Election night

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There’s a lot of ways I want to write this post, but perhaps the best blanket statement is that I don’t know how in the world to talk about what’s happened since last Tuesday night. It’s an absolute swirling mess inside my head.

Four years ago, in August of 2013 when I was just starting at VCU, and mere months after the start of Obama’s second term in office, I took photos at a block party hosted by VCU in Monroe Park. I almost never do anything that could be considered street photography, and while taking the photographs I’m about to share I remembered the last time I was on the streets of Richmond incessantly pointing my camera at people.

It was one of those moments where you get a satisfying opening and conclusion that stand in contrast to one another. I remember the weather was comfortable, a late summer evening. Everyone was walking around, a lot of freshmen, there was free food. There were people dancing, talking, and as a freshman in literally his first week of college, his first week in a city, it was overwhelming and terribly exciting. I hadn’t grown up in the most homogenous place ever, but I have never seen so many different kinds of people and cultures on display at once. It was amazing, and so beautiful.

It reminds me of something a friend of mine from the church said to me: “honestly, if you walk out in the compass and just look at all the different kinds of people walking around and talking, that’s probably more what the Kingdom of Heaven will look like, in a diversity sense, than many of congregations in the church buildings we often see.”

So I look at what has happened and I see race, I see religion, I see bigotry and hatred being thrown back against both sides. I see a lot of pain. I see a lot of confusion. I see images, and perception. I see an increasing conflation of truth with how we feel about something. I see a lot of mess and I see a lot of people absolutely sure about how to fix it. It’s an interesting and volatile time. There’s a lot to sort through.

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I guess I was absolutely sure until about 9:30 on Tuesday night that I wouldn’t have to see any of this play out.

My friends that I watched the election results with are basically all photographers, and without discussing it beforehand we brought our cameras in anticipation of photographing history. What’s more, none of us even have practices that are particularly social documentary based, but there we were with a need to make photos of what we saw.

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photography!

Darkly, honestly, we were expecting spontaneous riots if Trump were to win. Becca and Shannon had flashes on their cameras, ready to go take to the late night streets to see what would happen, to make a record.

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I think I was basically drunk by 1:00am, and it wasn’t even in anticipated celebration or mourning, but more so in an almost reflexive urge to take the edge off of the cultural and intellectual simmer that had been happening in my mind over the past year plus. As if the culmination of all of that would be too much for an unimpeded mind. It was still a bit surreal, though. I was not excited about Hillary Clinton, I was not “with her”, but I voted for her. I am so glad I did, and I wonder how many people in this country cast the non-existent vote of indifference I almost did- unable to rally behind her, they stayed home that day, accepting the narrative that her victory was all but inevitable. A 94% chance at one point, according to the New York Times.

It feels bizarre to write this. It feels weird to add my own words to this discussion, because for almost as long as this has been in the public’s attention, I have been watching this election and reading almost everything I could about it. Of course, the huge majority of what I was reading was not policy dissection or researching the precariousness of the situations the president will have to navigate and considering the relative strengths of each candidate in navigating the.  I was reading about perceptions. I loved it. How could I not? I’ve based my academic study on image, those notorious things that seem to, but do not carry truth. Those things that are endowed with our emotions, with our pleasant and unpleasantries. Those things that give us the false hope that we can fix and freeze moments and people for our consideration and our control. They slip out from under our fingers- they are not the world while being that instant and tantalizing sliver  of it.

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This election was a war of perceptions, of course. It was a war of who could rile up the larger slice (or rather, the larger slices of specific demographics of people in specific states) with what this country could be, or perhaps what this country is. A referenda of who we are and what we’d like to become.

How ironic is it that more people wanted Hillary, but the people that ended up mattering are those white, rural, working people in MI, NH, PA, and so on that tipped those electoral votes towards Trump? It astounds me that no one that I’ve seen has written that turn of phrase yet that this is a silencing of the majority that elected Hillary, that the white voice trumped, yes, Trumped the rest.

Perhaps that’s an unfair characterisation. As soon as any pundit pins it down to one thing, there are many other articles posted to Facebook that complicate it.

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Oh but of course, this is just my opinion. Just my perception and so forth- and if I am sure of it, well, I could keep going.

Trump won.

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Thanks to Shannon for letting me use her photo, she waited so long to get this photo and I’m glad she did. See her work at her website.

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John and Tiffany and I left at like 2:30

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Trashcan down the street from VCU’s polling place

There’s a quote I’m 99% sure is from Martha Rosler that says, basically, “after the revolution, who will clean up the trash the next day?”

Wednesday morning I slept til about 10:30 which is incredibly late for me. I had a hangover, which hung around all day. With the light streaming into my window, it didn’t feel like waking up from a dream and having to cope with the reality of what happened. I can’t exactly describe what I was feeling. As best as I can paint it, it was like being torn between believing that nothing would really change that much, and believing that everything would change so drastically, but hadn’t yet. Between feeling nothing and feeling everything at once, but shaded by the grogginess of waking up, and the entropic/numbing tedium that everyday considerations and obligations can start to feel like if you let it.

The weather was really odd that day. It was chilly, but got almost warm in the middle of the day. It was cloudy, but occasionally the clouds would break and the sun would shine, other times it was a nice mix of solid and somewhat dark clouds and broken up clouds and clear sky behind it. The light was changing very quickly throughout the day. It looked like it was going to storm in the middle, later afternoon, but the clouds passed and it was a mostly clear, albeit windy, evening.

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I went to the observation deck at the top of Richmond’s city hall. It was empty, and the windows were open at the top so it was cold and windy. I just wanted to look at the city and know it was still there, that people were still talking to each other and everything hadn’t caught on fire. It hadn’t. I felt nervous, I felt afraid I could be misinterpreted, as a white guy with a ball cap walking into a government building with a backpack by myself. I thought about how insane it was to be feeling uneasy for my safety over something so trivial, and my heart broke even more for those that have so many more legitimate reasons to be afraid.

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It was so beautiful up there.

Levar Stoney won the Richmond mayoral race, and he’s the good guy. The bad guy conceded pretty early on in the evening. I perhaps would’ve traded results with the presidential election, but I was glad that democracy produced an honorable and caring man as our chief executive in Richmond.

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Tuesday night was calm but there were absolutely protests on Wednesday night. It wasn’t violent, there was not a strong cohesive message. People brought signs that were all roughly within the same ideology- people were upset about Trump’s enabling of bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, his enabling and not protesting of racial violence that had come about during and after his election. People were hurt and they were mad. People showed up to walk in the streets. They and police showed up.

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My photog friends and I were all going to go to the protest together, and I had such a dumb and naive thought that these earth shattering photos would just be happening left and right as people were walking in the street. Like Kent State protester over here, Tank Man over there. I think that was some combination of having never done anything like that before, and believing the sensationalization of, well, everything. All things considered, I would’ve actually been more surprised if there weren’t protests. They were civil.

My suspicion about the police is that they were, actually, halfway there to protect us. It was a large group of people professing a very strong, very loudly voiced political ideology. Tensions were high, and with as much as we basically walked around and within where the police wanted us to go, and kind of ignored them, and they seemed to be content to keep some line from being crossed, things were essentially peaceful. No tear gas, beatings, riot gear. I saw a couple police officers in a cruiser laughing and chatting as they drove behind the mass of protesters.

This is literally neither here nor there- my observations of the police and how they acted and how we acted around them. My professional practices teacher told us on Friday that even without this being our art practice, we owe it to ourselves and the future to document this, to think about it, write about it, make work about it, and advocate. So I will say that watching the police and the protesters interact was interesting and different then I was expecting.

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I had never walked in the street with a protest before, so there was that.

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There is a lot of words flying around right now about how to mobilize and advocate effectively. I’m going to defer to others’ voices on this and not try to add my own uninformed opinions, but I have to say, it felt a lot better to be standing with those speaking up for the marginalized rather than looking on from comfort, security, and privilege, with nothing but my own “thoughts” about what’s going on.

And I’m still doing that to some extent. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to abolish racism entirely from one’s own heart- to care with total compassion for all humanity. To do justice and peace and not be divisive. But I think it’s something to try, and furthermore, I think that the ultimate unity of humanity will be in Christ. But there’s going to be a lot of mess and mixed signals until that happens. And while I work for the glory of God, I believe that efforts to recognize the dignity and humanity of all of us, in our diversity, should be celebrated and supported.

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I think there’s been a protest basically every night since the election. This was yesterday. This was more organized and had a clearer message, and I was lucky to march with these folks and add my voice.

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Finally

I could not stop looking at the looking. This is born, absolutely, out of my contemporary critical perspectives class and the discussion of images, but looking at all the people with photo and video cameras, I was thinking endlessly during this march about what happens with images. I saw people at this march, and the last one, with bandanas over their faces. While I first thought it was for pepper and tear gas, I realized a bit later that they were likely more so for concealing their identities.

I thought about the photographers there will almost inevitably either vilify or glorify the protesters in their images. I thought that maybe it will only codify the opinions more so of whomever sees the images.

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I also thought about how beautiful it was to see so many people I knew involved in this. There was an energy and an excitement, an optimism and a loud voice shouting forth that these things are not OK. There were a lot of people on the sides just taking it in. And isn’t that the point, even in 2016, of walking down the street and yelling? It’s in your space. It’s forcing you to consider a message that you might otherwise consider at a distance. From behind a screen. From your chair you can harden your heart and set your face against people, you can absolutely hate someone, regardless of how much you understand about what they’re about. Hating is the easiest thing in the world to do, and I’ve seen a lot of it from everywhere over the past few days.

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See how I primed your reading of the above image with what I just said? I don’t know if these people were for or against the protesters, but they are certainly on the outside looking in (or, if you will, the inside looking out) and they are certainly after those words I just said. Slippery slippery thing, photography is.

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I can’t sit by on this any more, though. When I came into school at VCU I was very averse (and am still fighting the root my discomfort on this) to the statement “silence is violence”, or that there are no neutral positions, or that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” -Desmond Tutu, who saw his share of injustice.

It was so easy for me, from situations of absolute ignorance to people’s pain, to say that I wasn’t racist, that I loved and supported everyone, but then when the rubber met the road, to say that I was just kind of neutral, or didn’t want to get involved, or any multitude of excuses to just lean back. Love calls us, Jesus calls us, to lean in. By His grace I am empowered to do so, and grace is needed for the extent to which I haven’t, and in not doing so, have created grievous and real division in the world. There is no societal consensus except the sum of human hearts, and for too long I have sat idly.

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There are people in the streets. Things are not OK and this world is crying out. There is so much work to be done.

I didn’t cry over this election until Friday morning.

We were talking in one of my classes about the election, and it felt to me like the first time that a lot of us had sat down, and with collectively sober minds, talked through our feelings and reactions. A few classmates and the teacher talked about the effects on the children, especially children of color and little girls who are afraid because of the cultural violence let forth during this election against them. Asking if Trump was going to come for them, or if he was just on the TV. Asking what racism was.

And I thought, and cried for the first time, over the fact that for eight years our country was led, and our image of the highest elected official, was a black man with supreme intellect and grace. A man with a beautiful family, an elegant husband and wife. A man who led in the face of racism with a supreme force of conviction and dedication to what he was chosen to do.

He is being replaced with a man whose descriptors I don’t have the emotional strength to list. We have been hearing it far too much, and I don’t want to add to his vilification. I will say at least that he has come to represent the opposite of many of those qualities, and furthermore has emboldened a population of people to racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, and hatred.

And there are children in this country, maybe as old as 15, who have lived their entire thinking lives under the former, and are only now being introduced to the reality that the latter is still a force in this country and in this world to be reckoned with.

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One chapter of our country is closing and another is opening. It remains to be seen what the future holds, other than to say that I still do have confidence that in the end, all things will work together for the glory of God. Though truly, I must take that on faith, preach to myself, preach to others, and be preached to constantly to hold it together at this moment in history.

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One Comment

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  1. Very good read and provokes much thought. I taken in. Now I am eager to hear your thoughts on the media images we have seen daily over the 18 months prior to Nov 8th.

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