“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
In an act of defiant self-righteousness or supreme confidence, I slept in my Obama t-shirt last night. This t-shirt has followed me around the world for the past eight years, from Chicago to Melbourne and now to Berlin. I wore this same shirt on election night in 2008 in Grant Park where, after a day of door knocking and chewing my nails, I saw him give his nomination acceptance speech and change the course of history as the nation’s first black president.
I still have pictures from that night.
I’ll admit it. I was one of those people who genuinely believed that electing him would change everything, even though logically, I knew that was impossible.
I voted for Obama in 2008, despite the fact that I also had the option of Hillary Clinton. In my mind, the choice wasn’t even close. This year, I voted for Clinton because I was a 17 year old high school senior in Florida during the 2000 election, too young to vote for Al Gore. But I would have. I lived through the Bush years, and unlike a lot of other people, I haven’t forgotten what that felt like.
In 2003, I studied abroad in Spain where I was routinely refused service, pranked, vandalized and discriminated against. A lot of it was because I’m black. A lot of it was because I’m American. I live in Berlin now. And my stomach is turning over the possibility of what we could wake up to tomorrow morning – how life could be different. We talk about progress in terms of process, because humanity is a slow continuum of thought and consciousness that is meant to evolve collectively. But when it comes to stunting progress and devolving into primates who throw our poo at each other, it only takes a moment…or in this case, a day.
I wasn’t going to share this story, because I don’t want people’s comments or pity or self-righteous indignation all over my fucking Facebook wall today. I didn’t tell my friends in Oz or my parents because it would worry them to bits, but it’s important.
On Saturday, I was riding the S-Bahn from the gym between Frankfurter Allee and Hermannstraße. At Ostkreuz station, a large man sat down opposite of me. He was maybe 6’4″ or 6’5″ with light blonde hair and blue eyes. He wore a dark long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans, and his physical presence was very imposing, not just for me, but for the two people sitting next to us. The man shoved on another smaller, and visibly younger gentleman next to him, eyeing him down until he looked away.
Then he stared at me. I didn’t really know what to do, so I stared back. It’s not really in my nature to do that. I some times have trouble looking people in the eye, but it seemed important to maintain eye contact even though I was crawling out of my skin with discomfort. So we kept staring at each other, and then he made the subtlest movement. He slowly rolled up his sleeves part way, and that’s when I saw the lightening bolt tattoos on his hands.
For those of you who don’t know, lightening bolts mean “Schnutzstaffel,” or what we call “SS” and they’re common markers for people of the neo-nazi faction. Or, as a friend pointed out to me, since I’m in Germany…he was an actual nazi. Scratch the “neo” part.
The guy sitting next to him shook his head angrily and caught my peripheral eye, giving me the subltest look of encouragement and abject warning that read something like: DO…NOT…MOVE.
So, I didn’t. What could I do anyway? Moving seats seemed cowardly. Speaking up would’ve been idiotic. I grew up around very big men. There was absolutely no way that would’ve been a fair fight. Not even in my active wear.
He got off at Neukölln, and that was when I allowed myself to ask the question that had been strangling my brain during the whole train ride: All those empty seats on the train, and you sit across from me??
This is something I have tried explaining to my white friends over and over again, but their discomfort over coming face-to-face with the kind of racism they’re only used to consuming in a Hollywood blockbuster prevents them from hearing me out almost every single time. He saw me. He singled me out. He made an overt effort to make me feel physically uncomfortable in that space, and establish his dominance. For ten or so minutes, I was staring into the eyes of someone who hated me for no reason other than the colour of my skin. Can you imagine what he really wanted to do to me? Can you imagine what he’s probably done to other people who look just like me?
Has that ever happened to you? Do you know what that feels like? Don’t tell me “it’s over now.” Don’t tell me “at least he didn’t do anything [this time.]” Don’t tell me “it could’ve been worse.” Don’t use language that silences me from speaking up about how terrifying and hurtful that was to me, and how terrifying and hurtful it should be for you too. Maybe you can walk away from this story and feel good about yourself for having listened to it, but I have to live with the reality that any day, it could repeat itself.
Later that night, I went to a party hosted by my Black in Berlin friends and told them what happened. I needed to be in a safe place. They expressed equal amounts of shock and…well, not shock. What surprised me was how someone could make such a bold statement, but get off at Neukölln, a stop that lies in the heart of the kiez of the same name, where Berlin’s entire middle-eastern population lives. But then I remember that the cities in America with the biggest neo-nazi presences are the cities with the most racial and ethnic diversity – namely, Miami and South LA. They like to go where the action is…because they’re ASSHOLES.
Someone at the party mentioned that there had been a rightwing protest in the city that evening. Either he was on his way there, or on his way from.
These protests have been happening a lot since the September elections, where the AFD party [Alternativ für Deutschland] brutalized Angela Merkel’s party in the regional elections. Like most nationalist movements, they’ve disguised their rhetoric of hatred and bigotry with the narrative of “reclaiming” their country. And like many Western democracies are seeing right now, it’s working.
This is the power of elected officials. When we give political power to a party that advocates hate and bigotry, it legitimizes the hate and bigotry of the people who vote for them. They feel emboldened to step out into the world and proclaim their views openly, without fear of repercussion or shame. They brazenly incite fear, violence and aggression, because they feel represented at most senior levels of office, and they are.
So if you’re someone who is telling others that federal elections matter less than local ones, you’re an idiot. They all matter.
This is what will happen if Trump is elected as president. Except it’ll be worse because, unlike Germany, America has an arsenal of free-range guns and stopped investing in education years ago.
Even if Trump isn’t elected, and I hope to God he isn’t, his supporters aren’t going anywhere. They’re only getting started.
I won’t tell you who to vote for, because at this point in the election, I’m not arrogant enough to actually think I could change your mind. I voted for Clinton, and not third party, because my abstract principles aren’t more important than the lives that stand to suffer if Trump were to win the presidency. I voted for her because I honestly didn’t see a better option. I voted for her, because even though I don’t live in America anymore, many people I love do. I voted for her, because we stand a better chance of fighting for a new political system under her, one with serious third party candidates [not Gary Johnson] who are allowed to participate in the debates, than we do under Trump.
But if you haven’t, then you have to live with the possibility that you might have helped elect someone, even if only indirectly, who will tap dance on the soul of the country we love.
And if you think we won’t feel the impact of your decision here in Germany, a country that once voted for the guy with the loud voice, who hates minorities, threatens to imprison opponents, tramples on democracy and claims that he alone can fix everything… you’re wrong.