By Joni Halpern
On June 27, I participated in two events – a climate change rally and a protest against the Senate’s latest effort to demolish health care. At both events, speakers called upon all Americans to keep on fighting against the punishing efforts of people in power to destroy any progress we have made in caring for the American people, protecting our environment, and preserving our democracy. Yet, there were troubling signs at these events that we have not yet formed the bonds of brotherhood that will be necessary if we are to win this crucial war for our precious American values.
The climate change rally at Liberty Station was attended by about 40 people. Several of them were speakers who shared useful information about how we can achieve independence from fossil fuels with existing technology. One speaker gave a ringing call to action, reminding the small group of attendees that we cannot afford to tire; we must be relentless in showing up. But here we were, so few, mostly older, mostly white. It wasn’t that others were not welcome; it was only that others did not come.
About an hour or so later, the protest of the Senate’s version of so-called health care took place in Hillcrest, with a symbolic “die-in” and rally at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, with a subsequent candlelight vigil at UCSD Medical Center. Some of the speeches were very informative about what will be lost with the Republican health care proposals from the House and Senate. Other speeches were very moving accounts of personal battles against disease and injury, battles that will be lost if the Affordable Care Act is destroyed. It looked as if about 200 persons attended, mostly older, mostly white, with a smattering of younger persons here and there.
As we gathered in front of UCSD Medical Center, someone suggested we should sing, but no one knew what to sing. “How about ‘We Shall Overcome’?” someone shouted. And another person answered, “People might think we’re co-opting that song.” But someone started it, and the crowd took it up with gusto. We weren’t sure of the lyrics of subsequent verses, so a strong voice in the crowd offered a few variations, i.e., “We’ll have single-payer…someday-ay-ay-ay,” and “We’ll impeach Trump…” The latter verse brought forth a member of the church singing group who cautioned all of us against singing that verse, explaining the words did not express the appropriate image for the event. She started the song “God Bless America” instead.
I am a firm believer in respectful and peaceful assembly. But I have real worries about whether we shall overcome anything if we cannot rouse our families, neighbors and friends to break their routines and attend these public displays of opposition. I have real worries that we have not built bridges with the pastors and leaders of communities of color so we can convene some of these events in their communities. I have real worries that while we have chastised policymakers for the harm they propose to low-income communities – “our most vulnerable families and individuals” – and we have organized without them at our side. I have real worries that we have left to social media the task of calling the young to stand with us in real time, in body as well as spirit. I have real worries that if we keep pecking at each other’s choice of songs or lyrics, we will silence the song in our hearts that bears our deepest hopes for our country’s survival as a democratic republic.
Could any force in this country resist the power of a galvanized community of comrades who understand that a threat to one is a threat to all, and who are determined to stand up and fight for their democracy? We speak of our military as if they are the only ones called upon to practice this ethic of one-for-all and all-for-one. It is a condition of their survival in the field, their endurance through great difficulty, their commitment to a cause. Even in the murky waters of wartime goals, members of our military are clear about one thing: they are their brother’s keepers.
This is what we are called to do now – to stop the niggling, overcome the lethargy, strengthen our endurance, and banish the fear we have of each other, so that we, too, can be warriors in the fight for our democracy.
This is not a fight about health care. It is not a fight about climate change or environmental protection. It is not even a battle between those who support the President and those who oppose him. It is a battle between and the richest, most powerful, well-equipped forces in the world against the American people, to see who will run this country – we the People or they, the largely unnamed burglars who break and enter our republic to rob us in every possible way of the value of our most precious expression of democracy – our vote.
We can beat these opponents, but only if we remember that our strongest weapon is our commitment to each other. We are not invited to the meetings behind closed doors; we are not allowed in the hidden halls of power. We have only the public arena in which to fight, but that is our traditional battleground in America. On that hallowed ground, we must be present, physically, morally, and in great numbers. Social media is useful to connect, but it is no substitute for looking someone in the eyes and asking them to come with us and stand together as fellow warriors in the public square. Without that fellowship, the spirit of this new American revolution will die.
I believe we will not be able to protect the power of our people as real participants in our country’s decision-making processes unless we unite. And, from what I can see, social media is only the predicate to uniting. It is not the union itself. A pulse runs through the internet, sometimes going viral, and even if actions follow, they are intermittent and represent nothing to fear for the powers that be. It is only when we physically become present and join hands across different constituencies that we represent the kind of threat to election outcomes, decision-making processes, and consequences to errant officials, that can offset the tremendous influence of big donors. We cannot build these bonds across groups unless we see each other, in person, up close. We actually have to traverse social and class boundaries we are not accustomed to bridging. Social media alone does not diminish our fear of each other. And in this fight, we need each other.
Joni Halpern has been a lawyer for the poor in San Diego for more than 20 years. She has served low-income families and individuals throughout San Diego County as a staff lawyer for the ACLU, the Legal Aid Society, director of a grassroots nonprofit, and now as a sole practitioner. She has been a San Diego resident almost all her life.