on trial for assaulting the cop who grabbed her breast and beat her until she bounced on the pavement, writhing in seizure.
It was supposed to be a quick visit, a show of support before heading out with friends to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but it turned into something much worse.
“The only thing I am guilty of,” she would later say, “is not going in with a partner. I should have known better.”
“In encountering struggle, you realize the stuff you are made of.”
– Cecily McMillan
After a short trial with a difficult judge, a jury convicted McMillan of the assault. But there was an outpouring of support, including from three-quarters of the jury itself, pleading for leniency, and instead of the two to seven years she could have gotten, the judge sentenced her to three months in jail and five years of probation. She is now a felon. Part of the terms of her probation is that she is not allowed to participate in any protest or civil action.
This, admits Cecily, is difficult for her, as she only found her own freedom in fighting for others. She describes her passion for equality as “the accountability of activism.”
“Accountability,” she told me during a recent conversation in an Atlanta park, “that’s what I tried to foster in the cadre [of Occupy activists].” That was important in a movement that famously had no leaders precisely because they expected committed activists to step up and do what’s right.
“It’s good to do your best in your capacity, and to inspire people to be as accountable to others as you are,” she explained. “If we think of Martin Luther King [Jr.] as somebody special, nobody steps up in his place once he goes. Who could fill his shoes? If people think I’m special [for being willing to fight for justice and go to jail], then they say, ‘Well, I don’t have to do what she did.'”
Let’s be clear. Cecily is not comparing herself to MLK. She is saying that the willingness, the capacity to fight for equality and justice, is in each of us. Activists have to believe that. Otherwise, why show up? We stand neither as hero worshipers nor heroes, but ordinary people inspired by those who came before to take a public stand for social consciousness.
McMillan has a story to tell about a life that began with her fighting for herself, and evolved into a fight for the welfare of others, because, as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Sometimes we see injustice in the ugly way we treat each other as human beings, like in an outsider who is shunned by social divisions, and only requires what all people do – love and acceptance. Sometimes injustice is what one sees in a misguided community’s visceral reaction to a cultural event or tragedy.
While Cecily’s undeniable empathy brings her to the side of the former (she almost went to jail for trying help a Hispanic couple avoid it themselves), it is for her communities that her voice is loudest and her defense is strongest. It is there where she had her awakening.
“That was the first time I’d heard the word ‘terrorist.’ …The terrorists, I learned, had been Muslim, so they believed in Islam; which, I was told, was a religious cult of brown men with towelheads and long beards who worshiped war, enslaved women and hated Christians.”
It was the prevailing perspective in a small, poor, segregated, southern town, that, to McMillan’s credit, she admitted “sounded crazy to” her. More to the point, she was aware enough to begin questioning the norms of her community:
“I was at a pep rally for an upcoming football game. The cheerleaders had just performed a routine to Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA’ when an athlete grabbed the mic and said, ‘This one’s gonna be for the troops – tonight we’re going to go out there and kick ass like they was sandniggers!’ The gym went wild…”
It was the suffix, as it were, of the epithet that drew her attention. “I’d never heard that word used for anyone but blacks,” she wrote. “What did it mean that it was so easily transferable?”
“When I started asking questions, I realized it wasn’t enough to be white and Christian,” McMillan told me. “If you disagreed with them, then you might as well be with the n*****s and the people who weren’t Christian…
“I was white, and I was Christian, but just because I started to ask questions, then all of a sudden, I didn’t get to be part of their club anymore.”
It was shortly after that when she took her first action for social justice. As she writes in the book:
“One day, I stayed seated for the Pledge of Allegiance and stood up when everyone else sat down for the moment of prayer. When the teacher sent me to the office, the principal wanted to know why I’d done it. ‘Because,’ I explained, ‘some people aren’t Christian, but we have to say “under God” in the pledge and worship him in prayer.’ ‘Don’t you believe in God?’ he asked. ‘I do,’ I replied, ‘But that’s not the point.’ ‘Then what is?’ he asked. ‘That you make us do it…What if I wasn’t Christian?’ ‘But you are Christian.’ he replied. ‘But if I wasn’t,’ I argued, ‘it would be wrong to make me worship a different god.’ ‘Yeah, well, you’d also go to hell. Do it again,’ he challenged, ‘and you’ll get a taste of it.'”
The “taste” of hell, when she repeated her protest the next day, was a paddling. That evening, she says, she wrote in her journal:
“They think they can put me in my place, but they can’t. My place is wherever I say it is.”
“You know, Millennials, we were never really afforded a childhood, as a generation. Our generation did drugs to fit in, not to chill out, not to party. We did Adderall, to go to school more, to get there earlier, to stay later, to do all sorts of extracurricular activities – to be all perfect, a perfectly well rounded human being…
“We were made into neurotic little yippy dogs, all of us.”
– Cecily McMillan
It would be easy to dismiss Cecily McMillan as just another youthful radical, naive of the compromises other generations made in battles deemed too destructive to keep fighting. On the other hand, I found her to be the real deal – as authentic and caring an activist as I’ve ever met.
She describes herself as “really working class.” Sure, she cites revolutionary thinkers like Foucault, Badiou and Michelle Alexander the way Lit majors cite Shakespeare, Bronte and Huxley, but it’s not just an academic exercise for her. It’s her strong belief in the words one of her college professors told her, that “Teachers are society builders.” Her passion brought her to learn more, and her learning inflames her passion.
“The college and the prison chapters [of the memoir] are probably the two that are least defined,” she said, thoughtfully, “because I’m still working on what privilege is and how it was taken away from me.” She went on to explain that to be raised in poverty and be given an opportunity to attend college and be free to embrace activism, and to become “Activist Barbie,” as the media called her during the trial, and then to lose that and more – including the respect of her family – when she went to prison, has left her and her family more estranged than ever.
“There’s something truly painful,” she lamented, “about being in privilege, for people who were not raised with it, because in gaining privilege, you lose your family; you lose your identity; you lose your culture. It’s painful.”
Cecily’s family has names for her, she says, like “pretentious, highfalutin,” and what is perhaps most hurtful, “not a McMillan.”
The confusion, for her, was escaping the fate of many raised in poverty in America. “What,” she asked me, rhetorically, “so I gained the privilege to not become a heroine addict? I gained the privilege to not starve to death?
“I gained privilege, but I worked myself out of [the] family, out of roots, out of soul.” For her, not being able to return to the culture in which she was raised has left her with what she now sees as two unpleasant choices: privilege or prison. In her mind, she either violates her principles of equality and pursues money, or goes back to a life of protest and civil action, and loses her freedom. Either way, her family resents her.
Still, she believes, prison is the key to “breaking” our society – not in the anarchistic sense, but in the sense of breaking a dysfunctional addiction to institutionalized thinking. “Anybody who’s in college or a PhD program right now ought to be in jail,” she argued, “and I think everybody that’s in jail ought to be in college.” Later, she clarified, “Let’s leave college alone. Let’s say anybody who’s in a masters or PhD program, their time would be better spent in jail.”
This will, McMillan claims, allow those in higher education to have practical experience, to learn and to write about what they’ve only studied in their “ivory tower” of theory. “They [already] know how to study that. They don’t need a guide.” They need the experience.
On the outside, she says, even if you’re involved in an action as bold as Occupy Wall Street, “You are the privileged allied with the oppressed.” But in jail, she went on, “You are the oppressed allied with the oppressed. You are the oppressed and the activist.”
If you’re young, living with you parents and not making any money, “What have you got to lose?” she asked. “Go to jail [for what you believe]. How much can you do on the inside? Guys, you’ll be fine.”
Cecily says flipping the script is something Millennials are poised to do. The economy and our social structure demand it, because the class entitlement they grew up with – money, segregation and/or education – is no longer relegated to provincial America.
“I love my generation,” she told me, hopefully. “We’re really entitled, but that entitlement is going to be this world’s saving grace. When we’re the poorest people [living in neighborhoods] alongside those that are currently ‘othered,’ right now, with the education that we have and the entitlement we have, we are going to put upon the world entitlement for all, and that’s going to be huge.”
For McMillan, the opportunity for the entitled to learn about what it’s like to be without food, housing or a job, “or a good life,” will necessarily bring those universal requirements to all. “‘Entitlement for all,’” she reflected, adding, “I love that.”
“I came up with this idea in prison that I still believe in. I don’t believe any of us are any freer on the outside than those on the inside. We just have more distractions.”
That brings us to the question just about anybody might ask her. (I did.) Why does someone in their mid-twenties need to write a memoir? After all, it wasn’t as if she were some kind of radical wunderkind.
“Oh my God, I would have slapped the shit out of myself in the sixth grade,” she told me she realized after consulting some of her old journals for her story.
But the message of the book, she says, isn’t the narrative of her perseverance throughout her challenged childhood, or her ordeal at Occupy Wall Street, or at the hospital, or in court, or even in jail.
Cecily told me many times how uncomfortable she was that the redemption in the story was about her. “People are still just really into me, in the most delegitimizing way,” she lamented. “People want to talk about me. People want to spectacle-ize me. They think, ‘Oh well, you wrote a book. How bad could your life be?’ Really bad,” she concluded, emphatically.
The message she wants to get out is that it is precisely because of her challenges growing up poor, in a broken home with parents always screaming at each other and crying, a suicidal, depressed mother and a severely ADHD brother who was later diagnosed as bipolar, that she was able to put up with her ordeal both before and after the events of March 17, 2012, in New York.
“This book was the first time I realized how much of my life was not accessible to the people [at Occupy] that I had wanted to be – previously – a part of,” she admitted.
Given that version of privilege, the privilege of conditioning, we could call it, Cecily claims it was easier for her to understand the plight of the women with whom she was incarcerated in the jail complex at Rikers. She called it a shared “generational history” of those most challenged by the classism in our society.
“I wrote this book for the women at Rikers,” she said. “I promised them that I would do everything in my power to make sure their demands were heard and their lives were, to the best of my ability, protected. Not just the women I served time with – the women of Rikers generally.
“The only goal I have with this book was to get people to see prisoners as people.”
In the book, McMillan describes the facility and its location starkly:
“The East River is a salt-water tidal strait that flows northward along the eastern shore of Manhattan Island, then bends due east between the Bronx and Queens before returning to the Atlantic. Just past that eastward bend, with Queens to the south and the Bronx to the north, lies Rikers Island, a hard to get to (and harder to get out of) outpost of cruelty and misery, just across the water from LaGuardia Airport. The island is flat and treeless and surrounded by razor-sharp barbed wire fences; its only link to the mainland, the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, is a narrow causeway.”
At intake, she describes the beginning of the metamorphosis from celebrity defendant to convict:
“When I went in, Activist Barbie [in the form of the fashionable dress worn at sentencing] (still entombed in the plastic Nordstrom bag) was taken from me and disposed of ‘in the back,’ where she was then exhumed and dismembered, according to the property receipt I received in exchange…the only remaining records that she’d ever existed – that I’d ever been a person worth defending. Now, I was just a prisoner.”
The other prisoners, McMillan said, wondered why she was in there. They never expected a white girl to be sentenced to Rikers, but they didn’t know her mother was Mexican until she spoke to them in broken Spanish, when they asked if she was loca, a familiar term from her abuela. “No siempre (not always),” she told them.
“I was one of five white women in Rikers,” she said, “and all of us were half-Latina. There are not white people in Rikers. There’s not even white corrections officers.” One of the other Latina prisoners took Cecily under her wing, and became her “jailhouse godmother.”
“I was totally happy there amongst those women,” she told me. “They are the best human beings I have ever met in my life.”
Then she added, “Prison, in a way, is the great equalizer. Being in there, you’re all just fucking prisoners, man. You have a single enemy. You have a single structure that you’re all against. And it’s not the COs [corrections officers]. It’s the captains. It’s the doctors.”
In the book, she describes how prison psychiatrists refused to give her a new prescription for Adderall to treat her ADHD. Then, in terribly disturbing detail, she tells us about trying to get her Depo-Provera shot for birth control, and that the gynecologist insisted on a needless vaginal exam – twice – for a pap smear and a scrape. She left in tears, and without the shot.
Her prison sisters told her to leave it alone, that in Rikers, “you don’t ask, ‘Why?'” But being the accountable activist, she wrote her lawyers about the incidents with the doctor, and finally got her birth control and her Adderall.
“See,” she told her friends, “this is what happens when you ask, ‘Why?'”
They looked at her and said, “No. This is what happens when you ask, ‘Why?'” Their experience of questioning the system never turned out as well.
To be sure, McMillan experienced hardships in prison, but there was something about being in Rikers that, she admits, made her wonder whether she would be better there than on the outside.
“Things are just a lot more real in there,” Cecily explained. “I’m not somebody who likes grays. I like black & whites. I like to know who the enemy is. I like to know what the obstacle is. At least in there, you know. You can see it. Here it’s just a series of delusions. I can drink [a beer] and feel a little bit better, but I think we see freedom when more people like me go to jail. It’s clarity. It’s really realizing that the only freedom you have is the dignity to choose your outcome, the dignity to go about life that you can look in the mirror every day and say, ‘I’m doing my best.’ That’s the only freedom. When the only thing staring back at you is hate and you choose to love, that’s freedom.”
“I am literally the least likely at Occupy Wall Street to write a book.”
Since her beating at the hands of police, Cecily suffers from PTSD, including symptoms like blackouts, breaks in memory and night terrors that leave her “petrified, like breathing is hard,” and “scared – really, really scared.”
Despite that – or, she might argue, because of it – she remains an inspiring example of what it means to be an activist.
“When you think you are better than people, morally or whatever, it’s no better than the Trump people who think they’re better than the Mexicans,” Cecily reflected. “You can’t inspire anybody when you think you’re better than them, and I did not inspire my comrades at the New School [graduate school in New York, during Occupy] to get involved with Occupy Wall Street because I thought I was better than them. And you know what? That’s shirking my fucking duties. That shut down conversation, when your only job as an activist is to foster conversation.
“You are an activist. You are actively affecting the world. And when you call yourself that, you are taking a-count-a-bi-li-ty,” she enunciated, “for how you actively impact the world. That’s what [being] an activist means. And then, people can call you out on your shit, people can judge you and people can critique you and you can judge and critique yourself.
“You have to be responsible for that. You are no longer reactive. You are no longer unconscious. You are responsive, you are engaging and you are accountable. And if you are not doing that, then you are a bad activist. Period.”
That’s a high bar, for most, but the example of Cecily McMillan’s commitment is as much aspirational as it is inspirational. If you’re going to put yourself out there, then do it. Notice when you’re not doing it and “judge and critique yourself.” Acknowledge your humanity, give yourself permission to fail, and find a different way. But don’t lose your inspiration and don’t lose your determination because fixing the world is everybody’s obligation.
PS. Cecily also had something to say about Atlanta and its Occupy event, as well as the city’s role in the revolution. Check it out on my Daily Kos diary.
I don’t know if party politics is supposed to be a zero sum game, where each side gets something it wants and reaches a consensus to ignore the rest, but I have seen that in the hearts of many Bernie Sanders delegates at the Democratic National Convention, last week, there was a feeling of being ignored by the Democratic Party.
In following friends of mine on Facebook®* who were in Philadelphia as Bernie delegates from Georgia, it seems they felt alienated and silenced by the process, despite the Clinton/Kaine campaign slogan of “Stronger Together.”
“[T]he party has tried to, at first, kill me with kindness, and when I did not comply, tried to silence me…make me disappear,” according to Lisa Ring, a Sanders delegate from southeast Georgia. “The party does not value honesty. Nor does it value integrity. It values money and power.”
The entire convention experience was an “inspiring and depressing festival of corruption and rebellion,” said Atlanta Bernie delegate, Scott Brown.
Ring, whose comments came in the form of a lengthy post, wrote how many Sanders delegates felt excluded. “If the party had allowed us to speak, disagree, criticize,” she said, “and in general, be the diverse crowd we are supposed to represent, this would be a unified party now.”
“We represent millions of votes/voices that you clearly don’t want to listen to,” said Angela Eells, a Sanders delegate from Walton County, Georgia, in admonishing the DNC for its muzzling of Sanders supporters. “Once we realized they were silencing us,” she said, “we went and let the world know that democracy does not exist in the [D]emocratic party.”
She called the convention “the biggest farce production I’ve ever witnessed,” and an “orchestrated…’Illusion of Unity.'”
“I think there was a disconnect in people who have never been involved in party politics before,” explained Ted Terry, Bernie delegate and mayor of Clarkston, Georgia. In a separate interview with P&T, Terry, who is also the state director of the Sierra Club, urged “the newly initiated” to be patient and work within the political process of the Democratic Party. “It makes more tactical sense,” he said.
“We will eventually have more power and take more control over this process,” Terry added.
But for many of the newcomers, the process of the convention, at least, left a bad taste of disaffection and disenfranchisement. Even during the final night, Thursday, they felt embattled.
“We were determined to represent our constituents and not be run off by our own party,” describes Ring in her post. “Unfortunately, since our own state party created a system of stifling us by over-chanting us and physically blocking us, they have permanently lost some hard working Democrats.”
The “stifling” Ring is referring to is that while some Bernie delegates were protesting by holding up signs and chanting things like “Ban fracking,” and, “No more war,” Hillary delegates and supporters – including Democratic Party of Georgia chairman Dubose Porter – blocked them from cameras and shouted them down with positive chants.
“The convention was one big orgy of ‘USA!’ chanting party unity,” complained Brown.
“It was like a battle of passive aggressive protests,” according to Terry. “Just like the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people were making noise and holding up signs that were kind of derogatory, the people who were trying to support Hillary and listen to the speeches were like, ‘Well, we’re not going to shut them up. We’re just going to stand in front of them because we have a right to stand here just like they have a right to stand here.'”
While Terry said he was sympathetic to the Bernie supporters’ passion – he was a Sanders delegate, after all – he said he thought they had carried on for too long. “There’s a point,” he said, “where persistence becomes petulance, and I think some people crossed that line… You don’t win by burning bridges; you don’t win by excessive petulance. You win by building bridges.”
His reaction was doing what he came to Philadelphia to do. “I cast my vote for Bernie. At that point, it was just like, ‘Alright. What’s next?’ Next is defeating Donald Trump.”
Eells, who is still not sure who will get her vote in November, said despite “feelings of deep sadness, defeat, anger,” the entire experience also left her feeling “determination, joy and vindication and above all PRIDE [emphasis hers].”
“There will never be a way for us to communicate to anyone outside that room how difficult it was for us but our ability to overcome, rise above, do our elected job and propel this movement,” she said.
And the activism will go on in spite of the imperfect choices come Election Day. “For me,” Terry said, the takeaway is “the fact that Bernie was saying we’re going to continue this movement, we’re going to continue this progressive revolution, but we’re not going to do it at the expense of allowing Donald Trump to win the presidency – the stakes are just too high.”
“We are now all a united front against Trump,” Brown said, in what appears to be angry sarcasm. “We have all accepted the fact that we must take millions of corrupting dollars from any corporation, billionaire, lobbyist, bundler, or sleazebag we can in that effort.”
“The lesser of two evils gives us a lot of room to be evil,” he warned. “And the (Anti-)Democratic Party will not disappoint.”
Brown is encouraging people to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, because “All the Clinton supporters, delegates, super-delegates, and supporting party insiders I’ve talked to, before, after and during the DNC, all are supremely confident that Hillary will beat Trump in November. So that means she doesn’t need my vote. Or yours.”
But Ted Terry offered some consolation to those who fear the Democratic Party has left them behind. “Once the hurt feelings kind of subside,” he opined, “and some of the people are a little more clear-eyed, they’ll hopefully realize it’s not, like, hopeless.”
Terry went on to explain that his support for the nominee notwithstanding, the Sanders revolution isn’t over. He went on to list several issues yet to be resolved. Among them, “We need to stop the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal) from passing in the lame duck.”
Eells, in a separate interview with a local paper, said she won’t stop fighting. “I am fighting against fracking because I believe that we have a right to have clean drinking water,” she said. “I am fighting to overturn Citizens United because corporations should not be able to buy elections.”
Lisa Ring is also moving on, promising to continue to work for progressive change in Georgia in standing up for causes and candidates. But she has one request. “All that I fight for is the opportunity to participate in democracy. Let us all work together, let each voice be heard, and may we achieve a more just, honest, and compassionate nation. Please join us in any way you are able.”
I’m raising my hand. Are you?
*With the exception of the interview with Ted Terry, all quotes are from Facebook® posts from during and after the DNC in Philadelphia. Some editing has been done to correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Used with the generous permission of the subjects.
PS. This is an amusing video about moving on from Bernie. Ted Terry is in it. If you’re still stuck, you may want to wait to watch it. Or, maybe it will help.
I live in Georgia, a red state that has had Democrats wringing their hands for almost twenty years. The state legislature has been under Republican control since 2003. There hasn’t been a Democrat elected to statewide office since 2008. Yes, there’s always talk of the state being in play in a national election, and we can barely maintain our patience with constant claims of our impending purpleness.
Heck, the Democratic Party of Georgia has yet to field a candidate to go against incumbent Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. And yet…
With the GOP on the verge of nominating a largely despised buffoon, a flim-flammer, to run for president, there actually is a chance that even Georgia could go blue, if Democratic voters go down-ballot after voting for president.
We are in primary season, a time in every presidential cycle where you don’t have to vote with your head as much as you have the luxury of voting with your heart. As former Bill Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who just came out in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, told CNN’s Erin Burnett, Monday, “If you don’t vote your conscience in a primary, when are you going to vote your conscience?” It is a called a presidential preference primary, after all.
There’s also this, from political analyst Charles Blow, who appeared on CNN with Reich. He made the point that while Hillary Clinton is polling high against Sanders in red states, including Saturday’s blowout in South Carolina, the odds are those states won’t go for the Democrat in November, so a lopsided win in March may give her more delegates, but won’t make a difference in the general election.
“The biggest plus for Bernie to stay in the race is this,” Blow offered, “he is more likely to win states that a Democrat will carry in the fall. Hillary Clinton is going to rack up delegates in states that she will not be able to carry in November.”
Finally, have you seen the shit show happening on the other side? Of course you have. So has everyone else in the country, and they’re completely mesmerized by it. Like the dearth of Democratic debates early on ceded media attention to the Republicans, so too would a Clinton coronation give the GOP the license to monopolize the news cycle while we watch Trump and Rubio trade insults all the way to the convention.
Voting for Bernie is not pointless, even now. It not only keeps progressive supporters engaged in the process, but also keeps the Democrats’ rivalry in front of all the voters in the country. So GO VOTE!!!
Let’s call this fight over now, before we go any farther than we already have. Being a liberal progressive and being an establishment candidate or cause are not mutually exclusive.
There is little doubt that groups like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are on the front lines, fighting for progressive causes everyday. There’s little doubt that the Congressional Black Caucus PAC is committed to fighting the Right Wing for basic civil rights, voting rights and giving those in need a hand up.
But, inasmuch as they are all successful institutions, they rely on the Democratic establishment to preserve the gains they’ve already made and be ready for fights to come. Any disruption to the power of the establishment, they feel, risks it all.
So when an icon like Rep. John Lewis comes out and speaks on behalf of Hillary, as he did during the CBC PAC’s announcement, he’s not turning his back on liberals and progressives. I know him. It takes more than an intra-party skirmish to shake his idealism. It’s not in his nature.
In the Democratic race for President of the United States, Hillary is the pragmatists’ choice and Bernie is the idealists’ choice.
What John Lewis and Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards and others are doing is being politically pragmatic. Call it “pragmatic idealism,” if you will. They will not make what they perceive to be a risky move with an unknown quantity like Bernie, when they know Hillary, and they’re much more certain that she will win than they are of Sanders success in November.
They likely all believe in what Bernie Sanders is talking about – single payer healthcare, free college tuition, raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security and fighting income inequality – but they are using their heads, not their hearts, because they feel they have to be pragmatic.
More than once I heard the term “politically naive,” in the early days of this election year, regarding Sen. Bernie Sanders and his motivated supporters. The first one came from a conservative friend on my Facebook feed, who was reacting to a post about Bernie’s viability and his principled stand.
In that context, he was saying that Sandernistas are mistaken because, he believes, all they want is free stuff, and they’re too naive to realize there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The second was from a Hillary Clinton surrogate on TV, who said that it was politically naive to think a self described Socialist could win a general election.
In a January New York Times op-ed, economist Paul Krugman insisted that Bernie’s supporters “preferred happy dreams to hard thinking,” and warned about allowing “idealism [to] veer into destructive self-indulgence.”
But Bernie’s “political revolution” is born of idealism. The heart wants what the heart wants, and the heart wants Bernie Sanders. To call his millions of younger supporters politically naive is to ignore the energy required for social change and how it is shaped by the young.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was in his twenties and thirties when he took on the establishment, and there were plenty, including President Kennedy, who said he was asking for too much at once.
From the anti-war movements of the 1960s to Occupy Wall Street, those to whom the future belongs are the ones fighting to save it. There’s a reason the Baby Boomers’ anti-establishment battle cry was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” [See Jack Weinberg.] It’s because their elders were already part of a broken system that did not work for everybody.
Breaking news: it still doesn’t.
The revolution never ends. There can be no resolution to end the revolution without a concerted effort at evolution; we cannot revolve until we are resolved to evolve. That takes all of us – the pragmatist and the idealist, the prosaic and the poet – working together. And while we appreciate that sometimes it requires electing an older leader to get these things done, neither Bernie nor Hillary (nor President Obama, for that matter) can move the needle in any significant way unless they know we all have their back.
So don’t give up if the choice is Hillary. Act up. Don’t lay up if the choice is Bernie. Act up. With that much energy we can restart the revolution now and make it last forever.
Senior citizens and college students, Wall Street bankers and the religious right, Southerners and African Americans, industrial magnates and union workers: if you’re in one of those groups, and a handful of others, chances are either Republicans or Democrats think they can already count on your vote on election day. They call those monoliths the base, the reliable support upon which the party can build their outreach during any given election. They count on their respective bases not just for their principled, philosophical allegiance, but also for their vote.
There is an often repeated meme in American politics, and that is the more people who show up at the polls, the greater the chances that Democrats will win. The past two elections – the 2014 midterms and the 2015 so-called “off year” elections, last Tuesday – bare that out, if only . In both cases, only about thirty percent of registered voters bothered to show up and cast a ballot. In both cases, the Republicans scored major victories at the state and national level.
Some blame the low turnout on voter apathy. That’s a chickenshit way to look at it, don’t you think? It’s like the Democrats are saying, “Hey it’s not our fault. It’s our lazy ass base.” But it’s not just apathy. Apathetics know there’s an election, but don’t care. This is a case of voter ignorance, where American citizens are blissfully unaware of both the fact there was an election and the stakes in that election.
“Democrats are looking for voters,” MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, said last week, during her intro as guest host on The Last Word, after the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ had a disastrous election day for the second straight year. Presumably, she was referring to the Dems frustration at getting out the vote for their slate of candidates, and when politicians talk about getting out the vote, these days, they’re almost always referring to the base. After all, it’s cheaper and easier to knock on the same doors every couple of years, where previously reliable voters live, than to launch an uncertain campaign for new voters.
But Wagner’s brief analysis speaks more truthfully the latter. “Democrats are looking for voters.”
It could be argued that President Obama won in 2008 primarily because his campaign motivated more voters. He didn’t really expand the base; he got people who don’t usually vote, in any election, excited to vote.
In a season where politics as usual seems to be anything but, it would be good if Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the party she directs figured out how to reach voters who will likely sit out this election, unless significant changes are made. As I mentioned in an earlier post, political psychologist, Dr. Drew Westen, says the two most important questions a voter asks about a given candidate, in descending order, are: “How do I feel about a candidate’s party and its principles?” and “How does this candidate make me feel?”
Issues questions are the last on thing on most voters minds. That’s why for all of Hillary Clinton’s political experience and gravitas, she fails where Bernie Sanders succeeds – getting voters excited and keeping them excited.
Columnist H. A. Goodman wrote, Monday, that only Bernie can get him to vote, next year. Citing polls that show “Sanders defeats Trump by a wider margin than Clinton in a general election,” and “the same people who say they’d vote for Clinton if the election were today are also the same people who state they don’t trust Clinton,” and noting that Hillary has “evolved towards Republican viewpoints on war, foreign policy, Wall Street, and other issues,” Goodman concludes, “I’m only voting for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and will not vote for Hillary Clinton or Trump.” He then goes on to list his reasons.
The point is, he’s not alone, and it goes right to Dr. Westen’s analysis of a successful candidate.
Frankly, I understand Goodman’s stance. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I am enrolled by his passion and authenticity. But, I’m afraid if we abandon the vote because our guy isn’t part of it, we will end up with Nixon, at best, G.W. Bush, at worst.
You don’t want to vote? Tough. Vote anyway. Of course she’s not progressive enough, but dance with the one who has the best chance of at least aiming toward sharing your goals, if you can’t take a turn with the one that brought you. Bill Maher described it on his show, Real Time, a few weeks ago, this way. After polling his audience and finding out they were overwhelmingly for Sanders over Clinton, he asked, “If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, who will stay home and not vote for Hillary?” Nothing but coughs from the audience. “Exactly,” he responded, “it’s like the airlines. We have two good candidates. Sometimes, you don’t get the fish, you have the chicken.”
Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig has ended his nascent bid to become the Democrats’ nominee for president, despite some remarkable fundraising and outreach. Citing the Democratic National Committee’s last minute rules change for qualifying to get into the party’s next debate, Dr. Lessig says he is at a distinct disadvantage, one he sees no way of overcoming.
It seems Lessig realized that his anti-corruption, get money out of politics theme could not catch on with voters if he couldn’t get his time along side the other candidates.
“I may be known in tiny corners of tubes of the Internets,” he admitted in a video released Monday, “but I am not well known to the American public, generally. Our only chance to make this issue central to the 2016 presidential election, was to be in those debates.”
Lessig blames the DNC because they changed how far back the polling had to go to be included in the show. After originally saying they would go back to polling in the six weeks leading up to the debate, which would be October 10th, they decided last week to modify the criterion as at least six weeks before the debate.
“Under this new rule, I am just shut out,” he said
People who have been paying attention to Democratic polls will note that even though Vice President Joe Biden, who never announced he would run, was included in those polls, Dr. Lessig was left out.
“Unless we can time travel,” he says, “there is no way that I can qualify.”
Lessig’s endeavor began with a bang, promising to run only if his crowdfunding website could raise a million dollars by Labor Day, which it did, with no problem. But, arguably, it was the nature of his original campaign that doomed it from the start.
When he first announced his run, Lessig promised he would stay in office only long enough to get his pet issue, getting money out of the political process, passed into law. Once that was done, he said, he would resign. He called it “A Referendum to Restore Democracy.”
“The candidate is the referendum,” he explained in his August announcement. “The campaign is for that referendum.”
Not surprisingly, there were more than a few who found the strategy doubtful. He finally realized that himself, telling Bill Maher, last month, on his HBO series, Real Time, “Yeah, that was stupid. That was totally stupid,” and, he added, in obeisance to the party, “Like my daughter would say, ‘Fine. You win. I withdraw that promise.'”
It took a few more days for his name to show up in the polling. By then, under the DNC rule change, it was too late.
Still, Lessig insists he will continue the fight to fix our democracy. “We can’t solve any of the problems that this nation must address,” he said, like climate change and Wall Street reform, “until we fix the crippled and corrupted institution of Congress first.”
The fight’s not over. As usual, the people must lead.