Friday, November 16, 2018
Opinion

Column: Flipping off President Trump has changed Juli Briskman’s life -- and exposed our divisions

We’ve done a brilliant job of cleaving our country in two over guns, golf, kneeling, pizza, the first lady’s shoes and a few thousand other things.

But just in case there isn’t enough to fight over, we now have Juli Briskman.

Briskman is the 50-year-old marketing executive who got fired from Akima, a government contracting firm, for flashing her middle finger at President Donald Trump’s motorcade. A photo of her went viral last month but her name didn’t surface publicly until Monday, triggering a tsunami of attention for the single mother from northern Virginia.

Early Monday when I wrote about her, Briskman had 24 Twitter followers. Now she has almost 16,000, and it’s growing by the hour.

Her name became a trending hashtag. She’s sorting through scores of job offers and has more than $19,000 in a "Thank You Juli Briskman" GoFundMe account that she had nothing to do with starting. She was bombarded with interview requests from all over the world. And she was the topic of office and online conversations all over the country.

"At this point, it’s bigger than me," she texted me this week, "and not about me anymore."

The divide over how people saw her was stark.

"Middle finger hero lady …"

"… an inspiration to us all."

"a She-ro"

"… a patriot."

That’s what one part of America called her.

To the other:

"Loser!"

"Libtard"

"!.&$..%"

I can’t publish the profane and misogynistic words that some people used to describe her. They believe that she disrespected the president when she was out on her bike and the Trump motorcade whooshed by her on the way back from his golf course. She impulsively flipped the black cars off. Twice.

She chose to out herself to her bosses because she was worried that someone might recognize her, though only her back — and the back of her hand — were visible in the photo.

Big mistake. That honesty was enough to get her fired because she violated her employer’s code-of-conduct policy.

Even so, as she volunteered at the polls Tuesday for Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the voters hurrying by her to register their own protest against Trump didn’t really recognize her.

But folks did recognize her former employer.

The Facebook page of Akima was carpeted with obscene gestures. Folks posted pictures and GIFs of middle-finger salutes, from photoshopped (Mr. Rogers, the Queen Mum, Jesus Christ) to real (Stephen Colbert, a gorilla).

Briskman took plenty of flack, too. And so did I. More than 9,000 people commented on my column. And because Briskman is a she, the deluge that blasted my inbox was a fire hose of misogynistic hatred. I was bombed by emails laced with sex and violence. Men — I would guess they were mostly older, given the Rogers and Franks who were taking time out of their retirements to spew words they’d never say in front of their grandkids — were issuing all kinds of judgments on Briskman’s body too.

The discussion could have focused on civil liberties, freedom of speech, the appropriate control an employer should have over employees. These are definitely worth debating.

Instead, sadly, many of the arguments boiled down to the stale, knee-jerk, pro-Trump or anti-Trump, us-vs.-them that now taints most of our national conversation.

Dan Garnett, who emailed me from his Hotmail account, summed up the line of attack pretty well.

"You are one whiny lady. I’d like to send you a case of pacifiers and a blanket for your nappie time. Hate us all you want; we still won. We will continue to win. You are welcome to join us, by the way."

Like it or not, we are already joined together, Mr. Garnett. We’re all Americans, together. And we have to find a way to move beyond demonizing one another.

As for Briskman, she told me she is getting ready for a long-planned vacation. And she can’t wait to get away.

© 2017 Washington Post

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