“It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind… Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies. We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.” – Eugene Patterson, former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, on September 16, 1963 after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four children
November 2018, New York City, New York
What I love about this city is that everybody takes up space.
“What the f*&k, man.” The woman in the bike lane is screaming at the taxi driver who cut her off; the horns echo up the long streets; the man cusses at the teenager cutting in line, “Don’t you see the line!” Everyone has boundaries and enforces them, throwing hands up in the cross walk, screaming at the car nosing its way against the light. Every pedestrian gestures at the walk sign to remind each car that clips their sleeves, “There are rules here; follow them.”
Everyone here is pushing and crowded and exhausted and letting the world know where they are and why they’re in this space. And I’d like to believe that the same toughness that makes us fight each other for parking or for the small human-sized space left by the doors in a rush-hour train car also makes us fight for each other when it goes to shit. The brashness and defensiveness that divides us unites us. If anything, it makes a ballet dancer jump onto the subway tracks to save an unconscious man, makes a merry mariachi band play for hours outside the apartment building of an angry lawyer, makes a woman yell at a teenager in a crowded train car to give his seat to an old lady, makes us resent the traitors who threaten the sense of right we have for life here (why do these tourists think we’re angry? we’re screaming on Columbus avenue: don’t send your ICE agents here, don’t shoot our children, don’t leave your dog shit on the sidewalk), and it sounds stupid and small, but if we don’t fight for our space, no one else will, and the sidewalks will never be ours. Nothing here is for the faint of heart.
Yet, the brashness and defensiveness that unites us is not just ours. It belongs to whoever wants it, and it can be used against everything we take for granted (the bagels, the coffee, the taxi cabs). It can be used to beat in the heads of protesters uptown, to deface historical monuments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens with swastikas and n-words and “die Jews,” to beat down a man walking to synagogue, to force groups to cancel gatherings, to make us afraid of the darkness and each other. It all depends on who is fighting for the space. Will we give it to the men who call themselves “Proud Boys,” assaulting people outside political events in the Upper East Side? because they’re fighting for it, too. Dangerous people are not just fighting for space in Charlottesville and Pittsburg and Charleston and Cincinnati and Portland and everywhere else. It’s here, too, in our angry, dirty, New York strip of blue.
I’m starting to believe that everything boils down to space. Who has it, who feels they belong in it, and who wants more of it. The space I find myself in is a subjective feeling that there is no way to stop a man from grabbing me when Trump says, “Grab her.” I mean, I’ve felt unwanted hands before, and I will again, and that’s a space I live in. The space that many people live in is one where we wear our violations every day: black, woman, trans, native, all of us. So, the words of politicians (not just the bullets of hate mongers) that remind us of our vulnerability will always feel terrifying. “Our vulnerability” means immigration status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, debt, criminal backgrounds, religion, transphobia, racism, discrimination, and the list goes on. Yes. Yes, sometimes I physically feel the words, “Grab her by the pussy” because words can feel like traumas because our bodies wear memories. And this is one truth: if you have a trigger, or a fear, or a vulnerability, it’s not because you’re a snowflake but because you’ve been carrying the weight of a lifetime of just trying to keep yourself safe.
So, if a man on a stage with an audience of thousands says it’s ok to hurt you, or that your life means less, the coldness in your blood at those words is real. If someone else says, “You’re being too fragile,” just remember that you haven’t stopped being black or genderqueer or Muslim, not once this whole time, and that actually means you are the strongest person alive. You have borne the traumas over and over and over again and, yet, you still have not burned everything down, and you have not broken down. I know you’re the strongest person alive, and I don’t think you’re fragile if you’re afraid.
I don’t think it’s fragile, or weak, to feel what my friend felt when she locked her car doors in the rural Midwest and drove all the way across the state without stopping because she worried what could happen to her if she stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a body that was queer. She was afraid, so afraid of this world, and I’m afraid, too, that she and I will never feel safe. Sometimes the speeches sound like acceptance that what happens to me doesn’t matter (just hold me down and let me have it). Nor does it matter what happens to the black bodies, the trans bodies, the immigrant bodies. And here’s the thing about space: there are other bodies in this space that are afraid, too. Poor bodies, male bodies, white bodies. This is the point: There is no hierarchy of fear. My fears feel as real to me as yours do to you. With real hatred and real threats, everyone feels a growing malaise that we’re all under attack (the right and the left). No one feels safe, and the truth is that no one is safe in a world of hate. Today, more than ever, we live in a world of hate.
Yet, not everyone who is afraid hates. Sometimes fear just sounds like, “That’s mine, go away, stay away from me.” One report says that some Trump voters fear a loss of “culture” and what this means (besides just calling them “racist”) is that people have begun to feel so isolated, so disconnected, from the societal waves shifting, that they “often feel like a stranger” in their own country. Imagine feeling like a stranger all the time (I know many who do; does this sound like common ground?). Perhaps the societal changes that made this country feel foreign to a conservative in America are good, perhaps those changes make me feel safer, but I cannot deny that such changes both improve my life and make someone else feel afraid. Everyone is afraid of change. It doesn’t matter if that fear is subjective, unreliable. My fears are, too (both subjective and unreliable, based only on experiences had walking in this world). You know what other realities Trump voters feel? Fear of being unable to provide for their families, fear of job losses and economic instability, fear of being left behind in healthcare, fear of inability to achieve economic mobility, fears that their concerns are not reflected by politicians or dealt with effectively in Washington. I need space for every fear.
The space we need in our world is more than physical space, political space. I believe answers to some of the anger, hatred, and tension in the current political climate boils down to another kind of space: holding space. “Holding space” is a phrase that social workers like to use to mean the intentional creation of an open, unconditional place for connection where a listener lets go of judgment and control and creates an environment where the listener meets that person where he/she/they is.
People spoke for Trump, and politicians like him, for a reason, and there is nothing that will save us about claiming the validity of our own fears (they are valid, so valid) while denying any credibility to the ongoing realities of everyone else who is voting for a politician who stokes the fire of their fears. That’s important: the political environment today is not one of holding space, connection, but one of stoking fires. Fires of hatred, disconnection.
The common theme of politics today is one of playing on fears, not holding them. It happens on all sides: people play fears for political gain, fan ill-will and indignation, belabor petty slights, and sling mud across party lines (who are we as a country? will we always be this way? we may always have been). Our nation is still thriving on kettles of hate, keep aflame by pitting us against each other, through smear campaigns, and ugly slurs, and an inability to speak to people on the other side, to believe there is nothing good in anyone on the other side. How is anyone holding space for the “other” when we’re so busy condemning them without hearing them? There is a dearth of people who are seeking to hold space.
I’m talking politics with a friend, who is a social democrat, on Monday night about the “intellectual laziness” of the left. What “intellectual laziness” means is that it is too easy, too simple to believe that only one “side” can save us. Neither side has a monopoly on the answers. What “intellectual laziness” means is that there is a danger in rejecting conservatives, wholesale, as unable to find us, meet us, share space with us, build solutions with us. What has happened after Trump is an undeniable rift where the discussion has become a one where everyone feels unable to find space beside someone else. In the view of the left, every conservative supports border walls and a denial of human rights and destruction of the moral order. But I’m at brunch on Capitol Hill with a friend from Iowa who talks about the resettled refugee population there, how at least since the 1970’s, Iowan constituents have welcomed refugees and felt pride toward these efforts, so much so that even Republican politicians asked to resettle many Syrians fleeing conflict. What this story means is that we’re not always on different sides, and not everyone on the right will embrace the sounds of children weeping for their parents, locked in cages on the Southern border. Not everyone on the right supports the painting of swastikas in Brooklyn Heights.
Perhaps we should start to hold space for the truth that we all need space: the space to raise our families, the space to feel love and success, the space to build companies and careers, the space to improve our livelihoods, the space to lift ourselves from poverty, the space to find justice and fairness, the space to feel welcome, the space to teach our children good values, the space to feel safe, and the space to be treated equally and to be held in high regard no matter our religion, gender identity, skin color, cultural background, ethnicity, or affinities.
Thus, it is not just that the “left” needs to fight harder for its own space and, by this, I do mean more seats in Congress. It’s also more than that. It’s that people with strong, human values across the political spectrum need to speak to each other, to hold space for the country and its fears, and to find solutions that carry the weight of the people to safety. Democratic politicians need to; Republicans need to; Independents need to. That sounds ridiculous, even impossible, but we’re in a time too desperate to believe in only what’s possible. This November, all I want is people who care about creating safe spaces, helping us all belong and feel at home, not stoking hatred and pitting us against each other. Let’s demand that. Only then may we possibly find the ground, somewhere in this space, from which we might save this place we all call home.