I’ve been to many marches and protests. The first was as a kid in the early 80s when we marched in freezing temperatures and snow to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The latest were following the death of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown and the 20th anniversary of Million Man March.
From the buzz surrounding this weekends Women’s March on Washington coming from a small segment of protesters, it sounded like the same people who were thrilled they got tickets to a Beyonc concert. This was the beginning, but not the ending, of my reservations about going.
As I passed the line to the train headed to DC that wrapped around the corner, one sign from a protestor waiting to get on the train stood out. It read: “F**k your white silence.” A white friend of my sister’s joked: “You going to that white lady march?”
I had read newspaper reports where white women had bowed out because of messages on the Facebook page for the march that urged “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It seemed that was enough to discourage a few women from protesting against injustice.
I was skeptical. Even more so, when I noted the giddiness of the crowd as we got on the train. They hooped and hollered like we were at a frat party in their pink pussy hats. I chose a seat by myself and hoped for the best. I wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt–that they were here not to say they were at the hottest party in town or so they would make the history books, but because they felt empathy for all marginalized people and a commitment to justice whether it was for black people, women, disabled people, transgender or LGBTQIA.
I was encouraged when I overheard the conversations. They had traveled from Portland, from California and Colorado. Because at the end of the day, the more allies the better. At the same time, superficial allies were exhausting. If the goal is to fight against injustice, how could you bow out because of hurt feelings? Was this a march of symbolism and numbers or was it something to disrupt the status quo?
We were lucky. My sister and my cousin had been able to get us on Angela Davis’s guest list. So we stood backstage for most of the march and listened to the speakers that varied from Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, to Rabbi Sharon Brous to Van Jones, transgender activist Janet Mock, singer and actress Janelle Monae and mothers of slain young men, including Jordan Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath and Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
The march was organized by at least three women of color and inspired by a white woman. Tamika Mallory, gun control advocate and board member for Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by Harry Belafonte, Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, Bob Bland, founder of Manufacture New York, and Carmen Perez, executive director of the Gathering for Justice were the organizers.
Celebrities in attendance included singers Maxwell and Jidenna, and actresses Cher, Ashley Judd, Marisa Tomei, Gloria Steinem and Scarlett Johansson, among others. The highlight of my day was getting a hug and kiss on the cheek from Auntie Maxine Waters.
I saw white people wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and one man held a sign that read: “I am going to see you nice white ladies at the next black lives matter march, right?” The speeches were powerful, along with the performances of artists and musicians. I found it hopeful and empowering.
Other people had different experiences, including a group of indigenous people who said white people gawked at them, took pictures and refused to take fliers from them about fracking and pipelines. And others said white women responded to her black lives matter sign with: “but don’t our lives matter too?”
Angela Davis concluded the speakers. Or at least everyone started to disperse after she left and before Madonna came on. There was a security guard that kept asking Angela Davis to clear a path so that Madonna could come through. Let me say that again. They asked Angela Davis to clear a path for Madonna.
“We recognize that we are collective agents of history and that history cannot be deleted like web pages,” said Davis. “We know that we gather this afternoon on indigenous land and we follow the lead of the first peoples who despite massive genocidal violence have never relinquished the struggle for land, water, culture, their people. We especially salute today the Standing Rock Sioux. The freedom struggles of black people that have shaped the very nature of this country’s history cannot be deleted with the sweep of a hand.”
The numbers were impressive. But one march doesn’t inspire a revolution. I hope it becomes bolder. Shutting down the government on a weekday. Continuing the fight in Standing Rock. Creating a physical wall to protect black lives matters protestors. People willing to get arrested and to use the element of surprise in the way the Nashville sit-ins employed it. Or be inconvenienced in the way people walked to work for 381 days during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Some of us don’t have the luxury to sit out the fight because the consequences are infinitely worse if we do. In do or die times real allies understand that and know that what happens to us will eventually happen to them if they choose to sit it out.