By Ben R. Williams
I had an out-of-town work event early last Saturday. I got to work, hopped in the car of my friend and co-worker Kal, and we hit the highway. After about two hours on the road, we decided to make a pit stop on I-81 to inspect the restroom facilities at a local convenience store.
We were standing on the porch of the store stretching our legs when a dude wandered up to us. He looked like he had spent the previous evening in the ditch across the street.
He gestured toward the employee badge on the lanyard around my neck.
“Where do ya’ll work?” he asked.
I told him.
“I GUESS that’s fine,” he said, and the tone of his voice told me that it probably wasn’t.
Before I continue describing this exchange, I want to make one thing clear: this guy is a real guy. I didn’t make him up. He isn’t some fictional straw man I’m presenting to prove a point. This is an actual conversation I had with a real human being.
We now return to the story.
“Where are ya’ll coming from?” he asked.
“Martinsville,” I said.
“They got a lot of Trump signs in Martinsville?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. We got a lot here too. But some people are still voting for Biden. Those idiots must be crazy.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
“Do ya’ll have anything to do with taking down the Confederate statues?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, “we don’t have anything to do with that.”
“Erasing our history,” he said.
I didn’t reply.
“You should listen to talk radio,” he said.
“Not much I’d less like to do.”
“Good stuff on there,” he continued. “Rush and Hannity. They tell you the REAL truth. It’s scary.”
“That’s the point,” I said. “They want you to be scared.”
“I ain’t scared!” he shouted.
He continued to ramble on about how Danville was once the capital of the Confederacy and the liberals are evil and so forth and so on. By this point, I had decided I had a long day ahead of me and I didn’t really want to get in a fight with a weirdo at a gas station at 9 a.m., so I just ignored him. Kal and I got in the car and got back on the road.
I wish I could say that this incident was some kind of outlier, but it isn’t.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent less time in public than ever before due to the pandemic. At the same time, I’m having far more encounters with people like this. People who are angry. People who are seconds away from an outburst. People who want to size you up and find out which team you’re on so they can decide whether or not to treat you like a human being.
A few months back, I was at the grocery store and bumped into a guy I used to consider a friend. Back in the distant days of 2016, we marched together at a rally to support equality for Latino immigrants. When I saw him recently, he was wearing a MAGA hat and he was itching for a fight.
He pointed to his hat and told me he wasn’t afraid to wear it in public. He carries a gun, he said, and if someone knocked his hat off his head, he would shoot them. I got the impression he was looking forward to that day.
There have been other incidents, times when I’ve been out in public and been accosted by complete strangers who want to know who I’m voting for. In all cases, I haven’t done anything to warrant the interrogation. I don’t wear campaign shirts or hats. I don’t bring up politics in mixed company. But that doesn’t stop people. They want to know if I’m voting for Trump, and the reason is clear: they’re trying to find out whether or not I’m the enemy.
I’m just going to come out and say it as politely as I possibly can: I don’t support Donald Trump. I never have, I never will, and I would never want anyone to think otherwise.
If I were to make a list of all the reasons, this newspaper would be as thick as a phonebook. But the chief reason is the division.
I’ve heard people saying we’re on our way to a second Civil War. I disagree. We’re not on our way to it; we’re in the middle of it, and no matter what happens in November, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
This Civil War doesn’t look like the first one. Armies aren’t squaring off against each other on rural battlefields. Today, the battlefields are in your neighborhood, in your local grocery store, in your post office. The opposition isn’t a trained army; it’s your neighbor, who’s been listening to talk radio and watching televised propaganda and listening to politicians who only want to rile him up, and now he’s so scared and angry that he’s ready to snap at the drop of a hat.
Or maybe he wants to get together with some buddies to kidnap and murder the Governor. Just ask Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer about that one. For that matter, you could ask our own Governor; it came out on Tuesday that the domestic terrorists who were plotting to kidnap Gov. Whitmer were also discussing kidnapping Gov. Ralph Northam.
Funny coincidence; those are two states that the President, via Twitter, encouraged his followers to “LIBERATE!”
None of this is normal. Not one bit of it. There was a time, not all that long ago, when people could protest (a fundamental right enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution) without worrying that a lunatic from three states away might show up in mercenary cosplay and kill them. There was a time when you could put a campaign sign in your front yard without worrying that someone might target your house. There was a time when having a political argument meant discussing the merits of a flat tax, not whether migrant children should be put in cages, or whether science is real, or whether the postal service is important.
This is the part of the column where I would normally offer some kind of solution, or at least a punch line. I don’t have either. The only thing I can offer is a piece of advice:
If someone is sizing you up to determine which team you’re on, don’t be ashamed if you have to lie. Just do what you can to stay safe.
You might think I’m being alarmist, and you’re welcome to that opinion. But if our present moment isn’t the time for alarm, I hate to imagine what the right moment would look like.