Beyond Optics: When Activism in a Vacuum Reinforces Oppressive Dynamics

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — adapted from Margaret Atwood

Honestly, part of the difficulty in writing this is I can already hear the collective sigh when I share it. “This story? Again???” I have started and stopped writing this about a dozen times because I was so convinced of the exasperation and indifference it would be met with once online. Yes, we get it, Kamala Harris was participating in a forum on Sunday and someone* jumped on stage and took the microphone from her. Yes, it made for some dramatic pictures but was it really such a big deal? Can’t we move on to more important issues? Why does this matter? Wasn’t that, like, already two or three news cycles ago?

Here is why it matters: It matters because I am seeing man after man admitting that he does not understand, nor care to understand, the lived reality of existing as a female in the world by dismissing the reaction to the stage-jumper as overblown. This lived reality manifests as a steady drip of fear that is so normalized that when I walk outside, I usually carry my keys poking out between my fingers as a makeshift weapon, something I’ve been doing as long as I can remember, taught to me by a friend’s older sister. It reveals itself by the way I will not park next to a windowless van in a parking lot; if there is a van like this when I return to my car on the driver’s side, I will enter my car by scooting through the passenger’s side just in case. It shows up as the normalcy of reminding women that they should always keep an eye on their drinks at a bar. It materialized when I was in college after I narrowly avoided an attacker on campus and subsequently, I always had to call security to walk with me home at night; I resented every second of it but I knew I’d be blamed if someone grabbed me again.

This is our normal. It is not paranoia. It is simply moving through the world as many women do.

Given that RAINN estimates that one out of six women have been raped or had an attempted rape perpetrated against her, it is fairly likely that with three women on the stage when Kamala Harris’ mic was commandeered by a man who suddenly strode at her, at least one had a personal experience with sexual assault: of herself, a family member, a friend, a roommate, a classmate, a coworker. It is likely each woman who was sitting on that stage knows at least several sexual assault survivors in her social circle and, unbeknownst to her, many more. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four U.S. women have experienced severe physical abuse by an intimate partner in her lifetime, and one in six U.S. women will be stalked in her lifetime. The aggressors are nearly always males. Now do you think it’s safe to presume that if three women are sitting on a stage, some personal trauma may have touched a life or two?

Now let’s widen the lens a little more. Living in a country with such easy access to guns, we hear about mass shootings so often — there was one in Virginia just two days before this incident — we can often be trying to wrap our brains around what just happened when a fresh tragedy with a big body count redirects our attention, creating a net effect on us that is as disorienting as it is numbing. With the emboldenment of alt-right with the election of Donald Trump and a corresponding rise in the number of violent hate crimes directed against people of color, if three women of color are sitting on a stage and someone who presents as a male unexpectedly moves towards them in an aggressive manner, would it really be unwarranted for any of those women — who, again, have a statistical likelihood of having experienced or had a personal connection to sexual violence, stalking and/or abuse — to be afraid for her life or to be, at the very least, re-traumatized?

Why then would an animal rights group, which I will not name here but it’s easy enough to find out their name in the news stories, be comfortable with one of their members doing this? And why would animal rights activists defend it? I have to think people justify and defend it because they have myopia borne of the great good fortune of not knowing what it is like to be vulnerable to the whims of a male-presenting person who suddenly imposed themself on you and may have changed the trajectory of your life, including when it ends. This individual had a press badge; presumably, they could talk into a microphone with far more coherence and less interruption without the spectacle created by jumping on the stage. For those who want to accuse me of upholding respectability politics, a popular charge among defenders of such actions, I want to say that it has nothing to do with respectability and everything to do with acknowledging context and the importance of consent.

People’s lives have ended abruptly and senselessly, especially the lives of Black women, and to deny this culture of violence as well as the reality of the psychological toll of this burden is to entrench yourself in the comfort of your privileges over real allyship. The ever-present threat of violence Black women in particular have been forced to make room for in their psyches since childhood is real even if it is not your reality, and in a context that is inclusive and acknowledging of trauma, one would know that jumping up on stage and startling three women, all of whom are of color, is not just a neutral choice. Even if as a “disruptive activist” you would do the same thing to a white man, it will not be received in the same way because of profound differences in lived experience. It is a selfish, tone-deaf and willfully ignorant one, and it is a choice that is deeply revealing of the blinders some “progressive” activists all-too willingly wear. Expose three women to trauma so I can incoherently shout into a microphone for a few seconds? Sure! Great media. At the very least, it’ll get a lot of shares and get our name in the press.

I am vegan. I am an animal rights activist. I have dedicated my life to this work. But I am also a feminist and I am disgusted by white supremacy. There is a way we can do our work without stepping on women, I promise you, or using them for “the greater good” of yelling in a mic for a few seconds. When I, as a vegan of nearly 25 years, am cheering on Karine Jean-Pierre in standing up against an animal rights protester, I am telling you, there is something deeply wrong with your activism. And when Ms. Jean-Pierre vividly describes what was going through her mind — thinking about mass shooters, white supremacy and leaving her child without a mother — by putting her body between the unknown mic-grabber and Kamala Harris, well, I am inclined to believe her.

We need to do better. We don’t exist in vacuums and nor should our activism. Most important, when women tell you about what it is like to live with the ever-present threat of violence, listen to them and believe them. You will be a better activist for it and certainly a better human being.

* Acknowledging that the mic-grabber is apparently non-binary and prefers they/them pronouns but presents as a male.

Marla Rose is a journalist, co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com and Vegan Street Media, and she wants you to check out this handy-dandy free guide for new (or aspiring!) vegans. If you like the work Vegan Street is doing, please consider joining our Patreon community for as little as $1.00 a week.