On a hot summer Saturday morning, my husband and I took an opportunity to spend some time together. We had a list of errands and planned a late breakfast out as a reward for completing them. We took my car, the one with the biggest trunk, and set out with me at the wheel.
As I started a lane change in preparation for a left turn at an intersection near my home, a car pulled up next to me on the left, blocking the path to the turn lane. "Just someone in a hurry," I thought. I looked to my left to see what the driver was going to do, and I saw the passenger side window rolling down and a smiling man with his hands on the steering wheel. Thinking that he probably needed directions, I rolled down my window and called to him. "Do you need help?"
"How's that hope and change workin' for ya?" There was anger and disdain in his voice that I didn't understand.
Then I remembered the sticker on the back of my car proclaiming my support of Barack Obama in 2008. In an attempt to avoid getting trapped into the man's anger, I smiled, "Just fine, thank you."
The man's friendly face disappeared, replaced by a red face contorted in fury that was screaming at me. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but the anger in his words slapped me, and I turned to face forward wishing that my automatic window would close faster. I heard him yell, "Marxist! Socialist!". And I heard my husband bellow "bullshit!" into my right ear. I was stuck at a red light unable to escape, feeling like a child between two parents having a nasty fight. My hands were shaking. I was terrified by the intensity of the anger surrounding me."
After what seemed like a very long time, my window sealed closed and the man gunned his engine and sped away. As I pulled through the intersection, tears were running down my cheeks. I felt as if I had been assaulted. I was frightened and angry. What right did that man have to attack us? What made him feel like it was OK for him to do that?
All the years we had lived in this Ohio suburb, I had kept my mouth closed, no matter what the provocation. At first I did it to protect my children. I had a friend whose daughter made the mistake of saying in her second grade class that she didn't believe in God. Her classmates, who I suppose were believers, responded with taunts and graphic descriptions of the Hell to which she was destined. The bullying continued for the rest of the school year, and during the summer, my friend and her family sold their house and moved out of state.
During the years that my children were growing up, I reserved my public political activity to places outside my community. I marched for peace and choice and gay rights in Cincinnati. I went to Washington to protest the wars. I worked for Democratic candidates in urban neighborhoods. I went to house parties, made phone calls and wrote notes and postcards to potential voters. I stood on city street corners and freeway overpasses with signs while passersby honked in support or flipped me off. I risked two local TV interviews.
I did canvass my own neighborhood for school levies that were defeated and for progressive School Board candidates during a time when religious fundamentalists were trying to gain control. I spoke out in support of sex education in a Board meeting when religious right citizens were trying to get it removed from the curriculum. I did not like what I found out about my neighbors during these interactions. They were more hard-edged than I had expected them to be, more hostile, more unwilling to pay taxes to support the schools their children were attending, and they were more dogmatic and more proudly ignorant about school funding issues than I had hoped.
I didn't like this negative, miserly underbelly of our quiet suburban neighborhood that I had discovered, but I realized that by going door-to-door talking with people, I had turned over the rock of civility under which it had been hidden. I made the decision to stop messing with rocks.
During the months leading up to the 2008 election, there was a shift in the feeling of our community. People who had been silent for years began to offer small clues to their inner thoughts. A conversation with a checkout clerk at Kroger that began hesitantly with hint responding to hint led to my introduction to a group of store employees who supported Obama. My next-door neighbor whispered to me that she was a Democrat. The conservative election signs in front of their house over the years had been her husband's. The pharmacy tech I had befriended could hardly contain her excitement. We were discovering that we had had a community of like-minded people all along. We just didn't know it.
I worked hard for Mr. Obama's election, giving up whole months of my time. But I protected my heart. The night before the election, campaign work finished, I sat around with a group of exhausted volunteers. They were sure Obama would win. I said, "Never underestimate the power of American racism." I was not going to let myself hope. But on election night at a local bar with those same workers and our families my heart exploded with happiness and hope. As the results came in, we were cheering and literally jumping up and down holding one anothers' hands. I hugged an African-American friend as he sobbed and said "I never thought this would happen in my lifetime." But it did! Like Michelle Obama, I was proud of my country that night (for the first time).
What followed, of course, was not so happy. Mr. Obama, although brilliant, well-educated, and, I think, well-intended, was not prepared for Republicans who vowed to dedicate the following four years to making him a one-term president. He couldn't stand up to the military commanders who told him he would endanger our nation if he kept his campaign promises of ending the Iraq war and closing Guantanamo. And I don't think he expected the stirring of racial fear and the sense of victimization that led to the formation of the Tea Party.
While it looked like a grassroots movement springing up all over the nation, the Tea Party was financed by the Koch brothers and orchestrated by right-wing operatives. Its effect was to make socially acceptable the open expression of hatred for the "other", those people who weren't really Americans, like Muslims, leftists, the working poor, union members, non-churchgoers, and lazy, conniving people who wanted to live off the largess of public assistance. Rumors of a fake birth certificate and hidden Muslim affiliation put Mr. Obama squarely in the box of the "other". His supporters were viewed as "fellow travelers" who wanted to destroy America.
Tea Party hats and T-shirts and buttons and signs were everywhere in my community. Kroger became the site of Tea Partiers greeting one another and proclaiming their opinions. Even in a less public place I had to observe the ascendance of the Tea Party. My dentist , giddy with excitement, talked with her hygienist about the Tea Party meeting they were planning to attend, while I sat imprisoned in the chair with my mouth open. There was and continues to be a lack of concern for the feelings of others, an aggressiveness about the Tea Party that frightens me.
As is my habit when I'm feeling uncomfortable in my surroundings, I resorted to fantasizing about our little house in Oregon that we plan to live in when we retire. The excitement of hip, eco-conscious Portland, the power and timelessness of the ocean, and the quiet beauty of the mountains. I am longing for them as I write.
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