Today I witnessed Union Square like never before. In the aftermath of the election, Union Square morphed into a beacon of hope appropriately located underground, in the city’s most powerful equalizer. The subway.
In every sense, Union Square is a place of confluence. It’s a train station and a park. It’s an altar for Hare Krishna devotees and a meet-up for protestors. It’s a farmer’s market and a chess club. From there the subway system ramifies to every borough, across a variety of socioeconomic regions that span the richer and the poorer parts of New York City.
It isn’t unique in this. (Times Square connects a broader sprawl of the city.) It’s uniqueness lies in that culture intermingles there: musicians, monks, chess players, skaters, break dancers, beat boxers, graffiti artists, activists, hipsters, moguls, beggars, police, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters all participate in the moving tableau of Union Square, sometimes joining in song and dance; but most of the time just looking askance and carrying on.
As I walked to my train, I saw a flurry of post-its appear across one of the station walls. Passersby had filled a wall with hundreds of post-its inscribed with voices of hope, solidarity, angst, and unity.
A crowd had formed. Some read the post-its. Others wrote fresh ones. A few took pictures of the entire wall, while others walked its expanse, camera-phone in hand. One woman took a selfie. And everyone was, in some way, awestruck.
Many post-its were on the ground. I saw one little boy, Spencer Burg, 13-years-old, picking them up and sticking them onto the wall with scotch tape. He moved along the wall’s base from post-it to post-it, grabbing, reading, and taping. A couple of people noticed him and stared, smilingly, and then furtively took pictures.
I wondered why so many of us looked at him inspired but didn’t say a word. People photographed him yet did not approach him to applaud his efforts. We beheld a good deed and let it go unacknowledged.
“Why are you picking up the fallen post-its?” I asked. “Because every voice deserves to be heard,” he responded.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked. “I started yesterday but I ran out of tape, so I came back today around—what time is it?”
“4:24,” I said
“About an hour ago. I brought more tape, and post-its and pens.”
He went on to say that “it feels good to see all the things people write to show support. I like seeing the names of kids, like ‘Kyle, 7-years-old.'”
“Do you think the messages would be stronger if people put their names and ages on them?” I asked.
“Maybe. It’s more specific than just writing ‘Unity,’ more real.”
I looked at him—the two of us crouched on the ground—and then I turned to look at everyone around us and noticed something I hadn’t before.
This wall says it all. It perfectly captures the state of our nation. It tells of a city in distress, a people who care little for voices unheard, and our penchant for sitting back rather than standing up.
Since the election, journalists and pundits have scrambled to explain why we were so unprepared for this result, and why Donald Trump amassed such widespread support, despite his blatant defects. After much introspection, a picture has come into focus. It’s become abundantly clear that Donald Trump’s success was due to rampant political disaffection and cultural discontent. What this boils down to is that enough people in the heartland of America felt unrecognized and delegitimized culturally and politically that they clung to the nearest life raft, electing a champion on the basis of hope and desperation.
So here we are, at a crossroads encapsulated by a question: How do we listen to people whose views of reality oppose our own? This is less a matter of difference of opinion than it is a difference of lived experience. That’s why opening a dialogue is so problematic. To listen is to hear dehumanization.
That’s on the extreme side of the spectrum though. There are those of his voters who do not stand for the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and sexist sentiment that his comments galvanized worldwide. To bring these people into the fold, we must first listen to their grievances. We must recognize them without labels or vilification.
The wall was conspicuous by what it lacked and portended. I spent about 30 minutes reading the post-its and didn’t see a single pro-Trump message. There are many possible explanations. This is New York City, a liberal safe haven; a number of pro-Trump voters remain silent for fear of backlash; I may have missed them. Whatever the correct explanation, there is a danger nonetheless. This wall is one-sided. It deludes people into false security, thinking that those opposing perspectives do not matter, that they are unimportant and innocuous.
It was hope and desperation that got Donald Trump elected. It is hope and desperation that will help Donald Trump and his cabinet succeed to the detriment of many (although I hope he proves many of us wrong). So it’s up to us to bridge that gap somehow, to drain the desperation that propels Trumps presidency.
Spencer replaced every post-it indiscriminately. I suspect that had he come across a pro-Trump post-it, he would have taped it and stuck it to the wall (I asked). Why? “Because every voice deserves to be heard.” There is a lesson to be learned here.
Spencer decided to take an active role inspired by a belief. He looked at the wall and rather than seeing the post-its that stood out, he saw the post-its that’d fallen down. He saw beyond the surface at what the wall represented and how it was falling short of its promise. We must do this too.
Confronted by difficulty, we must decide what role we will play. There are those who speak out. There are those who donate. There are those who simply observe. There are those who safeguard our principles. And there are those who remain indifferent until reality catches up with them. We should be mindful of the role we’ve assumed and make a choice. A deliberate moment.
Spencer looked at the wall and saw his role clearly. He took it upon himself to act publicly in the interest of people whose voices were lost to the movement of Union Square. Unbeknowst to them, he safeguards their voices solely because he believes he should. As a result, he also safeguards our principles at his young age.
So as you stare at the nation, at its people, what role will you play? Make sure you decide.