The First Fourth of July

The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.

So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.

It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.

What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.

As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.

For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.

The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.

What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.

Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?

Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.

Safety Bubbles

My husband and I were on a Zoom visit with our children last night. Our kids are spread across the United States. Our daughter lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and their son. Our older son, who is the middle child, and his wife live in Los Angeles. Our youngest and his wife and their two sons live in Orlando. We live in a rural area in the north Florida panhandle. Our home is in a sparsely populated area on a beautiful piece of land, nine acres in size. In other words, we, unlike our children and grandsons, do not live on top of our neighbors.  We haven’t had to isolate as much as our kids, but I realized last night that we are significantly more isolated than they, during this time that I early on termed “the current unpleasantness.”

Our kids were discussing how, now that the pandemic is past the two-month mark of social distancing, they are beginning to expand their small family-unit groupings into wider “bubbles” of trusted friends who have also been isolating and whom they consider “safe” to associate with. The Californians’ expanded circle is not haphazardly arranged. Their bubble has specific quarantine rules that all members must observe to belong to the group.  Our household has not expanded beyond ourselves and our two dogs. The majority of people with whom we socialize are among the CDC-identified vulnerable population and are uncomfortable spending time with those with whom they don’t reside.

It was interesting to listen to the kids talk about how so many features of life that we all took for granted when they were growing up are now unknowns, things like summer vacations, playing with friends, outdoor get-togethers, eating out, and going back to school in the fall.  At least now they feel freer to associate with a wider, though tiny and carefully controlled, community.  I was happy for them and proud of their ability to calmly navigate their separate ways through this unprecedented time.

Also happening out there, in the wider country, are protests—peaceful expressions of frustration which too often transition into violent expositions of rage— along with out-and-out riots more bent upon destruction than facilitating change.  These actions are occurring because, once again, a white police officer killed a black man during an arrest.  This particular incident took place in Minneapolis.  Yet again, race is dividing the United States.  I don’t know all the facts in this case, but I am certain that the facts don’t matter as much to the protesters and rioters as the truth that this type of situation has occurred too often.  Tragedies such as this are less about race than about power and control.  They are about having and not having.  They are about fear of others and fear of outsiders—suspicion and the lack of trust between varied groups of people.

Police, in theory at least, are supposed to protect the interests of the innocent. Their very presence is designed to deter crime and injustice.  But in poor communities, law enforcement has become the “predator” class. This perception automatically groups others as “prey.” It’s not a good dynamic for fostering trust and/or cooperation.  I suspect this fact has exacerbated the present situation: that the very community most hurt by the viral pandemic is the same one protesting ruthless treatment at the hands of police.

All of us have become too pent-up inside. We don’t have our usual outlets of sports and our myriad outside activities. Our kids cannot go to school. Most of us can’t even gather to worship. We are told to stay home, and I believe too many people are tired of being restricted. I suspect that the numbers of those who are simply sick of what they cannot do vastly outnumber the ones who have contracted the novel corona virus.

People are more isolated from one another, suspicious of one another everywhere. The mask-wearers of the pandemic consider those who don’t cover their faces to be selfish, inconsiderate, and dangerous. People outside of our self-imposed bubbles of protection are unsafe and untrusted. People who still have employment during this time of social and economic shutdown are divided from those whose jobs have been furloughed.  I suspect that too many of those waiting for their salaries to reappear will discover that they don’t, and they will become victims of yet another financial downturn.

Too many of these people will join the ranks of the invisible masses whom the employed don’t know how to help and will eventually fail to notice over time. Like the homeless, the undocumented, the ones who slip between the ever widening cracks of society, they will become more and more those whose situation is so difficult a problem to solve that society forgets about them, not out of lack of compassion but out of the guilt of helplessness. The invisible won’t be fortunate enough to find refuge inside the safe bubbles that shelter our loved ones.  I fear that fear will eventually pit the prey against the prey in an ill-fated attempt to protect themselves against a predator who seems impenetrable.

All this is challenging my hope. It’s running up against my desire to believe that we are all beloved children of the same God who breathed life into being. It’s Pentecost today.  Our priest reminded me this morning that God sent all of us an Advocate, in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost marks the epoch when our risen Lord appeared to a gathering of his apostles and disciples and imbued them with the Holy Spirit by breathing on them.

How are communities going to allow themselves to feel protected when they fear those sent to keep them from harm?  How are we to believe that we are all in this together when we are expected to isolate ourselves from everyone else?  How are we supposed to be advocates for each other when we live in terror that someone whom we are afraid to trust might breathe on us?  And how can we expect people to trust an authority who repressed the desperate pleas of one who whispered, “I can’t breathe”?

Linda Tysall Ricke
31 May 2020

Guest contributor Linda Tysall Ricke holds a Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction
and writes about faith and politics from her home in rural Florida.

Image © 2020 American Inquiry.

May Day Meditations

Chicago's May Day Parade along Jackson Boulevard (Credit: Susan Barsy)
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade.  It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally.  No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.

Chicago police watching the 2012 May Day parade (Credit: Susan Barsy)It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was.  It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need.  It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.

Bystanders watching the Chicago May Day parade at Dearborn & Jackson (Credit: Susan Barsy)Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began.  International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day.  Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.

May Day protesters in front of the Dearborn Street Post Office, Chicago (Credit: Susan Barsy)The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable.  Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week.  Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today.  One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.

Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.

Children wearing sashes in Hebrew and English bearing the words "Abolish Child Slavery"These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909.  Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.

African American protester in 1909 wearing a hat card with the words "Bread of Revolution"This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.”  Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over.  A labor movement like that today would still have much to do.  Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.

Photograph of female garment workers in NYC parade, 1919 (Courteay Library of Congress)
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919.  You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.

Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.

There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.

Additional information regarding Library of Congress images:
here and here and here