Death to 2017
Written by Sarah Jaffe
Collage by Lynda Lucas
My only resolution for this year was to make it through. By the time I rang out 2016 with a glass of straight whiskey, we were long past the jokes about celebrity deaths and preparing to bury our last remaining illusions about America’s political system. Trump was about to be president, and the new year seemed more like a threat than a promise.
The year began with protests. On January 20, activists chained themselves to the entrances of the inauguration ceremony, determined to make the launch of Trump’s presidency as much of a mess as possible. It worked—better than they could have expected. The new president was so angry that the crowd for his swearing-in was smaller than the protests against it (particularly the next day’s massive Women’s March) that one of his very first acts in office was to send then press secretary Sean Spicer out to address the situation. Spicer’s hapless insistence that the press had the story wrong became the administration’s first meme. Ten months later, Trump continues to whine about this perceived injustice at every possible opportunity. If only his pathological obsession with size was the worst thing about him.
It’s not, of course. After the inaugural debacle, Trump quickly moved on to his real agenda. He reinstituted the global gag rule, preventing any overseas agency using American aid dollars from even discussing abortions, much less helping people access them. Then came the Muslim bans (versions one, two, and three), the transgender troops ban, and the endless benighted attempts to take health insurance away from millions of people. We spent sleepless nights wondering whether or not Senator John McCain—literally undergoing treatment for brain cancer himself—would vote to kill a few hundred thousand or so of his constituents, or whether his much-vaunted maverickness would kick in, along with common decency. After months of increasing ICE raids and a return to the most vicious deportation tactics, in September Trump moved to repeal the DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) program for young immigrants without papers, making it clear that immigration officials have been let off the hook to enact their nastiest cowboy fantasies.
Also, hey, Nazis are back. Actual, literal, swastika-wearing, torch-carrying Nazis who marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Boston, Gainesville, Berkeley, and Shelbyville. Nazis who mocked the death of activist Heather Heyer, the counter-protester who was killed when an attendee of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville drove his car into a crowd. Nazis who struck a woman for eating with a black man, attempted to out undocumented students, bullied professors off campus with death threats, and extolled the virtues of slavery. Would-be Führer Richard Spencer did provide some levity when he was punched on camera by an inauguration protester, spawning memes, musical remixes, and real-life imitators, but commentators spent more time wringing their hands about whether punching Nazis was acceptable than they did on either Heyer’s death or the “white ethnostate” that Spencer and his “alt-right” buddies want to inflict on us.
The entire pretense of calling Nazis “alt-right” is one of this year’s most infuriating flourishes. Layering ironic memes and Pepe the Frog pins over the familiar contours of white supremacy and misogyny may create noise, but it does not create distance, especially when alt-righters march with KKK members and fascists under the banner of “Uniting the Right.” The far right might be a continuum, but its basis these days is the consensus that “Make America Great Again” is a project that must be completed, no matter the cost.
But the Nazis are not the only monsters in our midst. The near-daily revelations about alleged sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and Leon Wieseltier have been both cathartic and traumatic. Professional gambler Stephen Paddock opened fire and shot some 600 people at a Las Vegas concert, the largest of the year’s many mass shootings, including one in which 12 children were killed. We have been constantly reminded that the perpetrators of even the most horrible acts aren’t monsters at all, but humans, some of them humans we thought we knew and liked.
There’s been something apocalyptic about 2017 even beyond the president’s frequent tweets about nuclear war (did I mention that? North Korea?). It’s been an exceptional year for natural disasters, including hurricanes (in Ireland as well as the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico), wildfires, and earthquakes, adding to the general dread and amplifying a sense of helplessness in the face of unexpected, unbeatable brute forces. And in the aftermath of each one, we watched again as slashed funding for relief programs and brutal inequality ensured that even the most random of what insurance companies like to call “acts of God” reinforced existing oppression and predetermined which communities will recover and which will not. Because our faltering, floundering political system, unable to cope with the financial meltdown of 2008 without compounding the crisis, has also warmed our oceans and stripped bare our social safety net. Victims were left with the non-choice of piecing together a disaster response with their bare hands and a GoFundMe campaign—or giving up.
Yes, 2017 can go straight to hell and can’t go there fast enough. And yet it did have lessons for us, if we can stand to look at it long enough to remember them.
Those lessons were in the airports after the Muslim ban, when thousands followed the lead of immigrant community groups and radical lawyers and rushed to airports in a throng, a massive body of hell no that pointed a way past the xenophobia and rage currently dictating public policy. They were with the people in Arizona who placed themselves in front of the ICE van carrying Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos away from her family, the man who wrapped his arms not around his friend but the wheels of a deportation van. They were in the halls of Congress fighting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and cuts to Medicaid, as nurses, AIDS activists, and disabled organizers shut things down again and again, and as the spectacle of Congressional security carting protesters out of their wheelchairs as they chanted “Save our liberty!” became, if not commonplace, at least comfortingly familiar. Look at the risks people will take, still, to save us all.
What have we learned from the people in Durham who pulled down the Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse and reminded us that the monuments to oppression are flimsy at their heart and fold easily when the right pressure is applied?
We don’t yet know what these next years will bring, nor what that new world struggling to be born looks like. But we have begun to see glimpses of what it will take to get there, in the darkest moments of this hell year, from the people who refused to give up and resolved once again to get through and craft a world where people take care of one another even when there’s no profit in it for them.
SARAH JAFFE is an independent journalist and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.
LYNDA LUCAS is Damn Joan's design director.