Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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Hymn to Harm City

By Lawrence Jackson

Around the time that Ronald Reagan was elected president, my dad lost his job as the branch director of a manpower center in Baltimore. Reagan ended urban public-employment programs, accelerated mass incarceration, prompted massive disinvestment in black and Latino regions of the country, renewed the government’s friendly relations with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and covertly sponsored wars in Central America. His domestic war — the war on drugs — produced a new and magnificently exculpatory idea for the rest of the nation: “black-on-black violence.” I was in eighth grade then, and I remember finding it odd that my public school was now considering ketchup a nutrient-rich vegetable. (The actual color of the ketchup also changed, from bright red to a kind of maroon, and the packages went from foil to plastic.)

Reagan came to office on the promise of returning America to the era of Generals Patton and MacArthur, which is to say around 1944, the year World War II turned in favor of the Allies. That alliance — or at least its North Atlantic members — is what people mean when they say “the West”: the United States, the U.K., and France. The most arrogant inhabitants of these nations (sadly, often those who were leading) understood themselves to be the ordained directors of human beings across the globe, across space and time. They were committed to civilization by the sword. Yet not even Reagan was mighty enough to reinstall the American militants who ached to battle the Russians and the Chinese.

Reagan took to politics for what he couldn’t achieve in his original profession, acting. He stood in the shadow of John Wayne, a cultural hero who embodied American ethical values and social mores and whose work in front of the camera had deep political impact. In 1972, in an interview with Life magazine, Wayne declared that the problem wasn’t that the Vietnam War was folly, it was that the values of white rule weren’t being exported vigorously enough. Wayne’s films gave audiences a steady dose of what the historian Richard Slotkin calls “regeneration through violence.” Both civilization and capitalist bonanza depend on violent encounters and imperial expansion. If the country is to be healthy, it needs some frontier populated by some brand of enemy.

Donald Trump ably splits the difference between the Duke and the Gipper. He admires the strongman and instinctively maneuvers the world of the camera and the tweet. In a way that makes genuine elites cringe, Trump is known for his garish splendor, which acknowledges no possibility of excess — no volume too high, no light too bright, no gilding ever enough.

Trump’s politics first became plain in 1973, when the Department of Justice sued him and his father for systematically preventing black people from renting units in their buildings. In 1989, shortly after a jogger in Manhattan’s Central Park was reported to have been raped by black and Latino teenagers, Trump bought a full-page advertisement calling for the return of the death penalty. The convicted rapists were later proved to have been bullied by the police into giving false confessions; perhaps they were also victims of salivating advertisements. Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for extraordinary state force and his suggestion that the nation’s legal structure needs vigorous goading to carry out deadly business is what endears him to some and makes him so terrifying to others.

It’s worth remembering now, as we face down the next four years, that in the 1980s, the national government’s failures with respect to employment, AIDS, public education, drug rehabilitation, and racial justice were balanced by a groundswell of countervailing activity. Not least among that activity was the cultural movement that came to be called Afrocentrism. Afrocentrists organized protests in response to the deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs, a New Yorker who was wrongfully killed by police, and Yusef Hawkins, who was killed by a mob in Bensonhurst. They created Ph.D. programs in African-American studies, excavated thematic and sonic resources to create the golden age of hip-hop, proposed the dynastic names that people gave their children, resurrected Malcolm X, and brought Kwanzaa cards to CVS. At the movement’s forefront were unheralded scholars like John Henrik Clarke, but the milieu also fostered the success of better-known black academics like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and filmmakers like Spike Lee. Afrocentric bonhomie served up leather craftwork medallions as an answer to jewelry made from South African–mined gold and laid terra firma between professional community organizers like Barack Obama and the people in hard places like Chicago’s South Side that those organizers sought to mobilize.

The robust opposition to Reagan’s dawn had nineteenth-century precedent in Baltimore, where I still live, a town that Trump likes to insert as a refrain in his litany of municipal heretics that he intends to convert to the true religion by way of the Third Army or the Seventh Fleet. In Baltimore’s history we can actually glimpse a more wonderful future. Recall our homeboy Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a dreamer and a brooder and, for the most part, had a hard time connecting with other black people. But in Baltimore he learned the skills he needed to escape slavery. The ideals of collective mobilization that thrived during Douglass’s tenure in Charm City, in institutions such as the Sharp Street United Methodist Church, where there was an antebellum school, and the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which gave him an early opportunity for debate, have rooted here with some force. Almost two hundred years later, the same soil is nourishing a legislative-reform group called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Founded by a group of inner-city debaters who wanted to work inside poor black communities, L.B.S. figured out the kinds of policing reforms that were desired, built the coalitions necessary to create legislation, and started backing the progressive politicians willing to charge ahead. After the death of Freddie Gray, they took the lead in organizing marches and protests at City Hall.

A new generation of Baltimore intellectuals, activist writers, and college professors draws its members from Morgan State University’s public-health department and the Africana Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. New coalitions, including Equity Matters, a nonprofit that emphasizes the relationship between poverty and poor health, and the Right to Housing Alliance have spoken out against a corporate, profit-driven, implicitly racist program to redesign the southern part of the city’s waterfront as a hygienic white space. The Liberation Institute, a debate camp named after Eddie Conway (a Black Panther who was incarcerated for more than forty years), emphasizes black cultural identity and social justice, and helps to rear articulate leaders who won’t knuckle under. Out for Justice, an organization of ex-offenders, counsels parolees on the expungement of their records and how to invest as citizens in the communities that need them. Even the federal government plays a part, with the youth-mentorship program My Brother’s Keeper. And then there are the black businesses on 25th Street and the bookstore at Everyone’s Place.

All this is to say that when Trump’s legions rise from their podiums in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and wave banners emblazoned with welfare queens, we will meet them in the field. Our response will be direct and sufficient. And we will win.

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