Varieties of Witness: On Seeing Chicago

Alexandra Edwards
Mar 19, 2016 · 8 min read

I don’t like to travel by air. It’s not so much the in-the-air part as it is all the parts leading up to that: the airports and the security and the standing and waiting and walking through blind tunnels, all the time tacked onto this convenience—this privilege—that is supposed to make travel so much faster but that also makes it so much anxiety-inducing.

I don’t like it, but I do it, because I have to travel for research, and flying is often the only logical way to get across our big, big country. This spring I flew from Georgia to Chicago. I was hoping to research Gwendolyn Brooks and the history of Chicago women’s reading communities for my dissertation. I ended up being treated to a lesson in reading the world.

This is a story about Chicago, about the 2016 election, about violence, and yes, about Donald Trump. But it’s not the most complete story. It’s definitely not the most important story. It’s just the one I saw.

Atlanta, 2016

I have to start somewhere, so let me start in the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Let me start with what I saw in the security line there, specifically: three police officers in camouflage fatigues, with sub-machine guns strapped across their chests, looking for all the world like they were on active duty in a war zone. The tableau testified to the increasing militarization of police in America, a chilling trend made startlingly visible during the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

photo credit: Corbis Images

The police officers with sub-machine guns testified as well to American anxieties about safe travel, especially in an airport where it is legal for civilians to carry loaded assault rifles. Since September 11th, those anxieties have caused American airports to treat travel as a potential criminal act, which is why most of us have to take off our shoes, spread our legs and raise our arms like we’re being arrested, in order to be allowed through security.

I have the travel privilege of being a petite white woman, which means I am rarely stopped or “randomly” searched. But I still have to put my hands up, and in Atlanta, I have to do it under the watchful eye of police armed to the teeth.

The police who watch us inside Hartsfield-Jackson force us to watch them back. Those guns across their chests demand to be seen, to be considered, to be feared. They are the visual representations of our fear—but they also invoke that fear, these loaded death machines reminding us all how easily we can be killed.

Airports have moods, like cities, like neighborhoods. Hartsfield-Jackson’s dominant mood is fear, and it doesn’t dissipate once you make it past security. If anything, it thickens, and I can tell you exactly why: it’s because at every gate, in every terminal, large televisions blare the CNN Airport Network, its 24-hour cable news cycle like inexorable terror-porn drilled straight into your skull.

Cable news loves an election cycle, and it seems to love this election cycle with a particular passion. So on this day, in this airport, strangers and I were subjected to an endless loop of “coverage,” focused interminably on cable’s new favorite ratings magnet, Donald Trump.

In the world’s busiest airport, packed with international travelers, Trump’s hate speech rallies were being given inescapable platform. I mean that literally: you can’t escape. I know because I tried. Headphones in, volume all the way up, and I could still hear Trump squawking about banning Muslims and punching protestors and getting “them” out of “here.”

It felt awful. It felt like forced exposure to violence. It felt like I was going to have a damn panic attack in the terminal.

And I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like for the dozens of travelers of color at my gate, the hundreds in Atlanta’s seven massive terminals.

That was Monday, March 7th. I arrived in Chicago around 7pm CST, exhausted not from eight hours of travel, but from willing myself to keep it together.

Interlude: Germany, 1945

Recently the internet has been making much of Trump’s campaign tactics and how eerily similar they are to Adolf Hitler’s. The horror we should feel has been heavily implied, but of all the things we’re being forced to look at this spring, the consequences of Hitler’s rise to power haven’t been one of them.

photo credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Those consequences — the 11 million or more killed during the Holocaust — were extensively documented, as I was reminded by Dr. Linda Kinnahan during a talk on Mina Loy’s war-era poetry and its relationship to photojournalism.

Photojournalism, Kinnahan pointed out, achieved its status as documentary storytelling device in the wake of World War II. Increasingly portable photographic equipment made it easier to capture the atrocities of the war, and improved methods of relaying photos to newspaper and magazine publishers meant those images could be published faster and seen more widely.

This is how surrealist photographer and model Lee Miller came to cover the war for the American edition of Vogue. In addition to capturing the devastation of the London Blitz, Miller was on the ground in Germany as the true damage of Hitler’s regime was being revealed:

In April 1945 [Lee] Miller was one of the first Americans into the recently captured concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. Her report was published in the 1 June 1945 issue of Vogue under the heading “Believe It: Lee Miller Cables from Germany.” (x)

In her work, Kinnahan links the widely published death camp photos of Miller and others to the larger practice of “witnessing” forced on Germans at the close of the war. Indeed, there is an entire photographic genre, she notes, of citizens—often women—reacting to the piles of dead and broken bodies.

Photographs like this capture two kinds of violence: the physical violence done to, and apparent on the bodies of, the dead, but also the mental violence done to, and apparent on the faces of, the witnesses. These women cover their contorted mouths. Most seem frozen in shock and horror.

To see them—and simultaneously see what they see—is to feel what they feel, that gut-punch of disgust, terror, sadness, pain, confusion.

Kinnahan suggests that it’s no accident these photos appeared in Vogue, mere pages away from bone-thin models with limbs cocked at awkward angles, just like it’s no accident that witness photos focus on women. The female gaze, her work implies, is the gaze of the witness.

It’s Cassandra seeing the fall of Troy.

It’s Mary looking at the body of Christ.

It’s Lee Miller in Dachau, and it’s me and all the people around me in the Atlanta airport.

Chicago, 2016

My feelings about this are complicated, in case you couldn’t tell.

I believe in the power of witnessing, in its importance. I am not suggesting we turn away from atrocity.

But I wonder at what point we’ve looked long enough.

How many bodies do we need to see? From how many angles?

How many hours of television exposure do we need to tell us Donald Trump is inciting hatred and violence in a fearful American public?

And why do witnesses have to be women?

I don’t mean to imply that men can’t or don’t see acts of violence, or their aftermath. But, as my friend Chelle pointed out, “it’s always women who lead grassroots anti-violence efforts.” It wasn’t fathers convening in the Plaza de Mayo to publicly mourn their disappeared children. The labor of grief has historically been gendered female, and in order to grieve, women first have to look.

I had gone to Chicago to look—not to look at Trump, though he proved as unavoidable in the city as he had in the airport.

I looked at his predecessors in the archives of the YWCA at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the 1950s, the Chicago YWCA’s Public Affairs Council prepared monthly packets of political information and actions to be taken. They encouraged supporting the United Nations and urged readers to write their congressmen on key pieces of legislation. They summarized the views of politicians up for election (many Republicans, I noticed, had unclear or empty platforms). They addressed concerns over immigration, illegal wire-tapping, and whether peace would harm the American economy. They promoted free education for Americans and sick leave benefits for workers, and reprinted information on health-related basic human rights.

I visited the archives on Thursday, March 10, at the invitation of my friend Chelle, who works for the YWCA. We marveled together at how contemporary the issues addressed by the Public Affairs Council seemed. These were the same talking points dominating Democratic and Republic primary debates alike: immigration, education, health care, government spying.

These were the same kinds of talking points Donald Trump meant to address at UIC the very next day, though of course they were approached very differently by the women of the 1950s YWCA.

I met up with Chelle that next day, Friday, March 11, at Navy Pier. She’d taken a bus down; I’d walked over, through Maggie Daley Park, along a detour through a deserted enclave of high-end condos, and across the Outer Drive Bridge. The rusted and dirty underside of the double-decker bridge made me feel like I was trespassing. The shiny, futuristic skyline proclaiming Trump’s place in the global capitalist economy made me feel hopeless.

Trump Tower in Chicago

I’d been to the Art Institute; she’d been at an all-staff meeting, after which several of her co-workers said they were headed down to UIC to protest Trump’s scheduled appearance. We were proud that they’d gone to protest, even if we didn’t want to be there ourselves. Chelle’s boss, she told me, had joked that she was worried she’d have to bail them out of jail the next day. I was worried that they’d be assaulted, or worse.

But something beautiful happened instead: the people of Chicago stood up and said No. Said We won’t let you make us look. Said You can’t have this platform, you can’t use it to spew hatred. They went to witness, to resist, and in the end they were able to prevent the rally from happening.

(I suppose there is an argument to be made that Trump preemptively cancelled in order to paint himself as victim. But I prefer the hopeful view: that the people of Chicago successfully turned hate away.)

In a city where a Trump Tower looks as though it was thrust between the overburdened banks of a river, women and men and folks of all sorts came together to put their bodies between us and the repeated violence of forced exposure.

I’m not the person to tell you Chicago’s long history of protest. I don’t claim to know the full scope of that story. I just have these pieces, these brief glimpses I saw.

If witnessing atrocity is crucial—and I think that it is—and if it is meant to horrify us into turning away from violence, then surely the opposite is just as necessary: to witness resistance to violence, and to let that witness gladden us into turning toward peace, toward love.

I see you, Chicago, and I just want to say thank you. Much love.

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