It’s Nov. 2 and in the eye of the storm, it feels like the whole country is holding its breath.

No one really knows what will happen after drop boxes and polls close tomorrow, but many are fearful.

Nearly 70% of Americans in October said that the election is a source of stress, USA Today reported, a huge increase over the 52% who said the same in 2016. 

Fear and anxiety have led to a spike in gun sales in 2020; they jumped 91% from the same March-September period last year. 

Adding to the uncertainty is a president who still has not committed to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, which historians say has not happened before

To try to gain some perspective on this moment from someone who has lived through previous periods of tumult and strife, I spoke with the longtime co-chair of Tacoma’s Black Collective, Lyle Quasim.

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Quasim, 77, has been a leader of the volunteer organization since its start in 1968. He was a Black Panther, lived through the contentious 1960s and was sent to fight in Vietnam. He spent decades after that working in public service. He said every generation has an inflection point, and we are living through one now.

It’s not just the election, of course, it’s also the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice uprising we have seen since George Floyd’s killing in May that have brought us to this point.

Fueling tensions is also the politics of racial resentment, escalated by rhetoric from the White House and beyond, that paints a picture of lawless deep blue cities raging out of control and the president providing a defense for white suburbia against the encroachment of low-income housing and all that it represents. 

“This [election] is a significant deal,” Quasim said. “This is different than anything that I’ve seen because of the politics of grievance. There are a significant number of people in this country who … are not necessarily fortunate folk. But they feel that for anything that they think that they should have, the reason for them not being in that position, they have found a culprit. They found somebody to blame.”

The “psychic advantage” some white people feel about being white, Quasim said, is why some white voters might support a billionaire who has little else in common with them and whose policies might not benefit them.

Quasim said this election creates a different level of apprehension and he plans to be “extremely cautious” over the coming days, remembering incidents like the 2017 Unite the Right rally and deadly attack on protesters in Charlottesville and the more recent storming of the Michigan state capitol by armed demonstrators.

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“I don’t know what the backlash will be,” he said. “If Trump wins, it will encourage people to do all sorts of stuff. If Trump loses, it will encourage the same people to do all sorts of stuff. … Am I scared? The answer is yes.” But as a Black man in the U.S., Quasim says, fear is a part of life and he has learned to deal with it. He believes the “echo” of this election will last for months or maybe even years.

But Quasim refuses to be immobilized by fear and is encouraged by broadening support for the ongoing racial justice movement. 

He takes the long view of the work for racial justice. “This is not a time to be afraid. This is difficult work. It is dangerous work. And it is only successful as long as you meet the challenge.”

His advice for the next generation of activists? “If you don’t like this work, if you can’t be inspired by this work, then I suggest you’re not looking at this work in the right way. I’m 77 years old. There’s not one morning that I say, ‘I am tired. I’m finished … I’m heading toward the beach. See you later. Hope y’all make it.’”

There are no quick fixes or easy solutions, Quasim said, and “we have to travel in a lot of different lanes.”  

Quasim said he learned, “As long as you stay in the struggle your ability to win is always in front of you. If not today, tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day. And if winning doesn’t take place in your lifetime, you hand the baton to the next person.”

Problem identification and demonstrations alone won’t solve the problems of racial and social injustice, he said. In order to make lasting change you have to get to the root of the inequities in our social and economic systems, which are complex and take time to address.

“We have to be committed to do the work,” he said. “We have to be committed to know that the completion of that work will not end in our generation. It’s like a relay race, and we have to be able to hand off to the next generation and the next generation. And through this iterative process, we can in fact, move this country.”