A couple of weeks ago, Facebook started reminding me of some acutely painful memories from “1 Year Ago Today.” Whether it’s one year or three years or six, it feels to me like this function must be controlled by the pettiest, most passive-aggressive, fake-ass friend there ever was.
“Hey Grace, remember when you were in Portugal, and skinnier? So great to remember, riiiiiight?”
Facebook was smugly reminding me that, one year ago, Philadelphia hosted the Democratic National Conventionand I was posting every glorious moment of my time there.
The experience was like a nerdy fever dream. As a volunteer on the Visibility Team, I had access to almost every bit of it the convention. Our job was to organize the many, many signs that would be displayed every day and distribute them in coordination so there could be dramatic “reveals” at key moments of speeches.
The nights rolled on, and the huge team of volunteers started to bond. Delegates seated at the end of the rows started perking up when we would appear with black bags full of signs. Everyone wanted a piece of history, and we were the dispensary. I’ve always been a stage crew kid, and this was the ultimate crew.
I stood in the back of the Alabama delegation as four women rose, held each other, and swayed for every second the Mothers of the Movement were on stage. I stood, mouth agape at the profoundly simple and powerful words spoken by Mr. and Mrs. Khan as a photograph of their son shone over their shoulders, mesmerized when he took his Constitution out of this pocket and held it in outstretched, trembling hands.
I watched John Lewis shake with excitement at casting Georgia’s votes for Hillary Clinton. I spied tiny Dolores Huerta at the back of the California delegation and thought about how much these titans have seen — Lewis, walking over blood-stained bridges, once as a young man holding onto his dignity with one hand and his shattered skull in the other, and then again as a civil rights lion, holding hands with the first black president of the United States; Huerta, leaving the fields to testify to marching out of Cesar Chavez’s tent during his hunger strike and addressing thousands.
I stood there, feeling blessed and humble, in the presence of so many who have given so much, feeling lucky to be alive at the same time as these people, to share the same nation as them, the same moment, the same room.
The night President Obama spoke, we passed out “Thank You” signs — my favorite of all our signs. I have one hanging in my window at home to remind me to be grateful for greatness.
Like every moment from then until Nov. 9, I was certain Hillary Clinton was about to be my president. Hubris abounded, and I felt like I was cruising into a victory. I was operating like someone who hadn’t been disappointed much, because I hadn’t.
But when her opponent bragged that he could grope me if he wanted to, the election became very, very private. I feel strongly about being in control of my body, and when I heard him say those words, something clicked inside me. I felt my pupils dilate and heard a dull screeching in my head that has yet to quiet. I loved my girl to the moon and back, but I hated him more, and my hate made me blind.
Nov. 9 was a blur, truly. My brain turned in on itself. “This nation just told this man that he can molest me. I am not safe here.” These were the only sentiments ringing in my mind.
I packed a small bag and grabbed the tiny Hillary statue I got as a gift a few years back, and used the last of my miles to buy a plane ticket to a far bluer coast. On my way out of town, I watched as my favorite secret Facebook group started organizing itself into regions, and people started connecting online, pulling themselves from out under the covers.
A few hours before my flight, someone posted a picture of some Nazi graffiti on a building near my house. I wrote in the comments: “I’ll be there in 10 minutes with cleaning supplies if anyone wants to help.” When I arrived with a few friends and strangers, the Streets Department had just washed the window. People were shaking and speechless, completely unsure of what the election really said about how deep the hatred and division in the country goes. After exchanging information and cursing into a local reporter’s recording device, I ran to California.
On the last day of my cowardly escape, I opened my email to find that a few people who had seen me quoted in the paper had reached out. People were organizing meet-ups, and I figured I could help. I’m loud, and confident, and smart. More importantly, I knew a place we could meet. I left Hillary in California, where she was safer, and headed back into the winter.
Since then I have organized some important actions and some useless actions, met the most inspiring people, calmed and informed my students, tried to stage a revolution from a gelato shop, started a silly and deeply rewarding event at a local bar, saw friends turn into activists, and realized that not every activist should be your friend.
Everything I’ve learned since last year’s DNC has shown me that I was living in a dream world and it shouldn’t have taken a personally frightening national event to wake me up, but it has, and now I can’t go back to closing my eyes. I can’t be polite in front of bigots, or turn off the news that makes my temples pulse. The things that cause us to act can’t be just the infractions that reach out towards us alone. We, especially white people, need to look around us, listen, and really hear what has been going on for — well, forever. Empathy is highly thoughtful and deeply humble — and you get no congratulations for it.
Now when I think about myself last year, I see a well-meaning citizen with blinders on, laser focused on the finish line, as if one person’s election would have been the finish. I do believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, but at times that arc feels far too long without anyguarantees. I’m tired, I’m disgusted, and I’m broke, but I’m in good company. And there truly is no going back.
Grace Palladino is a Philadelphian, creator and host of Civics on Tap and member of NOW, Philly UP, PFT and Fair Districts PA.