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The Alchemy of Turning Protest to Affirmation

In order for this country and people in this country to perform reprehensible acts, it has to deny its own professed values and laws while pretending to uphold them. Coming to grips with this is not easy, but it must be done.

Demonstrators march on Constitution Avenue near the Dirksen Senate Office Building during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Demonstrators march on Constitution Avenue near the Dirksen Senate Office Building during a protest against police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When I try to describe how it feels  to be alienated—from a country, a group, a partner, an idea, the past, a culture, an identity—lots of emotions surface.  Alienation generates anger and sorrow, confusion and  loneliness. Yearning and weariness. Despair.  Often that which one feels alienated from  and the feelings generated are multiple. If my experience and beliefs estrange me from the unrealized values of my country, I feel alienated from the abstract notion of the country, its facade, its citizens, friends who disagree with me, and from the self who felt morally grounded  being identified with those values. Each estrangement, like a planet, accumulates a cluster of painful emotions in orbit around it.

What surprises me is how long alienation may persist without resolution. Two people may remain in a marriage for decades while both are alienated from the love, respect, and companionship which brought them together. Or, far more dramatically, think of the many generations of indigenous people and people of color who persist in the United States in spite of brutal personal  and systemic racism, genocide. It’s one thing to be loyal to a country which seems to support you, far different to be loyal to one that is actively hostile to you, generation after generation, callously exploiting and diminishing, making you the target of white supremacy.

"If we jettison the past, we betray the past... Only by examining that history together, can we move into the future together. The true story is humbling, but it’s the only one that unites us." Of course, it can be hard to cut one’s ties—family, habit, home, job  and the hope of unrealized dreams hold one in place. Of these, perhaps the most interesting and complex is hope. Frequently, alienated people, because they are excluded, believe more deeply in the values of the country than the majority who take those values for granted, accept the window dressing, and easily ignore that the practice of the rhetoric is not equitably distributed. The hope of the marginalized that those values will one day be theirs may be a more compelling  anchor than actually having them. Eyes on the prize.

For people of color—as well as for those white people who are acutely aware and ashamed  of America's alienation from its purported values—2020 presents an opportunity to fully integrate this country’s values with its behavior—to come in from our own cold, to match talk with walk.  If we can say that a country in some sense possesses, or can possess a soul, we can now ask our alienated soul to inhabit our prodigal history. The curious combination of pandemic, recession, racist police violence, and the perseverance of the Black Lives Matter demonstrators is performing the role of neuro- and cardiac surgeons, cutting open the memory and heart of the body politic, bypassing the clotted ideas and myths, false narratives and prejudices, with arteries of truth. What a relief! Will we have the perseverance and courage to complete the operation? Will the patient survive? If this operation is not performed successfully, stroke and heart attack are imminent.  

Somewhere in the midst of the protests, an alchemy has taken place. As the protests matured, they were no longer protests; they transformed from lead to gold. At the beginning they shouted, accurately, I’m angry! I demand to be treated with dignity! I’m here to call out the systemic violence and hypocrisy of your racism! This country’s long and despicable history has got to change!  If the protests had been a one time expression of outrage, that would  have been the sum of the message. But because they persisted, because they are inclusive, because they had time to expand and grow into a deeper understanding of their own message—because they were right!—they shapeshifted into affirmations of the people we want to be, from rage into vision, a people who acknowledge together the bloody journey of this country’s true history, who share the identity of its crucible, and who together want to embark on a new journey,  want to tell a new story, a story of justice, compassion, peace and love. The story we claimed in 1776, but have betrayed again and again ever since.

"The truth is a heavy, awkward, irritating burden in a society which doesn’t acknowledge it."Too often when the streets fill with righteous protest of people alienated and outraged by this culture’s violence—which is to say, alienated by its materialism, greed, racism, sexism, domination, and the implicit militarism of capitalism—too often the only message communicated by the media is spectacle and anger of a mob. The protesters, who march to rescue this culture from its habitual injustices, end by being further alienated by a status quo media which describes them en masse as marginal. Nothing pleases power more. American power is inhospitable and antagonistic to people who insist on reminding it of its hypocrisy, its real motives, and its many crimes.

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However, if the protests that go on day after day are composed of a genuine cross section of people, the protesters are much harder to brand and dismiss. They are us. We begin to ask, first, What are they saying? And then: What are we saying?  What values are we affirming?

That’s not lead but gold running in the streets.

Something deeper is going on, though, and in that deeper nature of alienation is a painful realization. In order for this country and people in this country to perform reprehensible acts, it has to deny its own professed values and laws while pretending to uphold them. It calls on its citizens to also deny those values, turn them inside out, deny basic humanity so majorities can participate willingly in atrocity and call it necessary and good. The inside-out values say police killing unarmed black people enhances security for whites; drones killing civilians protects us from terrorists; mass incarceration is a good use of law; unequal distribution of wealth, health care, quality education, jobs and housing is a fair economy; stealing voting rights from minorities is democracy. If we allow our silence to condone such practices, we alienate ourselves from human decency, from respect for other people’s lives, from any hope of participatory democracy. We characterize others as enemies and judge them unfit to live or have the opportunities that make full life possible.  We murder our own dream.

Our identities can sometimes be fabricated more easily out of lies than from truths. The mainstream culture prefers to move on, choosing to forget rather than examine, live in myth rather than compassion. The alienated people feel responsible to hold on to the truth. The truth is a heavy, awkward, irritating burden in a society which doesn’t acknowledge it.  Sometimes it seems that carrying the truth of history is like pulling a very long freight train as it struggles for miles and miles on an uphill grade. The engine labors, overheats. The engineer is tempted to uncouple 400 years of overloaded boxcars. Who cares? Certainly not the perpetrators of the injustices. They say, Just let it go; dragging all that history is slowing progress. They mean profit.

That’s why these ongoing affirmations are so important. If we jettison the past, we betray the past. All those boxcars shunted off to oblivion tell us who we are. Not who we think we’d like to be, but who we really are. Only by examining that history together, can we move into the future together. The true story is humbling, but it’s the only one that unites us. 

Stay in the streets.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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