Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks from Air Force 2 at Piedmont International Airport in Greensboro on Sept. 15, 2023. N.C. A&T University was a stop on the Fight For Our Freedoms College Tour. Lisa Sorg/NC Newsline)
This is what happens when the vice president of the United States visits Greensboro, North Carolina: Excitable German shepherds, restrained by their military handlers, sniff every duffel, trash can, and bathroom of a terminal at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Poised, yet nervy and as quiet as bats, Secret Service agents in dark suits and sunglasses scan the landscape, alert for a car, a bag, a person out of place. They park their bulky black SUVs in a long bulwark. And they wait. And wait. They seem to never tire of waiting.
A black State Police helicopter hovers nearby, while in their neon-green reflective vests, members of the airport ground crew look like fireflies, their choreographed movements unfolding on the inky tarmac like ballet.
Then a 757 appears in the southwest, at first just a glint in the sky, and then the full force of Air Force 2 descends, taxis, stops. Vice President Kamala Harris, dressed in a pants suit the color of birch bark, descends the tarmac stairway and exchanges pleasantries with two congresswomen and the governor who have arrived to greet her.
The motorcade begins a 19-mile crescendo to N.C. A&T University, one of several stops on the vice president’s month-long “Fight for Our Freedoms” tour of HBCUs to mobilize young people to vote.
On campus Friday, thousands of students flank the route, yelling and waving and filming with their smartphones. Inside the Corbett Sports Center, thousands more students cram the stands. They stomp and cheer and the brass band blares and a rapper’s voice booms and seems to shake the rafters.
The Biden-Harris administration intentionally chose N.C. A&T as a tour stop. Not only is it the largest historically Black college in the nation, but one Republicans had targeted for gerrymandering. In 2016, the GOP-dominated state legislature split A&T, which is just over 1 square mile, into two congressional districts. One side of Laurel Street — and a half dozen campus housing complexes — was wedged into the 6th District represented by white Republican Mark Walker; the other side of Laurel Street — and its six campus housing complexes — was squeezed into the 13th, also represented by a white Republican man, Ted Budd.
The courts tossed the maps as unconstitutional, and now, U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, a white Democrat, represents A&T in the 6th.
Manning is among the vice president’s warm-up acts — “Your vote is your voice. Your vote is your power” — as is U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, an N.C. A&T alum: “If you can’t change policy, you have to change policymakers. The way you do that in this country is with the vote.” And Gov. Roy Cooper: “There’s an electricity buzzing through this college campus! I can feel the energy!”
(A cameraman later observed, “That’s the most excited I’ve ever seen the governor.”)
Soon, from stage left, Harris emerges. Thousands of phones begin filming, which, when viewed from the back of the gymnasium, is like seeing the stage through a fly’s eyes.
The applause fades and the mood turns somber. Harris is addressing members of a generation that is now being denied the right to learn the full scope of American history — Black history — in school. Who, as descendants of enslaved people, are hearing that being human chattel had its advantages. And if this generation wants to reverse this course, to guarantee the hard-won freedoms, Harris says, they must vote.
“When you vote it scares some folks,” Harris says. “There are those who suggest your votes aren’t going to count. They want to suppress our vote and make us feel small.”
“You must have the freedom to live your best life,” she went on. “To have access to the ballot, to make decisions about your own body, to love who you want to love, to have freedom from violence … All that, I want for you.”
This is the same generation whose responses to active shooter drills are automatic, as second nature as breathing.
Harris takes a poll: Who here grew up practicing these drills in school?
Thousands raised their hands. Three weeks ago, the university sent an Aggie alert after an altercation between non-students occurred on campus; a man was shot but survived.
“Gun violence is now the Number One cause of death in America for young people,” Harris says, citing a statistic that 20% of Americans have a family member who has died from gun violence. “We need an assault weapons ban. We need red flag laws and universal background checks.”
This is also the generation whose entire lives have been defined by climate change. Globally, the warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005, when the youngest college students were born.
On stage right sits an A&T alumnus: EPA Administrator and former NC Secretary of the Environment Michael Regan. The Biden Administration has focused on environmental justice, requiring all federal agencies to address the disproportionate burdens of pollution and climate change on marginalized communities. A&T itself lies in an environmental justice neighborhood, checkered with contaminated sites and major air pollution sources.
“Climate change affects everybody, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Harris says. Urban areas with few trees but a lot of concrete — like east Greensboro — can be 10 or more degrees hotter than their shaded counterparts. “That community will suffer more than communities who have trees. Environmental justice is rooted in the importance of equity and fairness.”
This is the generation the Biden administration is counting on to save us. Not just from planetary collapse and racism and gun violence. But from callousness. From a meanness that separates us from our better angels.
“Elected extremist so-called leaders are suggesting enslaved people benefited from slavery,” Harris says. She is referring to Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but does not speak his name. “That is not a debatable point, and we’re not falling for the okie doke. They’re attempting to distract us from what they are not doing. … Do not try to gaslight us — as you insult us.”
Harris hints at another Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, but again does not name him. “The attributes of true leaders are not based on who they beat down but who they lift up. They have curiosity and concern and care for the suffering of other people. As opposed to overlooking or belittling people who are suffering.
“We need you to be leaders,” Harris tells the crowd. “You’re going to make a fundamental and profound difference for our country and the entire world.”
This is what happens when the Vice President of the United States leaves Greensboro and goes home: Sharpshooters position themselves on rooftops. Cops in cars and cops on bikes surround the A&T campus and its eastside neighborhood. Soldiers clad in helmets and Kevlar carry long weapons at the ready as Harris is swept into her armored black sedan.
At Piedmont International Airport, she completes the ritual in reverse. After a few photo ops and goodbyes, she disappears into Air Force 2. The tarmac stairs withdraw to their original position. The 757 taxis. The engines thrum.
On the tarmac, the bats and the fireflies shade their eyes and watch the fading of the plane’s metallic gleam.
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