There’s something inherently suspect about the end-of-year roundup, particularly during a 12-month period in which the news cycle seemed to bring new horrors pretty much on the hour. Looking back on 2016, there will be the obvious things we remember: the roiling protests, the ever-escalating numbers of black Americans killed by police, and of course, Americans’ rejection of Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump, a bigoted, unhinged reality TV star who believes celebrity constitutes permission to commit sexual assault.
We’ll also probably remember just how awful everything felt in 2016. As Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker, we’re hardwired to remember horrific events better than warm-and-fuzzy memories. As anyone with a sense of perspective and/or empathy would admit, 2016 brought with it a unique end-of-history vibe: In the months leading up to the election, every poll and hate crime and leaked email and dumbfounding statement from the now-president elect inspired another wave of nausea. That myopic view can mean we filter out everything but the most earth-shattering of stories—but as Tolentino writes, while we may be tempted to believe each year is uniquely the most terrible, Google searches for “worst year ever” spike every December.
So it’s also worth looking at the stories that were overshadowed by our collective sense of doom, by the flood of riffs and thinkpieces that followed each major revelation of 2016. Here’s an abridged, alternate history of 2016, a look at what the major stories of the year might have been if we weren’t so blindsided by the political apocalypse that came slowly, and then, in November, all at once.
Local government exploded with corruption.
Since money has fled local on-the-ground reporting endeavors in favor of large, national new media startups, in-depth coverage of local corruption has all but disappeared. It’s easier than ever for regional politicians to consolidate power, swindle their constituents, and cover their tracks. In February, nearly every top official in Crystal City, Texas was arrested for soliciting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. (Adding insult to injury, with the local government in shambles and infrastructure neglected, the water ran black.) In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley, along with the state’s chief justice and house speaker, were indicted on charges of ethics violations, in part for bucking the federal court’s mandate on same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, last year’s investigation into the mayor’s office in Allentown, PA, remains ongoing, and anti-immigrant Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, while indicted in October of 2015, remains free to peddle his particular brand of nonsense.
Louisiana was wracked by floods.
While the country was embroiled in protests and the Dallas sniper incident gave Blue Lives Matter an excuse to soapbox, Louisiana saw the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy four years ago. Damages were estimated at nearly $30 million and thousands lost everything they owned, according to the Red Cross. Though the hurricane in Baton Rouge was deemed less severe than 2005’s Katrina, locals and FEMA both expressed frustration that the story neither dominated the headlines nor seemed to elicit much response from politicians.
Transgender people fought for their rights in prison and the military.
In June, the Department of Defense issued a memo overturning its ban on openly transgender service members and indicated it would allow active-duty military to transition. Over the course of the year, advocates for Chelsea Manning fought for the imprisoned whistleblower’s right to transition while serving her 35-year sentence; according to her attorney, the agony over being denied hormone therapy resulted in a suicide attempt in July. In September, Manning began a hunger strike to protest her conditions. She was ostensibly granted access to hormone therapy and adequate medical care late this year, though just a few weeks ago was dealt another major setback when her psychologist refused to recommend her for sex reassignment surgery.
Athletes got political (and not just Colin Kaepernick).
To the disappointment of conservative sports fans everywhere, 2016 was the year American athletes used their visibility as a platform for social issues. Most famously, Colin Kaepernick inspired a raft of athletes to refuse to kneel for the national anthem in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But the mass politicization of American athletes extended to gender equality, as well: In March, five members of the US Women’s Olympic team filed suit with the Equal Opportunity Commission, alleging that they were compensated less for the same labor performed by the men’s team.
Women—across industries—reported their sexual assaults.
This year brought a rash of high-profile sexual assault cases against individual celebrity predators: Cosby, Ailes, Trump. Emily Doe’s much-publicized and heartbreaking testimony against Brock Turner, once made public, gave voice to the individual toll of such brutal behavior. But, likely inspired by the heightened awareness of the harassment women face on the job, less visible industries also launched investigations into their practices—a less televisable, but still critical, mission.
In June, the National Parks Service released a devastating report detailing a culture of unwanted sexual advance and harassment, setting off a flood of articles on the terrors women face in national parks across the country. From the fall into the winter, reports of doctors and coaches taking advantage of their positions of power to harass and exploit female gymnasts inspired numerous stories. In one case, an IndyStar investigation found more than 300 cases of assault over a 20-year period.
Countless Americans were denied the right to vote.
With the fear of Russian hackers and the effect of fake news dominating the conversation about how Americans voted, the simple and systematic disenfranchisement of the country’s voting population has been easy for politicians to sweep under the rug. 2016 was the first year since 1965 without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act; there were 868 fewer polling stations in states like Arizona and North Carolina. Strict ID laws made it more difficult for lower income Americans, immigrants, and people of color to vote, in some states by the design of Republican lawmakers conscious of how those voters consistently voted Democratic.
Tens of thousands of prisoners went on strike…
As national news outlets wound up for the long election’s final months, more than 20,000 prisoners in 29 prisons went on strike as part of a work stoppage coordinated by the Free Alabama Movement. The strike, which began on September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, was covered extensively by lefty outlets but rarely mentioned by more mainstream press. Calling the strike an “action against slavery in America,” organizers cited the brutal working conditions and low- to essentially nonexistent wages inmates earned for their work at such corporations as Whole Foods and AT&T—wages that, by some estimates, earn those companies billions of dollars a year. As of this month, prisoners reported media cutoffs and lockdowns in retaliation for the strike.
…and the prison system was revealed to be more unjust than ever.
This year showed how terribly broken the United States’ justice system is—two events in particular. On a local level, the crisis in Louisiana early this year showed the criminalization of poverty at its most basic, when a budget deficit left thousands without defense in court. On a national level, the Obama administration declared it would begin to phase out the use of private prisons, a move that initially drew praise from advocates—util, later in the year, the administration privately renewed some contracts, and it appeared the move would affect a tiny fraction of America’s incarcerated population.
A power grab in North Carolina cripples a Democratic governor.
Perhaps if we weren’t so inured to political horror by the last month’s cabinet appointments, the Republican attempt to kneecap North Carolina’s incoming governor would come as more of a surprise. Unfortunately, ending the year with a couple of petulant, hastily written pieces of legislation intending to subvert the power of a democratically elected official, simply because he disagrees with you, feels appropriate.