A cheery post-election message on an office building in Chicago. All photos: Lauren LaBorde
A cheery post-election message on an office building in Chicago. All photos: Lauren LaBorde
When I finally emerged from my apartment on November 9, 2016, a funereal energy pervaded Clark Street. Despite it being a Wednesday during business hours, plenty of people were outside and crying. I went to my preferred neighborhood coffee shop to mourn in front of the kind-faced barista who worked there on weekdays.
“How’s it going?” the barista asked in the loaded way of a concerned doctor who already knows the answer. He looked like Andrew Garfield mixed with a beagle. Or if Clark Kent moonlighted as a Chicago stage actor.
“Eh,” I offered.
“Well, I got you,” he replied.
My heart fluttered. A moment of kindness on this new day of Trump’s America! And a free cold brew!
“Four seventy-five,” he said, as the digital reader prompted me to insert my debit card.
Fucking Trump’s America.
I looked down to conceal how my neck was blooming red from this misinterpreted gesture and grabbed the glass of black liquid swirled with curdling almond milk from the bar. I sat near a couple sitting puffy-faced before a folded-out New York Times.
My mouth was dry and my stomach sour from all I had drunk the night before; my roommate had invited a friend over to watch the election results and eat dinner. She’d cheerfully prepared tangles of angel hair pasta in a light mushroom sauce, served with a ton of red wine.
Early that Election Day 2016, I thought the day felt like it could be a victory lap and not a battle.
We’d eaten and laughed as the election returns came in, drinking at a reasonable pace until the cable news desks took a grim turn. The wine drinking had accelerated then. We’d shouted at the TV with stained, garlicky mouths. My friend in New Orleans had texted our group chat a photo of an empty boxed-wine bladder, deflated and splayed out with traces of burgundy liquid like a used IV bag. The night had ended with us clicking off the TV and quietly retreating to our rooms.
After a dehydrated sleep, I’d snapped awake absurdly early the day after the election — the way you do when you fall asleep in the wrong place. But the good thing about still being unemployed nearly four months after moving to Chicago, getting by on savings and light freelance work, was that while many of my friends took off work for “self-care,” I had nowhere to be. So I went to join the mourners on Clark Street.
On the day of the election, I went for a walk around the neighborhood I lived in at the time, Andersonville. I had already mailed in my absentee ballot but wanted to soak up the energy of the people heading to the polls. I felt confident in my vote for Hillary Clinton and was wearing a tank top I’d gotten at a Beyoncé concert with an illustration of the singer in her “Formation” video — her hair in braids under a wide-brimmed hat, middle fingers up — to usher in the matriarchy.
I started to get teary thinking that we were about to elect the country’s first woman president. For my whole life, feminism has been the anchor of my political identity. I’ve always been attuned to the unfairness women have experienced compared with men — even in the way my younger brother seemed to have more privileges than me — but I didn’t learn about feminism in the broader sense until I learned about Kathleen Hanna.
In high school, a friend of mine had Le Tigre albums burned on CD-Rs that we would play in her car while driving through the New Orleans-area suburb where we grew up. I didn’t fully understand the things they were talking about at the time (workplace discrimination and sexual assault) or who Angela Davis or the litany of luminaries mentioned in the song “Hot Topic” were, but Hanna and the others in the Riot Grrrl movement gave a voice to the gender inequity at the tip of my consciousness. But mostly, my group of friends — suburban theater kids with active LiveJournals and moody AIM away messages — just loved screaming along to the lyrics of “TGIF”:“All my friends are fucking bitches/Best known for burning bridges/Do you need a character witness?/I’m proud to be associated with you.”
At that time, feminists were regarded with suspicion in the thoroughly red state of Louisiana, where billboards screaming Bible verses line the highways and where I had to watch a video of an abortion at my Catholic all-girl high school. When I moved to Chicago, I was thrilled to be in a blue state and an even bluer city. And early on Election Day 2016, it felt like this could be a victory lap and not a battle. I hadn’t seen a single Trump sign since moving to the city. I reveled in the idea of our new Madam President, even if she was part of the somewhat problematic Clinton legacy. My deep desire to have a woman lead this country had overshadowed all the flaws.
On my walk, I headed toward the Lakefront Trail near Foster Beach. On days like that day, when it’s not very cold and you’re near Lake Michigan, it’s easy to love Chicago. I wish I could say I’d selected the city for my big move from New Orleans through thorough research and careful vetting, but I’d picked Chicago because it seemed like a good idea. My first visit here hadn’t been until after I’d decided to move.
I walked through the neighborhood that day feeling safe and comfortable, my optimism propelled by a fall breeze.
I used to have a certain idea of Chicago in my head: To me, it was the city of Oprah, the city of Barack Obama, the city of artists I loved like Jamila Woods and Chance the Rapper. But days before I moved here, Oprah’s old studio was demolished to make way for McDonald’s new headquarters. Obama’s presence here now is largely in the form of plans for his presidential center and library, which is causing controversy for eating up historic park land. And all those artists I loved are from the city’s South Side, which is worlds different from the North Side neighborhoods I’d moved into.
In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 Chicago public schools at once, many of them on Chicago’s south and west sides. Two years before I moved to Chicago, a police officer fatally shot a 17-year-old 16 times as he walked away from him, and it’s likely that other police officers — and possibly even the mayor — helped cover it up. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was eventually convicted of murder, but it was the first time in 50 years that a Chicago police officer was found guilty of murder despite hundreds of shootings involving police.
But I didn’t yet know much about all that at the time of my Election Day walk around the neighborhood — a quaint community of bungalows and greystones covered in ivy, creaky two- and three-flats like the one I lived in, and historic properties that wealthy gay couples had gutted and turned into single-family homes with open-concept kitchens. The neighborhood’s main commercial corridor, Clark Street, has a Main Street feel, with antique stores and Swedish kitsch to nod to the original settlers. I walked through the neighborhood that day feeling safe and comfortable, my optimism propelled by a fall breeze.
Facebook, in the days following the election, was a flurry of activity. My news feed was in hysterics: “Look at my Resistance Google Doc!” “ACTION ITEMS. PLEASE SHARE.” “If you voted for Trump, you can just miss me at Thanksgiving!”
I kept seeing politics-centric events populating the increasingly active stream — protests, community-organizing meetings, and self-care-oriented affairs like a “healing spaghetti dinner.” I felt like I had to do something, but I was listless. Two days after the election, instead of going to a protest at Trump Tower — that garish name lording over Chicago’s downtown like a dystopian movie — I went to see the movie Moonlight. But I needed to participate in something, so I sifted through my events and landed on a “genre-defying” performance art show with the theme of “hope.”
The Monday after Election Day, my roommate and I packed into a beauty-salon-turned-bar with hair-dryer chairs for bar seating and glittery, metallic panels covering the walls. It felt like we were in a giant Caboodle. Stylish, androgynous people shuffled through the space, squeezing past people at the bar, dancing a little bit (“University of Chicago people,” my roommate whispered, an eye roll in her voice).
She went to get drinks while I found empty seats for us and started to sit down. “Someone is sitting there,” snapped a domineering presence with a shaved head and severe makeup. I apologized and fumbled to get up, spilling my vodka and Cherry Coke all over the seat and then feebly trying to sop it up with my utilitarian Land’s End parka.
The mood in the room was otherwise convivial, though, until “Hello, hello, hello” boomed from the front of the room. I murmured something to my roommate, and people in the row in front me spun around and hissed, “SHHHHH!”The show’s organizers took turns talking, sharing the general sentiment that, now more than ever, art is important. The crowd crackled with snapping fingers and low mmm-hmmms in agreement.
I shut up and shoved my wet parka under the seat, fully braced for important, genre-defying art. The first performer talked a bit about self-care and presented a five-minute video of themselves doing yoga in an abandoned building. The person whose seat I’d almost accidentally stolen sang a cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” I did not understand the significance. A man in glittery makeup, wrapped in what looked like a flag of some importance, sang the national anthem while sobbing, like it was a torch song. “I just really needed to do this,” he said.
At some point, the founder of the show was in front of us. She had been standing in a corner, her blue eyes pooling with tears when performers thanked her for creating this space while the room swelled with snaps and hoots. She had a kind, milky white face with high cheekbones and a toothy smile and was wearing a sweater and skater skirt. It was clear she was adored.
The founder first said she had extra safety pins if anyone wanted one. (In the days after the election, wearing a safety pin signaled allyship.) Second, her voice cracking, she said Trump’s election was partially the fault of white women, which had made up 53 percent of Trump’s votes. The white women present, the founder included, were to do an exercise where we looked to the nearest person of color and apologized. After a pause, everyone’s eyes shifted around in the dark of the space before looking toward the stage for help.
A non-white person involved with the show commandeered the mic. “I’m realizing there aren’t a lot of people of color here,” she said. “So I would like to offer myself as someone you can offer these intentions to.” I stifled a laugh, but everyone else remained serious and engaged with the exercise.
“I love y’all, but if you’re going to wear a safety pin, you have to really mean it.” Snaps and mmm-hmmms concurred. There were so many white people crying.
We did another exercise where we had to tell the person next to us one thing we were planning to do for The Resistance. Desperate to feel useful in the days after the election, I’d scheduled some shifts to volunteer at one of those organizations that sends books with encouraging notes to women in prisons. “I’m going to help make life for people in prison better,” I told my neighbor. “What does that even mean?” they responded.
Eventually the exercises were through, and a black transgender woman carrying a guitar came to the stage. Before singing an original song, she said, “I love y’all, but if you’re going to wear a safety pin, you have to really mean it.” Snaps and mmm-hmmms concurred. There were so many white people crying.
After drinking my cold brew that day after the election — romance between that barista and me eluding us once again — I walked down Clark Street to the feminist bookstore that probably inspired that “Portlandia” sketch.
I was in the store, browsing the staff picks and a table of new and notable hardcovers, when I noticed a display of feminist-themed merchandise on the checkout counter: “Nasty Woman” stickers and lapel pins, “Feminist” embroidered patches, a bowl of safety pins free for the taking.
I wasn’t one of the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, but if I had been, would I really have experienced any consequences?
It was like seeing a table of discounted apparel for a team that had lost the World Series the night before. (Little did I know it was just the beginning for these kinds of cutesy political goods, with “Nevertheless She Persisted” tank tops and “Reclaiming My Time” mugs on the way.)
I wasn’t one of the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, but if I had been, would I really have experienced any consequences? I could have remained hidden on someone’s Facebook friend list or quiet in the dark of a genre-defying art show, avoiding conversations about politics, and my life would not have materially changed. But yet, the day before the election, I’d worn a $40 Beyoncé shirt that was merch for Lemonade — an album made for black women — implicitly co-opting an experience so different than mine.
On the bookstore counter, there was also a sticker that said “Girls to the Front.” I recognized the quote from Kathleen Hanna; it was her rallying cry to women at Le Tigre shows who were used to being mistreated by men in those spaces, encouraging them to make their way to the stage.
Being reminded of my high school feminist idol prompted me to dig into her politics a little more. Riot Grrrl was important for advancing feminism, but it stopped short. I found this quote from a recap of a lecture Hanna delivered in Oregon in 2015:
[Hanna] also shared an anecdote about Riot Grrrl’s struggles with intersectional feminism, recalling a gathering that devolved into white women wanting to be absolved of their racism by the few people of color in attendance. That was decades ago and yet, in pale Portland, a look at the diversity (or not) of the audience was evidence of the inclusivity barriers that still need to be broken. It was something that Hanna voiced a need for, if didn’t actively embody: she wanted Riot Grrrl remembered for what it was, a progressive moment that didn’t finish the job.
A mother and her daughter were near that checkout counter at the bookstore. “See,” the mother said, pointing out the “Girls to the Front” sticker. “Kathleen Hanna said that.”
I felt the first hint of optimism I’d felt all day. We had failed, but maybe that little girl would know better.