Most of us did not escape that moment on the playground when the bully came over and demanded our candy. What could we do? The bruising boy and the mean girl used fear and intimidation to get their way. If that didn’t work, there were other methods. Sometimes the bully had powerful friends and came on gangster-style. Other times the mean girl shoved and hit us and left us flailing in the dirt. However it happened, it left wounds.
As a native North Carolinian, I felt some memory of those early wounds creeping into my body as I watched the election returns come in. After an ugly, protracted fight sucking up more money than any senate race in the country, Republican Thom Tillis, the speaker of the rabid North Carolina House of Representatives, beat incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan by a slim margin. He will now take his bare-knuckles brand of politics to Washington.
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A consummate bully, Tillis is the kind of man who allegedly shot paintballs at his neighbor’s barn. He bullies teachers, accusing them of choosing their profession in order to get rich, despite the fact that NC ranks close to the bottom of the country in teacher pay. He bullies people struggling to get by, backing a mean-spirited proposal to force those on public assistance to submit to drug testing. “What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance,” he once told a crowd at a NC college. He bullies women who try to terminate their pregnancies safely and has promoted measures to force them to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds. He bullies African Americans, suggesting that public assistance is “de facto reparations” for slavery. He bullies people away from the polls, trying to ensure that they have no redress for their grievances. Schoolchildren, immigrants, gay people, sick people, and the elderly have all been victims of his relentless aggression. Tillis is a bully, and he knows how to get his way.
He was just one of a whole gang of bullies who won yesterday. In Rhode Island, Democrat Gina Raimondo, who has manipulated pensions in order to funnel money away from working people to her hedge-fund friends, won the governorship. In New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who stooped to creating a fake women’s party in order to siphon support from the Working Families Party, keeps his place in the governor’s mansion. In Michigan, Republican governor Rick Snyder, the bully-extraordinaire who has devoted himself to union-crushing, was re-elected. And Scott Walker in Wisconsin. And so on, across the country.
Bullies on the playground are bad enough, spreading fear and a painful sense of helplessness. When we’re kids, we’re taught to follow the golden rule, to set clear boundaries with the bully, to be confident, and to find the right adult to confront our oppressor. But what do we do about grownup bullies who have the power to take away our jobs, our healthcare, and our most fundamental rights? What happens when no one will stand up to them?
When bullies like Thom Tillis grow up, they use the vast resources of their rich bully friends to amplify their fear-mongering and send it reverberating daily into every corner of our lives. When the dust settles, you can bet that the Big Oil Koch brothers will be found to have channeled rivers of their ill-gotten gains into buying the senate seat for Tillis. Tillis says the Kochs are “like family.” A family of thugs who stick together.
When we feel traumatized by bullies, we have a natural instinct to retreat, to isolate ourselves, to numb our emotions, to pretend that nothing happened, to lash out. But there are other paths our trauma can take.
In a message to the weary voters in North Carolina, the Reverend William Barber, who launched the Moral Monday movement to challenge the bully brigade, reminds us that for grownups, the only way to deal with bullies is to stick together and commit ourselves to unrelenting tenacity:
“Let me remind our friends and those would try to push us backward: the Moral Movement does not live and die by elections. It is unfortunate that we, as a state, have promoted an employee who has repeatedly failed his constituents by undermining public education, healthcare, labor rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the environment. But our movement does not hinge — and never has hinged — on one election, one candidate, or one party. We will continue the struggle, in the courts, in the streets, in the legislature, and in building new friendships and alliances. We will continue to teach and build new coalitions of the excluded and oppressed. There is much needless suffering that can be addressed, if we all work together.”
As an African American minister, Barber carries forward the legacy of sticking together and tenacity in the face of some of the ugliest oppression in our country’s history, that force of virulent aggression that enslaved millions of people and denied them the ability to live their lives in peace long after they were ostensibly set free. The bullies burned and maimed and killed to get their way. There were no lengths to which they would not go, no ugliness they would not embrace.
A cultural trauma we feel together can create a new and binding sense of our responsibility to each other. Through their experience of oppression, African Americans were able to forge a strong collective identity and a powerful sense of community. There are lessons to be learned there as we struggle with our anger and our fear.
Since the financial crisis, in particular, I do believe that there is an emerging sense of collective oppression happening the U.S. and indeed around the world. People who are not wealthy, whether they be poor or just getting by or middle class, recognize that they have something in common. The 99 percent slogan, which has penetrated our consciousness, speaks to this emerging sense of shared identity.
The powerful react to this development and the force that potentially comes with it by terrorizing and dividing us. But every time we go to the polls, every time we attend a community gathering, every time we organize, and every time we just talk to each other about what we are experiencing and learning, we offer an affront to that strategy.
My mother, a retired educator, is 82 years old. She was arrested in one of the Moral Monday protests, and worked at the polls on Tuesday in Raleigh, NC. When I spoke to her this morning, I thought I would hear depression, but instead, I heard tenacity in her voice, as well as a feeling of shared responsibility. “If I were 20 years younger,” she said passionately, “I would be joining Reverend Barber’s every march going forward.”
While upset by the election results, she was cheered by the strong voter turnout in the state and some of the local victories that have turned stone-age conservatives out of positions of power, like what happened on Tuesday to the Wake County Board of Commissioners — a body that wields tremendous power through its control of spending of the Wake County Public School System. Conservatives on the board have committed themselves to crippling public education and to resegregating one of the most progressive school systems in the South. The GOP recently ran an attack ad warning that a Democratic majority on the board would “rubber stamp Rev. Barber’s Moral Monday demands all over our county.”
On Tuesday, in a stunning sweep, four incumbent conservatives were turned out of office. They lost their majority and a more progressive group of Democrats now have control. How did it happen? As the News and Observer put it, “the opposition woke up and found good candidates.”
That seems a small victory, but not to the more than 155,000 students in the Wake County school system. For the rest of us —and, frankly, for them, too — the future promises a great deal of bullying, pushing and shoving. Can we keep on, bruised and bloodied? We must.