Dear white friends: Thanks for making protest history, please come back soon

The #Womxnsmarch, race, and our tradition of civil disobedience

Dear white friends who #Womxnsmarch-ed,

It was great to see y’all hit the streets yesterday. I hear nearly a million turned out in Washington DC, a half a mil in LA, over a hundred-fifty thousand in Boston and Atlanta and on down the list.

It was a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was proud to introduce my kids to the better angels of American tradition: peaceful protest and civil disobedience. We marched with 130,000 others, stretching across downtown Seattle.

It turned out to be a bizarrely family-friendly affair. Perhaps that’s what made me a little uncomfortable. It didn’t resemble what I’ve come to know as civil disobedience. Maybe it was the radically unverklempt police, who for once didn’t feel threatening and seemed overly polite. Maybe it was the carnival-like atmosphere at the Seattle Center, replete with kettle corn vendors and cotton candy stands.

I walked miles surrounded by throngs of joyous faces, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment. We did it! people cried as we got the end of the march route. It was maybe the biggest protest in Seattle’s history, and one that atypically resulted in not one arrest.

“I noticed something very different today, as someone who’s regularly attended rallies and marches since the age 13.
White femininity’s perceived peacefulness is intrinsically linked to how the State views and treats nonwhite femininities and masculinities. It’s very interesting how a predominately white women march today received the least intervention and suspicion from state apparatuses like the police.
Identical political marches with identical demands for autonomy, dignity, mobility and reproductive justice (a political term coined by black women scholars) have been led by black women but the State response to such assemblages is starkly different. Much harsher. The level of scrutiny and penalty goes above and beyond that which predominantly white assemblages face.
So while, yes, there is strength in numbers and other pleasant axioms, there is also strength in rigorously questioning why you are not viewed as a threat, why your default status is not seen as a deviance from the norm, why you receive such kindness and others don’t” -Mehreen Kasana

Up until yesterday, I had just figured — hoped, maybe — y’all just didn’t like to protest, that maybe you were just too polite for civil disobedience, that the rough and tumble idea of shutting down streets and hooting and hollering offended some delicate sensibilities I just wasn’t in touch with.

But there were so many children wearing pussy hats. And you were so damn happy to be out there shutting down these streets. Between each, This is so amazing!, and, Have you ever seen anything like this?, I couldn’t help but think, Yeah. I have. A bunch of times.

Civil disobedience and the art of protest are alive and strong in our cities. They are stoked, organized, and led by young people of color. They don’t often get press for it, and those protest — smaller but louder, more energetic, and bouncing with rhythm — often don’t make the nightly news. Or if they do, only to report the number of arrests or the subsequent traffic nuisance.

I’m scrolling through my social feeds, liking every post related the #womxnsmarch, willing this positive feedback to ensure my (mostly white) friends turn out to the next one. I’m struck by how trendy a post about solidarity is in this particular context — in contrast with how less cool and more radical a #blacklivesmatter protest seems.

Didn’t we wake up in the same America last week? How about the days after the deaths of Philando Castille? Alton Sterling? Eric Garland? Sandra Bland? Where were you when Charlotte was on fire? Or Baltimore? How did you react when you found out the children of Flint were being poisoned?

Don’t get me wrong, overall, I’m gonna overlook that you arrived late and opt to celebrate that you showed up to the party all. Clearly, your organizing power is incredible. Your ability to engender positive news coverage is unparalleled. We aspire towards the same progressive vision, and if we want to affect change, we need to be on the same side of this fight. My daughter certainly doesn’t know the difference between this instance of civic action and the browner, less well-attended protests of the past.

But frankly, your righteous indignation suddenly transformed into action has to be met with some skepticism from people of color. Because we’re friends, it begs the difficult questions, Why now? Where have y’all been this whole time?

Did the footage of Donald Trump swearing an oath at foot of the capitol really mean that much to you? Was it that that brought home to you our national identity is at stake? When did you realize the very nature of our democracy is at risk?

So what does it say that these millions — yourself included — didn’t turn out when a relentless summer full of videos of black and brown men and women being abused and killed by the state flooded our feeds?

As Ijeoma Oluo reminds us, asking why you’re here now isn’t an attack, but rather a vital inquiry meant to illuminate your point of view. You may not have known it before this week, but our national identity has always been at stake. The very nature of American democracy has always been at risk. And that is precisely because the people affected don’t enjoy the positive feedback you do. The goodness of the state and others aren’t a given for us. And an unwillingness to see that harms everyone.

I’m less concerned about if you’ll turn out to the next #womxnsmarch (you should). I’m not so much worried about if you’ll maintain your level of engagement and skepticism (please do). I’m more concerned with the message you’re sending to the organizers toiling away without any credit— the young people who regularly put their lives on the line. These predominantly black and brown folk from disproportionately impacted communities that have been screaming that our hair is on fire, pleading for your support. What message did we just send them? How little do you think of us?

Donald Trump has acted exactly the way we’ve always expected a reality television character to act. The Republican party, now in control, is ostensibly fulfilling it’s promises to further insulate wealthy white people. Both are playing the caricatures of power-hungry politicians that we have come to expect. The players are different but the script is the same. We’ve seen this movie before. However, this moment, here and now, it would seem for you, is the time to act.

I want and will choose to celebrate yesterday. It was a powerful statement about democracy, civic engagement, and how a powerful a group of people can be when they come together. But celebrating your first protest or suddenly making civil disobedience cool, while refusing to see the hard work that this moment was built upon undermines any sense of progress we might together achieve.

Thank you for coming out. I mean it. Maybe the next time your co-worker or partner or friend or social media feed invites you to a #blacklivesmatter protest, you’ll be less afraid. Maybe you’ll be less apprehensive. Maybe you’ll overcome this false notion that you won’t have anything to add because you now know that your body in the presence and solidarity of others is the whole ball game. Maybe you’ll say the wrong thing, but by then, you’ll realize your personal discomfort is a small price to pay for the lives that can and will be lost. Maybe now, we all know the stakes.

I certainly hope so.