A Letter from Washington

This message arrived the day after the election.


Each of us has had their own window on the events of the past 24 hours, and their own story to tell. I want to take a moment to share with you what things look like through my window right now.

As the west coast results came rolling in at 10:00 pm last night,Susanna and I were riding with some friends through the geographic center of DC’s African American culture, and the epicenter of the riots that ensued here after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and the area in which we live. We knew the election had been decided when, as we dismounted our bikes, strangers ran up and hugged us. People poured out onto the streets chanting and singing and crying and dancing. As we approached the street corner, the rhythm found us. The sound of twenty drummers on djembes, bongos, snares, symbols, shakers. The sight of a growing mass of hundreds, then thousands, in a frenzy of hugs, tears, jumping, dancing, and chanting. People hailed the crowd from the tops of lamp poles,  tall trees, bus shelters. We were enveloped in a smiling sea of white, black, brown, red, yellow, young, old. A few elderly black men and women – those who had grown upforbidden to share a water fountain or attend the same school as their white peers – stood on the sidelines, just shaking their heads slowly, repeating the words “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”

Understand that racial divides have remained strongly palpable here even in the absence of overt violence. This city is a prime example, and while there are many important exceptions, my experience here has been largely one of segregation – geographically, economically, culturally and socially. This majority African American city, for example, has one of the most abysmal education systems in the country and an HIV infection rate that is 10 times the national average and largely concentrated in the black community – a fact attributable in various ways to socio-economic conditions. This country has simply not dealt with its racial wounds, yet seems somehow shocked when then bleed and get infected. Here the relationships between blacks, whites and latinos is not a mosaic, not a melting pot, but mostly a guarded tolerance that is heavy on the streets. Lets just say that bear-hugs from random six-foot-six black men aren’t something I have come to expect.

Aside from the raw joyful energy present here, it was the chants that keep turning in my mind. There were of course the chants of “Obama! Obama!” which framed this as a celebration of him and the promise of new leadership. There were chants of the famous campaign slogan “Yes we can,”  three simple words which capture, as my friend Andrew put it last night, the spirit of affirmation, unity, and possibility, respectively. But I listened with astonishment as some in the crowd spontaneously began chanting, “We are one! We are one!” We are one. It is a message that Americans, and indeed human beings, have always rejected as a matter of principle. Even here, the chant did not fully catch on, though I shouted as loud as I could. The patterns of fear and alienation that have divided us do not shift easy, even in these transcendent moments. But to even flirt with this message, as a crowd of all race and background together in a public place, brought me close to tears.

The past years have been so disillusioning, and so heartbreaking for so many Americans, that the name “USA” has been ensnared in the politics of military aggression, expansion, and nationalistic arrogance. For many of my American friends and peers, expressing vibrant and active citizenship, or the will for peace, has been something done almost in defiance of the slogan “USA” and all that it has come to represent. So I when this vibrant tornado, who in past years have been marginalized by virtue of their race or  political views, began chanting with the utmost fervor, “USA, USA!” I was truly wide-eyed. I could feel that “USA” meant something very different here last night than it has in a long time, maybe ever.

These are sounds and sights that defy cynicism.

This is a link to our window of the time leading up to and immediately following the election.

Cinematography Susanna Haas Lyons, Editing
Aaron Lyons. Starring some of the folks included in this very


Stay True,


Aaron is the son of Stan and Jeanne, who lived on our farm with us in Canada during the 1970’s.

His account and his wife Susanna’s video are especially meaningful to me because I stayed at their home during the 2007 Peace Protest in Washington, roamed the neighborhood he describes, and while there wrote this.

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