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On Friday the only thing that stood between a mob of angry protesters and an equally-angry mob of Donald Trump supporters was me and an Indian businessman I’d never met before.
Thus began my evening attending a campaign event in downtown Charlotte for the Republican presidential nominee.
I should say at the outset that I’m not a Trump supporter. My motivation for attending the rally was pure curiosity and a desire to understand whether the corrosive narrative we’ve seen throughout this election is the exception or the norm.
It also stems from the fact that, as a West Virginian, my nature is to be inherently suspicious of any media portrayal that appears too extreme. Indeed, I know what it is to be the subject of unfair caricatures and so I went to the rally hoping press reports of tension and violence were overblown.
Instead, all of my worst suspicions were confirmed. Here’s a portion of what happened.
When I arrived at the Charlotte Convention Center at 6pm, an hour before the rally began, I encountered a small group of about 20 protesters on one side of the street chanting slogans like “GOP hands off me!” Their voices were met by a crowd on the other side shouting “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!”
This continued for around 15 minutes – one side volleying a slogan and the other side hitting it back – when suddenly the protesters crossed the street and began waving signs in the space of Trump supporters. This didn’t go over well and, while I captured one confrontation on video, I should warn you that it’s tough to watch.
With the hostility clearly escalating, a lone Indian man in a suit stood between the warring factions of the crowd and stretched out his arms like a human fence. Moved by his effort and not knowing what else to do, I walked over and assumed his position, touching his back with my right hand and reaching out to no one on my left. We made eye contact briefly but, since there really were no words, we didn’t use any.
This is the United States in 2016. We are a nation in the middle of profound change and these are the eruptions that occur when honest conversations are neglected for far too long.
After I entered the convention center, what struck me the most was that – while the protesters formed a fairly diverse crowd – the audience in the rally was overwhelmingly white. See for yourself.
If you’re wondering why this matters, clearly it’s part of the larger, national conversation we need to be having. In other words, we are becoming far less of a white, Christian country and moving rapidly towards a secular society where the very demographic that used to define what it meant to “be American” will soon be the minority.
To deny this shift would be about as effective as pushing on a rope. So let’s talk about it.
Because if healing is the goal – and it has to be the goal or else we will stay stuck in this cycle of fear and anger – then we must collectively reach a level of acceptance that the America of today is not, and never will be, the America of sixty years ago.
Only when we acknowledge this fact can we change the question from “how can we get back to what we were” to “how can we evolve into a society that works for everyone?”
The first question has no other ending but to separate and divide, while the second question challenges us to be better than we were before. And that, I believe, is the hidden gift in these times – and this election in particular.
From the Civil War to civil rights, and from women’s liberation to marriage equality, we’ve had plenty of tough battles in this country – but we’ve always emerged from them with the circle just a little bit wider and with a few more seats at the table.
That’s what makes us great.
It’s not that we always agree. It’s that we know how to rise together.