Saturday, January 9, 2021

Three Phrases We Can Stop Saying about Riots in D.C.

The U.S. Capitol on a peaceful, sunny day.
Photo: Cynthia Levin

There are three phrases I'm tired of hearing this week in the aftermath of rioting insurrectionists who violently breached the U.S. Capitol. I've heard them from TV pundits, fellow citizens processing the event, and sitting members of Congress. Look, I know that people need to say whatever they need to say when they're shocked by a horrible event. But as we move ahead, here are three sentences we could do without...

#1 "No one could have predicted this."

This is an example of choosing not to believe what people tell you they're going to do. President Trump could not have been more obvious in encouraging people to gather in DC on January 6 to protest the results of the election precisely when Congress would certify the states' electoral votes. It wasn't a secret that he'd been using language that encouraged violence for years. The insurrectionists were invited. Their orders came straight from the presidential bully pulpit. It doesn't take an extraordinary amount of prescience to draw a straight line from a speech to an armed march, especially when the last public speech happens minutes before the action.

(Side note: When President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term "bully pulpit" to refer to the president's advantageous position to speak, he meant "bully" as in "wonderful" as the word meant in the early 1900's...not an actual bully like the man using it now.)

I could see friends in D.C. on social media talking about the possibility of violence days before January 6. I saw friends from other states warning friends in D.C. to stay home for safety. If my commonplace, non-psychic friends with no specialized security access nor communications with right-wing extremist groups suspected that there would be an attempt to breach the Capitol, I promise you that someone in power could have predicted it and acted to prevent it. A person who claims no one could have predicted the event just doesn't want to admit they were ignoring the red flags or simply not paying attention.

#2 "We could never have imagined this happening."

I heard this one straight from the mouths of senators the night after the riots. It's been repeated hundreds of times over. This statement reminds me of one of the most eloquent phrases from the NASA investigation hearings after the Apollo I disaster: "a failure of imagination." Those words have described other historic disasters, too, from the Titanic to Pearl Harbor. But it's the job of Homeland Security, the Capitol Police, and the Sergeant-at-Arms to imagine exactly such a worst-scenario. At best, it was lazy complacency combined with white privilege blinding decision makers to threats that let the intrusion get so far. At worst, it was white supremacy and complicit help aiding the rioters who put our members of Congress in jeopardy. (For supporting data, see this FiveThirtyEight article with data about DC police response to protestors citing that "between May 1 and November 28, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest than a right-wing one.")

Everyone wants to believe our Capitol and our democracy are secure. Heck, I want to believe it every time I surrender my belongings for x-ray and step into a building on Capitol Hill for meetings as a constituent! But to say we couldn't imagine it is selling ourselves short.  

Frankly, I'd be shocked if our senators and representatives never imagined it. Each time I sit in a synagogue, I check my proximity to doors and consider what I would do if violent intruders attempted to harm us. My children vividly imagine gunmen taking hostages in their school. And we're just ordinary people with neither power nor prestige, unlike the 535 people who run our government and all sit in a couple of rooms together a few times a year. If any members of Congress or their staff would like to talk about how scary it was to hide from armed intruders and what to do about it in the future, they would find a welcome conversation with any Moms Demand volunteers around the country. 

#3 "This is not who we are."

Even President-Elect Biden said a version of this in his attempt to cool the nation with a speech even as the mob was still on Capitol grounds. It sounds quite comforting said from a podium, but this is a pretty lie white people tell each other to feel better after something exposes white supremacy for everyone to see. People of color know better. I preferred Kamala Harris' words in her response to the rioting when she said, "We know we should be better than this."

Americans and our elected officials need to come to grim terms with the fact that this really is an ugly part of who we are before we can make things better. It's not just vile thoughts living is one powerful man. We live in a country where violinists, including children, were dipsersed with tear gas and rubber bullets by a SWAT team at a music memorial for Elijah McClain, a Black man killed by police, this summer. (I mean, how bad does it have to be for Classic FM radio to cover violence at a peaceful protest?) 

We don't like to admit it. But the white supremacy and privilege brazenly on display in D.C. this week are not just part of the ideology of some of our fellow citizens. They persist in our law-enforcement system and were even baked into our government policies for centuries when white, male, land owners set the stage for our fledgling democracy. Our country has been fighting it ever since. 

No, it's definitely not part of the American ideal. It's not who we should be. But it will continue to be who we are until we acknowledge it and take action to dismantle inequality in both government policies (like redlining practices in housing and voter suppression) and personal behaviors (like micro-aggressions and voting). 

So...What Do We Do Now?

Cover of "How to Fight Inequality and
Why that Fight Needs You"
Here are just three of many, many actions we can take to bring us closer to a more perfect Union. Don't stop with these! Please leave more suggestions for others in the comments.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Interfaith Reflections on Chanukah and Advent

I write this post approaching the last night of Chanukah even as I contemplate the meaning of of Advent. Traditions of both holidays inspire us to light candles in winter, the darkest season of the year. This winter, facing the highest daily rates of death from COVID-19 yet, is very dark. Yet the glow of the candles brings me a centering sense of purpose.

A hanukiah lit for the 3rd night of Chanukah

The Chanukah theme of Resistance reminds me that our individual lights can beat back the darkness. We can and must lean on each other to resist the suffering, loneliness, and despair caused by the pandemic. In the words of Rabbi Brant Rosen, “True resistance can never occur as long as we expect an external human force to somehow show up to save us. In the end, the true miracle of resistance occurs when we show up for one another.”

An Advent wreath
Photo: Rev. Pamela Dolan

The Advent theme of Hope swells up in me whenever I see pictures of our elderly and
 frontline health workers receiving the first COVID-19 vaccines. Although it will be months before my family receives immunizations (and even longer for my family and friends in small countries overseas), I tearfully recognized that it has been ages since I felt a hope that seems real and urgent instead of abstract and far away.

Whether you’re bringing groceries to someone hungry, talking to someone lonely, caring for someone ill, caring for your family, or speaking out to make the world more fair than it was before the pandemic... keep resisting and don’t lose hope.

Be a light for someone. It’s dark out there, but we can be here for each other.

Chanukah Sameach!

Cindy holding a candle in the darkness

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

It's the Most Wonderful Time...for Letters to the Editor!

A mailbox for Letters to the Editor on a mantle
with Christmas stockings

I've heard it said that there are always fewer letter to the editor submissions to newspapers in December than other months. I think it must be true. It makes sense since everyone is busy at the end of the year. People prepare for the holidays, students take final exams, companies wrap up business before vacations, and everyone mentally checks out at the end of the year. It's a shame because a LOT happens at the end of an election year with a change of guard for many seats in Washington D.C. Yet YOU can make this work for you and your cause! With less competition, it makes it easier to get your letter to the editor published.

Twelve Days of Christmas Challenge

This month, my dear friend and media mentor Willie Dickerson reminded us RESULTS volunteers that editors would have a lighter load of letters while opportunities for writing about poverty issues were plentiful. He challenged our volunteer groups to a friendly "Twelve Days of Christmas Challenge" where we could strive to publish 12 letters, submit 12 letters, get 12 people to submit letters, or anything else that would encourage us to get more media published. I submitted 12 letters myself. 

On the first weekend of December, I sat down with a sample RESULTS letter to the editor template and looked for media "hooks" on newspaper websites. A hook is an article that you can connect to your issue. If you write your letter about a piece they've already printed, an editor is more likely to choose your letter because you are continuing the conversation the paper started. For instance, there are many articles out right now about the U.S. and U.K. starting to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. That's a great hook for me as an advocate working on global poverty. I can say something like, "It's great that wealthy countries are distributing a vaccine, but citizens of low-income countries will not receive it for a very long time. We should provide global assistance to protect the world's most vulnerable people as they suffer from even greater hunger and disease because of COVID-19."

That weekend, I submitted 12 letters to the editor to the following papers plus one extra one responding to a letter by my colleague Sarah Miller:

  1. Southern Illinoisan
  2. Carbondale Times
  3. Chicago Tribune
  4. St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  5. Jewish Light
  6. Joplin Globe
  7. St. Louis American
  8. West Newsmagazine
  9. Kansas City Star
  10. Indianapolis Star
  11. Springfield News Leader
  12. New York Times
  13. Columbia Missourian
Banner logos for newspapers that published my letters
And what to my wondering eyes should appear? In the next week, EIGHT of my letters were published! (Dang, I would have liked to see eight tiny flying reindeer, but it's a little early for that.) You can check them out by clicking the links in the list above. That is an unusually high acceptance rate for me. Usually, if I wrote ten letters, I would expect to get only 1 or 2 published. That's why I think it's true that fewer people submit at this time of year. 

Tips for Getting Published

For general tips on getting published, visit my Advocacy Made Easy post about letters to the editor. I do want to include a few extra hints about this batch of submissions...
  • Keep Going AFTER Letter #1 - What a shame if I'd never submitted 3, 6, 7, 10, and 13! Usually my first one is not my best one, so I keep writing knowing that my writing gets more concise as I spend more time with a topic. 
  • Use a Fresh Hook - When you look for an article or opinion piece to respond to, find one that has been published in the last week. You might be able to get away with ten days, but I wouldn't use one any older than that. News moves fast and you want the best chance at giving the freshest take!
  • Change Up Your Text Each Time - My letters are very similar to one another, but not exactly the same. Newspapers want to publish something unique for their readers. You don't have to start from scratch every time (in fact, your "Call to Action" is probably not going to change at all), but you do want to give some variation.  Using a unique hook every time will help with that. 
  • Support Your Colleagues - I mentioned that my 13th letter was in response to Sarah Miller's letter. A bit later, she got a letter published in response to my letter in the Joplin Globe. Just as I used her U.S. poverty COVID-19 hook to address a global issue, she used my global COVID-19 hook to write about the need for U.S. rental and nutrition assistance. It's really nice to work with a friend.
  • Write to a Variety of Papers - I wrote to papers of varying sizes in different states. I know that the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times are kind of long-shots. But if I DO land one of them, more people will see my words and they may carry more weight with influential decision makers like Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Schumer (D-NY). But I also write to smaller papers in my area, like The St. Louis American and the Southern Illinoisan, that are more likely to choose local voices to print. 
  • Use a "Yes, and..." Approach with Other Causes - There's a lot of competition for funding right now, especially in the realm of COVID-19 relief. I recommend staying positive and not getting in a media fight with other highly worthy causes. For instance, you can see that when I see Sarah asking for funding for Americans in poverty in her letter, I build upon her ask without suggesting that senators fund people in poverty around the world instead of impoverished Americans. We can do both. 

Now, You Give it a Try!

The month isn't over. No matter what your topic is, you will have less competition than the rest of the year. If you are an advocate fighting poverty in the U.S. or around the world, I've just given you eight great hooks. Give it a go!