A nation challenges itself to live up to founding ideals
Detroit — Ethan Ketner has spent the last month marching in the streets for the future of his country.
The 29-year-old white Ann Arbor resident is fed up with what he views as police brutality and racial injustice. Those preparing for fireworks, barbecues or reunions this Independence Day have it all wrong, he said.
"I do not support the holiday at this point. I'm going from a stance of loving what it was to a stance where the way we look at this country, the way we support this country and the way we celebrate, it's completely messed up," said Ketner, who describes himself as an activist. "We have a lot of work to do. A lot of justice must be gotten. Until we get there as a whole for all of the human race, there will be no peace."
As a starkly divided nation celebrates the 244th anniversary of its founding on principles of equality and freedom, opinions diverge sharply on whether it is living up to those bedrock ideals.
A global pandemic has caused sharp restrictions on personal liberties in the interest of public safety. The death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, following others recorded and shared on social media, has prompted sometimes violent protests over perceptions of unequal treatment of Blacks at the hands of police.
The acrimony plays out amid a pitched presidential campaign pitting two candidates who both came of age in post-World War II patriotic fervor, a time that now seems far less unsettled.
"We're at a particular juncture right now that we really don't know what's going to happen from day-to-day, week-to-week. People are anxious. Their understanding of social reality is being shaken up," said David Koukal, a University of Detroit Mercy social and political philosophy professor. "All of the things that we took for granted, we can't take for granted now."
Perhaps partly as a result of those factors, American pride has sunk to recent lows. According to an annual Gallup Poll, pride in being an American is at its lowest point in the survey's 20-year history.
Just 42% now say they are "extremely proud" to be an American, while another 21% say they are "very proud," according to the telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults over age 18.
The assessment coincided with the arrests of the police officers charged in Floyd's death, nationwide protests sparked by the incident, as well as President Donald Trump's controversial responses, Gallup noted.
Falling pride is not new. It's the sixth consecutive year that Gallup's trend has hit a new low. Extreme pride reached a peak of 70% of Americans before falling to 54% by 2015, said Megan Brenan, a Gallup analyst.
The past year, however, has provided some notable changes. There has been a sharp decline in pride among those who consider themselves Republicans (from 76% to 67%) and, for the first time, extreme pride in being American fell below 50% of those surveyed who are white.
"It's very striking to see all of these measures going so low," she said. "It's not necessarily surprising, given what's going on in the world."
Matt Grossmann, the director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, said it can be difficult to deduce from survey language whether there's a real change in attitudes or if the context of a certain phrase is simply changing over time.
"We can’t know for sure if it is fully reflective of people's beliefs or it could be reflective of what they think they should say," he said. "We have to worry about that."
Brenan pointed to a second Gallup survey, also released in June, that recorded a 25 percentage-point drop in Americans' satisfaction with the way things are going in the country compared to February.
The poll cited race relations as the most important problem facing the United States, a jump from 4% to 19% in the second poll, the highest percentage since 1968 in the company's polling. Concern over government leadership and economics remained steady.
With 63% of Americans still calling themselves extremely or very proud, patriotism remains very much alive.
It's alive in people such as Vietnam veteran Andrew Pietrzyk, who spent a recent afternoon at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.
There, he put a horn to his lips and played taps to pay respect to friend, family doctor and fellow veteran Roy W. Matthews Jr., a World War II army veteran.
On vacation from Florida with his wife Carolann, Pietrzyk said he's disappointed that so many lack pride.
"I've always been proud of America. There is nowhere in the whole world I'd rather live than America," said Pietrzyk, a U.S. Army veteran. "There is more opportunity here. You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make yourself a better person. All the things that are necessary are here. All you have to do is want to take them and not wait for someone else to do it for you."
In the eyes of many, while opportunity exists, evidence of oppression persists, too. And not only along racial lines.
Two of Michigan's most strident protests this spring occurred at the state Capitol in Lansing, just weeks apart in April and May. And they came from divergent ends of the political spectrum.
In April, thousands of vehicles congregated around the state Capitol in one the largest protests in a decade to push back against restrictions in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order imposed to combat the spreading novel coronavirus. It has killed about 6,000 Michiganians.
Meshawn Maddock of Milford has become increasingly frustrated with the governor's initial restrictions, and more so as Whitmer recently dialed back some reopening efforts.
“We were trampled on. We feel like the patriots of 1776 trying to fight once again for our rights,” said Maddock, a founding member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition. “People won’t stop fighting no matter what happens in this election, no matter what happens with this pandemic that has gripped the whole world. It’s not going to stop the American spirit. You can’t quench that.”
Maddock, 52, who also sits on the Women for Trump Advisory Board, said the country is polarized. But this holiday weekend, as she travels up north, Maddock said she’s been comforted by the American flags on display, giant “God Bless America” signs and political signs supporting Trump’s presidency.
“All of that, it fills me with hope,” she said.
A month after many conservatives rallied in Lansing, Black Lives Matters demonstrators filled the streets on May 31.
The death of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March, and February death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was slain by a former police officer in a coastal Georgia neighborhood while jogging on a Sunday afternoon, have spurred a national movement.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said "there's nothing more American than our citizens standing up for what they believe in and demanding their voices be heard."
"While the issues are challenging, they are important, and we are on the edge of true progress," she said in a statement. "This is how we grow. This is how we make this country a better place for our children. Having the freedom to voice your beliefs is something I would hope we all have pride in."
Detroit resident James Martines has taken part in multiple rallies and marches in his city "to make sure people can enjoy their rights as Americans."
"I get the frustration among people and I get the need to vent it. I don't think it's necessarily unpatriotic to do so," Martines, a 32-year-old law student, said during a recent demonstration outside a Detroit police precinct in southwest Detroit. "You can love something and still be critical of it and want it to be better."
Morgan Light, a 26-year-old service worker from Detroit, said she feels the same about her country as she has in years past: it needs change.
"Personally, I don't think that the president is a good face for our nation," she said. "Maybe he's a representation of what we are, but not what we should be."
State Republican Party Chair Laura Cox acknowledged the hardships facing the nation, but stressed America has "stood as a beacon of light" based on its "core principles of freedom, liberty and justice for all."
"While this year has been unquestionably difficult, the challenges facing us are no match for the American spirit," Cox said in a statement. "This nation has faced countless foes and encountered daunting trials numerous times throughout our history. We have, and always will, persevere."
Marlene Mastromatteo, a Republican and loyal Trump supporter, said anger directed at the president is misplaced and "hurtful."
"You can't blame a virus that nobody knows anything about on the president," said Mastromatteo, 68, who has displayed a large American flag outside her St. Clair Shores home to celebrate the holiday. "I love my country. I want everybody to get along."
Staffer Writer Daniel Mears contributed.