By Kellie Leeson, Co-lead Organizer at Empire State Indivisible
if clannishness had not been brushed down
and trotted out yet again;
if your banding together,
your sharing and solidarity,
had not been bludgeoned apart,
your home not burgled, and the sick
in their beds not loathed
and left to heal themselves
would I be so at one with you?
- Somali poet, Hadraawi
A friend sent me a picture of a stamp from the Somali postal service in 1981 with an image of refugees fleeing war in search of safety in Somalia. The image is beautiful. The image is also striking considering the current perception of Somalia as an endlessly war-torn nation, and yet in 1981, Somalia served as a safe haven for thousands of refugees.
Most of my career has been focused on refugee and conflict situations, witnessing the fragility of nations and the arrogance of egotistical men (it’s always men) who care little about the populations they manipulate. In Kenya, I remember watching in the lead up to the 2007 elections as the two political opponents made increasingly incendiary remarks, stoking fears, and raising tensions. As predicted, as we waited for the results, the legitimacy of the elections came into question. Violence erupted and, at that point, putting the genie back in the bottle proved difficult. Days of violence turned into weeks while negotiations sputtered.
During this time, I often reflected on what was different between Kenya and the US. I concluded that our courts, our legislatures, our agencies and our deference to their knowledge and acceptance of their authority set us apart. Over the last several decades, these same US institutions have been underfunded and undervalued as we, the general public, have taken their existence for granted. In three years, the current president has accelerated their demise by making a mockery of their mandates and expertise, politicizing every decision, and vocally undermining their legitimacy. The institutions that have held the country together throughout the tumult of the last two centuries have been brought to their knees, as evidenced by the unmitigated pandemic that has ravaged our nation.
In the US, we talk about American exceptionalism; we love to think we are different, better than the rest. If this presidency has shown us anything, it is that our systems can also be manipulated and twisted. Years of declining civic participation at all levels has helped to bring us here. But unlike many nations, at this point, we still have a democracy. Government by the people remains. The clock is ticking but we still have time to save this; this precious, fragile and imperfect democracy of ours. That mountain becomes much steeper after November 3rd.
It is hard to look at what is happening with any knowledge of history and not fear for our future. We only need to look to South America to see how quickly fortunes can change. Fox News wants us to believe that socialism destroyed Venezuela but as described in How Democracies Die, the story is more complicated. The subversion of democratic institutions helped to allow a corrupt and power grabbing Chavez and his cronies to ransack the country, at one point the wealthiest in South America. Here in the US, Trump and his cronies followed that roadmap with ease. They are packing the courts, undermining the postal service, sending federal troops to American cities, stoking division, and openly lying, and that is the short list.
We have experts scenario planning in the event our current president refuses to step down from office upon losing the election. What more evidence do we need that those who have been sounding the alarm are not alarmists at all, but realists? “Wise up, America”, I read in an Instagram post from a Nigerian writer, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, who went on to warn, “… You don’t know what you’re playing with.”
With one party fully ready to enable the current president, and without the guardrails of our institutions, we are on our own. Jamelle Bouie said it best in his recent NYTimes piece, “…many of our institutions have not been up to the task of confronting Trump, our democracy, meaning individuals and communities and civil society, has.” And so, with less than three months ahead of the general election, we cannot tire. We must act, and we must act now.
Democracy’s slogan should be, “Use it or lose it.” We have kept the worst effects of the Donald Trump presidency at bay but if he remains in office for four more years, that dam will break. We must ensure our elections function, that voters are able to participate and we are informed of the choices before us and ultimately, we must vote.
Wake up, America. This is our test — and we can tumble into the abyss like so many great nations before ours or we can act. It’s not too late for us, yet.
It’s Go Time!
Join us at Empire State Indivisible!
- We are a grassroots organization focused on increasing public engagement with our Democracy, supporting accountable governance, and passing progressive policies to address systems of inequality across our city, state, and country. Sign up here.
If ESI isn’t for you, here are some other options:
Let’s Win in November & Take Back the White House
VOTE — Get ready to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket! Make your plan to vote, find your polling site (there are polling location reductions in many places) or request your absentee ballot early and submit it as early as possible!
Fight Voter Suppression — Voter suppression is on the rise in the US, and this year is no different. The Boards of Elections in many states are being provided limited time and resources to adapt to the challenge of ensuring safe in person voting along with expanded vote by mail (absentee voting). At the same time, the president is undermining the US Postal Service.
- Volunteer to help people to cast their vote — Sign up with Fair Fight to protect voting rights or Vote Forward to engage voters. Alternatively, help to register young voters through Rock the Vote.
- Make calls to make it easier and safer to vote — Call your Congress members and demand funding for and oversight of the US Postal Service! The NY State Legislature passed a number of bills to make it immediately easier to vote, call Governor Cuomo (518 474 8390) and ask him to sign them into law today! What’s the hold up?
Support Great Candidates — Volunteer for candidates running in City, State and Federal races who reflect your values. Our democracy is strengthened when it is dynamic with new entrants challenging the status quo.
- At Empire State Indivisible we are supporting Samra Brouk and Rachel May for State Senate and Sara Gideon in Maine and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina for Senate. Let’s vote for Democrats up and down the ballot.
- Support a wide range of candidates through Indivisible’s Windivisible campaign here or with Swing Left here.
Make it Count — The Trump Administration has done everything possible to undermine the census. The census is critical to fair representation and allocation of resources in our communities. Learn more about this and why it matters here.
- Help get people counted — New Yorkers can sign up here to volunteer to help people fill out their census. Call the office of your city council member, mayor or other representative you trust, most are organizing census efforts in your community.
- Call Governor Cuomo (518 474 8390) and ask him to release the resources available to support census outreach. Again, what’s the hold up?
If it all feels overwhelming, here is a “No Regrets” toolkit to help you organize your plans!
Freedom is not a state; it is an act.
US Congressman John Lewis