Keep Loving. Keep Fighting.
Meditations on what has been happening on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus after the Trump election win was declared
Brett Ashley Kaplan
I’d wager that for all of you November 9, 2016 was a day of shock, revulsion, horror, disbelief, tears, confusion and a huge amount of fury. Like most of you, I had a very hard time focusing on anything but the terrifying prospect of TRUMP. I don’t think it is possible to say that this isn’t a racist choice. Even if individual Trump voters may not claim the word “racist” to describe themselves…this is “white nostalgia” (thank you Naomi Taub—Van Jones calls it “white lash”) to hark back to an imagined, fantastical, never happened Eden of whiteness before there was a smart articulate black president who threatened the ascendancy of whiteness. Before all these meddling professors with their diversity muddied the pure white American idyll. This is a return of White Supremacy. It doesn’t matter that the bald fact is that this country, after the genocide or displacement of its original inhabitants, was founded on and built by voluntary and involuntary immigrants and is now enriched by Latino/a/x, black, brown, Muslim, European, Chinese, Korean, Indian, multiracial, white, biracial, Jewish, and many other immigrants. Facts, in fact, no longer matter because Trump unleashes the masculinist id and allows for trespasses of power and abuses against women’s right to decide when, where, and by whom we get groped and kissed. As Chris Benson rightly pointed out in conversation with Masha Gessen, Trump’s self-proclaimed abuses of power over women augur his abusive of power writ large. It has been part an amazing joy and also profoundly frightening to be part of what’s happening on this campus as we move from shock to action.
On Wednesday, two men, one with a large American flag and the other with a bible, were spewing supposedly Christian but actually anti-immigrant, pro-Trump, racist rhetoric. A large group of us formed around them—some students were arguing with them and some were just watching the spectacle. I was trying to take the floor away from these two hate-mongers and focus energy in a positive way—finally a brave student took the floor and reminded them that their version of “Christian” actually has nothing to do with what Christ would have espoused.
Right next to all this screaming there were students writing love-filled messages in chalk on the quad: “Spread love, the world needs it;” “Your skin your sex your gender your beliefs ARE VALID;” “Love is the answer.” Unfortunately, another chalking, that I did not see but a student sent me an image of proclaimed: “White Privilege, I (heart) Trump”
Later in the day I saw students forming a chain in front of Lincoln Hall and chanting, “keep loving, keep fighting.” These students were contributing a wonderful energy to the quad, they were joining together to do it. The next day, I saw a student sitting alone, and completely silent in front of the Alma Mater with a sign that read: “Vow of silence. No voice. No comment. No hate. No tyrant. #Not My President.” I gestured to him (I didn’t want to use words and disrupt his peaceful protest) to ask if I could photograph him, and he nodded yes. Then I wrote him a note: Thank you for your protest. It is very beautiful. And very needed.
Writing on a huge “What are you Thankful For” sign I encountered a Latina student who was chalking that she was thankful for all the solidarity and coalition building opportunities on campus. I asked specifically which resources she was grateful for and she described both La Casa and to the Gender and Women’s Studies center as offering spaces for dialogue and unloading after the election. I was relieved that far from feeling isolated she felt held by these communities.
Then I talked with the Muslim Student’s association, out on the quad for a bake sale. They were so happy to have someone approach them and offer solidarity that I wondered if this was rare. The group of students I spoke to had different feelings about the election: one woman said that she did feel safe on this campus but then her friends started chiming in about Islamophobic acts that had happened here since November 8: a Muslim woman had a knife wielded at her on a bus, another woman’s hijab was pulled off, and another student suffered a man shouting “go back to your country” as he walked by. When I asked them how they were feeling about Trump and about all of these revolting acts they said they were shocked but they were ready for action and to fight for what they believe in.
Another solitary protester sat alone in a chair on the quad holding up the sign “Love trumps hate.” I asked him if he knew of other protests happening and how he felt protesting alone and he said yes, there would be soon mass protests and it was just fine for him to protest alone. Yet another lone protester had affixed a sign on her dog that offered him as something like “post-election therapy.” I have to own up to the fact that the solitary protesters made be feel melancholic and protective. But they were all mourning and fighting in ways that had an impact, even though they chose to do it alone.
In my graduate seminar I opened class by asking if anyone had anything that he/she/they would like to share about the election. One white student said that she had been crying about it (I’ve seen many, many people crying) and was talking with a black student who “asked if [she] needed a hug and then told her, ‘it’ll be ok, we’ll get through this!’ This sweet gesture brought [her] to tears and made [her] think maybe this terrible outcome will unite us in some important ways.”
Among the incredibly moving and thoughtful and insightful and informative things people have posted on Facebook, I found these words from one of the many Comparative Literature graduate students who make our department so stellar, particularly moving: “I have seen instructors break into tears because they suddenly feel inadequate to protect their most vulnerable students, even in their own classrooms. I have seen new communities forming around the desire to extend compassion, protection and comfort to people who feel threatened and devalued…” (Meagan Smith).
This morning, Friday 11 November, I went to the 31st annual Diversity Breakfast. Chancellor Jones offered there an impassioned, clear rebuke against the disgusting rise in racism we are experiencing now. It was a strong, unequivocal statement and it earned him a standing ovation. After all the awards were given and the speeches made I bee-lined over to the new Chancellor, congratulated him on his moving and wonderful speech, and asked him to send such a strong statement to all the students—several of whom had already told me they needed that from him.
From the diversity breakfast my daughter and I picked up my father from the airport and went straight to a protest at the Alma Mater. Three generations of Kaplans were chanting “hey hey, ho ho Donald Trump has got to go!” “We welcome immigrants!” “Tell us what power looks like! This is what POWER looks like!” My Jewish-American father was part of the Civil Rights movement and always fought for racial justice; my younger daughter is finding her way in the world but already knows that racism is painful and wrong and that Trump and his supporters are spreading racism!
The protest moved from the Alma Mater all the way around the quad and then down Green Street. We stopped traffic and took over the road—there were probably 300 or so people—black, brown, white, gay, straight, trans, young, old—an actually diverse group of people yelling at the top our lungs “THIS IS NOT MY PRESIDENT!”
As I write, the KKK has endorsed Trump and plans an enthusiastic welcome rally; a Saudi man has been murdered in Wisconsin; swastikas and other hate symbols proliferate around the nation. My partner, a black physicist from Tobago on his way home from a conference has just texted me the cover of USA Today bearing the headline: “Rise in racist acts follows election.” I cannot predict what sort of fissures the racism Trump and his followers propagate will forge into our family and through our love.
If the see-saw between love and hate as represented in this small sampling from this small college town in the Midwest were to be weighed, love would definitely, certainly, trump hate. But I am not sure I could possibly hazard which one will ascend in the long run.
It is time now for all of us to write to the electoral college delegates and ask them not to vote for hate on December 19. This may be our only chance for peace.
Brett Ashley Kaplan is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also the author of Unwanted Beauty, Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory, and Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth.