In the beginning, I simply didn’t believe that it could happen here. I am not a complete idiot. I knew that we were sliding into an autocracy. I had read plenty of books about this, and when Tim Snyder came out with “Tyranny,” I knew the intelligentsia were worried. But the President was such a goon, no command of language, repeating the same moronic phrases over for his followers’ to chant. I had not heard or noticed the term “base” before his election. In fact, I assumed that we had crossed a threshold with his predecessor and that democracy was safe. Yes, I was bothered about what the government did to Snowden, but I assumed overall, the country was free of the worst of its racism and tendency toward authoritarianism.
I think about it often now, when did it start? When were the first indicators that there was no going back? It happened long before we knew it did. A long time before then. I live in Portland, and Portland appeared to be a target, I knew that the President was challenging Democratic cities. Portland has always been a forgiving city, a liberal city. Blue hair? No problem. Undocumented? Turn the other way, no calling ICE. Black? Whatever. We were a chill place, with a demonstration every week about something. It was comfortable to be a non-conformist in Portland.
I had my women’s group, most were lesbians but there were a few straight women, one even in a long term marriage. We met monthly and discussed our lives, what project we would devote time to the next month or longer. We ate hummus and broccoli, I know this sounds so stereotypical, but we were comfortable. No one was shaking our tree. We cared about one another, hung out together, and talked. Some of us volunteered with St. John’s food bank, the extra veggies I had were donated to people who had little. We felt good about ourselves. We were doing all that we could to maintain kindness and be ‘woke.’ My Sangha met weekly, and the people in the group were much like me. Older, educated, articulate, and attempting to live a good life.
Then the pandemic hit. The community in which I lived wore masks, practiced social distancing, and everything went on Zoom. My friends and I worried about those who had less than us. We worried about those who had to leave the house to earn a living, those who had lost jobs. Many of my friends were lucky. We did not have to work outside the home, the teachers taught online, the therapists worked online, and I was a graphic designer, I had always worked online. But the need for food at the food bank increased. Small businesses closed, and the shelves at the supermarket became lean on cleaning supplies, at first. Finally, there was less food.
Then George Floyd was killed, and everything changed. People started demonstrating, each day, a small corner of Portland was the area of protests, and the protests lasted for months. Still, no one worried. My friends and I agreed with the demonstrations, as did many of us living in the city. We were the City of Roses, relaxed, friendly, and definitely not racist.
One day Suze came to visit on the porch, both of us wearing masks. She said, “I have heard that outside instigators are being hired to amp up the violence. We think it is an attempt to cause riots so that the Feds can come in. It is a strategy.” She was worried. She saw a very frightening scenario. She saw a future in which the Federal Government declared Martial Law to initiate an authoritarian take over. She was a historian by passion and had taught high school history for years. She had been thinking about retiring in the last six months but had delayed a decision. She understood that there were no clear boundaries about declaring Martial Law and that it had been instituted many times in the land of the free.
“He can’t declare Martial Law nationwide, though?”
“There is not much to stop him if he decides to.”
“Really? Dirtbag, he would use Portland as an excuse, wouldn’t he? And I am sad to say that the Dems are too willing to be nice. I don’t know what they would do.”
“I don’t know that there would be much they could do. He has the Senate and the Judiciary. He has locked up two major parts of the government. I am thinking of leaving.”
“What? Just for the winter, right? I know you have always wanted to live in Peru. But just for the winter?”
“I don’t know.”
Suze did not say much more. She had talked about wanting to get out of Portland in the winter for years. The rain was not her favorite, and as you have heard, Portland has a long rain in the winter. I had assumed she would leave eventually, but she had not even resigned her position, and a new school year was rapidly approaching.
Looking back, that was when I should have known. That was early August. The school year had not begun, Ruth Bader Ginzberg was still alive, and I thought Suze was just on her usual over planning and fantasy journey. I was not paying attention. I was too busy harvesting and admiring the plums and zucchinis. I loved and hated this time of year, all the work but the smell of late summer, the vines heavy with grapes and the garden alive with veggies and fruits. It was glorious.
A month later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dead. We had all worried about her health, she had battled one kind or cancer or the other for years, but suddenly she was not there. Gone. She died on the eve of Rosh Hashona. God had stalled as long as possible, she had work to do, but it was finally time. My women’s group ate cookies and sobbed. We were all concerned about what might happen, whether the final thin straw of balance in the Court would snap. We wondered whether Mitch McConnell would push through a conservative nominee before the election. Oh, and the elections were another matter. The Democratic nominee was an old man, nice but borderline feeble. He did have a firebrand of a vice president, but she was brown and not likely to win over the white males that had elected the current President.
It became apparent how hostile much of the United States was to Kamala, the Vice Presidential nominee, how rejecting much of the U.S. was to anyone who was not white and not male and for that matter, not 65. In Portland, though, we were excited. Some of us were excited that there was a woman nominee and that she was brown. Some of us, for instance, my friend Ana, was upset because she represented the white judicial establishment.
“You know she seemed to almost love locking up black men. That is what she did. Look at her record. She opposed cannabis and locked up black men. That does not seem very far from Trump’s base. She does not represent me.” Ana was furious about this regressive choice and none too pleased with Biden. “For God’s sake, he appeased the Southern Right. He is a lightweight and dishonest.”
Of course, the standards for dishonesty had changed. The President lied before, during, and after breakfast, and the fact-checkers had lost count.
It was around this time that I read “How Fascism Works.” I didn’t say much to anyone, just a brief conversation with Suze. She agreed with me that the whole situation did not look good. By this time, she had turned in her paperwork to retire. In a minor way, I was shocked. I did not comment when she told me. After she put her house on the market we had our first real conversation about her leaving.
“Are you sure of this? You have not lived there, and you are 65. You have lived your whole life here, really even in Oregon. You haven’t lived anywhere else.”
“Good thing I had stable parents, isn’t it? A good, solid beginning. What is it? A secure attachment? I think it will be okay. I have enough money, and my Spanish is passable. I will be fine. And yes, of course, I will miss Portland.” And reaching across to me, she touched my arm and said, “And I will miss you.”
I did not cry when she left. I felt a kind of delayed shock, numbness. I had known her for more than half my life, and she was disappearing somewhere off into the South. I returned to the kitchen, the coffee cups brought in from the porch, and a leftover cookie. I sat down and munched on the cookie. It tasted like cardboard. I laughed to myself. Maybe I have COVID? No sense of taste with this cookie.
That was still a long time before the world changed completely. My life went on. I received a big project in mid-September and spent a lot of time at the table, plotting out a mascara campaign. The visuals were engaging, and the money was excellent. I stopped watching the news. Friends of mine in the Sangha talked about taking ‘a news break.’ This sounded like a good idea. I missed hearing Noam Chomsky and Timothy Snyder warning that fascism was around the corner. Nothing much changed. I worked. I Zoomed with friends, the Sangha, and my employers. I checked in with Facebook and saw a few people talk about leaving the U.S. I thought little of it.
Suze left for Peru in mid-October. She was looking forward to settling in a tiny house she had rented in one of the nice barrios. We cried over Zoom. By that time, my friends and I were not meeting even on the porch. The virus had spiked. As Fauci had warned, the combination of the ordinary flu and COVID was a lethal mix. It did not take long to miss Suze. I felt that I had drifted into a state of limbo. In a conversation with a friend in Minnesota, also hit hard by protests, I found myself responding to her question about political Armageddon with, “We are not going to be in Armageddon, we are in it.” The conversation stopped. I, as shocked as she. Did I mean that? She said, what do you mean? “Gloria, we have been enveloped in smoke for a month, Armageddon is not going to arrive, it is here.”
“Oh, you mean environmental, not political?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Well, that is a different story.” She did not comment on the environment. It seemed I had won some kind of argument, the intellectual kind. It was hard to debate that there was no trouble with the environment. Had I voiced my thought that we were heading into as dangerous a situation with politics, she would have debated this. She was ever the rationalist. I was the alarmist. The truth is, I was still debating this myself. I simply could not believe that the country would move to fascism and condone anything resembling fascism, but then there were the Proudboys. How did I explain them? They flouted their racism and their admiration for the Nazis. They had waved Nazi banners in Charlottesville and had run down a young woman who was protesting against racism. She was one of the first white casualties. Again, we all barely noticed. That was the South, and the South was different than Portland.
Shortly after Suze left, I began to feel a tightness in my breathing, a tension in my body. It was not dramatic but instead subtle. It was not about the air because, by early October, the rain began. The smell of smoke left the air, but the tension remained. The Federal Troops had never left, but they had become less obvious, their black rented SUVs blended into the scenery. The protests dampened. Nothing was burning, not in the city or out, but the Feds remained. We stopped talking about this. My women’s group talked instead of projects we were doing, mostly to keep sane, learning Italian, crotcheting, writing. Several of us were more productive than ever with our art, our music. A friend of mine who was convinced she could not sing took singing lessons, and it turned out she could sing. And she loved it.
I was finishing the mascara project when it happened. Within one week, at the end of October, a new Supreme Court Justice was appointed. Female, from the South with a record of anti-abortion and anti-birth control decisions behind her, she was not RBG. My friends and I were horrified. The Democrats appeared to stand by, with meager arguments, and could not stop this appointment. The Court was now firmly in the conservative camp. It was shortly after her swearing in to the Court that Martial Law was implemented. I woke up to scan my phone, and the Washington Post reported that Martial Law had been declared. It was nationwide.
I didn’t know much about Martial Law before this. I lay in bed, frozen. I was cold with sweat. For a moment, I wondered if I’d come down with COVID, but no, it was fear. I googled “Martial Law.” Effectively it had been a stealth operation, declared at 1 am that night. I understood from friends there were tanks downtown and that no one was on the streets. There was quiet in Portland, almost no cars on the freeways, according to the local news. At least there was local news. The National newspapers had gone offline. My screen showed the story from yesterday with the one report from the middle of the night about the military now being in charge. It took forever to get out of bed that morning. I called friends, and a few picked up. Several were terrified and frank about this. Several were resigned, “We knew this was coming, didn’t we?”
The elections were off. This was a feature in this situation that was not universally true, I discovered. There were other times when Martial Law had been declared, and the elections proceeded as usual. Not this time. The reason given by the White House Spokesperson, another blond woman, new to her post, was that the elections were “rigged,” and the forces of the left were trying to take over the lawful government.
I was one of the forces on the left, and to my knowledge, no one I knew was taking over anything. It was clear there was serious spin on the situation and that whatever had happened was not about the left. I did not taste the coffee that morning. I did not cry or rant or donate. I sat for hours in my study, unable to do much of anything. Everything seemed flat, without light or flavor.
At about 11 that morning, Suze called from outside Lima. She said she had just heard and she offered me a plane ticket if I could get to Canada. I couldn’t. Not only had Canada prohibited entry by American citizens due to the pandemic, but the roads were blocked with tanks. No one was going anywhere. Suze suspected this. She had made the offer hoping otherwise.
“I am so sorry, Kia. I wish I could do something. The Peruvian government is offering sanctuary for any American who can get here. I was hoping. How are you?”
“Well, other than the fact that I can barely move, I suppose okay.” We talked for a little longer. I really had no appetite for conversation. What could I say that hadn’t already been said? We hung up, and I continued to sit in my study.
That was five years ago, there was a lot that followed that I try to forget. That was the beginning of Trump’s second term. He is now in his third. He had warned us. We had dismissed his bravado as hubris. Few listened. The people who had money and were not in support of the takeover left the country, sneaking out. They were able to. Most of us were not. The red states were happy with the changes and saw the legal and military changes as positive. Law and order was what they parroted. Trump was making America safe for democracy. The world watched and wrung their hands. The UN relocated to Switzerland, as the Trump-led government did everything to discourage them from staying. The Hague, the U.N., and the European Union all made lofty and disapproving statements about America’s changes. They did nothing. They could do nothing.
It quickly became illegal for women to use birth control. Very quickly, there were larger and larger prisons to hold the many swept up by a fully militarized ICE. The right to citizenship, based on the 14th Amendment, was abandoned. The “In Support of the Country” laws were enacted. Called the Randall Act after a southern Senator from Mississippi, these laws were sweeping. Anyone other than white males had to have a pass, renewed weekly to do any business out of their homes. The Randall Act was supposed to protect the population from COVID. It all sounded so lovely and patriarchal, protecting the weaker in society, except that some of those weaker were twenty-five, robust, and quite used to taking care of themselves.
I lost business. It wasn’t that it was illegal for me to work, but with the Randall Act and the constant litany of women shouldn’t work outside the homes, the work simply dried up. My house was paid for, and I was able to receive social security, so at least I could eat. Many could not. If you were not white, if you were any shade of brown, you were lucky to eat. People even joked that in the “ICE homes” as they were called, at least there was food.
I was diagnosed with cancer just a month ago. For me, this is terminal. It is a very different world today than five years ago. Now, if you are over 65 and female unless you are wealthy or married to a wealthy man, there is only palliative care. The message is clear. We are not valuable enough for the doctors to treat. I will die in this house that I have lived in for twenty-one years. It is a beautiful old house. I have been happy here, so I am not too upset about dying here. I still talk with my friends but in a coded way. We do not meet in a group and laugh and plan. Any group of women or non-white people who are not related can not meet legally. Not to say they don’t, but we don’t. It is too dangerous.
The pandemic is over. The doctors found the right combination of drugs to cure it and a vaccine to prevent it, and at least this I was able to receive. So, I will die of cancer, not of COVID. I am not too urgently clinging to this life. I believe I will have another, hopefully in Denmark, which is a democracy. The world mourns for us but can do nothing. The administration has not started any wars, therefore not giving any opening for another country to intervene. We are simply stuck, unable to move, although the military is not as visible a presence since the Randall Act.
I still hear from Suze, occasionally her letters get through. She can’t call and email outside this country is not allowed. She has become fluent in Spanish, she has taken up the tango and claims she is reasonably good at it. She misses me.
So do I.