Standing amidst a crowd of thousands yesterday in Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, it was hard not to swell with pride. Women and men, young and old, prim and punk, marching and in wheelchairs, white and brown and black: so many people showed up with signs calling out a wide range of concerns. The issues were as diverse as the individuals rallying around them, from women’s rights to Native rights to immigrant rights, from environmentalism to education to health care.
Amidst so much diversity — because of it — the spirit of the day was overwhelmingly united and empowered.
Then I heard the man at my elbow sigh to his friend, “You know, I bet most of these people won’t do anything after today, and that makes me sad.”
The simple precision of his conclusion stung: That makes me sad.
In the moment I wanted to turn and confront him. “You wanna bet? Challenge accepted!” His remark had rained on my parade — but before I could react, tiny peas of ice started showering down on us all, and the crowd gave a collective cheer. Placards became temporary umbrellas. The speeches and songs and chants continued.
Later that night, thinking back on the incredible success of the day—taken together, potentially the largest political protest in United States history, overwhelmingly cheerful and peaceful, with millions of marchers turning out in cities across the country and even the globe — that man’s words kept echoing in my head.
A new reaction grew in my gut. I don’t wish I’d challenged him. I wish I’d turned and asked him, quite earnestly, “So what should these people do after today?”
Yesterday’s rallies and marches were a proud moment for Americans. Although thousands of us have already been politically active for years, marching for Black Lives Matter and rallying around leaders like Bernie Sanders and standing with Standing Rock, millions more have only awakened from complacency post-election. November’s Electoral College victory of a flagrantly dishonest and malicious megalomaniac, his appointment of billionaire bankers and bankrollers over the last two months, all enabled by an anti-science, anti–voting rights, anti–reproductive rights Congress in the pockets of Big Oil and the NRA: it’s too much to take. It seems every progressive ideal is under attack at once.
We’re here now. We’re alert. We’re galvanized.
For one day yesterday, liberal-minded Americans put aside petty differences to loudly, collectively affirm that we care about ethics and each other’s rights.
But today, and tomorrow, and in the weeks to come, how can we maintain this sense of unity?
How, as we’re each pulled back into the busyness of our daily lives?
How, given how diverse we really are? Some of us feel race relations are the most significant issue facing the nation today, while others are concerned about religious bigotry and gender discrimination. Those whose lives are most immediately affected by health care policy may not have time to care about the criminal justice system, while water protectors and climate change activists argue that these short-term political debates are insignificant as long as we continue to privatize, pollute, and destroy the planet’s resources.
How can liberal Americans keep from splintering in the face of conflicting priorities? How do we stay cheerfully unified when we have vastly different ideas about what matters most in the years ahead?
Maybe we don’t. Maybe we each return to the specific issues about which we’re most passionate. Maybe we engage each other in heated debates about which goals are more critical and how we should work to achieve them.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
Citizens aren’t meant to march in lockstep every day of the year. We can come together on special occasions to reaffirm our good will as compatriots, then return to our separate causes. Otherwise we’d never develop our respective movements beyond the sort of oversimplified statements that fit on signs.
I can’t be a voice for all issues at once. None of us can. If we tried, we’d spread ourselves thin and lose ourselves in stagnation at a superficial level. In order to make a difference as ordinary citizens, I propose that we each have to focus on the issue that matters most to us. Only then can we develop a profound understanding of its complexities, determine what solutions will be most effective, and pursue a specific plan of action. Only then can we keep each other meaningfully informed and provide guidance beyond platitudes.
Now that we’ve proven how unified we are, it’s time to separate again.
Although I intend to stay well-educated about each of these causes, I’m going to choose the one or two where I feel I can be most effective and throw myself in whole-heartedly — trusting all the while that others of you will do the same for different issues. And I’ll be glad to have you active alongside me, even as we pursue different goals. We’ll each have our own priorities and we’ll often disagree, but that’s the beauty of democracy.
That’s up to you. Which cause will you pursue?