Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: "Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk" by Eugene Cho

The cover of "Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk" along with my
trusty highlighter and a paper for notes

"Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian's Guide to Engaging Politics" Could there be a more perfect title for a book about being a Christian in political America? With humility and humor, Rev. Eugene Cho brings us a book sorely needed by both Christians who have entrenched themselves with a political party and those who have entirely disengaged from politics altogether. 

We might think it’s a pretty obvious imperative: “Don’t be a jerk.” But Rev. Cho addresses how the anonymity of online interactions and the dehumanizing nature of extreme political views promote jerky behavior..behavior that can be harmful or even deadly when it translates into government policies. So many of us - including me, including Rev. Cho - fall prey to negative human tendencies. It’s easy to get carried away with political fervor when you’re confident your candidate or party is aligned with your religious values. In reality, no party is completely aligned with any religion. To combat this part of our nature, he encourages Christians to center ourselves on Christ. 

Rev. Cho offers insight from his experience as a pastor to help Christians examine their motivations and approach to politics. His writing shows why he was a superb choice to lead Bread for the World, a leading Christian advocacy group. His non-partisan, relational approach to talking about politics is refreshing and needed today.  

I don’t talk about my faith often on this blog, but it is the part of me that led me to advocacy. I was fortunate Bread reached me with the message that I have an obligation to take part in my democracy and ensure that our country feeds hungry people and protects the vulnerable. Cho elaborates on that idea:

“Hear this well: Politics matter. They matter because politics inform policies that ultimately impact people. When I read the Bible, it’s emphatically clear that people matter to God- including and especially people who are marginalized, oppressed, forgotten, and on the fringes of our larger society.”

One of my favorite things about this book is how it explores practical ideas others have tried in order to break down barriers that divide people politically. One was the “Make Dinner Great Again” (MADA) movement. It was a grassroots idea to facilitate potluck dinners between people of different ideological backgrounds. Participants were united in the notion that they were tired of divisive politics and committed to actively listening to the other dinner guests. The stories of past participants and Rev. Cho’s own experience trying it gives me hope for what can happen when diametrically opposed people concentrate on a desire to make things better.  

“Listening” and “relationship” are big themes in this book, which is why it’s so appealing to me. These very simple ideas can be very hard to live out. Connecting them back to the center of my faith raises the importance of seeking commonality, especially when I don’t want to do it at all.

Of course, as an advocate, I love the part of the book when he talks about advocacy and voting as ways to live out our faith. But I was already sold on that part. For me, the most valuable passages are the ones that speak to my own human struggle I face when I feel like someone is being a jerk to ME. So, I’ll leave you with a passage I should probably tape onto the monitor of my computer for a helpful reminder whenever I go out into the wilderness of social media:

“We must learn to be civil with one another, including those we disagree with - even political candidates. This is one of the great challenges in our culture today. We are called to love one another, including those who don’t look like us, feel like us, think like us...or vote like us. 

In voicing and pursuing our convictions, we not only represent ourselves as followers of Christ; we represent Christ. This is not to suggest we can’t have fierce convictions, but there is a distinction between being passionate about our conviction and being mean spirited and jerks. This is worth repeating: be careful not to dehumanize those you disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others. 

There is a difference. 

I’m all for contending for convictions, but let’s not be jerks in the process. Be respectful. Be mature. Be wise. The world doesn’t need more jerks for Jesus.” 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Surprise! It's #WorldTBDay

Kate O'Brien, Alexis Cosse, and Cindy Levin share a
zoom screen to meet with Congress on World TB Day

Have you ever almost forgotten to observe a holiday? Like, it comes around every year, but sneaks up on you when you're not paying attention? Those times can leave moms scrambling to reserve a Passover brisket or making a late-night CVS run to fill some last minute Easter baskets. Well, I've got my eye on those two events, but today snuck up on me. Today is World TB Day!

Luckily, my RESULTS colleague Crickett Nicovich asked me to fill in for her World TB Day congressional meetings because she (having NOT forgotten the annual event) was double-booked. No problem! I did not want to forget to take action on this day, which brings attention to one of the most neglected diseases on Earth. Among all the global health issues I cover, tuberculosis is the one I most want to talk about in this moment. Why? Because TB sits at the intersection of great need, great injustice, and great opportunity.

Why does TB have its own day?

The UN SDG logo with 
"End TB" in the center

Even though most Americans think the world got rid of TB long ago, it is a leading infectious disease killer. Only in November 2020 did COVID-19 surpass tuberculosis. Nonetheless, TB is still reigns supreme in low and middle-income countries. In 2019, an estimated 10 million people were sickened by this bacteria-driven illness and 1.5 million were killed by it. Now? Well, the data isn't all in yet, but modeling suggests disruptions in diagnoses and care during the pandemic have caused an increase that will cause an additional 6.3 million to contract active cases and an additional 1.4 million to die in 2021.

Like COVID-19, tuberculosis is an airborne disease. Unlike COVID-19, there is no effective vaccine for adults yet. The most common vaccine used for it is most effective for children, but that means TB hits people ages 15-45 (young adults, parents, and breadwinners) particularly hard. 

So, why doesn't anyone talk about TB the way we focused on COVID-19? Because it is a disease of poverty. Even though it is present in wealthy countries, it doesn't affect their citizens very much at all. This is the "injustice" part. It runs rampant in low-income countries and has hot-spots in impoverished areas of middle-income countries. When a disease no longer affects wealthy countries, our governments tend to ignore problems that greatly affect the global South, Black and Brown populations, and impoverished nations. 

It is both a major consequence and a driver of poverty. The reason RESULTS got involved at all with tuberculosis years ago is because the organization was working on microcredit loans for women in extreme poverty. The biggest reason women couldn't pay back loans was because TB sickened them and they couldn't work. If we can stop TB, we can remove a major barrier keeping millions of people trapped in poverty and allow them to rise out of poverty with dignity.

TB in the United States

My meetings today were a crash course in tuberculosis education from a patient perspective. Kate O'Brien and Alexis Cosse were my partners. Kate suffered through TB as a pregnant mother in New Jersey in 2014 with an active case that ultimately cost her a lung.  Alexis' daughter was adopted from Ukraine after surviving Multi-Drug Resistant TB as a six-month old baby. She required extensive care during her recovery involving months of pills and in-home visits. Both women described their surprise back when they first learned that TB was such a problem worldwide and realized that it is in every state in the U.S., too.

Kate, Alexis, and Cindy in Zoom windows
talking to Senator Josh Hawley's aide
The majority of TB cases in the U.S. are "latent" and can exist without causing a body any problems. But a life change can cause the disease to activate and become highly contagious. There are about 9,000 active cases reported annually in the U.S. In a meeting with Senator Josh Hawley's aide, Kate said, "When my immunity changed because of my pregnancy, my latent TB changed to active. At least 13 million Americans have latent TB and there are a lot of things that can cause it to 'wake up.' Medication for diabetes, rheumatiod arthritis, Crohn's disease, Lupus...anything that lowers your immunity can trigger an active case. Aging can do it, too, which is why we see it in elder care facilities.

Alexis helped her daughter recover from TB in the United States, but the international adoption opened her eyes to the vast problem worldwide. She told Senator Roy Blunt's aide, "To think that we have this highly infection disease sitting as an isolated pocket's just a fools folly. Any disease is a global disease. But this can be a beatable disease and a conquerable situation."

Why push on TB now?

While COVID-19 has set back progress on TB, it is also the reason this moment is so promising. The world has woken up to the reality of pandemics. We all know firsthand what sacrifices we pay as individuals and nations when we are isolated and unable to function. If we can turn that empathy into political will, we can move mountains. 

But emotional empathy isn't even the biggest reason to invest more now. Technical advances are available that we had only dreamt of before. We now know how quickly the world can move to develop safe, effective vaccines when we focus attention and resources on it. Plus, we have exciting possibilities to make progress on TB and COVID-19 simultaneously.  The highly communicable, airborne nature of TB made all of our previous investments applicable to fighting COVID-19. TB programs have been the backbone of the COVID-19 response because they placed needed, trained personnel and equipment in strategic locations around the world. As we continue to build back, we can fight both of these diseases together. For instance, India is starting to scale up a procedure that will test for both TB and COVID-19.  

What can YOU do to end TB?

You can help our dream team of TB advocates by contacting your members of Congress. After all, we can't be everywhere at once! Tell your U.S. representatives and your two senators that we need a bold, increased commitment to fill the gaps from 2020 and continue our progress. In all of our meetings today, we asked our elected officials to commit to $1 billion for bilateral USAID TB programs and $225 million for the CDC's TB program. This will help us live up to the promises made by the U.S. and other nations of the UN to treat 40 million people with TB, including 1.5 million with drug resistant TB, and provide preventative treatment for 30 million people. Ultimately, hitting all those goals will bring us closer to a future day when no one has to worry about missing out on advocacy for World TB Day because it will only be a celebration of the day we ended tuberculosis!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Advocacy Made Easy: Zoom Lobby Meetings

A Shot@Life virtual lobby meeting with Kansas Congresswoman
Sharice Davids
(pictured lower center)

In 2021, we've finally moved past the point where every virtual meeting has to start with a tedious and obligatory " is hard, am-I-right?" statement by the host. It took some congressional offices a few months into the pandemic to admit that they just had to figure out a way to meet virtually with constituents. (Hats off to former Congressman Lacy Clay who figured out how to do this years before COVID-19!) It took even longer for some activists to get comfortable with it. But now, we've reached a point where Zoom is standard technology.

And yet...even though you may know how to turn your mic on before speaking, a lobby meeting is a little different than a Zoom with friends. Here are a few of the tips I've learned from lobbying with multiple organizations in 2020. Every group taught me a new idea as everyone learned together. I've compiled some of my favorites here:

Before the Meeting

Cindy's hands typing on a laptop amidst the
clutter of lobby materials, an extra monitor,
 and a tea tray.
  • Email the aide all the "leave behind" documents the day before. Since you can no longer hand over a folder including copies of letters to sign or cool infographics to discuss, make sure you send everything ahead of time via email, so they can follow along as you explain your requests. Some aides only open up the file when prompted during the meeting, but I am pleasantly surprised how many will read them in advance to prepare.
  • Make a phone group text with your lobby team. It's useful if something unexpected happens (aide postpones meeting or someone gets stuck in the waiting room), so you can reach each other immediately.
  • Decide on an order to introduce yourselves at the beginning. It avoids awkward "Who talks next? Do I go?" pauses during what would normally be quick introductions around a physical table.
  • Require Zoom host to admit participants manually. That way the aide won't arrive while you're joking around with your team or threatening/cajoling/bribing your children to stay quiet and off camera.
  • Adjust your screen height for best "eye contact." We all know we're looking into cameras and not into each other's eyes, but it's irritating to talk to someone constantly looking in a different direction. Make sure your camera captures your entire face and that your line of sight is roughly where your camera is located. You might need to scoot back from your computer or put your laptop up on some books to make sure you don't treat people to an uncomfortable view up your nose. 

At the Meeting

  • Arrive in the Zoom 5-10 minutes early. It will help you appear unhurried when you admit the aide from the waiting room.
  • Speak to the person, don't just read text. You are relationship-building! When someone obviously reads to me, it gives me that "This meeting could have been an email" feeling. A benefit of Zoom is that you CAN have your talking points in front of you, but practice them a few times. A familiarity with your material will help you sound more natural and convincing. 
  • Pause for questions. Too many advocates treat Zoom meetings like class presentations. Your goal should be to have a productive back-and-forth conversation building your relationship. Give them conversation cues, like "Do you have any questions about what Amanda just said?" or "Do you you think your boss would support a funding increase?" or "With your insight, what do you think the mood is on the Hill about this bill?"
  • Ask permission to take a picture at the end. Give everyone a countdown to the picture click. Random pics of zoom meetings look highly unflattering!
A general tip to remember is that members of Congress and their aides are going through a lot right now, too. In our prep meetings for the Shot@Life Advocacy Day in February, a trainer advised us to remember that everyone up there is "drinking from a fire hose," which is an apt metaphor. They get Zoom fatigue with back-to-back meetings. Some of them have kids at home taking virtual classes and experiencing pandemic stressors no one ever had to go through before. Some of them were afraid for their lives working on Capitol Hill during the January 6 insurrectionist riots in D.CSome aides at home are lonely and isolated, working in apartments by themselves. 

A CARE virutal lobby meeting with participants in 
St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C.
In my CARE lobby meeting yesterday, I complimented an aide on the lovely sunbeam coming into her workspace. I asked if she was in the office or at home because I couldn't tell. She was at home. She gave us a little resigned smile and said it was a nice sunbeam, but this is the time of day just before it would blast her in the face and blind her if she doesn't move soon. She mused that she might move up to the roof because she might feel better with some fresh air and sunshine. Her response was so human and relatable. I wanted to reach through the screen and hold her hand for a moment. 

As you go about your lobbying business, I encourage everyone to remember that the people on your Zoom meetings are all going through challenges that don't show up on the screen. I always think strength and persistence are important for activists, but don't forget that grace and patience are always excellent traits that can help you make a human connection during a virtual meeting. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

When Advocacy is Self-Care for Mom

Cindy sitting alone in a wide-open, grassy field under gray skies.

Most of February wasn't great for me. A major case of the blahs? COVID-19 blues? Mild depression? Call it what you want, but those washed out/washed over emotions snuck up on me. It was a few solid weeks of...

  • going to bed earlier and sleeping in longer each day
  • skipping Zoom Taekwondo class & all exercise
  • staying in from the snow (not normal for this Minnesota girl)
  • serving my family more sandwiches & frozen meals instead of cooking
  • not returning phone calls or texts from friends
  • decreasing work to absolute minimum
  • increasing intake of chocolate and wine
  • many cookies
Cindy sitting with head down,
hair obscuring her face
Do any of those sound familiar? If so, it's not too surprising. We've achieved a one-year milestone living with COVID-19. I think I knew this in the background and was entering a mourning phase. Eleven months ago, experts were already naming this kind of pandemic isolation feeling as another kind of grief. Grieving over the loss of time with friends, travel, live entertainment, education...oh, just everything. I've helped several people through it, including my husband and my kids. Somehow, this "anniversary" just triggered it in me.

Of course, the unhealthy eating and lack of exercise took its toll until three days of headaches made me consider getting a COVID-19 test. But then, something snapped me out of my funk and made me forget all about my headaches. The UN Foundation's Shot@Life Summit began. 

Shot@Life Champions from 2013 Summit

The Summit is an annual gathering of global vaccine activists. For 2021, of course, it was a virtual event. It kicked off with a video retrospective of all we've accomplished in 10 years together. Pictures of my old friends from the launch of the program, through our Uganda trip, and years of meetings on Capitol H
ill hit me with a sweet dose of nostalgia. Statistics about our progress in the world made me proud. Faces of new advocates inspired me. I was a mess of happy tears remembering this thing I am a part of all the time even when I'm not actively working with them.

The Shot@Life Summit always includes an advocacy day of congressional meetings on Capitol Hill. Even though the meetings were over Zoom this year, we still had to absorb new info from the summit speakers and prepare our talking points for the meetings all the same. 

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the energy I expend doing this exhausting, purposeful work flows back to me 100 times over! A lot of it is because I get to draw inspirational energy from other advocates and experts I admire. Also, preparing to make persuasive pitches to congressional offices drives out useless and destructive thoughts. It feels good to be needed, help others, and even change the course of human history. The work that I do on global immunization access is my way of contributing to the END of the pandemic that had me grieving in the first place. I'm happy to trade listless feelings for empowerment. 

I'm not the only one who thinks advocacy can be self-care. Here are some quotes from mom-advocates I interviewed for my book who know that advocacy actions can bring positive change to ourselves, not just the world around us.


“I think even a small thing—like writing a letter—is changing from being passive and negative to active and positive.”

—Helena Webb, St. Louis, Missouri



“Each meeting with Congress makes me feel really empowered and confident. Like I can do this, but not just this… I can do life.”

—Candace Ellis, Belleville, IL


“Taking action brings me peace.”

—Cara Fleischer, Tallahassee, Florida


“It makes me feel like a better mom—as if I’ve done something to impact their future that didn’t include a potty or snack food. It also makes me feel in control of something bigger than myself and I love the example that it sets for those around me—including my kids!”

—Jennifer DeFranco, Palatine, Illinois


“I feel like I’m making a difference and even if it is a small difference, it makes me proud. Proud to be a mom, an educator, and a citizen.”

—Lisa Turner Sahadevan, Atlanta, Georgia


“I feel like I am deserving of the space I inhabit on this Earth. I am worthy of being here . . . especially when my actions help others who are unable to act.”

—Liessa Alperin, Ballwin, Missouri

“Believe it or not, it’s a sense of therapy for me when I feel bad about what’s happening around me. So, taking action is really lifting!”

—Maxine Thomas, Indianapolis, Indiana

Maxine Thomas' quote is spot on. She gave that to me more than a year ago before we knew how much I would personally need her words.

If you've made it this far, I'd like to add that I'm GLAD I was sad. I appreciate that my friends and family gave me the space to not be okay for a while. We all need to room to experience all our emotions — even the negative ones. It will drive us to madness to strive to be happy and strong all the time. I'm grateful that I had the space to take some weeks to retreat and also have a healthy outlet to bring me back. 

To wrap things up, let me share this picture of my favorite meeting of the 2021 Shot@Life Summit. I got to meet with all these fired-up students from Kansas and U.S. Congresswoman Sharice Davids. Rep. Davids is one of the first 2 Native American women to serve in U.S. Congress, the first openly lesbian person to be elected to U.S. Congress from Kansas, and a former professional mixed martial artist. That's a lot to be inspired by! 

A Zoom screen capture of a Zoom meeting with U.S. Representative Sharice Davids
(Davids pictured at bottom center square) 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Lobbying About Immunizations One Year into COVID-19

Cindy standing in front of the U.S. Capitol 
in a Shot@Life T-shirt

One year ago, I stood on the steps of Capitol Hill reflecting on a day of lobbying about global vaccines at the UN Foundation's Shot@Life Campaign Summit. I was lucky to talk to lawmakers in Washington D.C. mere weeks before our country locked down for COVID-19. Like many times before, I was there as a volunteer to urge Congress to fund global immunization programs because every child deserves a chance at a healthy life.

I’d never felt so strongly that I was in the right place at the right time with the right message. For 10 years, I’d continually pulled the attention of my senators and representatives to support global health programs for low-income countries. As information trickled out about coronavirus, I sensed a new awareness growing among staff and members. Policymakers were, for the first time, considering how global diseases could touch them here at home. I didn’t have all the answers about COVID-19, but I had answers about equitable and efficient vaccine distribution.  

In 2021, of course, our Shot@Life conference and lobby visits are happening virtually. I’ll be meeting with congressional offices over Zoom tomorrow. How has our messaging changed in a year?

It’s Way More Personal

Crickett Nicovich and I talk with Rep. Blaine
Luetkemeyer shortly before the US locked down

In past conversations with members and aides, we focused on lives "over there" in other countries. I don't think they really heard me when I said, "Polio anywhere is a threat everywhere." They certainly didn't really think I meant here. Maybe I didn't even push that point as hard as I could have.

Now, COVID-19 is here and 500,000 Americans are not. We’ve lost friends, family, and next-door neighbors. (My neighbor was literally the first person I knew who died of coronavirus last spring) We understand now what it is to clamor for vaccines before loved ones contract a deadly disease. We travel long distances for access to shots if we must. Texans are even living through disease threat while lacking basics like heat and water. Americans now experience their own personal versions of stories I used to tell about families in low-income countries.

It’s About More Than “Lives Saved”

Gavi CEO Seth Berkely talks about "lives
saved" at the 2020 Shot@Life Summit

My talking points used to center around how many lives we will save with our U.S. investments in programs like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. After all, Gavi helps vaccinate 86% of the world’s children, so every increase brought us closer to a world where no children would die of vaccine preventable disease.

Even beyond life-threatening hardships, my 2021 message is also about the other things viruses take from us. People all over the world have lost income, education, gathering with others, the freedom to travel, and so much more. Now that members of Congress see their constituents feel the pain of these other losses, we can move the conversation beyond life and death. Now that the interconnectedness of the world is so obvious, we can talk about how the pandemic will not end for any of us until it’s over for ALL of us. 

We Can Come Back Better

With all that COVID-19 has forced us to learn about vaccine distributions, we now can re-imagine the way we approach immunizations. We can come back better and more efficient with our new lessons learned. We can normalize strategies worldwide, like:

  • barcodes for vaccine vials for tracking accountability

  • digital vaccine records

  • vaccine registries

  • employment of vaccine appointments for efficiency 

  • using cell phones for vaccine reminders

  • physical distancing at distribution site to decrease infections

  • better hygiene

We’re Not Helpless

Bad policies combined with bad luck got us into this. Like so many are saying on social media right now, “It didn’t have to be this way.” But it doesn’t have to stay this way either. There are already mechanisms put into place by people who are already the best at delivering health solutions worldwide. We must join the rest of the world to fund them. By continuing our support of UNICEF, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), and USAID, and the CDC for their existing infectious disease programs, we will also support the same infrastructure and workers that will deliver COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.

YOU are not helpless. You can help by calling and writing to your member of Congress with this message to support Shot@Life volunteers in our meetings:

“As your constituent, I support the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign. Immunization efforts have seen tremendous success, preventing tens of millions of deaths globally since 2000. I call on you to fully fund global immunization programs for FY22 at the following levels: 

• $290 million for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance 

• $134 million for UNICEF 

• $211.2 million for CDC global polio eradication programs 

• $60 million for CDC measles elimination activities 

• $65 million for USAID polio eradication efforts 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated with devastating results, now is a critical moment to protect the progress made in immunizations, strengthen primary health systems, and enhance our country’s global health security against current and future disease threats by protecting Americans at home and abroad.”

Cynthia Changyit Levin has been a UN Foundation Shot@Life Champion since the launch of the campaign 10 years ago. She is the author of the upcoming book "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

More Than Literary Allyship

With the overlap of Black History Month and Valentine’s Day, this is a perfect time to take stock of how each of us are individually doing on a journey to become anti-racist. As Dr. Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” 

This summer opened my eyes to some uncomfortable truths. Like many, I turned towards books like “White Fragility” to relieve BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) of the burden of educating me. Working through the journaling exercises in “White Supremacy and Me” with friends now is a humbling and uncomfortable experience. 
This "Love is an Action word" shirt is 
available at Mahogany Mommies,
a Black woman owned business

However, a half-year past the Black Lives Matter summer protests, white people should move into “doing” instead of just reading. Without action, it's just a literary form of performative allyship. Is reading a book and not changing behavior any different than the customers in this blog about the summer wave of anti-racist book sales who cancelled or never picked up their orders?
 The goal is for us to become better humans, not just go through the motions of ordering a book.

I’m asking myself the following questions and I invite white readers to do the same.

In the last six months, have you…
  • held someone accountable for racially abusive jokes or statements made in your presence? (whether you “called them out” abruptly or “called them in” with love)
  • “passed the mic” to BIPOC in work/social conversations when they were being talked over or dismissed?
  • recommended BIPOC for jobs or speaking engagements?
  • written letters of recommendation or made Linkedin recommendations for any BIPOC?
  • engaged BIPOC for professional work or intentionally bought items from a BIPOC owned business like book stores or florists? (Semicolon in Chicago is a Black woman owned bookstore if you're looking for one!)
  • taken an action to oppose a racist policy or to support reparations and racial justice policies?
  • talked or written about racial oppression in your area of influence? (whether it's a job, a blog, or your kids)

It’s hard to fight a thing like White supremacy that starts conditioning at birth and constantly rewards oppressors in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s uncomfortable. We will make clumsy mistakes when we try to oppose it. (I'm probably making a few right now) (UPDATE: I definitely teenager sent me some corrections, thank goodness, to save me from myself with love) But we must get over ourselves and do it anyway. Big problems like poverty and climate change will never be solved while inequality and oppression lie unaddressed.

I wish everyone well on their journeys as I stumble along in mine. 

My notes from the "Me and White Supremcy" book
reflections are embarrassing to look at, but
critical to my personal progress

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 in 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.