Philadelphia—A reader tweets: “Exploitation of grief? You mean like every Democratic convention ever?”
Which, despite coming from a Republican troll with 10 times as many tweets as followers, is a fair question. After the first night of the Republican convention, I’d written that “in its eagerness to parade and exploit these grief-stricken survivors, Trump’s Republican Party seemed to me to have reached a new low.” I’d watched with mounting unease as Sabine Durden, Mary Ann Mendoza, and Jamiel Shaw, who’d each had a son killed by undocumented immigrants, spoke at the Cleveland convention. But it was probably the testimony of Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was killed at the US compound in Benghazi in 2012, that seemed to me to cross a line—and certainly made me squirm in my seat. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” she said.
The horror of losing a child to violence could unhinge any parent. But in taking our natural human compassion and empathy and weaponizing it for political purposes, the Trump campaign had, in my view, gone well beyond the cynicism that governs so much of our politics. Yet I’ll also admit that after I filed my post in Cleveland I’d recalled the DNC press release announcing that the Mothers of the Movement would be speaking to the Democrats here.
In deploying these women last night, the Democratic Party was potentially exploiting their grief—just as the Clinton campaign had earlier deployed Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, and Lucia McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, was killed in Florida by a man who objected to the volume of music coming from his car, as surrogates against Bernie Sanders in South Carolina. The Sanders campaign, in turn, made a television campaign featuring Erica Garner, whose father was choked to death by New York city police officers.
So yes, they all do it. Both parties are guilty of using grief to underline their message. And none of it—not the parents in Cleveland or the mothers on stage in Philadelphia—makes for comfortable viewing. But not all uses of grief are the same.
In Cleveland we saw private anger and pain made public to further an agenda of division and even hatred. We saw a world where the easy availability of murder weapons is not even worthy of mention—and where for every human tragedy a politician must be blamed.
Last night we saw something else. Geneva Reed-Veal demanded our attention not to indict anyone but so she could tell us “how good God is.” Her daughter, Sandra Bland, was found hanged in a Texas jail cell after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change. And yes, Reed-Veal was there to support Hillary Clinton, “a woman, and a mother, who will say our children’s names.” Lucia McBath wanted to make sure her son’s death doesn’t overshadow his life—the life of a young man who “wouldn’t eat a Popsicle unless he had enough to bring out to his friends.” And she wanted to make sure we knew that “the majority of police officers are good people. Doing a good job.” Sybrina Fulton told us she was there not just for Trayvon, but for his brother Jahvaris “who is still alive…. This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about saving our children.”
It is also, inescapably, about agency. And politics. To see any of these parents, in Cleveland or Philadelphia, simply as victims is to deny them agency. But to grant that agency is also to allow them to make their own political choices. Which in turn deserve to be evaluated on their merits.
Hillary Clinton has stuck her neck out on what Sybrina Fulton called “common-sense gun legislation.” She might really mean it—or she might have been looking for an issue where she could be to the left of Bernie Sanders. But she did it—and if she abandons the fight, she’ll have to answer to the women spoke last night.
To me the Mothers of the Movement weren’t making an argument about policy—much less an indictment of any individual. They were taking the spotlight, and using it, to make sure their children were not forgotten: Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Dontre Hamilton, Blair Holt, Trayvon Martin, Hadiya Pendleton. If you watched last night, you won’t forget.
And if you watched but couldn’t see the difference between the way these women put their personal tragedies to use, and what we saw coming from the stage in Cleveland—then, frankly, I feel sorry for you.