When I drive back home to Orangeburg, I exit I-26 as soon as possible. On US 21, passing the winter fields, racing down the giant hill at Beaver Creek, and seeing the cross of St. Matthews Methodist in the distance, something happens to me–my grip on the steering wheel begins to ease while my mind begins to race.
This road is the route to my homeplace, the route to my family, my history. I think of that Pat Conroy line, “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” My family has been in this place for centuries so this geography is, in a very real sense, my anchorage.
But it’s still the South, my South, and that South is always already wrapped up in a brutal history. It’s a messy wound.
After reading yet another story about how Portsmouth, Ohio, is the so-called “Pill-Mill of America” (which makes no sense because the “pill-mills” have been shut down…)I pitched an idea to an editor at 100 Days in Appalachia.
There’s a football stadium in Portsmouth that once once home to an NFL team called the Portsmouth Spartans. The stadium has seen better days, but recently has become a site of renewal for some people in the community. A group is working to renovate the stadium, a rally against heroin was held there last March, and semi-pro football team has been playing games there.
The story is this: here is a place that is facing some serious challenges and not in denial of their existence. But here is also something else: grassroots organizing.
Early July and waiting for the sun to set, on the side of the road somewhere in Ross County, Ohio. My friend Marcus and I were driving back from Portsmouth, down on the Ohio River. I’d hoped to find a field that had been recently hayed. We settled for this road, the one that goes right into the sunset, the one with the best angle.
(orginally published at Between Coasts)
The day after the 2016 election, the New York Times ran a story about how the media got it all wrong.
“No shit,” thought everyone in the world.
In the months before the election, I passed dozens of homemade “Trump for President” signs as I drove my little blue Ranger around Licking, Knox, and Fairfield Counties. It seemed to me then indicative of grassroots support for Trump—perhaps a portent of things to come.
There was one that read “Trump—Best for USA,” with red, white, and blue paint on a large piece of plywood attached to an electrical pole on Highway 33 in Athens County, Ohio. Outside Wolf Lake, Indiana, “Save America from Socialism, Elect Trump-Spence” in spray-painted black letters on the side of a silver trailer. Another read “Trump—Pray for our Nation. Take Our Country Back” on a large piece of plywood painted black, just south of Dalton, Georgia. And just up the road on Highway 62 in Knox County, in the midst of Amish country, “God, Guns, and Coal. Trump.”
Save for a few stories about individual signs, no one put the pieces together. Maybe there was meaning there? Did the signs indicate a kind of grassroots activism connected to the Trump campaign? Maybe. Maybe not. But it didn’t make the headlines.
For the past few months I’ve been pitching stories like that about my corner of Ohio to east coast editors who’ve said, on more than one occasion, “I don’t see the national import of X, Y, or Z story.”
For example, the story of an Ohio woman whose neighbor had recently raised a Confederate flag. She said she was very afraid. She’s black. He’s white. Or the story of how homeless and “marginally housed” people in a Rust Belt city experienced the election cycle and whether or not they planned to vote and for whom.
It’s not entirely the media’s fault. Print newspapers—the traditional realm of shoe-leather reporting—aredying. That’s not . . . news. Nonprofit investigative outfits have picked up some of the slack, but there’s a lot of slack to pick up.
Those homemade Trump signs and the people who took the time to construct them were and are a valuable story.
But I think there are many valuable stories in the places where these signs popped up.
There’s value in stories about Eric Lee, a man who served twenty years in prison, who is in recovery, and who, every day, focuses on helping others. In the past three weeks I’ve watched Eric counsel five different people in Newark, Ohio, help them think through their recovery, help them find housing, help them find work. Eric doesn’t get paid for this work. He just does it.
There’s value in learning about Homer, Ohio, the birthplace of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. And it’s not just in the fact that she was born there, but because Homer, Ohio, is a place full of people who care about it. And ten years ago the town lost its public school. Since then it has struggled to find an identity.
And there’s value in learning about unemployment, marginal housing, drug addiction, mental illness, and hunger. There’s value in knowing how people can manage in a culture that mostly praises “bootstrapping” and pities the poor—or, worse, blames them for their poverty. And there’s value in learning about the activists who are taking on these problems.
The middle, the vast spaces between New York and Los Angeles, the flyover country, is full of people who are very much in touch.
So, for all y’all who were surprised by the outcome of this year’s presidential election (and those who weren’t), for those of you who recognize that you might be out of touch with what’s going on in “Flyover Country” (beyond the echo chambers of Los Angeles and New York or your Facebook feed), for those of you looking to connect with progressive people in these places, this will be your place.
Between Coasts is about original, thought-provoking, and empathetic narrative nonfiction. Between Coasts is a new model of community-based but nationally and internationally focused journalism that will produce stories from and about Trumpland.
These are our core principles:
- Micro journalism with a macro perspective: What’s happening locally is linked to bigger things. The soybeans grown in Licking County, Ohio, are more than likely exported to China, Japan, or Taiwan.
- No parachuting: We want journalism that’s rooted in a place and written by the people who live there. We’ll look for writers based in the places they’re writing about or who know them well and can write about them with a national audience in mind. There will be no writers based out of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or our nation’s capital. Apologies. If Between Coasts writers do report on something happening in places other than their hometowns, they’ll let the locals do the talking. They’ll let them tell us about their place, their lives, not the other way around.
- Slow journalism matters: We’ll spend time with a story, a subject. Every week people like Eric Lee do something interesting. We’ll write about that.
- Empathetic journalism: We’ll value nonfiction writing and research that tries to understand the lives of other people—however impossible that may be. We want to cover stories about the lives of people living in counties that voted for Trump. This administration will create policies that will affect people’s lives. And as with most things coming from the top down, it’s a good guess that women, people of color, the poor, and LGBTQ+ will suffer the most. To counter this, people are organizing and protesting. What does that look like? What will that look like?
- No Shouting but…: Because we’ll privilege narrative and slow journalism we’ll avoid shouting if at all possible. But when politicians try to cover up violence with lies, with euphemisms, we will shout. George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language” that official policy can disguise the truth: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
The general atmosphere is bad, friends, but language need not suffer. It must get tough.
We must get tough.
I showed up early. 6AM. I followed the rules explained to me in my training and dutifully sat and observed my polling station in the village of Granville, Ohio, for four hours straight.
It was totally boring.
I’d only been in Ohio for year, brought there from New York City by a tenure-track job at Denison University and still a full-on East Coast snob. I’d heard tell of long lines at polling stations in the last election. Of voters not being able to vote. Of crooked, crooked poll workers.
And some of those stories were very much true. So I was there to observe. There was no way these slack-jawed yokels were gonna suppress the vote here in Granville.
Not on my watch.
But I was tired. And, really, it was boring. It also seemed like the people running the polls knew exactly what they were doing. In fact, they knew a hell of a lot.
I went outside to sit on a bench in front Granville’s First Presbyterian Church. I pulled a PB and J sandwich (I eat one every day) from my bag and watched the cars go by. A few minutes and about ten F150s later, three women dressed in black, all in high heels, sat down on the bench next to me.
They were staring at their Blackberries (2008, y’all) and discussing amongst themselves.
They couldn’t find the polling station.
“Can I help y’all?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re trying to find the polling station in town,” one replied.
“So where are y’all from?” I asked.
“New York. Manhattan.”
“Oh. Poll watchers?”
“So, it’s really rural here,” one said.
“Like, we were in Knox County and there were Amish people.”
“Do people actually live here?”
After that exchange I knew I was no longer a New Yorker.
I also knew that the Granville Village polling station was over-saturated with poll watchers.
That afternoon, Ceciel and I drove around Licking County observing polls in Utica and on the East End of Newark. We were greeted by competent poll workers—people who just want democracy to happen on election day.
And the thing is, in this country, voter suppression doesn’t always happen on election day. It happens well before it. It happens when states “purge” voter rolls. It happens when states cut back on early voting. It happens when states penalize returning citizens after they’ve completed their sentences.It happens when voters are misinformed.
There’s a guy running for office who thinks the election is rigged. Maybe so, but not exactly in the ways that he imagines.
So, I’m observing again, and I’m hoping I don’t run into any New Yorkers…
Unless they’re carrying bagels and cream cheese.
Christine says she has lived in Newark, Ohio, most of her life. When she was growing up, though, her family moved around a lot because her father was in the military. They lived in Texas, Arizona, Oregon.
“I really liked the West,” she says smiling, “all them wide open spaces.”
When I met Christine this summer she had been living in a railroad boxcar for two weeks.
“There are more homeless people here than you’d expect,” she says. Even she was surprised to find out that people were living in boxcars. One night she was looking for a safe place to sleep and had heard there was a small camp near the railroad tracks. As she was crossing the tracks, she noticed lights coming out of the top of a car, and lots of heads peering out.
She says most nights she would sleep in one of the cars after hanging out with some of the other people who sleep in the area and gather in a nearby stand of trees.
“It’s a little community in the woods, in the trees. About the only thing we don’t do is sing ‘Kumbaya’ or roast marshmallows.” She says that they don’t want be a nuisance or get caught.
Christine faces enormous challenges. She has no permanent address. No transportation—her bicycle was recently stolen. She has asthma and epilepsy. She has a felony. She is three weeks sober. And right now, she needs food and clothes because—her last landlord dumped her possessions on the street.
“People were going through my stuff,” she says, choking up.
Christine looks tired, but she’s in a positive mood because she’s about to move into an emergency shelter, a studio apartment. For once, she says, she feels fortunate.
According to the Licking County Coalition for Housing “nearly 300 people are homeless in Licking County [where Newark is the county seat] on any given night. 91% of the homeless in Licking County are homeless for the first time. The average household is 2 paychecks away from becoming homeless. 40% of the homeless in Licking County are children.” And just two weeks ago there were 83 evictions at the county eviction court.
Many people struggle to find subsidized housing. The Licking Metropolitan Housing Authority reports that there’s a long, long list. And when housing is available, it’s not always livable. Christine had to leave one place because it was infested with fleas.
Less than 7 miles away from where Christine was sleeping, a home is for sale for over $600K.
“I’m not going to put praise on myself,” Christine says. “There are plenty of people who have it worse than me.”
So if you can make it through this, pay attention to the moment just after passenger Diamond Reynolds is removed from the car and detained.
The camera reveals only blue sky and power-line. And you can hear the police officer who has just killed yet another black man in the United States shout, “F**k!” And pause, “F**k!”
Blue sky and power-line and then, “F**k!” again
I want to understand why he is shouting? Is he shouting because he realizes that she’s filming? Is he shouting because he recognizes that his life is forever altered (perhaps)? Is he shouting because he realizes he screwed up? Is he shouting out of deep remorse? Is he shouting because this keeps happening and happening and happening?
In the Poetics, Aristotle describes something called Anagorisis or “Moments of Recognition.” It means the moment in a play when a character realizes something about a situation or about himself or another character. Think Oedipus.
So what is that officer recognizing?
According to Killed By Police, Philando Castile was the 600th person killed by police this year.
Are we shouting? Why are we shouting?
If you stay with the video you’ll hear Reynolds’s daughter call for her mother. She’s also having a moment of recognition–one that I’m pretty sure my white children will never have.
Shout louder, people. Shout louder.
“Trump—Make America Great Again”
Cardboard sign with white lettering on field of navy blue, found in yards around this country, seen most recently in Ohio and North Carolina.
“Trump—Best for USA”
Large piece of plywood painted white, red lettering, attached to electrical pole, Highway 33, Athens County, Ohio
White with red and black lettering, on Blue Prius, CVS Pharmacy parking lot, Licking County, Ohio.
“God, Guns, and Coal. Trump”
Small board painted white with red lettering, small American flag attached to the top of sign, Highway 62, Knox County, Ohio.
Letters on official Trump sign manipulated, friend re-posted on Facebook.
“Trump as giant pile of shit”
Brown pile of shit with blonde hair and flies swarming, Google Image search.
“Trump—Make America Great Again!” and “Unapologetically American!”
Homemade decals with white lettering on windows of white Landcruiser, parking lot of North Market, Columbus, Ohio.
Written on a Confederate flag, outside Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, in a friend’s Facebook feed.
“Trump—Pray for our Nation. Take Our Country Back”
White lettering on black billboard, along I-75, 7 miles south of Dalton, Georgia.
The first time I went there, two men wearing neon green t-shirts that read “Repent or Perish” were pacing on the sidewalk in front of the church thumping Bibles and shouting about the wicked sin of homosexuality.
A few weeks later, they came into the church, commandeered a mic, and said the same things. The pastor at the time calmly sent the men packing.
That was August 2007.
I’m thinking about that moment right now after having consumed a steady diet of news from Orlando over the past few days. And I’m struck by how brave the people are who are gathering there and around the world to support and remember the dead but to also stand up for human rights and human dignity.
And I just can’t help but think of my fierce little church in Ohio, the United Church of Granville, a church that walked in the local Pride parade and became welcoming and affirming decades before it was cool to do so.
I think about the teenagers from the church who—just a few months ago—helped foster a conversation about how to promote inclusivity in the local high school. This after someone scrawled homophobic graffiti in a bathroom.
I think about how a few months ago when some people were flipping out because Target decided it really didn’t care where people chose to pee, the pastor of my church wrote an opinion piece in support of transgendered people for the local newspaper.
I think about how on the Monday after forty-nine people were massacred in Orlando, a city council person and fellow church member introduced legislation in Newark, Ohio, to protect the civil rights of LGBTI people.
I know excessive pride is unbecoming, but I’m damn proud to be connected to these people. I’m proud to tell folks that in tiny Granville, Ohio, the place I now call home, there’s a group of people fighting the long fight against fear and hate.
But mostly, I’m just humbled. I’m humbled by the very active presence of love in this community—engaged love, persistent love, brave love.
Love is patient and kind, for sure, but in this world, it’s also brave. It’s brave to say you don’t want to “bomb the bastards.” It’s brave to say you want to promote right relations and justice for all people. It’s brave to say you’re willing to sacrifice your life to do the work of promoting dignity and seeking understanding where there is little.
There are many who do this work and have done this work for years in my community and around the world. They are brave activists for love. They are brave in places where the threat of violence is real: the streets of Russia and Uganda; middle schools in California; city council chambers in Ohio. Indeed, the fight for human rights requires people who exude this kind of bravery.
But I want a world where we don’t have to be brave—where we don’t have to fight in order to love.
I want a world where we just love.