Gut punched and getting back up

In wake of Rittenhouse verdict, remember ‘Institutions only as good as the people who animate them’

A week ago Friday, a student wanted to talk to me after our Civic Media class. Kyle Rittenhouse had just been acquitted of every charge in the killing of two white Black Lives Matter protesters and the wounding of a third. She looked gut punched and was turning to me to help her make some sense of this.

I was feeling something similar two Fridays before when I approached the mic at City Arts & Lectures to ask New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb what to make of the red wave that engulfed my beloved Virginia in that week’s gubernatorial election. A Democratic governor, who resisted resigning after revelations that decades ago he’d worn blackface and who ended his term by removing the largest Confederate monument in the South and making Virginia the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty, will be succeeded by a Republican who ran on moral panic and vowed to keep the novel “Beloved” and “critical race theory” (aka actual American history) out of Virginia schools.

Yes, my hometown of Danville stayed blue, but I was gut punched. Sick at heart. Turning to Cobb to help me make some sense of this.

You can hear my question and Cobb’s response on the City Arts & Lectures podcast at 56:27. This column is about getting up from the gut punches because there are more on the horizon.Now back to my student.

I hadn’t talked about Rittenhouse in class that day because I wasn’t ready. I was disgusted, but not surprised, given how the judge had behaved. But when a young person tells you that she’s been following the case and she’s struggling to see how a jury could let him go on every count, you can’t not have that conversation.

I told her about the acquittal of the police officers recorded stomping and beating Rodney King and how that felt at the time. I traced a line from that early video evidence case to the conviction of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd and back to the acquittal of Rittenhouse. In tracking the twists in the history, I suppose I wanted her to see that we’ve been here before and we have to keep going. Speaking of the Rittenhouse judge, I reminded her of a principle we’ve been studying, “Institutions are only as good as the people who animate them.”

Shortly after the Virginia election, our class had discussed some particularly bad animators, the two members of the Spotsylvania County School Board in Virginia who called for burning books after two parents complained about LGBTQ-themed titles in the high school library. During that same meeting, the board voted unanimously to cull the titles from the library but stopped short of reenacting “Fahrenheit 451,” a popular title when I was a Virginia high school student.

Originally, this column was going to be about viral efforts to suppress examination of the messy history of this nation and to disenfranchise and socially exile whole segments of “we the people.”

Then Ashley — I have her permission to use her name — waylaid me and gave me more to stew on. On Monday, we continued our Rittenhouse verdict conversation with the rest of the class. I knew Ashley had grown up in Chile, but it took me a while to recognize what she’d meant when she’d said that America was “supposed to be” a model for the rest of the world. She’s not naïve — she’d seen enough of the Rittenhouse trial not to expect a guilty verdict on the main charges. But she was disgusted, too, that the jury failed to hold him to any accountability.

This void between what America is “supposed” to stand for and what Gen Z has seen unfolding for most of their fledgling adult lives has been weighing on Ashley’s classmates, too.

Monday we were wrapping up a couple of weeks of working our way through historian Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” a guide to actions most of us can take to resist authoritarianism and preserve civil liberties. Snyder toggles between paralleling the rise of fascism under Hitler and similar authoritarian patterns unfolding in this country, and offering small, meaningful actions we all can be taking, like making eye contact and small talk, especially with outcasts, or taking care not to spread misinformation online.

Snyder, like the educator and philosopher John Dewey, puts a lot of emphasis on people banding together to preserve democratic values. The news gods sent me something good to share with my class. I had looked up the school board book ban again. Led by local students and their parents, 68 people spoke at a public hearing before the school board and got them to rescind the book ban in a 7-2 vote.

I could see my students’ eyes shining over their masks. A small win is still a win. There will be more gut punches for sure. But we’re still in this fight.

Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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