The other week, I saw something that I never really believed I would see in my life time: a cementing of the presence of fascism in North America. I don’t believe I am alone in feeling like this is something that seemed relatively impossible to fathom even only a few years ago. But, there it was on our screens and in our newspapers. Military tanks and high fences lining up and being placed around what is supposed to be “the people’s house”, The White House.
A President speaking the words, “I am an ally of peaceful protesters” while, in the back ground, the sounds of fired rubber bullets and the launching of tear gas could be heard as peaceful protesters he is ‘an ally of’ were being fired on. And then, la piece de resistance: once peaceful protesters were terrorized and removed, their supposed President began a short walk toward propaganda and his intended goal all along.
All of it, the bullets, the tear gas, everything, was done so he could stage a photo op outside of a church he doesn’t attend, and, likely never knew the name of, until he needed it as a prop in his propaganda machine. Maybe not even then. When he arrived at the Church he stood outside, held his right arm at a sharp angle, Bible in hand (and by some reports, upside down) pointing it skyward and smiling his monstrous and orange hued smile. A Joker with a heap of straw posing as hair on top of his head making him look like an obese and overgrown scarecrow. When asked if the Bible he was raising aloft was his Bible, the scarecrow replied, “it’s a Bible”. Heil Trump.
It was devastating. A sight unable to be unseen. I’ve thought for the past several days about what to even say about any of it because it all seems so inconceivable. The election of Trump, all that has transpired since; all inconceivable, unless, of course, I were black or brown. The more I looked at that image, and, the more I thought about all that it means, the more I realized that what seems new to me, both shocking and novel, is other people’s daily lived experience. Me and white supremacy indeed.
To live under fascism is to live in a society that is far-right, ultranationalist, suppressing of what is thought to be ‘other’ and where nation and race are put above the rights and needs of the individual. I don’t know about you but that sounds, to me, what it is like to be black in America, before and since 2016. I cannot pretend to even know remotely what that experience is like, only what it seems to be like. And what it seems to be like is to be, as Don Lemon said, constantly surveilled, forcibly removed, placed wherever the dominant sees fit until ending up with a knee on the neck as life is being drained away.
I remember election night in 2016 when Trump won. My white friends and I were shocked and appalled. Some of us cried. Another friend remarked that he had his cyanide capsule all ready to go. It felt like a shock that fascism was knocking on our doors. We were in distress and devastation while the Obama coalition, compromised largely of black and brown people, they just…..stayed home. They went about their business, carried on with their lives, expressing exactly zero percent of shock that the country they had always known was carrying on as it always had.
Much was written in the days and months after the election about why and how Trump won and, there were many factors, but a significant one was black and brown people sitting that election out. And why wouldn’t they? A black man had been elected. They had helped him do it and then they witnessed what was done to him. If that couldn’t change things did it seem likely to them that Hillary Clinton could change things? No it didn’t. So, they carried on, continuing to be occupied but, otherwise, largely unfazed, while us white people had the vapours. That is what learned helplessness born of institutionalized racism looks like.
When I first looked at that picture of Trump at the church, when I saw it every time I closed my eyes, I thought about my own shock at what it represents and the fear I felt as fascist oppression creeps up ever closer upon my life. But when I went a little bit deeper, I thought more about my own oblivion to true oppression and how little I really knew of it which was, at least in part, why I was so stunned now and why I had been stunned in 2016.
It has slowly dawned on me Trump was given life by a silence like mine. A silence rendered by shock and sustained by complacency because, when I really looked at it, other than being appalled daily, my life was largely unchanged and, so, I carried on with said life. Black and brown people’s lives were unchanged too until their lives changed from bad to worse. And so now, not even four years later, it is impossible for any of us to carry on with business as usual. The picture of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck makes it impossible. That picture of Chauvin keeps sliding over top the image of Trump outside of that Church. The two images belonging and fitting together to make a horror. Like Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” come to life.
The day at the Church, as cameras shuttered and whirred and horror unfolded Trump stared directly into the cameras, emotionless except for the look on his face which was the look of a man who believed he had every right to be exactly where he was no matter who he had to terrorize to get there. He looked so ugly, so vulgar and it wasn’t an ugliness born of the physical attributes to which I referenced earlier. It was an ugliness born of the soul and, in his case, what appears to be the absence of one.
The day of George Floyd’s murder, as cameras shuttered and whirred and horror unfolded, Derek Chauvin had done exactly as Trump did: he stared straight into the camera. Emotionless except for the look of a man with every right to be where he was no matter who he had to terrorize to get there.
Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, pressing until Floyd was dead, had a look akin to Trump’s. A look born of avarice, entitlement, shamelessness and anger. A seething, bottomless and unknowable rage. By all observable measures, Chauvin appears physically as the mirror opposite of Trump. He is a regular (aka vanilla) shade of white, blue eyed, trim with close cropped, and, seemingly human hair, but, exactly like Trump there is nothing human there.
Those two images of Trump and Chauvin belong together like a diptych, hinged so as to be closed like a book. Chauvin is the beginning of that book and Trump is its end; the most gruesome denouement. Men like Derek Chauvin have existed since the first slave trader went to Africa and plundered. Stealing human lives for their own ends. If there had been cameras then they would have likely started directly into them. Emotionless except for the look of a man with every right to be where he is no matter who he had to terrorize to get there. And who gave those men animus? Men like Trump. Emperors and kings who saw fit to take what they wanted and breathed life into the cabals willing to do their dirtiest work.
At a 2019 rally for Trump, the head of the Minnesota police union took to the stage offering unabashed praise for the man who he believed had given the police back their teeth (as if they had ever been removed) and was met with thunderous applause. When speaking to police in 2017 Trump encouraged officers to not be “too nice” if things got a little rough during an arrest and he too was met with thunderous applause. The rally goers, the officers; the men like Derek Chauvin are the beginning of the book because they have always been in a Civil War. It was just a Civil War gone cold until Trump came along with the gasoline and the match. They are the cabals, standing at the ready, willing to do their King’s dirtiest work.
But they have to be written out. By me. By you. By all of us who lie in the middle of that book. In the chapters between Chauvin and Trump, lie all the rest of us and the chapters we have written and those we have left blank to be written upon by those who feel entitled to do so. And, now, we have to own that our own avarice, our own entitlement and our own silence allow men like Derek Chauvin to exist and men like Donald Trump to aid and abet him. It is an awful and sickening feeling but it is one that must be faced if things are ever to really and truly change.
That long ago night in 2016, would have been better served by me thinking about and reacting to, not just what that election meant for myself and my friends, but, what it means for those already oppressed, already occupied. I didn’t think about that then, but, I am thinking about it now. I have too. We all have too. Anyone with any privilege has to share that privilege with others so that an entirely new book may be written with an entirely new and more beautiful end.