On Sunday, for the first time in my life, I saw Americans gassed on their way to vote.
Growing up, I was always appalled by black-and-white photos of Southern sheriffs turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in places like Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham. It always seemed like it had happened so long ago. And anyway: how could something so anti-democratic happen in America?
Now we know.
Sunday, Marchers in the “I Am Change” rally, who planned to march from a local Black church to an early voting polling site, complete with county permit, were met with police in quasi-riot gear and something the local sheriff called “tear vapor,” because it looks really bad to admit to gassing your own citizens with a chemical outlawed in war since just after World War I by the Geneva Protocol
According to witnesses, the crowd was listening to a speech at the base of a Confederate monument when police started yelling at them to disperse. Elderly folks were gassed. Children were gassed. Disabled marchers were gassed. People screamed and cried and vomited. Eight people were arrested.
All because they were peacefully marching to the polls.
Seemed like things were pretty safe until the police showed up.
In Texas, a pro-Trump caravan surrounded a Biden campaign bus and tried to force it off the road. Many of the Trumpers involved wielded partisan flags out of the back of their pick up trucks and screamed at the bus out their windows, in scenes up until now only seen in movies about terrorist warlords in the Middle East. The whole surreal scene earned a thumbs up from the President, who has been encouraging violence against his detractors since the early days of his term.
The Texas Caravan is far from the only one courting trouble. Similar caravans have taken over the roads in New Jersey, Louisville, Indianapolis, Virginia, and California. Videos of confrontations between armed Trump supporters and Biden supporters have begun popping up all over Twitter. Local governments are concerned about armed militia showing up to voting sites at Trump’s behest.
On Election Day, America is a powder keg. Even the White House is being boarded up, though I suppose, it’s easy to encourage violence when you’ve got Secret Service protection and your very own bunker.
Thanks to history professor Lou Moore of Grand Valley State University (whose books We Will Win the Day and I Fight For A Living are must-reads for anyone who cares about civil rights, racial justice, history and, to a lesser extent, sports), I learned about an op-ed column written by none other than Jackie Robinson, who you know from such things as breaking MLB’s color barrier, and being portrayed by the late and wonderful Chadwick Boseman in 42.
Lou is always sprinkling these gems around on Twitter, but this one was especially apt. I dug around online but couldn’t find the entire column. Luckily, Lou, who is exactly the person who can get his hands on a Jackie Robinson op-ed from the 1960s at a moment’s notice at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, sent it my way.
And what do you know? Jackie Robinson, who became a political columnist after his playing career, saw all of this coming way back in 1964, when he wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Tribune. Robinson, a longtime Republican, was dismayed by the GOP’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater, who was no stranger to racist dog whistles when whipping up his supporters. Back then, Robinson wrote:
“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP. It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind—the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy… I know it is true because I have felt it and experienced it as I lived through the unbelievable hours of the National GOP Convention. If I could couch in one single sentence the way I felt, watching this controlled steam-roller operation roll into high gear, I would put it this way, I would say that I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
It’s nothing all that surprising if you’re aware of the way white America has Disney-fied and whitewashed Robinson’s political history. After all, decades before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, it was Robinson, a World War II veteran, who wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
There’s been a lot of gaslighting going on in America over the last four years; people insisting we didn’t see what we saw, that we’re not hearing what we’re hearing. The same President who denigrated the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol of hate and called NFL players who kneel “sons of bitches” is a great champion of the Black community and all that.
If you’re voting today, head into that booth knowing what you’re voting for and what you’re voting against. And don’t let anyone tell you that what you are seeing from the GOP is anything other than a naked font of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, intended to sow discord and division. In essence, to run the idea of a multicultural America off the road.
After all, Jackie Robinson saw it a long time ago.