Unlike George Floyd, who literally choked out his last words …
“Don’t kill me.”
“I can’t breathe.”
… I only figuratively choke on words to chronicle this moment in our nation’s history. I feel inadequate and inarticulate. Nothing I can put to paper is profound enough. What can I write that I haven’t said before, after each injustice I’ve paid witness to in my lifetime — this life of mine that tonight feels privileged and impossibly long?
What have I not already said about the racial disparities that plague our culture? How can I, an inept bystander really, somehow define and encapsulate the festering wounds of racism and our pathetic inability to destroy it, once and for all?
I think I choke on these words because it’s not my story to tell. I think on these matters, as a white person who knows that I can go about my days — somedays even myself breaking laws — without that omnipresent fear that others will inherently aim to target me, harass me, disparage me, or even kill me, I might be best to shut the fuck up and listen, or better yet, to act as a conduit, a megaphone for others who know these atrocities firsthand.
I need to do a better job at making sure those stories are told. That is my mission and vow.
I may be better equipped to speak about protests. A child of the 60s and 70s, I have been witness to Vietnam-era rebellions, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and all the modern-era injustices that have led people to the streets to speak to their rage, to show the world their anguish.
I have myself marched, when there seemed like no other way to break through. This is all too familiar to me.
Tragically, rather than acknowledging their numbers and hearing their cries – rather than listening to their plight and empathizing with their anger – too many in this country will look at anecdotal property destruction and discount these protesters’ voices, wholesale. They will criticize them, or worse, tsk-tsk them and just move on about their days.
I sat up all night again, watching live feeds of fires burning in businesses, a news network under siege, tear gas canisters flying, and I think back to a demonstration I took part in years ago. I found myself side-by-side with a perfectly mild-mannered and otherwise peaceful, law-abiding person, who was so caught up in the moment, so unable to tamp down his rage, that he screamed out, “Burn it all down!”
That’s what rage does to human beings. That’s what being unheard, for years, decades, centuries, does to us.
As the day breaks, American cities will awaken to carnage today. They will find their neighbors and friends nursing wounds, glass on the streets, fires still smoldering. Talking heads on TV and social-media commenters will ponder, “Why have they done this? What purpose does it serve?”
They don’t understand it, because they haven’t tried to understand it.
I think about erupting rage and wonder how this anger is any less valid than the grievances that inspired this nation to elect Donald J. Trump as our 45th President? So often I’ve heard from Trump voters who say they voted for him to “drain the swamp,” to “shake things up.”
What they really meant was, “Burn it all down.”
The thing is, when you have that level of power – as a member of Congress or as President – burning it down proves rather easy and clean. No muss, no fuss. You don’t need to take the streets. K Street comes to you. You meet in chambers at the Capitol and with pen strokes, you dismantle it. You exploit that rage that sent you there to undermine law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the very system of justice that governs our land. You quietly leverage the courts to take mere access to healthcare away from millions who desperately need it. You slickly undermine public education. You put a price tag on the environment and sell it to the highest bidder. You champion war criminals and demote military heroes. You strike down laws intended to protect workers and people from businesses that will harm them and make them sick. You enrich your friends and starve the rest.
You challenge long-established Constitutional laws, because you can, and because you feel it’s what you were elected and emboldened to do.
You see a plague coming and you shrug it off, knowing that it might kill millions, especially in the cities for which you have disdain, cities that didn’t vote for you.
You burn it all down while surrounding yourself with blue-suited middle-aged white men cheering you on, never getting any grime on your hands at all. It’s all disgustingly dignified.
But the People don’t have that power. They’ve got to get their hands dirty.
The People don’t have those commemorative Executive Order-signing pens. They only have the streets. They only have their rage. They have only year after year of screaming into a void. And, so, they want to burn it all down the only way they know how, until the powerful listen, until they command their attention, until the change they demand comes.
Since the creation of the White House task force, and the President’s naming of his Vice President, Mike Pence, as its mealymouthed leader, there has been a steady drumbeat from media critics who think the Press should tune out.
They’ve argued that the President has done more harm than good by holding these nearly daily on-camera events. I wholeheartedly disagreed, primarily because he’s the President, and without a functioning Press Secretary – the new one refuses to work with us, like her predecessor – these are precious opportunities to carry the President’s messages to the American people, allowing them to judge for themselves the content, and to question him, challenge him, and speak truth to power, as is our role and responsibility.
I have held that belief for all these exhausting weeks, even when the President missed every opportunity to express genuine, sincere empathy for those who are sick, the tens of thousands who have died horrific deaths, or to their families who are forced to grieve in silence, alone.
I believed we had to cover the briefings even when it became clear that the President’s posturing would always be to deflect criticism, to shirk responsibility, and to pick petty fights with Governors who have been desperate for information, gear, equipment and financial aid – desperate to try to save their constituents lives.
I felt we should still cover the briefings even when the President would openly question his own appointees to the task force – infectious-disease experts who come equipped with data and analyses that he flippantly disregards in real time.
Even when critics cried, “He’s using these as substitute campaign rallies,” I still felt we have to cover them. To ignore them would be irresponsible and a dereliction of our duty, right?
I, along with so many of my colleagues in news, have cringed when he’s used the precious time to admonish journalists, especially women reporters, accusing anyone who asks a pointed, legitimate question of being “fake news” or worse. The tough-guy act feels like a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it’s textbook Orwellian; if you can convince people not to believe anything, they won’t believe the truth about you. The other purpose, I believe, is to create audio and video clips for conservative media outlets to run, showing the President “fighting back” – macho and chest thumping.
I suppose with some people who are firmly planted in the President’s corner, no matter his egregious unforced errors, it works to get their blood boiling, their anger stoked. It juices up the base.
A hard-boiled German who’s been around, even I welled up the day the President boasted about how great the ratings were for his briefings, as New York City and other communities across the nation zipped up hundreds of body bags in that single day. The lack of empathy was shocking, gutting really. It made me question if we’ll live through this – as individuals and as a nation.
Admittedly, as the time has passed, I have questioned the approach of the Press sitting before him. I believed that if they could simply target their questions to the experts and keep them keenly focused on the public health and safety information Americans need to know, that it would somehow keep these briefings from veering off course.
I suggested to broadcasters that they factor in a longer delay so that they could digitally filter out anything that was overtly false or potentially harmful to the viewing public. None of that has worked.
The President went on to use the briefings to recklessly promote a drug that hadn’t been rigorously tested through clinical trials as a treatment for COVID-19 infection. Despite warnings across the globe that its use was linked to heart failure and stroke in these cases, he continued to promote it. Lupus patients suddenly couldn’t get their prescriptions filled for the drug, putting their very lives at risk while the President continued to promote it. We later learned that he has a financial stake in the pharmaceutical company that makes it.
Donald J. Trump also used taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign video, which he shamelessly played during one notorious briefing, perking up the ears of watchdog agencies. He’s defied social/physical distance rules established by the White House Correspondents Association, designed to keep the Press and the President himself safe from infection during these daily meetings. He’s repeatedly invited pet network OANN into the room in defiance of these very rules, allowing its “reporters” to pitch him softball, seemingly planned and scripted questions designed to stroke the President’s ego and disparage political opponents. It’s right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.
I have been hyperaware of the lack of real leadership on display here. A leader, even in cases of notable accomplishments and success, reflects back and thinks: “How could we have done even better?” There’s no introspection by the President of the United States. He is incapable of it.
And still – even with all this in our wake – I was of the mind that the Press had to broadcast and cover these briefings, because he’s the President of the United States, and it is our duty to shine lights on him whenever we have access, and especially when we don’t.
But that’s all changed for me now. I have come around to the position the critics have taken – that we should no longer broadcast these briefings in real time. My professional opinion changed when the President used last weeks’ time before the American people to encourage the protesters who have taken the streets – some dressed as if they’re going to war, some sporting swastika and other antisemitic symbols, others with Confederate flags – to defy the very orders his own task force established. For weeks, the President, the Vice President, the doctors, and other members of the Administration have stood before us preaching the importance of following the guidelines and reading from lists of things that the President said we should all be grateful for – Federally supplied personal protection equipment, respirators, financial aid, military vessels and personnel, field hospitals, short-lived testing sites, and more.
Now, the President and the Vice President are lauding the protesters, empathizing with their “cabin fever,” and refusing to admonish their reckless disregard for the health and safety of not just “the others” – their fellow American citizens – but their own health and that of their own families. It overtly demonstrates that the President and the Vice President have not taken their roles seriously, that they haven’t even bought into the guidelines they’ve established, and that they do not care how many Americans will die as a result of their politicking.
There’s a Willie Nelson song that goes, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” The White House Task Force briefings had the potential to do some really good things – to inform the public, to help keep us all safe. They haven’t risen to the occasion.
Legitimate news organizations should shut off the lights and remove the cameras from the briefing room. Send in your reporters, but cover the briefings straight, giving no room for the President to make an on-camera mockery out of them and us.
The public-servant doctors on the task force should take a different approach, too. It’s time to “go rogue” and speak directly to the American people without the President’s political filter. It’s long overdue. Our nation is depending on you.