I get a huge dose of harassment and hatred on social media—relentless trolling and lots of invented narratives about me, including, famously, that I’m President Obama’s ghost writer and terrorist consigliere, but I also get real-life death threats sent, or on occasion hand-delivered, to my home mailbox—and that’s always alarming.
Sometimes I feel like the Billy Goat Gruff on the bridge, the troll below preparing to gobble me up.
But who are these trolls?
I imagine a couple of lonely guys with several email accounts living in their mom’s basement, fueling up on Scotch or speed and bad coffee, watching Fox News at full volume, raging with—but never against—the machine.
I’m not a special victim here, and on occasion the surreal becomes weirdly amusing.
Last summer, for example, a package arrived filled with right-wing kitsch. It was like a large SWAG bag from a secret alt-right convention featuring Steve Bannon.
Two items stood out—one, a T-shirt with a picture of Welch’s grape juice on the right side, and on the left, my FBI wanted poster from 50 years ago. Under the grape juice it said, “Good Free Radical,” while under my youthful countenance? You guessed it—“Bad Free Radical!”
The other fun item was a brightly printed bumper sticker that read: “Bill Ayers and his wife should be in prison!” When I showed the bumper sticker to Bernardine, my partner of almost 50 years, she responded indignantly: “His wife? I have a name!”
Not a word of objection about the prison part!
Bernardine, now called BB by one and all because the grandkids found it easier to pronounce, couldn’t be here tonight—she’s teaching in Amsterdam, and I’m holding down the fort single-handedly: the every Saturday night sleep-overs with the grandchildren, for example, and feeding the jungle of house plants all by myself—the grandkids are thriving as always, and they’ll be fine. The greenery…not so much.
Like most of you we were unprepared for the violent volcano that blew up last November, spewing deadly clouds of ash and fiery rivers of lava in all directions.
Donald Trump had run a dangerous campaign to be sure—the bigotry and intolerance; the disdain for reason and the arts; the demonization of whole communities; and the dark promise to transform active citizens into passive corporate consumers. This was Trumpism.
Candidate Trump had concocted convenient sacrificial scapegoats for every problem, and managed to cook up a toxic stew of bigotry and white supremacy—elements always lurking in our American soil—into a revitalized force with its own unique optics: the white robes and swastikas were suspended, the orange pompadour beneath the red baseball cap was in vogue.
For months leading up to the election I’d said that Trump would easily be crushed—I’m about as prescient as Carnac the Magnificent—but that Trumpism was a hazard that would endure.
Election night was a rough awakening.
If you were surprised by the outcome you have plenty of company, but if you’re still surprised—even if you held on to your sense of wretched betrayal and bewilderment for more than a day or two—you need to get out more.
We hosted a brunch for our neighbors—BB had leafleted our block, inviting people we rarely speak to beyond “good morning,” and whose dogs are more familiar to us than they are, suggesting we gather and name this unique political moment together. Twenty-three people showed up, more hungry for conversation and a hug than for bagels. We shared information, sites of resistance, and what we were each up to at our jobs or schools or places of worship. We wondered what it might mean to think of our street as a sanctuary, and we agreed to stay in touch. One neighbor wanted to investigate collectively installing solar panels, and, why not? Every idea was welcome.
Months before the election BB and I had planned to go to Washington to participate in the traditional Peace Ball held every Inaugural weekend. We’d lay down our small antiwar markers, and everyone would stand in their predicted places: I intended to vote for Hillary, and she’d be in the White House; and there we’d be in the streets with our peace banners unfurled.
It sounds so quaint now. But, God, how I wish.
We drove to DC more freaked out and more on fire than we could’ve imagined just two months earlier, and with a deeper and more urgent charge: with Trumpism about to be installed officially in the West Wing, we’d link arms against Trump’s fascist campaign and the prospect of that power consolidated. Trump’s rise was testing us—indeed, the nation itself was being tested. And at every rest stop along the way, the swelling numbers of pink hats and fists in the air cheered us up, step by wobbly step.
Busboys and Poets, the marvelous Washington restaurants open to all kinds of progressive gatherings year round, was the unofficial headquarters of the resistance. We headed to the 14th and V location on our first morning in town—I ordered Vegan Scramble, and BB, the Oaxaca Omelette. We’ve had this neat division for years—I don’t eat any dairy or meat (well, the occasional cheeseburger), and she (from Wisconsin) eats only dairy, with unpredictable bursts of bacon. Kind of like Jack Sprat and his wife—oh, shit, like BB she surely has her own name.
After breakfast we climbed to the second floor, a buzzing beehive of activist activity. Code Pink had set up tables, some with sign-making materials, others heaped with pink pussy hats knitted by armies of volunteers. After picking out two for ourselves, and four really unique hats to take to our grand-kids, we joined the poster makers: Fight Like a Girl! we wrote. Black Lives Matter!
People streamed in and out, colleagues and former students, comrades from past campaigns, and an eye-opener every few minutes: here was a cousin and her college-aged daughter, thrilled to be at the first demonstration ever for either of them; and here was BB’s young human rights colleague who’d just been through a shitty divorce with—surprise!—her wonderful new lover, Joan.
The Peace Ball, part rally, part party, took place at the African American Museum of History and Culture, now known far and wide as the Blacksonian—a dazzling site of conscience. It was packed with a bright rainbow of Freedom Fighters, young and old. Solange rocked the house, and we boogied for peace with thousands, including our Chicago friends Lana and her wife Karen. This was not the first test—not yet. Let’s call the Peace Ball our practice test.
Next day BB and I were on our way to the Inauguration when we were accidentally swept into a swarm of Black Block anarchists, bandanas covering their anonymous faces, tearing through downtown smashing bank windows—I was so tempted, but they were way too fast for us, thank goodness, and we were left in the dust.
But we did make it to the Inauguration itself—two actual bodies among the million and a half folks Trump imagined as he looked down at the sparsely populated great lawn. We live on the South Side, and as you can imagine, our Congressman had a surplus of tickets—few of his constituents could stomach this shit—so we scored a fistful and handed most of them over to our sisters in Code Pink. We heard the Prince of Darkness, live and in color, speak of American Carnage from the Death Star, and it was chilling.
But BB’d smuggled a banner past security—SAY NO TO RACISM and ISLAMOPHOBIA!—and she held it high for almost 3 hours, engaging high school students, tourists, and, of course, the Trumpsters themselves. A lot of people recognized us because we’re featured monsters at Fox and on the alt-right web sites—and a surprising number wanted selfies.
One woman, cozying up to BB, said happily, “My friends back home in Dallas won’t believe I got this close to a communist.” BB assured her that there were way more communists and anarchists in Texas than she imagined, and added, “But I’ll bet you and I agree about a lot of things.” Like what? “Well, like if a child’s hungry or sick, we ought to feed and care for that kid.” Of course, said the Trumpster, but keep the government out of it. They talked on—back and forth—for another 15 minutes.
Staking out a public space to engage and talk to strangers was lovely and instructive, but this was not the first test either. Not yet. Let’s call this one the pretest.
The first test came the next day, January 21st—the historic, mind-blowing, necessary and heartening Women’s March.
The crowds were building with every step we took as we made our way toward Busboys, signs and chants filling the air— “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention,” read one, and right below, “If you’re only pissed off we won’t make the revolution we deserve.”
A determined love army was on the rise.
A contingent calling itself “Dykes to Watch Out For” held aloft a banner that read: “If my uterus shot bullets it would have more protection than it does now,” and right beside them a group wearing hijabs carried this radiant message: “Two-thirds of Trump’s wives were immigrants, proving once more that immigrants do the work most Americans won’t.”
And then this chant from a contingent of preschool teachers carrying a likeness of Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham: “Don’t put your hand up my skirt, don’t put your hand down my shirt, don’t put your hand near my rump—I do not like you Donald Trump!”
We felt right at home—the teeming streets of the America we always want to be a part of.
We’ve been activists and organizers for half a century—knocked on doors, marched, sat-in, gone to jail, organized an underground and a campaign of sabotage against war. But we’d never seen anything like this spontaneous and wild momentum of resistance.
This was the first test of the Trump regime—the first test—and we passed with flying colors.
More tests followed—the airport protests and the Town Halls—and there’ll be many more tests to come. Not just the next demonstration, but principles and prospects, values and ongoing organizing.
All of us imagine what we’d have done long ago when history was being made: we’d have built the Underground Railroad, saved Ann Frank, stood strong on the Selma bridge.
Well—now’s our chance to do something.
We headed home, and when we got back to Chicago, the house plants were on life support.
BB spent the afternoon in triage and rescue.