No one has ever given anyone freedom. Freedom has to be wrestled from those who see your gain as their loss. Freedom comes from fighting for power and it’s a messy business.
Reflecting on the life, mission and legacy of John Lewis has brought me both comfort and discomfort. I am grateful and comforted by his example of faith, optimism, patriotism and dedication. I was moved when former President Barack Obama referred to him as “one of the founding fathers of our more perfect union.” What an apt description! My discomfort has come as I reflected on my own life and found my response to the inequities and injustices of life wanting. I can and should do more.
John Lewis was known for coining the phrase “good trouble”. He said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” (Tweet June 27, 2018)
I’ve been thinking about “good trouble” and its context in United States history. There have always been those who challenged the status quo and who were vocal about it. To me good trouble means speaking out, and being willing to challenge those forces that seek to prevent us from being what we can be. I, of course, do not approve of violence as a means to an end. However, it is often the byproduct of major movements, it always has been. The Boston tea party and the subsequent revolution were surely not regarded as “good trouble” by the British or loyalists. Many of their fellow colonists were anxious about what a rebellion against Britain would mean. The issue of slavery was settled by powder and ball. The labor movement came as a result of protests over decades, many ending in mass violence and the destruction of property. The women’s suffrage movement was anything but a calm and gentle protest. As Katie Clarke Lemay writes in an excellent NYT article “I think the way we talk about suffrage needs attention. It is so often described in a way that makes it seem kind of dowdy and dour — whereas in fact it is exciting and radical. Women staged one of the longest social reform movements in the history of the United States. This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses. I think that because they were women, people have hesitated to credit them as such.” Judy Heumann occupied a federal building in San Francisco among other protestors to draw attention to the needs of those with disabilities. Thousands took to the streets to protest during the Stonewall riots which helped bring about change to discriminatory laws that affected the LGBTQ comunity. As Ibram X. Kendi points out in this excellent opinion piece from July 4, 2019 “When Americans struggle for the power to be free, they are afflicting and revolutionizing and refining the United States. They are the Patriots. Patriotism…is resistance.”
No one has ever given anyone freedom. Freedom has to be wrestled from those who see your gain as their loss. Freedom comes from fighting for power and it’s a messy business. We have seen millions of Americans take to the streets over the last few years. Americans who are challenging the status quo. As this report shows, over 90% of the Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. I wish it had been 100%. But as concerned as I am about those who resort to violence, I am more concerned with those who seem fixated on the violence and not on the reason for the protests. History has taught us that if our goal is to expand freedom, it will not come easy. It will require us to learn more, say more, and do more. It will require good trouble!