This is Not What (My) Democracy Looks Like
During the summer of 2016 I was at one of many Black Lives Matter protests I’ve attended over the last couple of years, when I was hit with a moment of clarity: I can no longer be a party to democracy.
While in the midst of the call back chant “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” I grew silent. I had been yelling out every other call back alongside my friends and comrades in this struggle-“Back up! Back up! We want freedom, freedom! All these racist ass cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em!”-but I just couldn’t bring myself to cheer for democracy. American democracy has done, and continues to do, so much harm that how could I be a cheerleader for it? From its very conception that birthed the United States up to now, it’s what systematic oppression looks like for me and my people. The fact that so many at this march were fighting against a racist and tyrannical system were inadvertently praising it is a sign of how far we have to go before we’re all truly free.
I am a Bisexual, Disabled, Poor, Tsalagi-member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma-woman who was once a proud Democrat who has now turned Radical. I can clearly remember the first time I was on the streets yelling “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” I had just turned 25, it was 2004, I was living in Providence, RI and I had left a job as a canvass director for a grassroots fundraising campaign that was contracted by the Democratic National Committee with Grassroots Fundraising Campaigns Inc. I was paid so little and so severely overworked that when my salary was broken down by the hours I worked I made significantly less than minimum wage. People slinging fries at McDonald’s in states earning only the federal minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) were making the big bucks compared to me.
I had been promised health insurance and to be reimbursed for any campaign expenses that came out of my pocket, but neither of those came to fruition. I had recently graduated from college, George “dubya” Bush was President, and we were in the middle of two wars, a major recession, and a presidential election. I was exhausted, angry, poor and from a working class background, but also hopeful that if I took the streets and fought to elect Democratic Party candidates from the top of the ballot down that things could work out. Call it naive, youthful optimism but a large part of me really did believe that.
In 2004 the Democratic National Convention was held in Boston, MA. While I was a college student in Los Angeles, I interned with Rock the Vote. Upon moving to Providence, I reached out to the Boston volunteer coordinator. I wanted to stay a part of something familiar and that I believed in: political participation of youth. I was soon taking the commuter rail from Providence to Boston for a rally in support of then Democratic Presidential Candidate, John Kerry. We met near Faneuil Hall, one of the many birthplace of ameriKKKan government historical sites in Massachusetts to plan our activities that we just knew would end the reign of W.
As a Native woman who grew up in OK and TX, I was skeptical that the voting populous would put their support behind Kerry. I knew the so called red state mentality and the lives of the many folks who proudly called those states home. Even though I was a Democrat, I was still a proud Okie and Texan. Blue may have been how I sought the revolution and freedom for all, but red still coursed through my veins. Despite all of the damage that W did to the people I grew up with, I knew Kerry wouldn’t resonate with them the way W did. Even though their backgrounds were spot on in terms of privilege, Kerry came across as a white, wealthy, arrogant northeasterner in a way that W never did. I was also skeptical of a system that was created by and for white, land stealing, slave owning, genocidal, Christian men. How could this oppressive system ever undue and right the wrongs it had created? How could a party that paid me only a couple of dollars an hour, worked me 80–100 hours a week, without the health insurance it promised me, and have the audacity to have Senator Ted Kennedy get on the DNC stage and proclaim the Democratic Party as the party for workers? Were these really the people that I could look to to make the world better for me and my people? As Audre Lorde said “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Despite all of these doubts I was still in Boston supporting Kerry. Anyone just had to be better than W, right?
When it came time to march we did many of the call back chants that leftist protesters are familiar with, including “Show me what Democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” I remember yelling that as loud as I could until my throat hurt and I lost my voice. It was summer, but I had goosebumps running down my body from the electricity I felt from taking part in something larger than myself. Yes, voting was crucial, but taking to the streets was democracy too and I was an active part of it.
Jump ahead 3 months to a cold, November election night. I was living in Boston and working as an office temp because it was the only work I could find. I was still without health insurance which was especially detrimental to me given my chronic illnesses and pain. I was barely getting by, had $125,000 in student loan debt, much of which were in the form of private student loans (the U.S. government still hasn’t addressed this issue for those of us who are suffering from them due to our education at federally recognized, non-profit higher educational institutions), but my optimism was still somewhat on my side. Myself and the Rock the Vote volunteer coordinator were standing in Copley Square on that frigid night in the hopes that we’d soon see our President Elect, John Kerry, take the stage to address the crowd. By 11:30pm we knew he wasn’t coming out and we had to get to our low paying, degrading, pink collar jobs the next morning so we headed home, shivering and disheartened. I would soon be crying over W’s win just like I did my first time voting in a presidential election, when he stole the presidency from Al Gore. I knew that more devastation was to come for all of us in America, our Tribal Nations, and the world over.
Jump ahead 12 years to July 2016. I’m back on the streets in Roxbury, MA marching against the U.S. government’s tyranny, racism, colonialism, and the systematic death and cradle to prison pipeline of Black people. I have now spent years working in the Democratic Party, liberal, and mainstream feminist politics. My disability has progressed a great deal, and while I have health insurance, many of my healthcare needs aren’t met. Despite being intelligent, hard working, driven, and having a Bachelor of Arts, a Graduate Certificate, and a Masters of Science, all of which led to $250,000 in student loan debt, I live below the poverty line.
While working for the Democrats and various “progressive” and “feminist” organizations I’ve been subjected to unbelievable amounts of abuse that have left me running as far (left) away from that party as possible. To give a brief example of what I’ve suffered: I’ve been sexually harassed at all levels of my work environment, told that Native people don’t matter because we’re not a large enough voting block, called an injun, denied a job because I wasn’t “cute and perky enough,” told that the “needs of disabled people were unimportant to the campaign”, that bisexual people’s needs didn’t matter, that as a Native woman I’m “not a Person of Color” so my experiences with racism weren’t valid, and I have literally been threatened with physical violence by a white, able bodied man who was my superior who was a Democratic, hetero, white, American, cisgendered man who represented the far left candidate in the race we worked on. This particular man said to me “If you don’t shut the fuck up I’m going to throw you through that wall.” I was second in charge on that particular campaign. I had gone to the candidate already about other racial and gender based concerns from other campaign members, as well as myself. He ignored them all. He went through at least 3 women and WPOC in three different positions in his campaign for the 2009 NYC Mayoral position before he finally fired that man. He’s since been elected to a state wide seat. This is one of many examples as to why I’m no longer a Democrat.
I wish I could say the abuse I’ve suffered at the hands of these so called civil and women’s rights champions ended there, but they didn’t. The proverbial camel back breaking straw was when I was threatened with a lawsuit by someone from the Massachusetts’ Democratic Party. I never gave any specific details as to why I had a change of heart nor did I break any non-disclosure agreements. Despite this, they threatened to withhold my pay until I made a retraction. I was trying to escape an abusive relationship and needed every dime I could get my hands on. The living situation I was in had become so dire and overwhelming for me that I had tried to kill myself literally a week and a half before this litigious threat occurred. Being hit with a potential lawsuit was the last thing I needed. Despite having done absolutely nothing wrong, I retracted my previous statement saying that I wished the particular party member well. Thankfully, the karmic beings did their divine justice.
From a Democrat to Now
I’ve seen the Democratic Party, its candidates, and their public servants-because they are public servants and we cannot allow them to forget that-do unmitigated harm to disenfranchised and abused people. I’ve come to understand that the democratic system does not represent myself nor any other oppressed group of people. Due to this, I jumped ship from the Democratic Party and have proudly become a Radical. Sadly though, I’ve found that not all Radicals represent the rights and well being of all oppressed people.
While at the july 2016 Roxbury, MA Black Lives Matter march, my chronic pain became so intense-that even though I had taken my legally prescribed pain pills-I couldn’t keep up with the crowd and fell behind. One of the march marshals, who I assume was able bodied and white, repeatedly yelled at me to hurry up. I was obviously limping and anyone with sight would have seen how much pain I was in. I was at the point of crying and just couldn’t take being yelled at any longer. I finally told her that I’m “disabled, in a lot of pain, and that I can’t match your pace so either walk beside me or leave me.” She chose to leave me. She left a Disabled, Native, Bisexual, Poor Woman limping in pain by herself surrounded by police. I knew my safety was in jeopardy and I panicked. I was nowhere near a train and buses weren’t running in the area. I had no idea where my friends were and getting a cab wasn’t an option because of my poverty and they weren’t running in the neighborhood too. The tears instantly began to flow.
The realities of law enforcement abuse are stark for someone such as myself. Indigenous people have the highest rates of murder by law enforcement of all racial groups in the U.S. At least one third of all police killings are people with a disability. Twenty one percent of LGBT people have reported hostile or abusive experiences with law enforcement. Those numbers only increase for Queer or Trans Native and People of Color. At least 40% of cismen police officers’ families experience domestic and intimate partner violence. Add all of that in with the astronomically high rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence that Native, Bi, and Disabled women face every day, myself being one of those women, and being left alone surrounded by primarily white, hetero, able bodied, cismen police officers becomes a terrifying, PTSD triggering situation.
I realize that the march wasn’t for me and my communities, and as such, my needs are not part of that particular conversation, but leaving anyone behind, especially a person whose people face some of the highest rates of abuse and murder by law enforcement, is unacceptable. The privileged actions of the marshal represent what I fight against every day. Taking to the streets is an important and a crucial part of any political movement, but we must make it as safe and accessible as possible for all our disenfranchised community members. We must remember that not all Disabled People are able to exercise our so called democratic right to vote because our ableist system was not created for us. It has purposefully barred Disabled People from voting.
It’s important to remember that these very streets and squares that we take over are on Indigenous land. It is the white privilege and colonizer/settler privilege that some People of Color have that allows them to exercise their “democracy” on our Native lands. The “founding fathers” took the ideals of democracy from the Six Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) and perverted them into the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, cissexist, capitalist, ableist system we have today.
When we call out and cheer for democracy we have to remember to ask what does this democracy look like? Who does it include and exclude? Who does it benefit and harm? If we don’t ask these questions then we are only adding fuel to the fire of the very system we are fighting against.
*This piece was written in July 2016*