July 4th is supposed to be a celebration of American independence and, to a greater extent, America itself. In 2020, this is a fraught proposition.
The year’s events have shaken many Americans’ faith in their country. Sixteen days into 2020, the U.S. Senate began its impeachment trial of Donald Trump, who is only the third president to face such a proceeding. Evidence, as documented by the Mueller report and through witness testimony in the House, that Trump committed impeachable offenses was by dispassionate evaluation beyond dispute. But Senate Republicans, members of what people used to call the world’s greatest deliberative body, didn’t even pretend to take seriously their solemn constitutional duties as they pantomimed the trial and delivered a predetermined acquittal. Their actions fell short of America’s ideals.
Four days after the impeachment commenced, the novel coronavirus was detected on American shores. A Washington state patient was the first of what by now numbers more than 2.3 million U.S. cases, with more than 120,000 dead.
Governments can’t end disease, but they’re obliged to offer protections. Instead, national leaders too often offered misinformation, crackpot remedies and outright lies. The president was warned about the gravity of the coronavirus threat as part of classified briefings in January, but even almost a month later his public position was that “it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” which falsely suggested Americans had little to worry about when in fact leaders squandered precious time during which they could have properly defended constituents from the quiet wildfire of pandemic disease. The president has encouraged all manner of wackadoodle treatments, such as injections of disinfectant, internal ultraviolet applications, and, infamously, hydroxychloroquine doses. A man died and his wife became critically ill after they took chloroquine to treat COVID-19 just days after Trump touted the method. His failure to lead during a time of national crisis fell short of American ideals.
On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s death was the latest instance in which an unarmed Black person perished needlessly at the hands of white officers, and it highlighted the lethal racism that remains the country’s deepest shame and gravest division. A video of Officer Derek Chauvin fatally pressing his knee down on Floyd’s neck permitted all the world to witness such brutality, with the horrifying implication that such cruelty is common to police interactions with our Black neighbors. Outraged Americans of diverse backgrounds took to the streets in day after day of peaceful protest, an activity that in hundreds of documented cases provoked further unjustified violence, as police deployed “less lethal” munitions that seriously injured Americans who were exercising rights their predecessors died to defend. History will record the notorious June 1 clearing of Lafayette Square near the White House as the most egregious and anti-democratic example of such state aggression against demonstrators. The police response to protesters and the persistent racism that motivated the protests betrays American ideals.
So on this July 4th, when America the institution struggles to retain our affections, the Americans who would elevate it have earned great admiration. Congress is so diminished and ineffective that at times there appears little reason for its existence. But constituents in lawmakers’ home districts have lost patience and are organizing for change at the polls. Never has so much uninterrupted incompetence contaminated the White House. But individual Americans who recognize the political sickness in national leadership during the pandemic don with pride the face masks they know will better protect neighbors from the coronavirus. One hundred and fifty-five years after the end of slavery, racism still warps American institutions, sometimes in almost imperceptible ways, other times in the form of homicide. But after Chauvin put his knee down, Americans put their foot down. Protesters, the vast majority peaceful, marched for days in American streets and forced positive change. Colorado lawmakers in a bipartisan and nationally-influential move responded to grassroots pressure by passing the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act, a sweeping measure that among other reforms ends qualified immunity for police officers who violate a person’s constitutional rights. The Stapleton neighborhood of Denver, namesake of a former mayor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, after years of criticism is getting a new name. Demonstrators have gathered in small Western towns and big coastal cities, bringing about swift local reforms across the country. Change has been so substantial that Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me,” remarked recently in an interview, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.”
The national capital is curdled with lawlessness. Disease rampages through the country. White supremacy still animates agents of state power. Yet among the people percolates a spirit that affirms the nation’s founding ideals. The Americans who demonstrated, peacefully, day after day, until they achieved positive change should be celebrated this Fourth of July. Because it is they who foster an America worthy of the holiday.