The first time I watched Georgia voting systems implementation manager Gabriel Sterling’s furious tirade about the threats against him and his coworkers, I was impressed. Here was a Republican, a self-described conservative, telling off the president and all the people making those threats. “Death threats. Physical threats. Intimidation. They have lost the moral high ground. I don’t have all the words for this because I am angry.” He was clearly furious. He talked about a young contract worker: “There’s a noose out there with his name on it. This kid just took a job and it’s just wrong. I just can’t begin to explain the level of anger I have right now … Mr President, it looks like you probably lost the state of Georgia. Stop inspiring people to commit acts of violence.”
It didn’t take long for me to sour on his indignation. They never had the moral high ground. The death threats and intimidation against him and his co-workers are wrong. However, they’re not the first people to get them but in some sense the last, and if you care about people the president has attacked verbally and urged violence against, you could have started caring during the 2016 campaign. Nothing suggests Mr Sterling did, since he belongs to a party that has supported Trump and, more broadly, campaigns of hate and discrimination for the last 40 years and more. In recent years, Trump has urged police to treat arrestees more roughly, audiences to harass and even rough up journalists and dissidents in his crowds, and is well-known for the 26 credible accounts of sexual abuse and violence with which women have charged him. He’s the guy who pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017 for his conviction for disobeying a judge’s order to stop racial profiling.
In Georgia, the far right has finally turned on its own in its furious demand to have an election that serves Trump and the party rather than reflects the will of the people. I admire the integrity of Georgia’s secretary of state and other officials who have, in the face of great pressure to corrupt an election for their own party, refused. It does make you wonder why they’re in that party, though. Because this is the party of intimidation and corruption and voter suppression, the party that undermined a free and fair election in that state two years ago. And because the measure of our humanity is our ability to care for people unlike us, who are not in our clique, gang, church, on our team, side, who are not our color or our kin and who are not near to us in spatial distance as well as in affinity.
That generosity is evident in the medical workers risking their own lives to care for patients with Covid-19, including many who don’t believe they have the disease and didn’t take precautions against it. It’s in the Auntie Sewing Squad, which has sewn more than a hundred thousand cloth masks to distribute to frontline, vulnerable and devalued groups from farmworkers to former prisoners. It’s present in the activists and organizations defending refugees, including the children put in cages and separated from their parents by the Trump administration. It’s present in the work of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the Sunrise Movement, the housing rights advocates and activists demanding police and prison reform. It was present in the demonstrations this summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd.
All these things the Republican right has opposed. The war against empathy is always a war against the imagination, against that expansion of feeling to care about others. There’s another kind of expansion, through science and natural history or direct engagement, to understand the systems that connect us, our inseparability from other species, the climate, the environment, and Republicans have waged war on that too, in search of their apotheosized individualism as radical selfishness.
If you care about nooses as threats or actual murder weapons, you have a lot of nooses to care about, especially in the south.
This summer several Black men were found hanging from trees across the country, in cases police ruled were suicides and many believed were lynching murders; similar cases happened in recent years in Georgia. In 2016, 22-year-old New Jersey resident Michael George Smith Jr. was found hanging in Piedmont Park in Georgia. Another Black man was found dead in public by hanging in Georgia the year before.
If you care about threats more generally, you could have cared about the threats against a Pickens county, Georgia, school superintendent for implementing a trans-inclusive bathroom rule at local schools in 2019; they were his justification for reversing the decision. Trans students paid the price. Just before the 2018 election, in which Stacey Abrams was defeated by Brian Kemp, back when the Georgia election system didn’t seem so uncorrupted, she too faced threats. The Root reported, “One of the merry band of bigots that came to the event to harass and threaten Abrams was James J Stachowiak, a multiple convicted felon who regularly posts videos instructing his viewers to shoot black people on sight.” Brian Kemp, then the Georgia secretary of state competing for the governorship with Abrams, posed during the campaign with Stachowiak while he was wearing a T-shirt reading “Allah is not God and Mohammed is not his prophet.” And it wasn’t just threats. Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death by white men in Brunswick, Georgia, this February, while out jogging: not a hanging but definitely a lynching. Racial killings, police killings, domestic-violence homicides, mass shootings are some of the violence that runs through the fabric of this nation.
Mr Sterling was apparently silent on all of this until the dogs turned on him. He made me think of the famous words by the German pastor Martin Niemoller after the second world war, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist,” and on and on about who he did not speak out for, “then they came for me.” Then they came for Gabriel Sterling. Who was granted police protection and had the safety and standing to speak out for himself.