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What Democrats Can Learn About 'Resistance' From Rosa Parks

A Montgomery (Ala.) Sheriff's Department booking photo of Rosa Parks taken Feb 22, 1956, after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger.  (AP via Montgomery County Sheriff's office)
A Montgomery (Ala.) Sheriff's Department booking photo of Rosa Parks taken Feb 22, 1956, after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger. (AP via Montgomery County Sheriff's office)

When Rosa Parks was 10 years old, as Rebecca Traister recounts in her book “Good and Mad,” a white boy threatened her. Instead of yielding, she picked up a brick and raised her arm to protect herself. He backed away — and let her alone.

Back home, after describing what had happened, her grandmother was frightened for her. Who would not have been? They lived in Alabama in an era when Jim Crow segregation was continually enforced by the terrorism of lynching. (Some 300 people were lynched there in 66 years, starting in 1877.)

Rosa explained to her grandmother (I am paraphrasing) that to submit to brutality for the sake of safety, was for her, no kind of life. As Traister notes, this is hardly the idea of Parks we collectively hold. Rosa Parks is mythologized as a docile woman who needed to sit down after a long day’s labors, and so refused to move to the back of the bus.

Not only is that image untrue, it misleads us about how resistance actually works and gains momentum. America sentimentalizes its “s-heroes” and makes them meek, so as to deny the personal force and unequivocal commitment needed to accomplish real, non-violent change.

Rosa Parks helped to change American society because she knew the line she would not cross, and the oppression and violation she would not tolerate. She understood just how clear you have to be to deal with an empowered bully. Equal clarity is required now for our nation.

This week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will finally testify before Congress. We last heard from Mueller in late May, when he spoke briefly to the media about his report, before announcing his resignation and declaring his intention to return to private life.

That 10-minute press conference — even though Mueller did the bare minimum — captured public attention and increased calls to hold President Trump accountable, by opening an impeachment inquiry. (Just last week, 95 Democrats in the House went on the record in support of such action, including Reps. Seth Moulton, Ayanna Pressley, Jim McGovern and Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts.)

Mueller’s fuller testimony could accomplish more: It could further educate Americans about the president’s relationship with Russia, his attempts to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation and move public opinion, perhaps pushing those who have been urging restraint, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to action.

The ugliness last week of the president’s public endangering of Rep. Ilhan Omar, along with his racist tweets about her, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressly and Rashida Tlaib — all U.S. citizens elected to serve — may have already helped clarify the urgency of impeachment (at least for Americans not deeply in Trump’s camp). Now is the time to draw a line in the sand.

“The Squad” understand the need to stand up to him. Like Rosa Parks, they have grasped that silently submitting to brutality in order to gain “safety” is a corrupt and insincere transaction — one that leads only to solidifying his lawless dominance. The rest of the Congress and the country need to grasp that fundamental truth and act now.

One of the biggest arguments against impeachment is the theory that it will help Trump’s chances in 2020. But that’s not necessarily the case. Alan Lichtman, a professor at American University, has written extensively about who wins presidential elections and why. Lichtman predicted Trump’s victory in 2016, and he now also believes that the Democrats are more likely to win in 2020 if they begin impeachment proceedings.

... silently submitting to brutality in order to gain “safety” is a corrupt and insincere transaction

Why? Because the large and visible government proceedings will — metaphorically — be read by Trump as a brick. They will, of themselves, serve to check his power.

Impeachment might not only help win back the White House, it could also help win the Senate, an equally crucial victory. Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, the founders of the political group Indivisible, made this argument during a virtual meeting online. As they framed it, there are five Senate contests in states (North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Maine and Arizona) where Trump’s ratings are currently underwater, that could make the difference in who controls the Senate in 2020. If the impeachment proceedings get attention and gain momentum, Republican senators in those states could lose support by voting against it.

Yes, the choice carries risk. But not initiating impeachment proceedings — not initiating a nationwide public discussion of right and wrong, honesty and dishonesty, morality and immorality, legality and illegality, and of the legitimate workings and larger beneficial purposes of government — is riskier still.

Those who argue that the best way to end these bad times is to not rock any boats misjudge the psychology of bullies. Trump will feel empowered by the silence. He will express contempt at the weakness. He will find other ways to create chaos and uproar and find other people to demean and threaten.

Democrats need to go on the offensive — raise a brick — and really mean it. It’s not hard to imagine what Rosa Parks would do now in our place. May the legacy of her courage be an inspiration.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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