The Politics of Emotion

We're enraged, we're confused, we're scared--and that's the way they want it.

Yesterday, four Capitol/DC police officers testified before a Democratic-led House Committee on the January 6 insurrection. We were on the road so could only listen to them on the radio, and only until the opening of the House member questioning before we lost our NPR signal, but what we heard was compelling and enraging and as honest an account of what happened that day as we’re ever likely to get.

Those men who were there and injured in one way or another—DC officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges, and Capitol Police officers Aquilino Gonell and Harry Dunn—told their own survivor stories, their voices straining with quiet rage, sometimes choking up, sometimes stopping to gather themselves, and the horror of that event came back as a raw wound for those of us who watched the insurrection, in shock that something like this could happen in our country in our lifetime.

It came as no shock, however, that Trump’s crowd, both in Congress and on the airwaves, sought to play down yesterday’s testimony and go on pretending it was A) theater, B) not that bad, or C) another Democratic attempt to make Trump look bad.

This is their modus operandi—to deflect, to shame, to blame everyone but Donald Trump, the mob boss in president’s clothing who instigated and egged on the insurrectionists by demanding they ‘fix’ the Big Lie—that Trump won and Biden lost the election.

Trump did this, just as he has instigated and encouraged other attacks on our constitution and our country. The piece below is a piece I wrote on June 3, 2020, after an explosive week of rioting, raging, and weeping in abject frustration when nothing was accomplished.

I share it today as more evidence that we cannot keep letting this go. We can’t let them get away with yet another assault on us. This time they felt justified in attacking our Capitol. Tomorrow may be the White House. Then what? When will it end?

If not now, when?

The Politics of Emotion - June 3, 2020

This last week has been a doozy. An entire thesaurus of emotions bombard us every day, every night, and we’re at the point now where those of us who think, who care, who take the burdens of the world personally, are on sensory overload, dangerously close to imploding. Exploding. Doing ourselves no favors by feeling emotions so raw, so painful they render us, in the end, helpless.

The catalyst this time? Another Black man’s senseless death at the hands of the police — say his name: George Floyd— and it’s almost more than we can bear. The Minneapolis cop who killed him did it in front of us, in broad daylight, gloating, smiling for the cameras, his knee pressing harder against George’s neck as George pleaded for his life, called for his mother, said I CAN’T BREATHE.

Three other cops stood watch over the killing. According to witnesses, at least one of them helped to hold George down.

The crowd around them pleaded for the cop to stop but he didn’t move, didn’t ease the pressure, didn’t consider the minutes it took for the life to seep out of George Floyd’s bones. There were nine of them. Nine minutes. Two of them were probably a waste of time. At seven minutes George was already beyond help.

As reports of George’s death began to surface, sorrow turned to rage. And rage turned to helplessness. It happened again. We couldn’t stop it. That portion of our nation who feels these things sat back and cried. Some of us did it in public, in front of the cameras, as we tried to grapple with emotions so out of control we couldn’t put words to them.

We watched as people who built their reputations on giving us the words that eased us, motivated us, energized us, fell apart before our eyes, reduced to weeping out of sheer frustration.

And Donald Trump, seeing us as pitiful, as vulnerable, as easy marks, grabbed at the chance to twist the knife and make it worse. The president-in-name-only didn’t rise to help a nation get through this, didn’t give the speech that would comfort or settle us or make us believe justice would be served. No, he took to Twitter and instigated. He teased, he taunted, he threatened. (“When looting starts, the shooting starts.”)

Inevitably, the outrage took over and the protests devolved to riots in the streets across the country. Stores were looted and burned. Some would say emotions blew it all up; others saw it as rank opportunism. Whatever it was, fire lit the skies, entire buildings were reduced to rubble, and we were left to feel. What the hell is happening?

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After a few days we were back to protesting for the right reasons — because George Floyd was dead and because Black lives have to matter. Thousands of us marched peacefully, without incident, and the rest of us, watching from home, rejoiced at the numbers, at our unity, our solidarity, our humanity.

But Donald Trump wasn’t done with us. He spent the riot days hiding in a bunker beneath the White House. We got wind of it and we let off some steam by making fun of him. So he put on his “I’ll show them” face and upstaged us by marching a few hundred yards, in broad daylight, looking for all the world like a tinpot dictator, a coterie of sycophants marching a few steps behind him along a route lined with armed guards, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where rioters had done some damage and where he then stood unannounced (and unwelcome, it turns out), muttered a few unintelligible words, held a bible over his head, and walked back to the White House.

It took maybe 20 minutes, but in order for Trump to make that walk the crowds lining that street had to be dispersed. Suddenly the police came from out of nowhere and began forcing the crowds away, pushing, shoving, spraying them with tear gas, spattering them with rubber bullets.

Those of us watching in real time at home were horrified. It made no sense. They were more than a half hour from curfew. They were protesting peaceably. They had the right to be there. And uniformed men in riot gear came at them as if they were mad, snarling dogs.

Our hearts were in our throats. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Was this it then? Was this the battle we’d long been afraid of? Would we now be fighting for our very lives?

No. It was just that Donald Trump wanted to make a show of walking those few yards because we made fun of him hiding in a bunker and because a damaged church made the perfect backdrop for his phony piety in these times of crisis.

At least that’s what we think it was. It could have been anything, coming from Trump.

And we come away from this scared, confused, exhausted, wondering how many times we can go through this without coming apart or just giving up. Knowing that’s what they want. They want us to come apart. They want us to give up.

And we can’t. When our emotions get the best of us we have to stop a moment and rewind. We owe it to ourselves. But quit? Can we? You know we can’t. Because this is who we are. And that’s who they are. And it’s either us or them.

(A version of this piece was previously published at Indelible Ink and Ramona’s Voices)


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