On May 14 1970, I had just celebrated my seventh birthday. I was living at the time in a suburb of Chicago. In 1965, my parents had emigrated from England, my brother was born in 1966, and in 1970, my mother was pregnant again. The events that I'm about to speak of undoubtedly happened on May 15, but I've been snapped back to that time a conversation I had with Liza, about the radical impulse, the differences among so many bloggers—the division that has arisen among those of us who look at the upcoming election and want to cry over our "choices."
Some of us have been accused of being single-issue voters who are willing to see the Democrats lose in November because they are running so may anti-choice D's. In fact, we've been lectured by quite a few people about how if we elect these anti-choice Democrats, choice will still be preserved. It's a logic I can't follow; won't these folks wind up serving on committees where they're still going to be able to have a say on issues related to privacy? Or will they magically vote the way they are told to by the leadership? 'Coz you know, that's been working out so well these past two years.
Anyway. I want to talk about how I became a radical leftist, the moment at which I understood that my way of looking at the world was coming from some other place than "love of country" or "patriotism," the two things we start almost immediately to teach children in school. Kindergartners say the Pledge. But they don't often talk about issues of social justice.
In my family, we did. Nearly every single night.
1970 was the year of Kent State. But I don't remember Kent State. I don't have a single image in my head of it, other than the photos I saw much later, and the song by CSNY. It's not Kent State that changed my life. It's Jackson State. On May 14, two students were killed by police at Jackson State in Mississippi. And that I do remember. Because I remember specifically what I said to my father while we were watching the news about the killings: "Daddy. I don't ever want to move down south. All they do is kill people down there."
The possibility of moving down south was not out of the question. My father was a management consultant, and we moved from assignment to assignment, following him all over the country. I was to move 11 times in 10 years. By the time I was 7, we were on our third move, and recently, even though we were living in Chicago, he had started traveling to Texas to help out with a short-term project. That day, I was filled with terror to think that I could wind up down south.
By the time I was 7, I knew my father's stories about his personal heroes: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. My father told me stories about his father's witnessing of Gandhi's trip to Northern England, where Gandhi had asked the workers there to allow Indians to make their own cloth. My father had been inspired by King. Although my father was not a religious man, he carried a copy of the Beatitudes in his wallet. He told me that those words were the only words that someone needed to know about religion.
I don't know if the news showed footage of the dead students at Jackson State. I do know that, even now, I have a visceral reaction when I think about that day. I have images in my head of chaos and guns and black students running for their lives. I have an image in my head of my 7-year old self, trying to make sense of what had happened.
The Jackson State killings was the day I realized as a child that there were people in the world who would kill other people for the simple act of asking for what was theirs.
Certainly, the spark of my progressivism had been lit by my father, sitting at the kitchen table with me, telling me stories about people who wanted to change the world. But Jackson State was the day that I burst into flame as a leftist.
I'm not a liberal. I am a leftist and I am a pacifist, but I believe that there are things that are worth fighting for. That justice is worth fighting for. That the right to own our bodies and not be judged by our gender, sexuality, or ethnicity is worth fighting for.
The day that Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green died, was the day that my life changed. That was the day that I got it, that even as a 7-year old white girl, the killing of black students on a college campus was something that could happen to me. And it's for that reason that 35 years later, I will not keep my mouth shut, I will not back down, and I will proudly bear whatever epithets the wingnuts want to throw at me.
Because injustice is so clear that even a 7-year old can see it. And I may no longer look at the world through the eyes of a child, but the rage it engenders in me is that of my little self. And so for her, and for my children--and your children, too--I fight on.
It's one of the reasons that the Democrats are breaking my heart. Around us, our civil liberties are being destroyed, our cities are dying, we are fighting an illegal war, we are destroying the right to privacy, to the claiming of our own bodies. And what are we focused on right this moment? E-mails between a Congressperson and his page. Sleazy, yes. But not the abomination that is Iraq. Or the horror that is our treatment of Iraqi/Afghani/Pakistani prisoners. Or the terror that women feel when they realize they are pregnant and they have no where to go. And not the sadness that gay men and lesbians feel about their inability to secure basic civil rights in this country.
Politics is not a fucking game. It's not an academic problem that you get interested in because you read a little Machiavelli or Burke. Politics is life. There are people dying because of our politics.
And all over the world, children are getting radicalized by what is going on around them. Watching their homes being bulldozed, their families being murdered, their playmates being dragged off in the middle of the night, burying their dead, it's all become part of their politics. And those people who can't be bothered with politics, but love the sleaze of a good scandal—are fucking entertained and aroused by the content of pathetic e-mails are not the voters that the Democrats want at the polls. Those folks will turn on the Democrats in a heartbeat.
We want those voters who, having seen the carnage being committed in our name, want answers, want change, want justice. I'm embarrassed by the haymaking over the Foley affair. Yes. I recognize the hypocrisy, and I love the schadenfreude, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. What matters is justice. Goddamn it. I want the Democrats to stand for justice.
For more information on the Jackson State murders:?
Black Kent State
Black College Wire