One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

04 July 2017

These Boots are Made for Washington - Part 5

At last…hello, Mr Lincoln.

My dear friend Paula was kind enough to pick me up after I arrived in DC. First, I wanted to see the Jefferson memorial as inspiration for a previous post (Part 2), afterward we wandered through the Museum of the American Indian until it closed and then made our way toward the Lincoln Memorial.

Hilariously, we could not get there. Paula’s GPS sent us past it and over the river to Arlington and another try sent us past it again. We could not find parking, not even a sign for parking reasonably close. I pulled up the directions on my iPhone…and no better luck. We crossed the river at least 8 times and still were no closer to Lincoln. We were chatting, laughing and I’d wave at Mr Lincoln every time we passed. I kept saying “maybe there’s a reason…”

Eventually we found parking near the Martin Luther King Memorial, another of my favorite Americans. We could see Lincoln from there, not a far walk…but something in me said “no, not now”. So we visited Dr King and then went to dinner. I’d try again to see Lincoln before I headed home.

Lincoln’s statue is sculpted from Georgia marble and his likeness is, appropriately, larger than life (by three times). He gazes out across the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument…but when you stand there, it feels as if he is looking right into your eyes, into your soul. His gaze seems at once benevolent and challenging.

“It is the quality of revolutions not to go by old lines or old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones.” Abraham Lincoln

Mr Lincoln was far from perfect (and a bit of a tyrant, in some ways), but he believed that the country belonged to the people. It is fitting that this spectacular memorial to one of our greatest Presidents has also been the site of many demonstrations and protests. Probably the most notable was in 1963, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans and their allies gathered peacefully in support of civil rights. On the stairs below Mr Lincoln, Dr Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech…his voice booming out over a crowd that stretched from Lincoln to the Washington Monument.

The morning after our failed attempt to visit Mr Lincoln, Paula sent me a news article. Apparently, when we were trying to find Lincoln, he had already been found by the infamous Richard Spencer and a group of alt-right, white nationalist, right-wing activists. Around 300 of Spencer's followers demonstrated without incident earlier in the day, but it would have dampened my spirits to run into any stragglers. In my opinion, they are almost the polar opposite of men like Dr King and Mr Lincoln.

Here’s the thing, though: while I do not agree with Spencer’s views on ANY level, I support their right to PEACEFULLY demonstrate…even on those iconic steps under the kind gaze of Mr Lincoln. I may be grateful that I didn’t see that group of angry white guys, but they have as much right to be there as Dr King did and as I do. I am horrified by what they say, but I believe in their constitutional right to say it as long as it does not turn to violence. If I don’t want to hear it, all I have to do is walk away.

My last day in DC, on the way to see Mr Lincoln, I came across a demonstration in the park in front of the Capitol. Intrigued, I watched as speakers rallied the sign-waving crowd. People in business attire passed through, some pausing to watch. A dread-locked man on a bike with loudspeakers attached to the handlebars held his own one-man commentary/protest. Foreign visitors mixed among the Americans. Women dressed as handmaids prepared to circle the Capitol. Tourists with children stood beside and among the protest crowd, all gathering in a line to view the arrival of the Vice President. Members of the press stood alongside individuals armed with smaller cameras from all over the country (and world), everyone pointing lenses in different directions. People explained to their children or one another what they thought was going on. Senators were coming and going and the Vice President was about to arrive. At the top of the Capitol stairs, snipers stepped into place (to protect the VP, I assume). Capitol police, some more patient than others, kept the protesters, tourists and playing children in line. As lawmakers came and went, then again when and the Vice President’s limo appeared, protesters chanted or yelled “shame!” and “shame on you!”. This peaceful mix of tourists, foreigners, business people, demonstrators, homeless, press, lawmakers, children, police and world leaders is something you would never see in many countries.

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Thomas Jefferson

When I came home from DC, one of the first things that popped up on my FB feed was the NRA video that appears to incite violence against protesters, demonstrators and liberals. This faction of the far right seems to have forgotten that we are a nation that rose out of revolution. Many of our patriotic heroes were, in fact, protesters (Tea Party, anyone?). Throughout our history, protests and demonstrations, some peaceful and some not, have called attention to problems and sparked changes that we often take for granted today.

From little girls who fought for the right to play “boy” sports to massive civil rights marches, Americans have a proud history of speaking out against opinions and laws that exclude or hurt members of our society. Demonstrating for change or protesting injustice does NOT mean you are against your Country.

“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it…” Abraham Lincoln

The First Amendment to our Constitution promises that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In apparent defiance of those words, the NRA’s video seems to be suggesting gun-owners take aim at demonstrators, meanwhile the current President has attacked the press and incited violence toward his detractors…even posting videos of himself beating up a “member of the press”. When a Republican congressional candidate in Montana body-slammed a reporter into the ground, some of his party members cheered and then they sent him to Congress instead of jail.

We all need to take a deep breath and really consider what it means when our leaders target and undermine the First Amendment. When our rights to peacefully assemble, to a free press, and to freedom of speech are endangered, the whole thing starts to crumble.

“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” Abraham Lincoln
When I have written about standing against the cruel GOP healthcare plan, most of you have been supportive (for which I am grateful). I have also been criticized, though (that was particularly evident when I looked at some of the comments on Senator Tester’s posted video of our chat). People I considered friends have attacked me for being a “worthless liberal” or “pushing my Democratic agenda”.

The truth of the matter is, I am neither Democrat nor Republican…I am a lifelong Independent, and a moderate one at that. My political decisions are not made by party line, but via critical thinking and a little soul searching. Sometimes I swing left, on occasion I lean right but the vast majority of the time, I am somewhere in the middle. I am a defender of private property and a champion of public lands. I am a gun owner that believes in the 2nd Amendment…but I would register a BB gun if I thought it would save the life of ONE child. I respect ethical hunters and prefer game to grocery…but rail against poaching and the cruelty of trapping. I am an ardent supporter of the free press…but don’t believe everything I read (check those facts, baby). You get the idea. I am willing to pay taxes for things that don’t always benefit me, because I believe we are part of a society and it isn’t all about me. I love my country with a passion…but also believe in my right to protest...in OUR right to protest.

Dissent does not hurt this country as much as complacency and apathy. Too many “reality” shows and “memes” have muddied the water. A large number of people no longer see clearly and, sadly, aren’t willing to look behind the curtain to discern fact from fiction for themselves. Sadder still, people try to dismiss or forget the history we need to remember. We are most at risk when we abandon critical thinking to blindly follow a leader or a party. The worst kind of politicians know this and take advantage by discrediting the press that seeks to call them out, playing on our exhausted disillusionment, and hyping the divide between us to promote violence against one another.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Abraham Lincoln

Among my friends are Republicans and Democrats, right-wingers and lefties, straight and gay, rich and poor, myriad races and a plethora of religious affiliations (or lack thereof). No one is “wrong” or “bad” simply for having a different opinion, party, leaning, belief system, sexual orientation, skin color or bank balance. The magnificent diversity of this country is our greatest asset…and, different as we may seem, we all want essentially the same things. Rather than building walls to defend and isolate our differences, we should be having heart to heart, face to face conversations. Perhaps we could find our common ground and then work together to create something better for all of us.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Abraham Lincoln

After I left Mr Lincoln, I caught a cab back to the hotel. My driver was an African American gentleman who had been piloting DC cabs for over a decade and we had a great conversation. When I said I came to DC to talk to my senators about healthcare, he asked “are you an activist?” That word has such a negative connotation that I automatically laughed a little and said “no, just an artist from Montana”. As we approached Arlington, he said “nothing wrong with being an activist”. He was right. I looked out at the rows of white memorials for people who died for those rights outlined in our Constitution and solemnly replied “I guess I am an activist”.

The Constitution of this great country promises that every one of us should have the equal right to participate, vote, speak out and stand up for what we believe in. The most empowering aspect of my trip to DC was the visceral reminder that we can be, and SHOULD be, an active (or activist) part of OUR government.

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” Abraham Lincoln

Happy Birthday, America.