Later that weekend we joined the picket line outside a diner none of us would ever eat in once we could eat there together. We were spit on, called vulgar names, intimidated. I was terrified. We avoided eye contact, kept walking and singing, “We shall overcome.” We were never touched, beaten or killed as others would be at other places, other times.
I never told my parents about the picket line. They were scared when I had the chutzpah to write Letters to the Editor to my college paper. They preferred I keep my head down, keep a low profile and stay safe. They’d lived through pogroms, through anti-Semitism, through World War II, through the McCarthy scare. They trusted “only our own” and then sometimes felt disappointed and betrayed. I hadn’t lived their lives. I wanted to believe in Whitman’s poetry, in the innate goodness of America.
1968: “Call your list. Tell everyone to stay home. Don’t go to Chicago.” I received that call as a grad student in Ann Arbor, volunteering for McGovern. “Warn everyone. We’re expecting trouble.” I stayed safely at home and casually watched the newscasts of the Democratic national convention. Then suddenly, horrified, I watched Chicago police spray mace and teargas and brutalize the approximately 10,000 protestors who had broken no laws and disobeyed no orders, peaceful protesters, onlookers, residents walking home. This played live on TV for 17 minutes while victims screamed, “The whole world is watching.” It played and replayed and we watched. I lost faith in some police, in some elected officials, but I never lost faith in America. I vote in every single election. I cling to the audacity of hope.
Later, as a young parent, I wondered how people who participated in the Third Reich raised their children after the war, what they told their children about Jews or gypsies or lesbians. They must have continued to teach them hatred. Recently, in a similar vein, I’ve begun thinking about how those who believed in the Confederacy raised their children after the Civil War. They lost so much, but they could not have lost their beliefs. Many with open wounds and resentments and hurts must have passed them on, generation after generation. Some of those fears and angers flowing so close to the surface have now sprung into open hatred of all of us minorities, The Others. None of us are safe.
“They won’t line us up and shoot us,” a friend, a Holocaust survivor, said after the election. That’s a low bar. I live in a bubble. 93% of my town voted for Hillary. I’ve doubled my donations. I’ve been signing petitions. I’ve been calling and emailing my Congresspeople several times a week. But I still haven’t figured out how to meet and talk with people who are on the other side.
On January 20th, I felt compelled—as no one I knew did—to watch every minute of the inauguration, until the Obamas entered the helicopter and flew over the White House. I had to see it to wrap my mind around it. I was still hoping someone—anyone—would yell, “Stop. This is a big mistake.” I needed someone to protect the vision of America that drove my parents and grandparents to this country, the vision of safety and opportunity for all.
The following day my family celebrated the first birthday of my youngest grandson. All through the day I was distracted and anxious, texting friends and family marching in Washington, Austin, Chicago. “Is everyone safe?” The numbers soared. No injuries. No arrests. At night I watched the worldwide photos. Bathed in relief, I finally slept—perhaps the first time since the election.
And I awoke with the word “safety” in my thoughts. What is at stake is much more than my personal safety, more than the safety of my children and grandchildren. Day after day I watch the news, horrified by #banmuslims, plans for the wall, defunding major cities protecting peaceful immigrants, the mention of torture. I see now that I may have to move out of my safety zone to protect my vision of America—one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.