My Epiphanies about Storming Buildings and Being Part of the Resistance
Epiphany: from the Greek epiphanea, “manifestation, striking appearance,” an experience of a sudden and striking realization, a leap of understanding
The Feast of Epiphany: the commemoration of the arrival of the Magi bringing gifts to celebrate the revelation of the incarnation of the infant Christ
President-Elect Joe Biden predicted an epiphany for Republicans after Trump lost the election. He and most other people in the world never imagined the day of reckoning would be delayed until January 6, the actual Feast of Epiphany on the 12th day of Christmas, or that it would be delayed by three different coup attempts — by lawsuits, by a cynical hijacking of congressional process, and finally by a last-ditch incitement of mob rule.
Were there really any foxhole conversions among members of Congress in hiding from the mob? Did the third act in this political theatre really change any hearts and minds or awaken the conscience in long-term members of the Trump administration or the more moderate, and rational Republicans? Did the veil part for anyone to see a modern-day King Midas hell-bent on turning the world into lifeless gold for himself at the expense of American democracy and willing to throw anyone under the bus and drag them behind?
I confess with some pride that I participated in protests during my freshman year in college in 1970, at the tail-end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. As recently as 2017, I had joined a peaceful march for science on the Mall. So, it was jarring to see young people massed in front of layers of walls in front of the White House and later storming the Capitol who, in appearance, resembled those I joined in my earliest protests, especially the men — some shirtless and body-painted, many with long, wild hair. The women were fewer and dressed in camo instead of the tie-dyed swirls of hippie clothes.
We were also castigated for making the American flag into clothing or decoration, but our t-shirts espoused peace and love instead of reminders of concentration camps and the heinous work of the Holocaust. We had better music and we danced more. We were usually more racially diverse than the mob on January 6, with more women, but we also lived in a time with a smaller number of identified gender options. We had good drugs and no meth. We carried signs but not rebel or American flags whose poles could be turned into pikestaffs, baseball bats, rappelling gear to clamber over walls, zip-tie handcuffs for securing hostages, or cell phones tweeting our instructions. We got maced but didn’t cry about it to reporters. We were more likely to have been trying out different Eastern spiritual traditions than different flavors of white supremacist myths. We opposed participation in a war, not a peaceful transition of power. Sometimes, we tried to get arrested.
What we had in common with the recent mob is a belief that we had been lied to by at least some elements of our government. In our case, however, we had the Pentagon Papers as evidence.
Trump’s speech reminded me of another speech I witnessed that incited action on behalf of a crowd or mob, depending on your perspective. It was worded even more cannily than Trump’s ambiguous exhortations. We were gathered in the courtyard of a campus building for speeches during a week of nights I spent roaming through the campus with other protestors, the sound of breaking windows all around me and approaching, then retreating from phalanxes of local police as well-armored as cockroaches with face and body shields, batons held stiffly outward. They never tried hard to catch us and they never beat us down.
That night, after the speeches wound up, we began debating whether to occupy the building as a protest and pretty much talked ourselves out of it. But as we milled around in preparation for heading back to our dorms, a full-Afroed black man, later determined to be one of the dreaded “outside agitators” stirring up the students, leaped to a high point above the crowd.
“Go home, white people!” he commanded. “You aren’t going to start any kind of revolution,” he said with contempt. “Go home!” He shamed us, telling us how cowardly we were in our cushy Stanford student existence. We might as well go back into our privileged lives and ignore the fact that Stanford was complicit in the military-industrial complex and black people and poor people were fighting and dying in an unjust war against Asians.
“Go home!” was the rallying cry that the crowd defied by moving into the building to occupy it for several hours until the police predictably arrived to sweep through and make arrests. The man who spoke those words was never prosecuted for his brilliant use of reverse psychology.
I chose not to occupy the building. I remained part of the crowd milling around in the courtyard like many of the mob members on the lawn of the Capitol Building. I understand the feeling of righteousness and of solidarity, of belonging to and acting upon something bigger than myself. I don’t really expect any epiphanies in anyone who stormed the Capitol, broke, defiled, or seized a piece of it, or merely milled around outside. Maybe there were epiphanies for those who died during their last moment as their entire life passed before them. I also doubt the epiphanies of the senators who survived the “trial by combat” that Rudy Giuliani incited or the Cabinet members and White House staff who finally recognized a line in the sand that required a recalculation of political ambition before crossing it. As to Donald Trump having a sudden, transforming, moral insight, it would have required that he have a conscience, a soul, or at least an inner life more complex than he has ever demonstrated.
My leaps of understanding about American politics and whether it was ever appropriate to break laws and be violent were hard-won. During the protests that shut down the campus, I listened every day and every night to talk, talk, talk; endless arguments over tactics, both non-violent and violent. Freed temporarily of the academic work I was there to do and which I knew had required great sacrifices by my parents, I had an expansive political education that went against the conservative politics of my family and hometown. I listened to the strident, jingoistic exhortations of self-proclaimed Marxists and Maoists who were nevertheless Stanford students alongside quotations from Gandhi and long-winded countercultural and revolutionary rhetoric from people in love with their own voice. It was all news to me then and all seemed equally plausible at first.
Years later, as an educator, I was often tasked with developing “essential questions” to organize a K-12 curriculum, questions that could never be answered but could be approached in different ways and at different levels of complexity as students matured in their thinking skills. “What is justice?” was often used as an example. Over the course of all the speechifying and revolutionary actions, I pondered that question and others: “What is a just war?” “Is violence ever justified to right a wrong?” Those times were the crucible in which my political thinking for the rest of my life was tempered. Senator Josh Hawley who graduated from Stanford three decades later seems to have passed unscathed through an institution that recently censured Dr. Scott Atlas for violating the belief that “knowledge should be used for good.”
This was life before social media, grasshopper. Bill Gates was still building computers in a garage. Although Gil Scott-Heron famously wrote the spoken poem “The revolution will not be televised,” he wasn’t banking on the algorithmic menace of images and text on social media to motivate a live-action mob in which everyone could be an instant media star armed only with a cellphone. It’s a peculiar form of amnesia toward political history when privately-owned social media providers are attacked for curbing hate speech and incitement of violence and insurrection and accuse of “silencing” people and violating their First Amendment rights on a medium that has only existed for decades. Meanwhile, the scene of Bobby Seale bound and gagged in a courtroom (re-created in a popular movie on Netflix, of course) stands as a stark reminder of the state of “law and order” for a black man alleged to have incited a riot in 1969.
One of my own epiphanies about “the movement” I was a part of came in the aftermath of a draft board sit-in in San Francisco. In my sophomore year, I joined a housing co-op community dedicated to living out principles of non-violence. After agonizing debate to a consensus, they had chosen this action to demonstrate their commitment. I agonized, too, but decided against putting myself in the position where I would surely go to jail, which was the desired outcome. I volunteered instead to be the one to apply to get everyone out of jail after they were arrested on their own recognizance, a term I had not even known the meaning of until shortly before I found myself in the screening area of the imposing San Francisco Department of Justice building. As I neared the front of the line where you had to empty your pockets, I suddenly remembered that I had a tab of windowpane acid in the back pocket of my jeans, psychedelic drugs being another one of my counterculture experiments. I seriously considered downing the acid but decided that this wasn’t the best idea and that I should just play it cool. I moved through the metal detector, then got a pat-down as visions of never returning to my life flashed through my mind. The pat-down was perfunctory, likely in search of something bulkier than a piece of paper, but I felt like my back pocket was sending off vibes as loud as a tell-tale heart.
I found my way into an office crowded by people on missions like mine, to get friends or family members out of jail. I was immediately uncomfortable being the only white person in the room. I eavesdropped on conversations about people in jail for any number of offenses, about children needing their father back, about where the money was going to come from to pay bail or court fees. When it was my turn to ask for the release of the intrepid all-white protestors, the stately black woman clerk pantomimed a dramatic double-take.
“So,” she said, loudly, for the benefit of everyone else in the room, who fell silent. “Your friends wanted to get arrested?” She paused dramatically. “And now they want to get out of jail right away?” Before I had been merely uncomfortable in my whiteness, but the reality of my situation flashed through my entire body as if I had taken the acid. I didn’t have the vocabulary of “white privilege” then, but I felt it down to my bones and in my queasy stomach. As I hesitated to give my answer which now sounded pretty stupid, I realized that the struggle for world peace was different, but completely inseparable, from a struggle for racial equality before the law in my own country. We had a long way to go then and even further to go now.
“Ye-es,” I mumbled shakily. She gave me a withering look along with the forms to fill out.
“Epiphany” is a term for events that can occur in anyone’s life as well as one rich in symbolic associations in the Christian religion for the event that commemorates an incarnation of the divine in a child born of a human mother. Lower-case-e epiphanies well up as intuitions after rational thinking or the usual logic about a problem or an idea have been exhausted. Famous epiphanies have come in dreams and in visions, in symbolic form, and in sudden moments when an ordinary daily event like Archimedes in his bath or Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree suddenly takes on a deeper significance in a flash within a mind prepared to grasp it. So maybe jail time will provide time for some in the mob to reflect and exhaust the hollow symbolism and specious breadcrumbs of the conspiracy theories their minds have been filled with. Maybe instead of just swelling the numbers of the Aryan Nation in incarceration, they will reflect on how they were treated during their armed insurrection compared to people of color during the peaceful Black Life Matters movement. Maybe what it means to live in a democracy based on truths will fall upon them as grace.
The epiphany that Joe Biden foretold did not come to fruition in the events on the Christian Feast of Epiphany in 2021, as elected officials cowered behind the furniture and their lives were suspended in time for hours that seemed like days at undisclosed locations. According to the Christian origin story, it was the magi, which we translate as “wise men” following a bright star in the heavens and bearing gifts that the capital-E Epiphany Feast day commemorates and the worldly recognition of the birth of a child both human and divine. We had a similar celestial event in the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter remarkably close to Christmas in 2020, but the January 6 insurrection attempted to stop at least one wise man and one wise woman — Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — from bringing their gifts to our nation and to us all, as we struggle to unite what is human and divine within us.