First, I want to say thanks to ‘Brookings Lib’ Jeff for what he does all the time here at On The Fence Voters, and definitely for what he did in his recent essay! (Well done Jeff!! I’m sorry it took me so long to mention it.) I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to comment on Jeff’s piece for a week now, but have been dealing with almost zero connectivity in a remote campsite where I spent some time on vacation last week.
Jeff’s recent essay was entitled “A Dose of Needed Optimism” and I’m happy he found my participation at recent rallies and marches to be the source of that optimism! After he posted his work, I had additional thoughts about those rallies and marches, as well as about our current political situation. Now that I’m back home, I wanted to share those thoughts here as a blog post rather than just a comment.
To start, I really don’t feel optimistic. Or for that matter, pessimistic. Every single day, though, I do run the gamut between being terrified and discouraged, and if I had to bet money, I’d say that any citizen who cares about our democracy is also terrified and discouraged. I’m a realist and generally run right down the center of most things in my viewpoints. In our politics, I see reasons to be hopeful but I also see plenty of reasons to be fearful. None of that makes my life any easier. As I mentioned, I just returned from our annual camping trip, where for nearly a week, my wife and I treated ourselves to crackling bonfires, great things to eat, a huge lake to paddle our canoe around in, and fireflies rising upward as evenings settled down upon us. It was among the most relaxing scenes imaginable. And yet compared to camping trips in previous years, I could barely relax at all knowing our democracy is still under threat. So many of our campfire conversations this year turned to Roe v. Wade, mass shootings, or the January 6th attack on our Capitol. The election of Trump in 2016 has taken its toll on many people in America. We genuinely hate each other now because of it. Although I still love my country, I no longer see our flag in the way I once did, which is terrible. I never thought I’d feel that way in my life.
Within days of the leaked Roe v. Wade draft opinion from the Supreme Court, there were rallies and marches nationwide and my city of Cleveland was no exception. There have been several in my town with more planned. I heard about the first one after it was already over with and I cursed myself for missing it, wrongly thinking there would be no more. There was a second one only a few days later and without hesitation, I grabbed my cameras and jumped into my car on the morning of the rally. I had no idea what I was going to do or what to expect. I felt restless though. I felt I had to do something. Something different than anything I’d ever done before.
In a moment of reflection with my foot on the brake, just before I backed my car out of our driveway, I realized why I was driving to Cleveland by myself with my cameras. I wanted to be fully immersed in this cause. I wanted to be in the streets with the Roe v. Wade protesters as a show of solidarity with them, and that was not something I could accomplish while sitting in my chair at home. Off I went. And a few weeks later, Jeff wrote a great piece about how I felt it changed me, and how he felt it could change you.
After going to a couple more rallies that followed the first one, I realized how important these marches and rallies actually are to a healthy democracy. From my own experience, I can tell you that I took energy from the crowd when I needed it most. I took what I needed because they put it out there for the taking, and once empowered, I gave it back to those who let me use it. We were all one people, black people and white people, women and men, all united in a street in our city. Yes, we all still had hurdles in our paths, but together we felt re-energized to meet them.
This is not a pep talk. This is how I really feel.
Going to the rally had nothing to do with trying to feel good about myself for going, but it had everything to do with feeling great when I got home again. I went to bed knowing I was battle-ready for at least another day. I needed what the rally had to give me. I began my day feeling disgusted and depressed. I ended my day feeling ready to fight, knowing our battle hasn’t been lost and that none of us at the rally would ever lay down and die. From my first experience in the streets, and then from my second and my third, how I view my role in politics has changed.
Many people like me who know what’s at stake in our country are wondering what they can do to be more politically engaged for these critical elections that are just ahead in our future. The reality is that it’s difficult to find traditional ways to volunteer to ensure our democracy functions as it should. Not every location needs more poll watchers or people to make cold calls on telephones or even stuff envelopes for the local Democrat Party as my late mother used to do. Sometimes we find that those kinds of positions have long been filled and sometimes it does seems as if we’re right back at Square One. But don’t be deterred, because you are not out of luck. My suggestion would be to, at a minimum, attend these rallies and marches and be one with the participants and our causes. To do so is an essential act of becoming more politically engaged!
It’s impossible to know how a rally feels unless you’re right there in the middle of the crowd and are part of it. Start with one rally or march, then go to another, then another after that. Keep going to any rally you can attend, and keep going for as long as they’re being held. Search online to find them in other cities, then jump in your car and go. Change the way you do things and allow fresh motivation to find you. I guarantee it will. Those who are motivated enough to go to rallies and carry signs will certainly be motivated enough to vote on election day, which is the BEST way to be politically engaged. Invite your friends and coworkers to join you, and encourage them to bring others as well. Voting is what we MUST do in America. Change won’t happen for us any other way. Strong voter turnout is what we need now more than ever before.
I’ve hit some roadblocks, but I’ve still not exhausted my ideas for how to contribute to our cause. Some of my ideas are a little far-fetched while some are more plausible, but I write them all down because I never know where they may lead or what better ideas they may generate. Even if I do eventually run out of ideas, I’ll still be making paths through the crowds, hunting for those faces which can tell stories to my cameras. I’ve rejoined Facebook (a platform I despise) simply to keep tabs on other local Democrats involved in Cleveland area politics. I scan those online pages every day, simply to keep tabs on what’s happening or if any kinds of opportunities are presenting themselves. I’m more ‘in tune’ than I was even three weeks ago. I can now say that I’m more politically engaged and it drives my will even more. I hope other Democrats in our country have experienced similar revelations.
As an example of how new ideas can come out of nowhere, my photography has turned into a kind of strategy I hope will work for me. I want people to get used to seeing me at these protests with my two big cameras strapped to my neck and shoulder because there are corporate folks who keep track of what’s going on in town. Some have community newspapers, both in print and online. Others have a huge social media presence across multiple platforms. I’m making myself available for anyone who might come up to me and say, “Hey, we could use a photographer like you on our team to cover these events!” That may never happen, but I’m putting myself out there anyway in case it ever does. It’s a basic plan I’ve come up with to further my political involvement, and three weeks ago, I had no plan at all. The way I see it, I can never tell who I’m going to meet next, and I can never tell when a gift may drop right into my lap. That’s true for anyone who puts themselves in such a position to become involved.
I think we all must make a difference in our upcoming elections, and I think the difference must be in our attitudes. There’s an old saying in photography: “If you shoot the way you’ve always shot, you’ll only get what you’ve always got.” Our attitudes for the 2022 midterms and the 2024 general election must be different, or we’ll only get what we’ve always got. Our attitudes can be made more effective at the grassiest of the grass-roots level… protest marches and rallies!
Never underestimate or dismiss the value of a march or a rally. They’re designed to get people out of their comfy chairs and out in the streets where their attitudes will raise the right eyebrows. Marches have historical precedents that no rogue courts will ever overturn. Marches and protests have stopped wars and have given civil rights and equality to black people and women in America. There’s no question that more work needs to be done there, but if they take away our outcry, we may never get our chance to make things right again.
This is our time in history to restore a right we once had but still require, and it’s our time in history to ensure that other rights we have will never disappear.
We all must understand that it’s different this time around. We won’t be able to win these next elections from our armchairs. We need to be up and out there if we possibly can. I promise that you’ll make a difference if you add your voices to those already in the streets. Go to a rally or a march. Bring friends and coworkers. Tell everyone you know and show them how through your actions. Our outcry may soon be all we have left and it’s high time we learn how to use it effectively. More people will be motivated to vote if you inspire them in the streets and convince them to join you there.
That’s what rallies and marches are all about. Plain and simple. We need to think differently this time around. We haven’t lost yet, but we’re in for the fight of our lives, and we’d better understand that.