Time to Transition – by Clarissa Clò, Professor of Italian and European Studies, San Diego State University
The recent U.S. elections have not been short of surprises. The unprecedented number of voters in the midst of a global pandemic that forced many to vote early and by mail translated into a far longer wait to find out the results, before Biden was finally declared the apparent winner. Election night had an eerie feeling of dejà vu from four years ago, when Hillary Clinton lost against any expectation and left many stunned and broken-hearted.
This year turned out differently. We watched anxious and mesmerized as the slow trickle of counted ballots from state to state moved the election in Biden’s favor, countering the initial in-person votes that seemed to privilege Trump. And yet, even after Biden secured a large margin of electoral votes in several swing states, Trump not only refused to concede – something he has yet to do and probably never will – but mounted a remarkably damaging disinformation campaign, calling for unsubstantiated voter fraud and mobilizing an army of lawyers and supporters to the tune of “stop the steal.” None of these tactics have worked, other than emphasizing the extent to which the bar can be lowered and the already fragile faith in democracy demolished. They have, however, succeeded in delaying the official transition and transfer of power with potential dangerous consequences for national security.
Biden has received an astounding 80 million votes, the most of any other American president in history, including Barak Obama who held the previous record, but Trump was rewarded with the second largest count and the closeness of the race in some parts of the country, including the democratic losses in the House and the precarious tie in the Senate, is not reassuring, possibly limiting the range and breath of reforms that the Biden-Harris administration can be expected to enact.
Despite all of these uncertainties and fractures, it is worth pondering on what, in fact, has been achieved, the result of relentless grassroot organizing on the part of a progressive, multi-racial coalition of activists, which include youth, women, Black women in particular, and LGBTQ+ minorities. Kamala Harris will be the first woman of African and Asian descent to fill the Vice Presidency; the importance of her presence and representation cannot be overstated. Millions of girls will grow up with her example, knowing that it is possible for someone like them to attain such position and to strive for more.
[Fig. 1, IMAGE OF HARRIS AS RUBY BRIDGES]
Of course, the next backlash is never far behind, after all, eight years of Obama were immediately followed by an opposite and hostile administration. Still, it is also important to celebrate this moment and reflect on what has led us here.
The night that Hillary Clinton lost galvanized new and different generations of activists and ignited several movements, from MeToo to Black Lives Matter. Trump had benefited from the vote of many white women, but women were also among the first constituencies to organize. On January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, a worldwide protest led by women and appropriately dubbed Women’s March erupted across the globe and several U.S. cities. The stream of women in pink-knitted pussycat hats peacefully and creatively took over not just Washington D.C., but many other locations. It was a family affair, with mothers bringing their daughters and sons to exercise their right to oppose a president elected without the popular vote, the vote of the majority of citizens, that is, whose agenda promised to dismantle the gains of the previous administration and would eventually far exceed the initially anticipated blows to climate change, international relations and human rights, to name just a few.
[Fig. 2-6, IMAGES OF THE WOMEN’S MARCH IN SAN DIEGO by CLARISSA CLÒ]
It was the birth of the so-called Resistance. Scores of women in the following years have run for office and have been elected to Congress, most notably a group of young, diverse, multi-ethnic and interfaith, women nicknamed “the Squad” and comprising Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, of New York, Ilhan Omar, representative of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Aryanna Pressley of Massachusetts. They are of Hispanic, Somali, Palestinian and African American descent, respectively. Their politics is radical and their attitude fierce. They are well prepared, vocal about what they stand for, and have plenty of pop culture allure.
[Fig. 7, IMAGE OF THE SQUAD FROM DEVIL’S DUE COMICS]
It is no wonder that they have been target by Trump from the beginning. “AOC+3” he called them during the campaign, an indication of how threatening these assertive and unapologetic young female politicians are to the status quo and to white supremacy. The Green New Deal may not be on Biden’s agenda, but it will serve as a reminder that drastic measures are needed to reverse the damages inflicted on the environment, and on our own health, in these past few years.
We should never forget that, before moving to Washington, politics starts first and foremost at the local level. Washington is the most visible stage, but many things happen on the ground, in the patient everyday building and canvassing that occurs in locations far-removed from the spotlight. The recent democratic victory in Georgia is an example of the relentless work carried forth by Stacy Abrams and a network of sister organizations dedicated to re-enfranchise many African Americans that have been actively kept from voting by Republican politicians through thinly legal means, as if democracy was an elitist and jealously guarded pursuit and not a shared, albeit imperfect, common good. When every citizen is allowed to vote in easy and accessible fashion, and each vote is counted, the result can be remarkable. If anything, these elections have demonstrated that indeed every vote counts, and that one vote can literally make the whole difference.
How differently will Joe Biden and Kamala Harris govern? Let’s count the ways. I have already noted the importance of women, of racial and ethnic representation and of the LGBTQ+ community, whose members, especially Black and transgender, have been deeply penalized in these past few years. The race to appoint Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to secure a conservative majority by filling the vacancy left by the sudden loss of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or R.B.G., as her fans affectionately call her, in a reference, like for the Squad, to hip hop culture, confirms the fears of Republicans to lose the presidency and their obsession with court packing which they then turned around on Democrats.
The legacy of R.B.G. is ample and will likely grow stronger. In her long career she broke many gender barriers. She started as a defender of women’s rights as human rights whose negation was detrimental to all, including men. In her early years at the Supreme Court her opinions were on the moderate side. She veered progressively more to the left as the Court became more conservative and she is most famous for her lucid and sharp dissenting opinions. In other words, being on the losing side made her bolder and more incisive. Most notable is her 2013 dissent to the stripping of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holden in which she colorfully rebuked the majority opinion by stating that removing voting protections against discrimination was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Sooner or later, you might and you will not have the means to stay dry or safe.
[Fig. 8, PORTRAIT OF R.B.G. by BIJOU KARMAN]
With a new conservative majority in the highest court, many fear that Roe v. Wade, the law legalizing abortion is in jeopardy. Perhaps so, though that is hardly the only issue at stake. Judge Ginsburg maintained that that decision tried to do too much too fast and without sufficient consent, leaving it vulnerable to staunch opposition, as it has been the case ever since it was decided in 1973. Instead of making it about women’s privacy, she insisted that abortion should be protected as a matter of gender equality, a much broader concept. Perhaps we have now reached the point when this battle, like many others, cannot be simply ruled from above, but will be fought elsewhere, in public opinion, in the legislation at the state and local levels. We will see what the next few years will bring us on this issue. Regardless, droves of young and older feminists are sure to get involved.
Another area that Biden and Harris will likely tackle is the fate of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which currently allows those children that have been brought over to the U.S. without proper documentation, and under circumstances outside of their control, to remain in the country. Trump attempted unsuccessfully to terminate the program. Dreamers, as they are called, may finally be able to have their status legalized if immigration reform comes to pass. Though not exactly the same, the situation of Dreamers shares many analogies with that of second and third generation children of immigrants in Italy, where an obsolete and unjust citizenship law keeps many of them hostage of a system in dire need of transformation.
Immigration is a hot-button issue everywhere. I live in a border region, a large transnational metropolitan area that includes greater San Diego in Southern California, USA, and the city of Tijuana in Baja California, Mexico. From my location, immigration is both a challenge and a way of life for many of its inhabitants. Though nowadays it is gravely curtailed by Covid-19, border-crossing is a quotidian action for thousands of people, including many of my students and their families. Much has been said about the wall, which occupied a large part of Trump’s rhetoric in the previous election. Yet, the wall is neither a new concept nor a new commodity for either United States or Mexico, in a land where both countries are guests of the Kumeyaay indigenous peoples who have lived here long before this artificial, yet highly consequential, diplomatic invention separated them between two nation-states.
Since 9/11 and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in the mid-2000 the wall has been subjected to much scrutiny and renewed militarization. Many miles were also built under President Obama, so the slogan “build the wall” for those living at the border seemed a bit preposterous like asking Mexico to pay for it. None of the publicized prototypes made the cut and they were since destroyed, but parts of the wall continue to be built and replaced.
[Fig. 9-11, PHOTOS BY JILL HOLSLIN]
The wall retains endless fascination. Many of our guest speakers invited from Italy, have visited it, captivated by its imposing geopolitical and symbolic significance. The filmmakers Andrea Segre and Dagmawi Yimer, co-authors of the documentary Come un uomo sulla terra (Like a Man on Earth, 2008), about the mortal dangers of crossing other borders in Africa and the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching Fortress Europe, and the rapper Amir Issaa, renowned for his advocacy on behalf of second-generations, all went to bear witness to it.
[Fig. 12-13, IMAGES OF DAGMAWI AND AMIR]
For those living in Tijuana the wall is part of their everyday life. It is decorated and attended to like their own house and garden. San Diegans for the most part ignore its presence, and the area surrounding it on the American side is militarized and constantly surveilled by border patrol agents. Two very different ways of interpreting the meaning and imposition of the frontier space: one which tries to erase its presence by impeding access and the other which appropriates and creatively subverts its confines.
[Fig. 14-23, PHOTOS BY JILL HOLSLIN AND CLARISSA CLÒ]
Immigration may not have been in the headlines this election, but the images and stories of children separated from their parents and locked in cages at the border, in facilities not far away from where I live, are a stark reminder of the stakes and meanings involved in being human on earth, in claiming humanity and empathy over division and hatred.
Meanwhile seasonal migrants are considered “essential workers” in California. Invisible to consumers, they pick our food in the central valley and their labor, like that of many others in the service industry, ensures that produces reach the stores and supermarkets where we shop, for those who can afford it. Otherwise, a well-oiled non-profit sector and other food banks provide primary goods to all those that have been left to fend for themselves in the pandemic. Here social network means Facebook and its Silicon Valley competitors, not the cure and welfare of a society based on solidarity that takes care of its citizens.
If the last few weeks are any indication, the road to restoring a sense of unity and commonality will be long and difficult. But democracy, like equality, justice and change, are not easy. It requires constant attention and determination in the face of a myriad of adversities. It helps that those now charged to lead us are competent and experienced and truly represent the many and diverse faces of America. In any case, we’ll keep an eye on them. The view thus far is pleasing.
Clarissa Clò is Professor and Chair in the Department of European Studies at San Diego State University. Her research interests include feminist and queer theory, migration and postcolonial studies, literature, film, music, popular culture and transmedia storytelling in Italian and Italian American Studies. Her work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and book collections. She co-edited a special double issue of the journal Studies in Documentary Film entitled Other Visions: Italian Documentary Cinema as Counter-Discourse, 5.2 & 5.3 (2011), and edited a special double issue on regional cultural studies in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for Il lettore di provincia, 123 & 124 (2005).
In the zoom interview “Oltre Biden e Trump” (Beyond Biden and Trump- People, Communities and Movements) conducted in Italian by the Italian digital magazine Frontiere News by journalist Luca la Gamma, in addition to Clarissa Clò, the author of the above essay, the other interviewees were Bernardo Parrella who gave a very thorough analysis of the pre-election situation, focusing particularly on Trump’s strategies of voter suppression Barbara Ofosu-Soumah and Marina Romani who spoke about the movements. Below we provide the video of those interviews in Italian as well as a sample of the rich visual materials Barbara and Marina shared in the interviews.
In the gallery below we share Barbara’s rich materials on the intersections of various grassroots movements in the US, focusing on mutual aid, abolition and intersections between movements, all of these phenomena which she was able to observe and participate in in the Bronx:
This second gallery includes a selection from materials shown by Marina Romani during Frontiere News’ interview. Her contributions referred mostly to the the contributions of artists in California to resistance, solidarity and the elaboration of new models for being in the world. She also offered photos of the physical spaces where the artists worked, performed, painted murals, etc.
Bernardo Parrella is a freelance journalist, translator and activist on topics tied to digital media and culture, Based in the US he collaborated with many media outlets both in the US and in Italy.
Barbara Ofosu- Soumah is a Ghanian.American activist and interdisciplinary researcher who is active between Accra, and the Bronx. She believes in the fundamental importance of putting equity at the center of all aspects of social justice work.
Marina Romani (Ph.D., UC Berkeley) is a film and music researcher, Italianist, and performer. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Between Soundtrack and Performance: Music and History in Italian Film Melodrama, 1940–2010,” investigates how historical events are elaborated through cinema. Her areas of research include the phenomenology and politics of live performance, the racial politics of sound in post-Katrina New Orleans, Southern Italian folk music, and media seriality.. With a background in both Western classical music and Afro-Caribbean music, she also frequently collaborates with the San Francisco Opera as a contributing writer and regularly performs with the group Aguacero.