By Renée Tillotson
Someone asked me recently what my greatest fear is. I realized that it is living in a land where we are not free and protected by law to make our own choices, where we can protest what is wrong and govern ourselves.
The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another. – Thomas Paine (American Revolutionary patriot)
I am feeling enormously patriotic these days, and extremely protective of all the freedoms and rights we seem close to abandoning as a nation. I want to make sure we maintain our democracy’s foundation stone: our right to vote in fair elections.
You may be asking, ‘Who’s side is she on?!?’ Good question. I’m on the side of keeping the best that we’ve inherited from those early Americans who helped us free ourselves from the rule of a king so that we, the people, could govern ourselves.
I’m on the side of tossing out everything that denies the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to anyone. We have a LOT of old bath water that needs to be thrown out of this country. We’re getting to see right now how dirty it is. Some things HAVE to go, but for heaven’s sake, let’s keep the baby.
What is the baby? It’s something I believe we unconsciously take for granted: our American right to vote.
I took a Political Science major in college and came to love that no one – even at the top of a government – got to impose their will upon us; even they were subject to the law of the land. And we could always vote them out of office and vote other people in.
We stand at a juncture where not just some but ALL of us may lose our right to vote in a legitimate election. I protest polling stations being closed, the dismantling of our postal system, our post office boxes being removed, and vote-counting machines in post offices being destroyed – all to make it more difficult for people who might vote against the current administration to do so. The intent is to create a general aura of chaos clouding our election process. I protest.
Are we so shriveled by fear of our fellow Americans’ votes that we won’t insist that everyone have clear access to submitting their ballots? Let’s not allow Covid-19 to become a convenient ruse for attempting to suppress others’ votes. We send inspectors to make sure that other countries in the world conduct fair elections. We can do this for ourselves, too. We have managed to do that since 1789, and we can do it again this year, when a well-run election is so critical – no matter who gets the greatest number of votes.
I’ve called and spoken to Republican friends recently, asking whether they are concerned about preserving our right to vote. They are indeed, even though they see it through a different lens. They also believe everyone deserves to be treated equally, not according to their race, gender or age. And they remain committed to their candidate, mostly, they say, for economic reasons. They are also worried about violence and looting sweeping the land – the streets they shop on and the streets they live in. Let’s address that concern.
When peaceful protests are characterized and met by law enforcement agents as if they were riots, we have a problem. Let’s pause and recognize another fundamental set of liberties guaranteed by our Constitution so that a king could not come back and impose himself upon our land: our right to free speech, our right to assemble, and our right to be protected by the law.
When we believe our country is off course and that American citizens are being wronged, should we not raise our voices in warning? My whole life history tells me YES, we should.
Ours is not a family of rioters. We are definitely a family who exercise our right to assemble to express our views. As I’ve told you before, my parents took us to peace concerts and protest marches in the 1960s against what they felt was an unrighteous war in Viet Nam. My mom has marched on union picket lines. Cliff and I have taken our kids to march on behalf of the environment. Both the men and women in my family joined local versions of the historic Women’s March on Washington in 2017. We joined people of every color and walk of life, and we brought children and puppies. I don’t believe we are scary or radical people. We are proud of our uncles who fought to preserve the “free world” in WWII. My family simply considers these non-violent protests to be our duty as citizens.
Because awful things DO still happen here in America – things that absolutely must stop – I thank goodness we can take videos on our phones and share them publicly as part of our right to free speech. We need to keep alive our free press’ right to investigate and report misdeeds. Informed, we cannot stand by and let innocent people be killed at the hands of someone representing the government. Nor can we allow federal agents in unmarked vehicles to show up at a protest, capture people and haul them away with no due process, no reading to them of their rights – as has happened already in Portland, Oregon. This is a shocking violation of our constitutional right to fair legal treatment. We must object.
I make the plea that law enforcement personnel and citizens on the sidelines honor all lawful protesting. I plea that all righteous protesters commit to non-violence, even if met with unwarranted police brutality. That’s the time-tested Gandhi and King version of nonviolent protest.
I look at how Hong Kongers’ right to free speech, the right to assemble, to a fair trial and to meaningful elections has shrunken in just the last year under China’s authoritarian power grab and wonder, is that what we want for ourselves? Let us not – out of fear – forfeit our right to speak our minds and protest against things our government does. Imagine living in a country where doing so could cause us to disappear without a trace into a concentration camp or be poisoned by a cup of tea, as we know can happen under authoritarian governments.
Through our ballots, our letters to the editor, our marching and our taking people to court, we prove time and again the strength of our American system of rights and freedoms.The #MeToo movement and our insistence that the clergy be held accountable has caught out many abusive men. LGBTQ people have won recognition and freedom to be open about gender. In the United States we can march for women’s right to abortion, OR for unborn babies’ right to live. Remarkable liberty.
We are facing challenges to our democracy that could drastically affect all of us. Besides talking with both Republican and Democrat friends, I live and speak urgently with my husband and two housemates who participate in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not enough for any of us to just talk amongst ourselves. Having these conversations with people of many viewpoints, and being really willing to listen, has been a hugely important step for me to take. Why? Because no decisions really come from the mind, they come either from the gut or the heart.
As long as people of any color or group feel left out, as if the wealth or protection of this nation has passed them by – we all have a problem on our hands. As long as some people feel so frightened by their fellow citizens that they will relinquish fundamental American freedoms for the sake of more safety, security or more material prosperity, we are in grave trouble. We’re also in trouble when people are willing to resort to violence – for whatever reason. And this trouble will not disappear with the outcome of the upcoming election… It will not dissolve unless and until we let each other kno w by word and by deed that we cherish each other and want the best for one another.
We absolutely need change. More change. And we must not allow America’s constitutional democracy to be dismantled by giving up our free, fair elections.
No throwing the baby out with the bath water! The consequences could be devastating. Imagine the alternative forms of government that could fill such a vacuum. We should instead seek to uphold our democracy’s rights and freedoms for every single person with all our might and main.
For an outside perspective on the value of freedom, I also spoke while writing this letter to a long time student of Still & Moving Center who was born in Hong Kong and continues to have close ties there. Hong Kong has lost its freedoms so rapidly in the last year, I had to interview her anonymously. Her cautionary tale deserves our consideration – PLEASE read it below.
With all our differences, let’s talk. Let’s agree that the freedoms infused into the fabric of this country should be available to all of us now. To lose our vote would be to lose all the rest of our freedoms. Let us not be bullied or hoodwinked into losing our ballot. We need it to govern ourselves.
Let’s agree to KEEP OUR RIGHT TO VOTE IN FAIR ELECTIONS.
And let’s see our way into a new era, where we truly listen to one another’s grievances and do what we can so that everyone in America feels safe, justly treated, of equal stature, and free.