Two years ago, after that harrowing day when a mob violently invaded the U.S Capitol, I wrote a letter to them. There was and still is so much that was wrong with that scene and what led up to it. And yet I identified with the rioters’ outrage that something was terribly unfair in our country. Like the insurrectionists, I too think the “system is rigged,” rigged against the well-being of the majority of citizens. This was my attempt to try to find some common ground, to have a civil conversation, and to not feed the unkind speech and vitriol coming from many angles. I sent it to two conservative friends to see how it landed. We had several cordial email cxchanges, but when I asked them how they would change things, that was apparently a bridge too far, because they stopped communicating. I did nothing with the letter then. However, I’m publishing this as a blog piece now because the issues still remain and the Congressional January 6th Committee investigation has finished its work and published its findings. You may not agree with my approach. It may even offend your own sense of things. I offer it as just one example of trying to have compassionate dialogue with people we disagree with, rather than continue assuming the worse of each other. In that same spirit, your comments are welcomed.
Dear fellow American, January 2021
After I watched you on TV as you stormed into our nation’s Capital, I wanted to write to you. In part, because I recognized myself in you. Your passion, energy, and determination, your anger, your feelings of grievance, your language and signs giving voice to your distrust and feeling betrayed. I too have felt all those things about my country.
So, I am writing to you to say, I hear you. I am a white man in my 70s, raised Catholic in a working-class family in a small military town. Growing up, my neighbors were car mechanics, street pavers, linoleum layers, shipyard workers. I was the first person in my family to go to college, which put me on a path to becoming middle class, and maybe someone you might consider to be a “liberal elite.” I voted for Obama and for Biden. I supported Bernie Sanders in the last two primaries. But I share some of the same feelings you have about our country.
I’ve been arrested many times for protesting what I thought was wrong. Like you, I have been angry. I’ve blocked traffic, surrounded buildings, shouted at police. I have hated the other side. I have been called a traitor and unpatriotic. I have felt the system is rigged. I feel some of the same pain that fueled your storming of the U.S. Capitol.
So, there is some common ground, I think, but also some differences. Maybe we can talk. I would like to listen as well as speak. I am writing this letter as an opening for conversation. Whatever our disagreements about what we believe, I believe that politics shouldn’t have to be lethal, especially in the United States. It breaks my heart that five precious human beings lost their lives, and that some of you may spend considerable time in jail for crimes committed on that day.
From what I understand so far, you decided to protest on January 6th, either going into the Capitol, or sympathizing with the protesters because you believe the election was stolen because President Trump and others you trust said repeatedly that it was stolen. In this we have different views. I do not believe it was stolen because people I trust— Democrat and Republican election officials and judges–agreed that it was a fair election, that there were seven million more votes for Biden than for Trump. That to me seems like way too big a number of votes to fake. However, I also realize that perhaps if Trump had won, I might think that the election was stolen and maybe I would have been in the streets protesting!
So, we have different views about the election results. And we have some strong feelings in common! I wish we could sit down in person to get to know each other. I’m curious to learn about where you’re coming from, what you think is going wrong with our country, and also what you love about it. Not to argue with you or try to change your mind. Just listen.
Since this is a letter, I can start by sharing with you a bit about me and invite you to write me back. I grew up near Seattle. I lived in a naval shipyard town and felt proud of and protected by our mighty military. I devoured heroic stories of our founding fathers. I loved this country, the beauty of the mountains and forests of my home state, and the founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Deep in my heart I believed in justice for all and that all people are created equal.
Then came the 1960s. I was 16-26 years old. I began to learn about another side of our history that I hadn’t been taught in school. I felt horrified when I learned about the killing of Indigenous peoples and the stealing of their land, making Africans into slaves, slaughtering millions of buffaloes, the warring against the Mexican people for their land, and the later destruction of other lands and peoples for oil, timber, and minerals that is part of United States history. Since I had believed in this country’s founding ideals and what I thought it stood for, I felt betrayed, and angry. Then, the Vietnam War came. My father was a WWII vet and supported the war. My younger brother was drafted and went to Vietnam. I thought the war was wrong and I was in the streets protesting. I felt I didn’t belong in my country anymore. Our family was divided— I felt I had lost both my beloved country and my beloved family. That was a hurting feeling.
So, this is a bit of my story. I’d like to hear a bit of yours. My guess is we may have some feelings in common, perhaps pain about our country, and our love for our country. You care deeply about this country—in fact, you care so much that you took the time and the trouble to come to Washington DC to be part of the protest at the Capitol on January 6th.
Though we have not met personally, I am making some guesses about you. Of course, I may be wrong, so please correct me. My guess is you are a hard-working person. From what I’ve read, maybe you are a nurse, a teacher, a firefighter, a real estate broker, a mom, a trucker, a farmer, a small business owner, a veteran. Maybe you work at more than one job, you try to help others, and if you are a parent, you love your kids as best you can, and want a good life for them. Me too. Maybe, like me, you are scared about the future. Perhaps the Covid virus has affected you and your family. This has been an awful time, with the pandemic, the loss of jobs, the tense elections, the racial turmoil that boiled over in the summer, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and changes in the climate causing so much damage. We’ve suffered so many losses this year.
I imagine ways our lives might be invisibly interconnected—maybe you have helped to grow the food I eat, or paved the highways I drive on, or taught my grandchildren, or treated my friends who had Covid. And again, I think about the feelings we most likely have in common. Maybe, like me, you get depressed sometimes, or angry, or frustrated and disappointed when this country, or life in general, doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped. Perhaps the promised American Dream seems to keep slipping farther away and there’s worry about money, work, health, debt, and an uncertain future. Maybe you feel abandoned or left behind and you look for someone to blame. And I’m guessing that you and I want basically the same things— to make a decent living, provide for our family, live in a safe neighborhood, not have to worry about our healthcare, belong to a caring community, have some say about things that affect our lives, enjoy a healthy, beautiful planet, and make a difference with our lives. None of us wants to suffer unnecessarily. All of us want to be happy.
Do I have this roughly right? Maybe there’s something here I’m missing, maybe about God? Religion? The fear of white majority culture slipping away? I’m trying to sense my way into connection with you, wanting to understand better the strength of your energy as you stormed the Capitol. I’m wanting to understand better why you are scared for our country, what is making you feel betrayed and angry.
There are good reasons to feel angry and discontented. The suffering is obvious. I too believe that at some level the system is rigged. And I see how for the majority of us middle class and working people our debt has ballooned, our jobs are less secure, our wages have been fairly stagnant for decades, our pensions have been gutted, our labor unions have been weakened, our health has declined, our kids, if they go to college, have been burdened with major debt. Whew! Maybe we or our family members or neighbors struggle with addiction, depression, sickness, isolation. For the younger ones, job prospects are likely dimmer than those of their parents, housing is insecure. This is not the American Dream that was held out to me growing up. So, I think you and I might share some frustration and anger about our country. Maybe we could dig a little deeper to find out why we have differences of opinion about the causes.
When I ask myself why so many people are angry, I remember that in the 2016 presidential primary, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were saying the system is rigged. They each won millions of votes. In fact, a sizable number of Bernie supporters voted for Trump in the end. Why? I think both Sanders and Trump spoke directly to our underlying discontent. Bernie pointed to the unfair economic system based on greed where the rules benefit the wealthy and work against middle class and working folks. Trump blamed the corrupt “swamp,” government regulations that keep businesses down, and unfair policies that favored immigrants and people of color over “hard working Americans.” He promised to fix it.
Trump had part of the picture and Bernie had part of the picture. I happen to believe that the rules of the system favor the few at the top at the expense of the rest of us, and that’s the basic unfairness that needs to be changed. I learned that only three families have more wealth than the bottom 50% of people in our country. Does that seem fair? Also, what about the enormous number of White people who are poor, which is not talked about much—that there are far more White people living in poverty than Black people, even though there is a much higher percentage of Black people in poverty? And this one gets to me–that one in four children— children— face hunger this year in this so-called land of plenty. To me, none of this seems right. But I’m thinking that you and I may have reached different conclusions about why we are in this situation, and that means we vote for different people, and see the “rigged” process through different lenses.
For example, I have been persuaded that the system is rigged to favor the wealthy, who then control the government, which then makes laws and regulations that benefit the wealthy and the companies they own. Then the people with money fool us into blaming other people for our problems— maybe the wealthy are secretly happy that we are fighting each other because it keeps us from uniting to make the system fair.
Maybe you think this unfair situation exists because you have been persuaded that immigrants are taking jobs, Black people and Latinos are given an unfair hand up or hand-out, and government is either corrupt and not looking out for ordinary people, or the government is taking away your freedom? If so, you and I have reached different conclusions about why we are in this mess, and that makes us think differently about who we want to be President.
Then, there is the question of racism. There’s a lot that I didn’t know!! We live in such a beautiful country, and there are so many interesting cultural groups from all over the world here. I feel so sad when I hear us shouting at one another, putting up walls, hardening our hearts, speaking unkindly, thinking we are better than others, assuming the worst of each other, and sometimes killing those we hate. To me it seems a waste of our precious energy.
Here is why I am writing this letter to you—I don’t believe you and I are enemies. There is no inherent conflict between us, except to the extent that misinformation and hurtful experiences get in the way of our naturally caring about one another. I believe people are basically good—I don’t know if you agree with me here—that each person is more loving, kind, caring, brave, generous, powerful, creative, and joyful than we can usually show. We are all damaged by hate; we are all damaged by racism; we are all damaged by violence; we are all damaged by the mistreatment of any group; we are all damaged by an Earth that’s hurting. Wondering what you think of all that?
I believe that you and I have two enemies in common. One is the greed of the money system and the way it warps our lives. Second is the false idea that we are separate and independent from each other, that we don’t belong to each other or with each other.
So—back to race and racism. For me, it blew my mind when I learned that White people and Black people were not always divided, and that racism didn’t always exist. Modern racism got encoded into law as a deliberate “divide and conquer” strategy back in colonial American. Back then, there were no people called “White” people. Europeans were known as English or Irish or French, or wherever they were from. Up until the mid-1600s, working class Europeans, freed Black people, and native Indigenous people worked together, married each other, were good neighbors, even held elected office. But as they began to organize against the wealthy plantation owners for a fairer share of the wealth, the colonial government of Virginia passed laws that first used the word “White” people. These new laws, which were then adopted by other colonies, gave “White” people a few more benefits than freed Black or Indigenous people. For example, “Whites” could own property, have a gun, and employ Black or Indigenous people. Black or Indigenous people could not. They also made it a crime for a “White” person to marry a Black person, and if a “White” woman had a child with a Black man, she and the child would become enslaved for the rest of their lives. These laws drove a wedge between people who had been natural allies. Today, working people of all races are a huge majority of the population with so many interests in common. But because we have let ourselves be fooled and fractured into conflicting groups, we remain too weak and powerless to challenge the rigged system. We need each other to build the America that I believe you and I both want.
I’m going to close this attempt at a kind of love letter to you. My heartfelt wish is for us to find ways for us to recover our neighborliness and our common humanity that is buried to some extent under bad experiences, mistreatment, and misinformation, and to unite to work together for a society that respects and cares for all its people.
I think we can choose to heal the divisions among us. Healing requires safety, often in short supply. Healing requires respect. We can choose to offer each other respect even as we disagree. Healing also takes inner courage, a noble human quality you and I possess. Whether we like it or not, we’re in this mess together. We are mutually bound, for better or worse.
With that, I’ll sign off, and await your response if you so choose. Thank you for listening.
With kindness from your fellow citizen,