Stacey Plaskett, the delegate representing the U.S. Virgin Island’s at-large congressional district in the House of Representatives, is serving her fourth term in this role.
Well, maybe you did, and I’m sure many others did.
I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in my sheer ignorance of her existence on this representative body for so many years.
For me, it was as if she suddenly burst upon the national political scene when I started seeing her appearing as a talking head on cable news shows after the November 3 election.
I was impressed by the powerful perspective she brought to bear on our contemporary political turmoil. Who is this person, I thought to myself, and why haven’t I known about her?
She is a substantial and prominent voice now in the Democratic Party, indeed in the national conversation, despite the fact that because she is a delegate from a territory, rather than a representative from a state, she is not actually able to cast votes on the House floor.
She is the first such delegate to serve on a team of impeachment managers in American history.
Her very presence and prominence on the Senate floor as she fulfills this role speaks volumes not just about the larger stakes of impeachment for America but also about the different directions the two major political parties contending in our system are heading.
On Friday, when Plaskett responded to a question regarding the long-term meaning of the impeachment, her words communicated these stakes when she addressed the defense’s tactic of using a barrage of video images from last summer’s protests sparked by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, themselves indexes of historical and persistent racial injustice in America.
Trump’s lawyers, of course, aired this footage to argue an equivalence between these protests against centuries of racial injustice and violations of the nation’s supposed political ideals and the violent storming of the capitol by militants of a largely white nationalist or white supremacist character.
In short, the defense echoed Trump’s own words after the white supremacists marched on Charlottesville: There were “fine people of both sides.”
Plaskett, taking on again the relentless assertion of this distorted equivalence, challenged this tactic, highlighting its emotional toll and its explicit racism:
“The defense council put a lot of videos out in their defense, playing clip after clip of Black women talking about fighting for a cause or an issue or a policy. It was not lost on me as so many of them were people of color, and women, Black women. Black women like myself who are sick and tired of being sick and tired for our children. Your children.”
And she continued:
“This summer things happened that were violent, but there were also things that gave some of us Black women great comfort. Seeing Amish people from Pennsylvania standing up with us. Members of Congress fighting up with us.”
“And so I thought we were past that. I think maybe we’re not.”
We are not past racial oppression and injustice in America, she is reminding us; and the defense tactic of comparing the ongoing struggle for racial justice with the stubborn and murderous militance of white supremacists makes that fact clear.
Plaskett reminded senators, the members of the jury, of the important decisions made in the Senate chamber: to end slavery, to assure every American gets to vote (unless, she reminds us, one lives in a territory), to legislate civil rights, and more.
The impeachment, she effectively told us, is a referendum on whether or not the Senate would endorse that history of moving toward racial and political justice and equality for all.
“There are long-standing consequences. Decisions like this that will define who we are as a people. Who America is.”
“History will wait for our decision,” she concluded.
Like other Democratic representatives such as Congressperson Deb Haaland, the first Native American nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior, Plaskett will not let us forget the history U.S. colonialism and racial oppression, to which the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands bears testimony. That she cannot cast votes on the House floor speaks to that legacy and reality of colonial domination.
Haaland, speaking at the Democratic Convention last summer, introduced herself as Pueblo Indian speaking on indigenous land and reminded us of the nation’s racist history of brutal colonization, letting us know that,
“My people survived centuries of slavery, genocide and brutal assimilation policies. But throughout our past, tribal nations have fought for and helped build this country.”
I really can’t remember hearing genocide and slavery addressed and invoked so directly at a Democratic Convention.
Similarly, Puerto Rican members of the House, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez drafted a bill to explore the political status of Puerto Rico to ensure its self-determination, recognizing again America’s racist history of domination.
The impeachment vote, for Plaskett, was a vote on whether the nation’s political representatives would endorse the white supremacists not wanting to face that history and instead cling to the status quo, or whether they would confront our nation’s history head on and seek to turn the page toward racial justice.
Last summer, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton proposed legislation that would deny federal funding to schools that in any way used the The New York Times controversial 1619 project in its curriculum. This Pulitzer-prize-winning series in The New York Times, of course, explored the history of the United States through the lens of slavery, premised on the fact that accounts of slavery have not been expansively, roundly, and fully incorporated into accounts of U.S. history, particularly in its earliest stages.
The vote in the Senate acquitting Trump affirmed that Cotton’s resistance to addressing historical injustices and their ongoing practices exemplifies the Republican Party’s stance as a whole.
Plaskett and peers such as Haaland, Ocasio-Cortez, and Velazquez are making it clear the Democratic Party is evolving toward a more critical and reparative confrontation with the nation’s history of racism and colonialism that hobbles us to this day.
It isn’t just that history awaits our decision. Plaskett lets us know that our history awaits our confrontation and redress.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.