Takoma Park gathers to show Unity in the Community. Photo by Eric Bond
by ERIC BOND
Nearly eight years ago, on a frigid but bright January day, I joined with fellow citizens on the National Mall to witness the swearing in of a new president. He was our first African-American president, a leader who fueled his campaign with an audacious hope in equality, justice, and plurality. Elizabeth Alexander recited her occasional poem “Praise Song for the Day”:
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
I was proud to be an American on that day—and ecstatic that my daughter was there to experience the historic event. As a young child, she had visited the mall to protest a pending war, and I was glad that she could share community joy in this same space.
Despite the 28 degree weather, I thought of Woodstock. It was a day of peace love and unity. There was no grumbling about being packed shoulder to shoulder or about the time that it took to inch out of the mass of humanity after Barack Obama was officially inaugurated. After several hours, we finally got clear of the crowd and hiked to Dupont Circle where we ducked into a coffee shop for warmth. The collective mood inside was ebullient enough that it just may have raised the capital city several inches.
I was too young for the actual Woodstock. Six years old in 1969, I doubt that I even heard about the famed festival until much later. But I did know that my parents were frightened by the turn that the nation had taken during that decade. Republican Mormons, my parents did not see the love. They saw chaos, disorder, danger. They were not alone. The disruptions of the 1960s led to the election of law-and-order Richard Nixon in 1968 and his reelection in 1972.
Around the time that Nixon began his second term, I published my first newspaper, the Bond Times. Inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” I pecked out my first editorial calling on the president to end the Vietnam War. Nixon never received my newspaper. Not soon enough, Watergate brought an end to that horrific presidency.
In 1980, I voted in my first election and experienced my first disappointment in the American democratic system. Since that time I have voted in every election, have marched in countless demonstrations, and have lobbied representatives on Capital Hill and elsewhere to fulfill the promise of America.
I have faced the perennial disappointment that often visits political activism and always accompanies political idealism. We strive, but rarely achieve
For those of us who were there in person or in spirit, the Obama inauguration gave us a beautiful snapshot of America. A depiction of song and celebration. But that is not the only picture in America’s wallet (or phone, for young people). We are now confronted with images that remind us of the historic depravity of this American family.
Today there is once again audacity in the air. But that is not hope that I am smelling. The stardust of the Obama inauguration evaporated long ago, and a smoky fire of bigotry, intolerance, and retribution now sweeps through the land.
Most commentary on Woodstock contains reference to that other concert of 1969 in Altamont, California, nearly four months later. The Rolling Stones, burnishing their reputation as bad boys, hired the Hells Angels as security. The result of that decision should have been entirely predicable. Drunk on free beer, the Angels beat to death a young African-American man, Meredith Hunter, while the Stones played “Under My Thumb.”
Perhaps the two concert are reductive clichés for the 1960s, a decade of love and violence, of civil rights and burning cities. Perhaps they are poor reference points for the America of today or the America that has always been. Perhaps not. But at this moment, as the best president of my lifetime prepares to leave office, I cannot help thinking of Woodstock and Altamont.
I spoke over the phone with my daughter on Wednesday, the day after the presidential election of Donald Trump—a name now synonymous with the worst impulses of our culture and of white privilege. She and I shared tears. I did not feel that I could tell her that everything was going to be all right with the United States. At least not without walking through a season of pain and resistance.
But I could tell her that love, the mightiest word of all, is now more important than ever.
Love your neighbor.