Monday, January 23, 2017

So, you marched. Now what?

I attended my first march in 1995, when California passed Proposition 187, a law that blatantly targeted Immigrant communities to keep them from accessing education, healthcare and employment.  The march, which was a solidarity march in Albuquerque, was held on a Sunday morning and I never felt more empowered or excited. Making signs with my friends, the buzz at the gathering beforehand, and the march itself made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself.

Twenty-two years and countless marches, rallies, candlelight vigils and protests later, I can't believe I still have to protest this shit*.

Saturday, the day after the Presidential Inauguration, marked the largest protest in U.S. history. Turnout exceeded expectations nationwide, with the official count at 2.9 million (though many estimate that is a low number). Photos jammed my social media newsfeed and reports poured in from London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and even Antarctica. I was amazed by the passion which people felt and the way in which so many people came together to show the new administration that WE WILL NOT BE MOVED.  People who are seasoned marchers joined with novices because, like me, they felt the need to be part of something so large and so much bigger than themselves. Albuquerque did a great job - official reports say 6,000 attendees but it seemed more like 10,000. I was shocked.

Women's March On Washington-Albuquerque.  Photo by the author 

I also had a little bit of a sinking feeling about the whole event, and it mirrored the feeling I had about voting for Hillary Clinton.  What felt like a monumental event for some left me feeling somewhat empty. The calls for solidarity and sisterhood gave me pause: sisterhood on whose terms? Who sets the agenda and who is expected to carry it forward?

I felt apprehensive during the celebrations of "the first woman to be nominated by a major party." The tone of her candidacy contributed to my overall feelings of being left out of mainstream feminism. When Clinton lost, the immediate analysis validated my apprehension. Pundits wondered if Clinton's campaign focused "too much on identity politics" and not enough on "mainstream America." Regardless of the analysis, the underlying sentiment was always the same: "if she hadn't wasted so much time on you people, we wouldn't be in this mess."

People of Color, particularly Women of Color (WOC), are accustomed to being an afterthought.  For so long, we have been used as props to make the photo look better. A brown face to meet a diversity quota. A voice to "keep things real." As WOC have stepped into leadership roles, we've grown in our analysis of power and community, and being a prop is no longer acceptable. We do not exist to brown up your photo.

Is that real enough for you?

As was the case post election, women of color were blamed for being divisive within the Women's March on Washington. While voicing concerns of inclusivity and intersectionality, the immediate pushback was questioning why WOC were being divisive. Different event, same ol' song. There have been some wonderful pieces about why WOC weren't willing to just show up and be "unified." Many of the points made resonated with me. Until we are having very painful and real conversations and finding ourselves stronger because of them, there is no need to speak at all.  Unless we are willing to follow the lead of WOC (and Queer and Trans* people, and those with a variety of abilities and Immigration status and age and class and educational levels and all the other intersections), there is no need to call for unity.

To be sure, the same thing has happened within our own civil rights movements. Back in the early 2000's, while at a meeting to tackle some very big problems within Chicano/a Studies at UNM, some of us brought up the issue of sexism within the program. Almost on cue, one of the men in the group said "yeah, yeah, let's get to secondary issues later.  Let's worry about the important stuff first," the important stuff being the renaming of the program, finding a director and whether or not it would be reclassified as a department.  This problem of sexism and gender-based violence being relegated to a "secondary issue" has plagued the Chicanx movement since the 1970's.

If we want to create change, we have to be willing to change ourselves. We have to be willing to address our own privileges and not only create space but get the hell out of the way.  We have to be willing to have painful conversations about race, class, gender identity, and those conversations have to happen within our own families and communities.  We have to be willing to walk away from situations, communities and yes, even marches that wish to exclude us or any other group because it doesn't fit in their version of "unity."

There are many lessons to be learned from the Women's Marches and Rallies, and these are the ones at the top of my list:
  1. As a WOC, how am I contributing to creating cis-gendered, heteronormative, white supremacist spaces? How do I change that? Am I standing up as an ally? Are others standing with me?
  2. How do we rally the same amount of people, energy and resources to take a stand for DACA, Immigrant Communities, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Early Childhood Education, paid sick leave, Fight for $15, Trans* Liberation, closing privatized prisons, fighting the Muslim registry, saving Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the environment and all the other on-going fights that need every one of us? 
  3. How do we harness the energy and keep this fight going?  It's going to be a long two years at best, and a long four years at worst.  
While it is overwhelming, we can harness Saturday's energy for the long run.  For seasoned and new activists, there must be space beyond the marches. We must be willing to put in the work and show up for each other.  Those who are pushed furthest to the margins are ready to lead, and will do so - the question is, are you ready to follow?

*I did not make up this line.  It's widely used on signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. This is a link to one of the sources I found.