Is 2020 really over?
Fireworks illuminate the sky over the White House Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in honor of the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
I’ve seen online jokes about how we are all just living in an extension of 2020. January started off so eventful that it just felt like it was December 37th instead of January of a new year when the Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
Jokes aside, will 2021 be better than 2020? Now it’s February and the new president is issuing some progressive policy orders, but I’m not sure if I’m hopeful yet.
I saw a lot of people celebrating on inauguration day, yet I was holding my breath and feeling complicated feelings. It’s not a secret that Joe Biden wasn’t the first choice for me or for a lot of folks I work with, but that didn’t stop us from giving the election everything we had.
In the months after Election Day, I wrestled with questions a lot of my progressive organizer friends felt as well about the Biden administration. Do we support someone who doesn’t have the greatest track record for our community? How do we continue to push for a progressive agenda which our communities need? Am I just reinforcing a system that is turning around and harming our people?
It was a tough election cycle. I came to the conclusion that strategic harm reduction is sometimes necessary. Things were so dire that we couldn’t sit out, despite the harm that was caused in our community with policy Biden advocated such as the 1994 Crime Bill.
We had to have tough conversations as a team at the organization I lead — Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). Inauguration day brought out complicated feelings. Obviously, I was happy we got that man out of the White House and seeing the first woman, Black person, Asian person become vice president was historic, but I wondered if it would be merely symbolic. We’ve seen representation be abused as a way to satisfy a quota but not really give power to a community. So did we simply just stop the bleeding?
I wish I could say I felt a sense of relief watching the inauguration. I celebrated all day — with a bottle of champagne and everything — but something felt hollow. It was inaugural poet laureate Amanda Gordon who moved me to tears. Her honest assessment of our country was what I needed to hear. She beautifully captured the complexities of this country without watering down our history for the sake of comfort or celebration. It was the hope and understanding I needed on that day.
I realized I’ve been wound so tight these last four years that it felt like every day was a new fight and I was living on the edge. It’s hard to think there was a world where this level of trauma doesn’t exist. Some people think things will be back to normal now that Trump is out of office. Some folks ran out and bought books about white supremacy during the protests over the summer that are now collecting dust on their bookshelves.
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White supremacy doesn’t suddenly go away after Trump is out of office. Just because some people have a deeper understanding of white supremacy, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before. I’ve seen some privileged activists come and go — sometimes they are in the fight with us, sometimes they sit out. We need to take a breather, but organizers don’t come and go.
When Biden signed an executive order tackling racial equity where he said, “Yes, we need criminal justice reform, but that isn’t nearly enough. We need to open the promise of America to every American. And that means we need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government; it has to be the business of the whole of government.”
Shortly after that moment, police officer Joseph Mensah, who fatally shot three people leading to ongoing protests in Wauwatosa and was forced to resign his job, got a new job as a sheriff’s deputy in another county. It felt like an utter slap in the face. It felt like this system was making a mockery of our pain and grief especially from the summer of protests. How can the new president’s words be enough when law enforcement, as an institution, allows for this officer to just move from Wauwatosa to nearby Waukesha County to become a sheriff’s deputy? There were no guard rails that prevented that from happening or disqualified him from being in law enforcement ever again.
As an organizer, I’ll admit, I’ve felt lost this past month. How can I celebrate the wins when after an electoral victory, we rarely see the results we want because of how tangled white supremacy is everywhere.
I struggled with the timing of writing this piece because I didn’t want to be a downer on a day that should be celebrated. But I can’t ignore the crushing weight of reality. While other folks are feeling a sense of relief and going back to “normal,” the most marginalized among us have to keep fighting. We don’t see this win the way others do. We don’t experience it the way others do. Our lives are still at stake, our futures are still on the line.
Black History Month started last week. Just like we can’t be performative allies in this moment post inauguration, we also can’t limit celebrating Black accomplishments to Black History Month. Now more than ever, we need to dig our heels in and continue that momentum from the election. Even if you feel things are back to “normal,” most of us are still fighting.
Here’s my question: Where do you land?
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