Where I Plan to Stand

Election night I saw my daughter, fifteen, go to bed in tears, and at four in the morning, she was up again, in tears.

Tuesday morning, she went with me into the voting booth, and fiercely, triumphantly pushed the button for me in what she felt certain would be a historic election of our first woman president. As we went through all the state and local candidates, I showed her how to do a write-in for a candidate with no scruples for whom I could not vote. I am in a swing state, and I did not do that for President.

I let my daughter’s enthusiasm stand in for mine. I am not a huge supporter of Hillary Clinton, who has been in political leadership almost my entire adult lifetime. Because of this, she has a large grasp on world affairs, she is brilliant, and she is clear-minded. She is also centrist (yes, I am a Sanders supporter, much more socialist than most of my family), a political insider, and a machine candidate.

My initial and largest hope for this debacle of an election was that the United States would finally break the hegemony of the two-party system. I yearn for a system which allows people to find a platform they truly wish to support, which would ask all parties to negotiate. Instead, we have this: an election in which the majority of us voted as a “vote against” instead of a true vote for.

Like much of America, I am happy about somewhat stronger voter turnout. Yet I am terrified at what draws people out of their doors to vote.

From her debut on the national political scene in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton has evoked a visceral public reaction. Even twenty-five years ago, I knew this was not because of who she is, but because she broke expectations of what a first lady should be.

In my corner of the world, people didn’t like that she chaired major policy initiatives such as analyzing health care delivery in this country. First ladies before Eleanor Roosevelt did nothing but decorate the White House, themselves, and the arms of their spouses. After Eleanor, they were allowed to speak out for children and do community service. But they were not allowed to put their brains and know-how to draft and propose policy, as Hillary did, and the public made her pay for it.

For more than two decades, Hillary has gotten slammed in part because she is what I am trying to be in this world—a strong, outspoken, intelligent woman. This gets all mixed up with valid critiques about her liaison to power, her lack of frankness and duplicity, and whatever people feel like about her actual political positions, but it is separate from it. Hillary has always been more vulnerable precisely because she is a strong woman.

I believe this same attitude, a kind of disruption of the norm, has made sure Barack Obama got more hate, more scrutiny, and more opposition as President than he would have if he were white. I am unshakeable in this, and I also realize it cannot be proven to those who do not share my viewpoint. So let that rest.

To the instinct that drew people out of their doors to vote against an entrenched political establishment, I can resonate. I too yearn for more authentic leadership, bipartisan work across the aisles, less rhetoric and more compromise, less money and patronage.

I see and feel acutely the urban-rural divide. I decry the polarization and lack of political dialogue in this country, which I believe has been intensely aggravated by our little social media bubbles as well as the ridiculous insistence by both Fox and CNN news that they are not biased. (Why not just be truthful and have the conservative, liberal, and centrist news sources labeled that way as happens in Europe?)

I have very strong opinions on the environment, immigration, the disparity of wealth and poverty, international dialogue and the role of America in the global community, anti-militarism, and overturning institutional racism. At a macro-level, these seem more important and more life sheltering.

But I get that others see it differently. My 85-year-old mother who shows up weekly at a clinic to give women options for the adoption of their unborn children could not vote for a pro-choice candidate. My in-law voted for the Supreme Court, and who would be choosing the nominees. My uncle voted for the iconoclastic Trump who said anything he thought, and the freedom of that. A cousin feels the sexuality stuff has gone way too far, and that somehow a Trump vote would rein that in.

However, I am furious at the existence of a Christian community that elevates some of these concerns over others and uses them as a litmus test for the legitimacy of one’s faith. I hate the Christian world (mostly white and comfortable) that assumes a monolithic Christian political opinion.

Each one of these very different concerns, “right” and “left,” has some valid biblical basis. There is no Christian platform. There are just different platforms that fervent, rooted Christians support. To put God unequivocally on my side is to replicate the abuse I have endured my entire life.

Could I have voted for Hillary Clinton if she had said sordid, sexually violent comments about men? Racist comments, and then corrected them? If she had no electoral experience at all? If she was narcissist and inflammatory?

And would I have done that because she, on paper, represented my personal political perspectives? I am so glad I was not faced with this dilemma, but most conservative Christians I know who were voted for their guy, so perhaps I would have done the same thing.

It was hard for me to understand how moral Christians I know were able to jettison so many of their values in the end to back Trump. Many young people I know could not, which is why many millennials opted not to vote in this election at all. I’ve heard from them, shocked and afraid, all day this day after.

There is a kind of terror at this unmasking of America; at what brought people out to the voting booth. “I have to look in this electoral mirror and see what my country is, and who they would vote for,” writes one. “This overturns all the justice I have worked for in my life. I can’t think about the life of my children.”

Yet when I look ahead, at the shadows of what might come, I realize I will still count on the loving nature of the Christians I know. While I know some granite-hearted, ideology-first believers in Jesus, most of the ones I know have a strong capacity for love.

If I have been deluded by my own fears, and things go well, I will let down my guard and accept another term of political compromise. That’s the breaks. If others have been led by their ideology over their compassion, I trust the Spirit to be working on them.

But if my worst fears about Trump unfold, and we move toward dictatorship, overt racism and sexism, and increased poverty and world isolation because of his leadership in “making America great again,” I will be calling them all and asking them to step out of their comfort zones (comfortable in every way) to join me in courageous, costly witnesses to the way of love. Because I only believe in political perspectives that cost one something.

I expect us all to show up.

Politics are murky and struck through with power and ugly principalities. But compassion is never misguided. That is where I hope to stand.


Dee Dee Risher is a writer and editor who lives in Philadelphia. Her recent book, The Soulmaking Room (Upper Room Books), talks, appropriately, about faith, authenticity, and grief.




The Color of Orange

Ever since Dan Berrigan's death, I have been thinking of the role of poetry in social protest, and how it is more powerful and also how it avoids all the traps of statements. It lets me say what I feel without having to justify anything. Last week, my son Luke's friend Brian, both of them part of Philly Student Union, got a concussion at school while trying to go to the bathroom, because he was held in a choke hold by a school security guard. I am not kidding you. But the coverup is underway. So the poets must come forth....


The Color of Orange


My son, sixteen, knows her son, eighteen.

My (white) son, sixteen, knows her (black) son, eighteen.

So we all know that what we are reading in the paper--

the statement by the school district--

is a lie. I am a poet, so I want to write something true

even though it is not official and will not be believed.


[ I am white, and I finished a top university,

so I have been conditioned to expect that what I say

will be listened to.

This is the background of this poem.

This is the foreground of this poem.

This is why the school district spokesman will be believed

and her son (eighteen, black, five feet four, eleventh grade) will not be believed

even though his body carries the evidence. ]


Ben Franklin was a poor (white) boy who did well,

became healthy, wealthy, and wise from going to bed early apparently,

so it was appropriate for his City of Brotherly Love

to name an institution of learning after him.


In the high school named for him,

all the bathrooms are locked, and there are school military police

on every other floor. To use the bathroom, you need a pass or go at pass-time.

To get a pass is usually impossible. The police-guards sometimes let you in,

or you have to try another floor, another guard. Good luck.


Her son needed to use the bathroom at pass-time.

(How many times did I walk into a bathroom today and use it?)

The guard (over six feet, white)

refused. This guard has been giving him the evil eye anyway.

Damn. Try another floor, another guard.

(Why do we have guards instead of counselors and nurses?)


The next floor. Same guard. Got here ahead of him, looks mad.

 (Reader, are you wetting your pants yet, remembering high school,

having to go,

what if you wet your pants in high school

outside a locked bathroom.

But I digress, and anyway, you didn’t go to a high school with locked bathrooms,

did you?) Refuses to let him use the bathroom.


Her son is not violent. He is smart and committed to justice.

But he has been pushed to the edge, he has to go.

He hurls an orange against the wall.

(You could see the mark of the orange on the opposite wall before

they cleaned it up and said instead that he threw in the other direction,

at the guard’s head. Lots of people saw it, but then,

they were just black and brown kid-people.

The in-charge people had it erased by a brown janitor.)


The police-guard was angry. Two crushing fists into the student’s face now

(five feet four, brown boy son), then

head smashed against the floor,

the choke hold.


On the video taken on the iphone of his friend

(brown boy, armed with technology that can witness) we see only

the chokehold part. For two long seconds, I hear his imploring words

as he holds his phone, knowing it is the defense his friend

will need, urging the guard:

“Let him go, dawg—he isn’t even resisting.”


I watch her son

pinioned in the blue grip, lying on the floor of the school

named for Benjamin Franklin in my fair city of brotherly love.

He is getting quieter, face flushed,

losing air, consciousness,

seeing black.


(Oh sorry, that was us seeing the black…)


I pause this poem while I go use my unlocked bathroom

and as an aside, thank God

there is finally some kind of technological witness,

the only way even good (white) people like me--

whose experience is that we are listened to –

will actually believe what goes on,

and still we think it must be a trick, an isolated case;

the film must have been tampered with.

This new technological witness troubles our restless (white) dreams--

Rodney King, Fruitvale Station, Eric Garner—

lifting them into digital brightness.


Luckily there is always the white fallback:

the cover-up about what came before the tape,

the myth of the violent black-brown man.


He cursed and he hurled an orange. Fact.

Orange at the opposite wall.

Sticks and stones, but words shall never hurt me.


Let these words hurt you.

Let these words hurt you.



The administration makes the iphone boy (brown, young)

erase the video from his phone.

The boy (brilliant, loving justice) goes home

and pulls the video from the cloud of witnesses

which is why I am even writing this poem,

and why the school district had to make a statement

duly dispersed and digested by reporters:


School District spokesman Fernando Gallard disputed the choke hold, saying it was “clearly a restraining hold and not a choke hold.”.... the student “voluntarily” began banging his head on the floor, an act that was witnessed by the school's principal, Gallard said. “After all this occurred, the student is declaring he was assaulted by the school police officer,” Gallard said. “We are now conducting an investigation because we take those accusations seriously.”


It doesn’t really matter. We are a culture of lies anyway.


Consider this description on the website of the high school of one thousand students named for Benjamin Franklin in our fair city in which every day bathrooms are locked:


A comprehensive high school where graduating students embark on one of these pathways: attend a 4-year college or university, attend an accredited 2-year technical program or trade school, join the military, or enter the workforce.


The school will consist of two small learning communities: 9th- and 10th-grade community, and 11th- and 12th-grade community. Each community will have a coordinator and counselor dedicated to develop programs, celebrate successes and support student academic and career goals.


I see her son’s head smashed against the wall like an orange.

I see hallways of students: Black: 78 percent.  Latino 14 percent. Asian 5 percent. White 2 percent. The fairest, brilliant of my fair city still full of courage.


Let him go, dawg, he isn't even resisting.


I write this poem because I want all of us to resist.

I don’t want to stay part

of the willing unknowing cloud of un-witnesses any longer.

I can no longer bear to pull on my white skin--

my pass for the bathroom and my pass for life—

without naming its power.


I write this poem to say something true,

but also because I do not know what part of her son’s injuries

allow my son to breathe clear air.


-Dee Dee Risher

May 2016



Why Social Justice Workers Need Gratitude

I am convinced that the root of our denial about our own participation in racism and our disempowerment to address the economic and ecological exploitation of the world or whatever our points of struggle is that we have lost touch with whole parts of ourselves, the sad and wounded parts, the parts that have also been hurt by the injustice. We have not been able to cry or lament. Grief opens the door and carries us over the threshold to a place of different wisdom. Then the real work of God begins—the carving and sanding that shape us. We have to find our own answers. When those answers come, they will not fit our perfect ideologies. They will be born of concession and compromise, of trying first one new model and then another. They will instill in us a deep, almost mystical, appreciation of grace. When those answers come, they will reshape our hearts. We will be cloaked in gratitude—specific gratitudes that spring from our particular, life-giving moments. Ultimately this gratitude opens the only path that can call us home to our true and authentic selves.