About That Rally . . .

From a distance Martha’s Vineyard, like planet earth, looks like a tidy, cohesive whole. That’s the front side of the knitting. Since not long after I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve found the backside more interesting. On the front the colors are distinct, the pattern clear. Only on the back do you see the connections, how each color gets from one place to another.

The backside of the Vineyard rose to prominence this past week, revealing mutual suspicions that ordinarily we submerge with mostly subconscious effort, all in the interest of the community we like to extol so highly. The Vineyard actually comprises multiple communities, some of which overlap a lot more than others, others of which are mutually suspicious, even hostile. Let’s have a closer look.

Starting last weekend, word went round that a “reopen” protest was planned for Five Corners on Wednesday afternoon, and that the Douglas family, owners of the Black Dog empire, were involved. Black Dog T-shirts and other swag have spread, dare I say, virally though not cheaply in recent decades, to the extent that many identify the Black Dog with the Vineyard, the Vineyard with the Black Dog. This drives at least some of us nuts. I like my breakfast burritos and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies but you won’t catch me dead in a Black Dog T-shirt.

This Facebook post was taken down once pushback started, but not before screenshots of it were in circulation.

Sure enough, a post promoting the event had appeared on Jamie Douglas’s Facebook timeline.

Despite the reasonable precautions (“Everyone will practice social distancing”; “smart and safe reopening”), the rhetoric echoes that used to promote the rallies held around the country in recent days: “FREEDOM AND LIBERTY TO WORK” and “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”

National reporting, from the New York Times and multiple other reliable outlets, strongly suggests that these protests have been strongly backed if not instigated by big right-wing money. So far, there’s no indication that this was true of the Vineyard protest, but the Douglas family easily qualifies for the local 1%. The Black Dog website makes founder and patriarch Captain Robert Douglas out to be a plucky visionary, never mentioning his good fortune to have been born into one of the families that founded Quaker Oats.

Jamie Douglas’s Facebook post prompted immediate pushback, which predictably included calls to boycott all Black Dog enterprises. Blaming the Black Dog and/or the Douglas family is so much easier than holding the current administration accountable, and of course it helps that the Douglases are widely believed to be not only Republicans but Trump-supporting Republicans. (The boycott-the-Black-Dog website reportedly put up by business consultant India Rose has since gone private.)

The Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that the rally was off. Robbie Douglas, brother of Jamie and Black Dog CEO, was interviewed: “Our idea was to have a gathering or a rally just to ask some questions, which we thought were important to address.”

Then the Times updated its story to say that the rally was on again. The Douglases stepped back and Kenny MacDonald and Ben Ferry became the rally spokesmen. MacDonald was not new to the effort. Not only is he tagged in Jamie Douglas’s April 19 Facebook post, on Tuesday morning, April 21, he emailed his Statement to Town Governments to Edgartown administrator James Hagerty, who forwarded it to the administrators of the other five island towns. Its opening paragraph concludes: “However, the state and local governments’ usurpation of power during this crisis has alarmed me enough to act. I will be organizing a small peaceful demonstration on Martha’s Vineyard this Wednesday, April 22.”

Its tone is reasonable enough, but like Jamie Douglas’s Facebook post it relies on right-wing talking points and makes no reference to either why so many scientists and public officials consider stay-at-home orders essential, or the dismal failure of the administration to take COVID-19 seriously from the get-go. It does not demand that Congress and the administration do a better job of alleviating the terrible burdens that COVID-19 mitigation is putting on so many working people, including those who don’t have the option of staying home.

The rally did indeed take place as scheduled on Wednesday afternoon. It was small. As a friend commented: “By the numbers: Six people. Five Corners. Four reporters. Three people honked.” To be fair, “crowd” estimates did range as high as 10.

In a post to the Islanders Talk Facebook group that of course set off a firestorm, Ben Ferry wrote: “This has never been about Black Dog nor will it be in the future.” Well, yes and no. It’s certainly not only about the Black Dog, though the Douglases’ role does invite comparison with that of well-funded right-wing groups in supporting the “back to work” protests in other places.

So once again I’m trying to learn what I can learn from the backside of the knitting, the latest evidence that though Martha’s Vineyard may look like a cohesive community from a distance, it’s got fault lines like every other place, and economic stress exposes and exacerbates them. What am I noticing here?

  • Class distinctions here are real and woefully underacknowledged, but when these protesters mutter about trustafarians and privileged liberals, it’s hard not to notice that they’ve made common cause with residents of the Vineyard’s economic upper crust. This mirrors what’s been happening on the national level since the Tea Party rose to prominence a decade ago. Hmmm . . .
  • It’s been a truism since before the Women’s March of 2017 that “the resistance is female,” and on the Vineyard that’s largely true, but the Five Corners rally was mostly male. Ditto the construction workers who’ve been pushing hardest for the right to waive the stay-at-home orders and go back to work. (This happens in a limited way tomorrow, April 27.)
  • In his “statement to town governments,” Kenny MacDonald’s third sentence is “I have never directly involved myself in local, state, or national politics.” He seems to be offering this as a credential, a reason that town officials (who are by definition very much involved in local politics) should take him seriously. I hear this a lot on the Vineyard, and indeed, until the 2016 campaign I kept my distance from local, state, and national politics because they seemed pretty hopeless. This turns out to be another area where the view from a safe distance is deceiving.
  • Something that does unite a lot of us, right, left, and center, is the instinctive grab for simple explanations and simple cures. “Boycott the Black Dog!” “Reopen the economy now!” “They’re just Trump supporters!”

A question presses at the back of my mind: Once the worst is over and we’ve reached some accommodation with COVID-19, will we remember the fault lines that the disease has revealed — fault lines that were already obvious to some but not enough of us? And will we be moved to act?

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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2 Responses to About That Rally . . .

  1. Ms D. says:

    Fascinating. Here in NYC even though we are all going a bit daft I haven’t heard a bit about the cure being worse than the disease. Whole different perspective here in the epicenter!!


    • “We can’t let the cure be worse than the disease” and similar messages have been coming straight from the White House. These Vineyard guys didn’t come up with it themselves, that’s for sure. If you’ve all been too preoccupied dealing with what’s going on “up close and personal” to listen to the presidential bilge, that may be a blessing in disguise. Very well disguised, but a blessing nonetheless.


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