a more perfect union

This is America. The land of the free and the home of the brave, a nation in which we are all created equal.

And yet, not everyone (I think of my son Calvin) is born healthy. Not everyone is born into a hopeful situation. Not everyone is born affording protections for their health and well-being. Not everyone is born into a community with good schools. Not everyone is born into wealth. Not everyone is born in a city with safe drinking water. Not everyone is born above the floodplain.

This is America. A nation of immigrants. A land having been taken from its natives. A nation, in large part, built on the backs of slaves. And yet, apparent to its founders America, this grand design of liberty and justice for all, would continue to be a work in progress, an ongoing effort to form a more perfect union than it was when they penned the Constitution.

This past week I've been watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about the Vietnam War. It is brutal in its revelations. Some of the images have caused me to cover my eyes. Others, like when our troops advised the waterboarding of an elderly rice farmer, made my skin hot and prickly, seeing the man's elbows cinched tightly with twine, his bare feet kicking to break free from his oppressor's restraint while another slopped water across the gauze covering his face and mouth. I winced watching a throng of police with batons beating antiwar demonstrators, and a mob of National Guardsmen shooting into a crowd of students protesting the long and senseless war, killing four. In all, nearly sixty-thousand American men, mostly working-class Whites and minorities, many of them teenagers, were killed during the war along with two-million Vietnamese troops and innocent civilians.

I consider those valiant young protesters taking to the streets when, at the time in the late sixties, most of the nation still supported the war. Those pro-war Americans, who embraced the flabby platitude, "love it or leave it," didn't know Nixon was lying about the war's progress. Even congress was unaware he had attacked a site in Cambodia, hadn't known the treasonous lengths Nixon had taken by colluding with the South Vietnamese government to get elected.

The protesters were on the right side of history, attempting to right the grievous wrongs with the hope of making our nation better for everyone.

So, too, were the Suffragettes, the Labor Movement protesters, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, the Greensboro lunch-counter protesters, the Selma to Montgomery marchers, the Women's Liberation activists, Colin Kaepernick—and the disabled people in wheelchairs protesting the congressional GOP's most recent attempt at dismantling the ACA which would have endangered people like my son Calvin who suffer preexisting conditions.

Just after last year's presidential election, I had a dispute with someone over the Trump protesters. He had condemned the masses denouncing the shameful president-elect who had campaigned against Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants, who had maligned Blacks, disparaged and insulted women, and mocked the disabled. This person showed little interest in understanding the protesters' perspective. Instead, he spoke over me. Refusing to be intimidated into silence, I met his escalation until we were shouting over each other.

Months passed until we spoke again when I offered him an olive branch. Recently, he told me he had stopped watching football because of the "whiny athletes," who I assumed to be the players protesting racial injustices. I chose not to engage having previously witnessed on several occasions his limited capacity to listen, to be open to different perspectives, his feet cemented.

Then it occurred to me that maybe my opinions are cemented too. So I probed further, questioning my understanding of justice—the lack of which appears to spawn most protests—remembering a friend who had insisted that justice is a matter of opinion. But is it?

Last week, a friend on Facebook expressed her disdain for the Kaepernick effect, and what she saw as a disproportionate amount of media attention spent on the athletes' "disrespectful" protests rather than to the tragedy in Puerto Rico or the nuclear crisis with North Korea. My initial reaction was to concede that there might indeed be an imbalance.

But then I got to thinking about protest, remembering what I'd learned about the ones mounted against the Vietnam War. Nixon and his cronies, champions of the racist war on drugs, to gain political leverage, had been masterful at pitting mainstream Americans against righteous antiwar protesters. He and his veep had characterized the demonstrators—so many of them young and Black and Brown and poor, including dissenting veterans who had fought and returned home—as somehow unpatriotic. I'd seen similarities between Nixon and Trump. But in that moment, I also saw clear parallels between Trump's lax and meager response to the post-hurricane suffering in Puerto Rico and his contemptuous tweet storm chastising athletes who are exercising the very freedom our troops ostensibly fight for. Each of these responses reveals an apathy and contempt for Black and Brown lives, which is exactly what Colin Kaepernick and others who have joined him are protesting, not the flag or Anthem. They are seeking the same protections any of us would fight for; they are protesting the miserable treatment, abuse and killing of Black people in this nation. Their—our—protest is virtuous, meant to better this place we call home.

And, as I'm wont to do, my thoughts circle back to Calvin who, despite the fact that he was born with legions of disadvantages, soldiers on even in the face of continuing hardship and adversity. I sometimes think that his very public presence in a sometimes insular world, one which greatly misunderstands and often neglects people like him, is a march against the exclusion and abuse of other marginalized populations. A true American, my son, through and through. The best in every sense of the word, helping to make this place, this mixed-up nation, a more perfect union for every one of us to behold.

Photo by Mary Scarpone

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