It’s dying to get better
Our movie opens with a Ken Burn pan across grainy black and white photo.
It’s a group of white police men tear gassing protesters.
The police aren’t in riot gear and the protesters are all black.
And they aren’t protesting.
The image shifts and the colors come to the forefront.
It’s not a grainy black and white from our past.
It’s a color picture of who we are now.
It’s from Sunday as black citizens marched to the polls to cast their vote and were tear gassed while pausing to mark the day with some speeches and moments of silence in a park where they had permits to gather.
We had an extra hour on Sunday. Imagine if that hour of unnecessary confrontation hadn’t happened.
Sunday where the clocks weren’t turned back that hour that people complain about each year - but Sunday where the clocks were turned back decades to a time where citizens had to literally fight for the right to vote.
8 becomes 7
We call them the Chicago 7 and yet they were originally the Chicago 8.
Bobby Seale was eventually tried on his own.
But before he was, the judge had him bound and gagged and strapped to a chair for demanding his constitutional rights. He had no lawyer and wanted to represent himself and the judge insisted Seale did have a lawyer and could only speak through him.
I heard an interview this morning with Aaron Sorkin on Fresh Air about his new movie “Chicago 7” and neither he nor his interviewer knew of this incident before they did the research for the movie. In fact, Sorkin had never heard of the Chicago 7.
We had a record at our college radio station that was a dramatization of the trial - it was so fantastical and yet much of it was taken from court records. Abbie Hoffman spoke at Brandeis before turning himself in after hiding from the law for decades.
If you haven’t heard of the trial, you’ve at least heard the song? Right? CSN? It begins with Bobby Seale.
“So your brother’s bound and gagged
And they’ve chained him to a chair”
Perhaps you thought it was just a metaphor.
It kind of was.
It kind of is.
The defendants in the Chicago 7 trial were charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot.
They disagreed on what they wanted their legacy to be.
In a way the argument was the same then as it is now.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin are now played by Bernie Sanders and AOC. They want big systemic change.
Some of the issues are the same. Civil rights. Racial injustice. Economic inequities. Corporate power. The environment.
And on the other side was Tom Hayden. Perhaps this is Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. He knew how important it was for a democrat to be elected - even Hubert Humphrey.
The argument is the same today.
I see it in the responses to my texts. People who aren’t excited about voting for Joe because their most important issue is (fill in the blank) and Joe is not progressive enough on this issue.
Hoffman and Rubin would attack Hayden saying that for him the most important thing was getting elected.
Hayden would reply, if getting elected isn’t first on your list it doesn’t matter what’s second. It’s not going to get done.
And so our movie starts with the voters being tear gassed 52 years after Bobby Seale is bound and gagged.
I pick up a deck of cards and deal them out one at a time into a pile. One card for each year.
When I’ve finished I pick up that pile and start dealing them out again. Are we really back where we started?
“In a land that’s known as freedom how can such a thing be fair
Won’t you please come to chicago for the help that we can bring”
I watched Jordan Klepper of the daily show at a Trump rally asking the people there why they felt so strongly about voting for Trump.
Several replied that they couldn’t support Biden because of something to do with his son Hunter getting an unfair advantage because he was Biden’s son.
Klepper asked, “what about Ivanka?”
“Oh, she’s great,” one woman said. None of them understood his point that if that’s the sort of thing that really bothers you when it comes to Biden then it should really bother you when it comes to Trump’s kids as well.
That’s never been a winning argument for democrats and I don’t know why.
The “family values” party was incensed by Clinton’s infidelity and yet was fine with Newt Gingrich cheating on his wife while she was dying of cancer. They were fine with republican speaker of the house Denny Hastert who admitted to molesting 14 year old boys while coaching them. They are fine with the current president being caught on tape explaining what he does, being accused by 26 women of sexual assault, and paying off a porn star for his affairs while married to his third wife.
Yet if you ask them, they will tell you they are the party of family values.
The same is true of compassion, law and order, and democracy.
Democracy itself is in the balance in this election.
Looking back on now
Sorkin is asked about creating a movie reflecting on politics after we’ve all absorbed the Trump era.
He says that the hardest part is the character of Donald Trump.
Trump will seldom be a central character. He will tend to be offstage.
Otherwise you end up doing something like Alex Baldwin’s take on Trump.
Trump can’t be the central character, Sorkin says, because Trump “is an implausible character.”
“You can write about heroes, villains or anti-heroes, […] but there’s no such thing as an interesting character who doesn’t have a conscience.”
And so we vote.
We text, we call, we donate, we march, but most of all we vote.
Sorkin says a movie has to end on a hopeful note.
CSN sings, “We can change the world. Rearrange the world.”
I pick up the deck of cards and cut it in half.
I take the top half and cut that in half. That top half of a half represents the years between the Chicago 7 and my college graduation. My formative years.
The other half of the top half - those are my years teaching high school, working in radio, starting to write for a living, and going to graduate school. I voted every time I could. I gave money here and there. But I didn’t notice the world as much as I should have. I was focused on many things that were important at the time but I’m not sure they are things that are important over time.
I take the bottom half and deal four cards off the bottom. The rest of them are the years of my marriage. The time where I became the man I am today.
One election Kim manned the phones. Black voters near us were being targeted and told that because the lines were so long today, you can vote tomorrow. “No,” Kim would urge, “this isn’t true. They’re trying to keep you from voting.”
It’s subtler than tear gas but just as effective.
I look at the remaining four cards in my hand.
I don’t even want to know what they are.
They represent these four years of the Trump presidency.
The awfulness of these four years is muddied for me because they are the same four years since Kim was killed.
I’m sure you’re tired of hearing from me about politics and death.
I gather the cards again in a pile with the four awful cards on top.
Today this country will decide if we deal again from this same deck or if we break open a new deck.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 32. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe