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Essays on Civic Engagement

This Is Your Democracy

What Will Our Legacy Be?

Renee Dingman Springfield

On January 6, 2021, as Congress was going to count the votes from the presidential election, many angry Americans were in Washington to protest Joe Biden winning the presidency.  At the “Save America” rally, President Donald J. Trump told the crowd to “fight like hell” and that he would be with them on the way to the Capitol building. After the president’s speech, many of his supporters raided the Capitol building.  Barriers were broken, and police were beaten with fire extinguishers and flag poles. People were stealing property and destroying items while taking selfies and other photos. A woman got shot, and an officer got squeezed in a door frame. Congress was locked in a room, hiding under tables, for about two hours. Finally, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, called for a curfew at 6p.m. By 7:15p.m., the Capitol was clear, and congress could finally finish certifying the electoral votes.

That same week those things were happening, I was reading John Lewis’s descriptions of the lunch counter sit-ins of the early 1960s.  African American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  When they were refused service, the demonstrators decided to sit peacefully  in their seats and refused to get up until they were waited on. They left at closing and showed up the next day, with more protesters. 

There were rules that the protestors followed, like: do not strike back nor curse if abused. Do not laugh out. Do not hold conversations with the floor walker. Do not leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Do not block entrances to the stores outside nor the aisles inside. DO show yourself friendly and courteous at all times. Do sit straight; always facing the counter. Do report all serious incidents to your leader. Do refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner. Do remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Love and non-violence are the way. MAY GOD BLESS EACH ONE OF YOU. Those were their guidelines. (John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, 98).

Every generation leaves behind a legacy. What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation. What legacy do we want to leave behind?

We do need to speak up for our beliefs.  As John Lewis said: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”  I am inspired by the message of John Lewis and the early civil rights movement to believe that the non-violent way of demonstrating is a more productive way of expressing a viewpoint than participating in the kind of violence we saw on January 6.  

One of the issues that particularly matters to me is promoting police reform. According to The Boston Globe, Springfield has one of the worst police departments in the country, and $5.25 million has already been paid out in legal settlements to victims of police conduct in the city. I believe that because I’ve seen friends beaten up by the police.  But as a young single mother in Western Massachusetts, it’s been hard for me to know how to use my voice to improve our democracy.

That is why I am glad to be a member of the non-profit Pioneer Valley Project (PVP). PVP works to bring the voices of ordinary people into the policy making process.  Thanks to the organizing done by PVP, I’ve learned how to email my state legislators and Governor Charlie Baker and call the offices of legislators.  I’ve also been able to testify by Zoom on the police reform bill for racial justice that was being debated in the state legislature.  Thanks in part to the contribution of the voices of people like me, the reform bill was passed.

The scenes televised from the raid on the Capitol building make the people of our country look like animals.  This is not who we are as Americans.  The moment we try to overturn our democracy, we are killing it.
It’s time to create a change and it needs to begin with you and me. I’ve learned from my own involvement in reform at the local land state level that instead of making ourselves the enemy, we need to come up with solutions.  Instead of fighting, we need to build understanding and peace. Every generation leaves behind a legacy. What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation. What legacy do we want to leave behind?

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