“I am not voting.” Ebaya Scooge hit the table. “I am not organizing. I am done!” Around the table, anger passed from face to face. Her boyfriend, Jay, palmed his eyes. Her co-organizers Celia and Feather stared at the ceiling.
“And you know why?” She leveled an accusing finger. “The Democratic Party is…”
“The graveyard of social movements,” they chanted in a sarcastic monotone. The tension drew stares from the bar.
It was Christmas Eve, and they met to plan a media push of the Biden administration to adopt a Green New Deal. It was Ebaya’s brainchild, and her working group, but she answered fewer and fewer emails. And filled the group’s Instagram with sardonic memes of people as sheep and politics as useless. They knew why she was enraged. Biden had brought corporate lobbyists into his administration.
“We fought to get him elected,” Ebaya shouted. “Remember how we protested? Remember the smell of pepper spray? Remember how Joshua is still in the hospital? After all that, the idiot turns around and gives Big Business a role? Fuck him!”
She grabbed her backpack, threw a twenty on the table and left the bar. Outside, her breath was white plumes in the icy night. Stabbing the cell phone with her fingers, she looked up and down the street. Where was the Uber?
The Spirit of Protests Past
A car turned the corner and pulled up, Ebaya got in scowling. Thoughts tumbled through her head. Why am I wasting my time? Why don’t I leave this shithole country?
The streetlights zipped by fast. Too fast. Ebaya told the driver to slow down. The car sped up; and outside, buildings shrank, got older; people on the street were dressed in gaudy eighties gold chains and red jackets and carried boom boxes. Panicked, she pulled on the handle, but the door was locked. In the rear-view mirror, she saw Ella Baker.
“What the…?” The car stopped, and she slammed into the seat. Ella got out. Ebaya did, too. They stood in 1980s Bronx. Two children played on a heap of rubble. It was Ebaya and her brother, Emilio.
“Why am I here?” Ebaya asked.
“Home,” Ella replied. “You said ‘I am done.’ And I felt that way, too, sometimes. It’s hard holding up your part of the world. But maybe you need to remember why you began fighting.”
She took Ebaya by the arm and they followed the past selves of her and her sibling around the ruins. Crack vials crunched underfoot. The gutted buildings loomed like giant tombstones to the American Dream.
“Remember, you wanted to change the world,” Ella said. “It seemed too big of a job until you realized you didn’t have to do it alone. And you weren’t the only one who knew hunger. People all over know it. When you go to the people, and ask them who they are, what they want, they’ll bring democracy.”
They followed her childhood self up the stairs to an apartment where their mom cooked on the one burner that worked on the stove. Her brother set the table. Ebaya leaned in to hug him, but her arms passed through him like a hologram.
“I know,” Ella continued. “You feel guilty that you got into a private school on scholarship. You moved on. Your brother fell behind. And he’s so far gone that no political fix can heal the hurt. But you’re not alone. How many families have been broken?”
Ella vanished, and Ebaya stroked the back of her brother’s head.
The Spirit of Protests Present
Ebaya left her childhood home. Downstairs, a bus turned the corner. Its headlights flooded the street, and its doors opened in a hiss. She stepped in. Bernie Sanders was dressed in an MTA uniform.
“You got to be kidding.” She shook her head. “Who’s next? Frederick Douglass?” She sat down near a window.
“Welcome to the Revolution,” he laughed, and closed the doors. The bus heaved on to the expressway, and NYC transformed again. The ruins vanished, new stores shone on the sidewalks, new fashions appeared, as money washed through the neighborhoods. Seeing the gentrification of the city at high speed made Ebaya realize how quickly it shed the poor in favor of transplants with money to burn. The police patrolled the borders between classes, stopping and frisking the boys from neighborhoods like hers.
“The masses are asses,” Ebaya shouted. “The Great Society died in the shopping mall. Do you see how a little money made people into individual little consumer bots?”
“The top One Percent have always practiced divide and conquer,” Bernie said. “They pit each class against the one below. Fear of falling down a level makes solidarity hard to achieve. So, yes, all the wealth you see is really crumbs for the labor aristocracy, but that means we rebuild our movement from the bottom up.”
“Bottom’s up sounds like a drink,” she snarked, but noticed the bus was crossing the bridge to Rikers Island. It turned on to the road leading to the prison and parked. Bernie opened the doors. They walked out.
“Bernie…I can’t.” Ebaya held her elbows and shook her head.
He walked past guards and barbed wire; reluctantly, she followed him into the prison. Down into the lower levels, they sank into halls heavy with despair. A row of solitary confinement cells stretched before her, and Bernie pointed to one. Ebaya squatted and peeked through the slit. Inside, her brother sat catatonic against the wall. He drooled on himself. His fingernails were split from clawing the wall.
“Let him out!” Ebaya pulled on the cell door. “Let him out!” The lights dimmed.
The Spirit of Protests to Come
A hand touched her shoulder. Ebaya looked up and saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a touch of gray in her hair, standing next to her.
“My brother.” Ebaya looked again into the cell, but now it was a library filled with books. “Where. . .?”
Alexandria helped her stand. Ebaya saw that the hall was filled with books and games. They walked upstairs. Daycare workers played with children. Bright pastel letters and numbers hung on the wall.
“We abolished prisons,” Alexandria said. “And re-purposed them into schools, hospitals, daycare centers, and housing.” She guided Ebaya out of the former prison. A black limo waited. A trio of men in black suits stood.
“Madam President,” one said and opened the door.
“Madam President?!” Ebaya stared in awe.
Alexandria chuckled as they got in. The limo sped over the bridge, and Ebaya sniffed the air. It was fresh, oddly fresh. Trees swayed everywhere. On the shoreline turned giant wind turbines. On the roads, the hum of electric cars passed by.
“We’re not close to done, but we greened the major cities and the surrounding rural areas,” President Ocasio-Cortez said, “It turns out people like good-paying union jobs with meaning. And it turns out that saving the planet is meaningful.” She raised her eyebrows and hands in mock surprise. “Who could have guessed?”
The presidential limo crossed into the Bronx, and Ebaya saw deer by the roadside and people on bicycles. They parked at her childhood home. The row of new buildings gleamed in the sunlight and a lush park bloomed in the front.
“Hey,” a man called.
Ebaya looked up and saw her brother installing a solar panel. Sweat shone on his forehead. He climbed down the ladder, rushed up to her, and they hugged. He was filled out. He had purpose in his eyes.
“Come say hi to Tia Ebaya,” he gestured to his children. They jumped into her arms. Ebaya held them, and as they kissed, her eyes watered. She was overcome with confusion and joy and relief. “Thank you for helping me when I got out.” He pointed at their old childhood building, now rebuilt and bright with solar panels. “Mom would have been proud.”
Ebaya rubbed the back of his head like they were kids again. The glint on a window got into her eyes and she blinked.
When she opened her eyes, Ebaya was in front of the bar again. Inside, her friends sat around the table and split the bill. Cars whooshed by, tires sucked at the snow. She lifted her hand and saw the MTA bus receipt with Bernie’s signature on it.
“Okay. Okay.” She let out a long sigh. “It’s not about one election or one person or even one lifetime.” On the glass door was her reflection and inside her friends at the table. Beyond her image was a whole world, deep and dynamic and in need. She reached out, opened the door and called their names.
Illustration by DEVON MANNEY