I’ve been haunted by the videos of the police in the hallways of the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Those big men with their automatic rifles, helmets, heavy breathing, bulletproof vests, shields and camo. We see them crouching, running, aiming, hesitating, seemingly leaderless, confused and fearful in the same hallways where little children walked and skipped, laughed and sang. Big men frozen in fear outside a classroom door while a monster slaughters children inside.
Because I was not there, I do have some sympathy for them. For I know that if I had been there and failed as they failed, I would have trouble living with myself – as they must have, however they might try to justify their actions. As a group of cops, they reinforced each other’s uncertainty. It’s a terrible fact that conformity encourages cowardice. Jim Hightower says, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s conformity.” I might have done as they did. I don’t know. And yet, they were trained for such moments, trained for crisis, danger, always imagining themselves bravely acting where untrained people run away. Imagining themselves heroes. Why else would they have these jobs?
As much as anything it seems to me a failure of imagination. They may have imagined the glory of heroism, but not the act. Their job was to imagine the classroom, the wounded and dead children, the teachers, the trauma, the cries. All that! Right there! Behind one paltry door! How could a person who imagines that not act? It’s as though they were on the space station and thought that opening the door would suck them into oblivion – forgetting to imagine that by not opening it they were sucked into moral oblivion.
I can’t claim I would have done otherwise. But I think of Rosa Parks being asked why she didn’t move from her seat on that Montgomery bus when she was ordered to, and she said she kept seeing the battered face of Emmett Till. Her moral imagination held her in place. She had no gun, no bulletproof vest. She could have been lynched. How could she live with herself, Rosa thought, if she didn’t bear witness for Emmett? It’s curious, that even though we may believe as William Blake said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you,” we can’t always expect or require people to behave that way, be sublime. And yet, again and again, we witness that the most despicable act is to not set another before you.
Without courage our children have no future on this planet. Right now I’m thinking of those Uvalde cops as metaphors for our Senators and Congresspeople in their Armani suits, knowing damn well that behind a door they don’t dare open, the door to the future, children are dying excruciating deaths. All manner of other species are dying, too, going extinct, cries and trauma everywhere, on a scale beyond all of our imagining. It seems these politicians are failing in precisely the same way the cops in Uvalde failed, running in the halls, posturing, whispering into their walkie-talkies, crouching, justifying inaction even while armed with enormous legislative power. But they have their earbuds tuned to the Koch brothers, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Lockheed-Martin, and General Dynamics, etc., who remind them that inaction is what’s good for their reelections. No, I’m not talking about the January 6 Insurrection. This is the daily status quo, the democracy-killing insurrection of successful lobbying for corporate profit in the Capitol.
A popular warning in our media and political discourse has been that the Trump presidency and the January 6th Insurrection constitute the most serious assault on U.S. democracy we have ever faced. That idea is as absurd as it is dangerously misleading. Some people warn against teaching Critical Race Theory because it exposes our real history while unpatriotically questioning the exceptional goodness of this country. Simply to say that January 6 is unlike any other threat to democracy covers up our history.
The notion of democracy has been under assault ever since it was proposed. Whenever privilege has been sanctioned on the basis of race, gender, wealth, or religion, democracy has been under assault. Every time the government lies – for example, about the wars in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq – or claims there are democratic benefits to the wealth disparity produced by capitalism, or lies about the superiority of our health care system, or swears that the United States doesn’t torture people, or asserts that unlimited corporate donations to politicians are not the same as unlimited bribery, or maintains that corporate speech is free speech, etc.; every time these lies are told and not countered or corrected, inestimable damage has been done to the fabric of democracy.
Employers not paying living wages does inestimable damage to democracy. The media following sensationalism instead of money makes a mockery of democracy. Power’s daily insurrection against democracy is, perhaps, the most constant feature of our history. Yes, the January 6 Insurrection is a big deal; people must be held accountable. But doing so won’t in any way hamper or derail the forces of oligarchy, the power of the fossil fuel industry or Big Pharma, or the reactionary corruption of the Supreme Court and the Orwellian logic of Citizens United.
In fact, the incompetence of the Uvalde police is not at all a good metaphor of the incompetence of many of our politicians. On a daily basis, the politicians are far worse, protecting the interests of their corporate overlords while we descend into climate chaos and extreme environmental racism. The Uvalde police inexcusably hesitated – although they were trained not to – in the presence of a real threat. Where they were cowardly, they will be held accountable. Where our politicians are cowardly, they strengthen their hold on power. They are rewarded handsomely for unlocking the cage meant to contain the beast of corporate greed. By doing so they open the doors to all the future classrooms and let in that ravaging beast.
The mission of Americans Who Tell the Truth is to expose as much truth as we can see and bear and then to provide models of resistance, stories of courage, roadmaps for solutions. For some, the antidote to systemic failure in democracy is autocracy. For us, it’s more and better democracy.