The Seeds of Hope are Sown with Rage

image: D. Johnstone

On January 20, 2017, a xenophobic demagogue assumed control of the presidency.

From this day forward it’s going to be only America First…”

But which America will have the privilege of being part of that “First” taxonomy? Who is actually eligible? Will it be all LGBT communities? All those living in poverty and at poverty’s margins? Will it be everyone who can’t afford to pay for health care? Will it be African Americans trapped in inner city ghettos? Will it be immigrants? Will it be the “working poor” and “food insecure”? Which America will be privy to Donald Trump’s version of America? On Saturday January 21, millions marched nationwide — not counting demonstrations in other countries — to protest Trump’s nascent plutocracy. At the same time, we ideologically march into unknown territory except this road, the path of dissent, is not all that unfamiliar. History is littered with mine fields and atrocities. The horror is that history’s massive fuckups only afflict the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable.

The Women’s March on Washington, D.C., was the largest demonstration in recorded history.

But a march that focuses on women must include all women — particularly the poor. I live in New York and close to 11:00 a.m. I began to wander through the crowd. I approach all large gatherings of people with trepidation; protests often erupt but this demonstration remained calm. The attitude bordered on euphoric, which I thought odd. I was prepared for more rage. Families and friends snapped pictures and smiled and held up signs and sang and generally, seemed unperturbed by what Trump and his cronies had in store. It was an organized expression of unity, a brief collective respite from the onslaught of Trump’s autocratic proclamations and dangerous cabinet picks.

The vitriol of the signs was incongruous with the overall demeanor of the demonstration, which resembled one big block party. But what looks like a block party for many, can appear to others as simply another homogenous institution that requires certain credentials in order to participate.

image: D. Johnstone

White women have historically been at the fore of advocacy movements against oppression and injustice. I remember reading about the women’s movement and women burning their bras on college campuses in the1970s. At that time, I was heir to a dying mother, a First Nations woman on public assistance in Toronto. Left alone after her death at the age of 16, my sole purpose was to get a job and to survive. No one advocated for me, a poor indigenous kid at risk of being homeless. Fast forward 30 years later and I’ve come to accept that marches and demonstrations for equality often don’t include everyone.

When I later saw the Washington segment televised, the “speakers” were predominately celebrities, CEOs, and women with high profiles in in various sectors, women well ensconced in cultural and social agencies. These were people who had a tolerance for risk. It’s a familiar scenario — the affluent clamoring for equality. The caveat? I didn’t hear anyone speaking who was actually poor. Most likely that’s because the “working poor” were already working on a Saturday at minimum wage jobs. I know the young Mexican woman who works in the deli around the corner from me was working the same shift she works every day, six days a week, 5:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She knew nothing about the demonstration in New York.

Most minimum wage jobs demand weekend shifts. But one doesn’t need to work a minimum wage job to be poor. You can be an adjunct, like me, and have no health insurance, disability, vacation pay, severance, or unemployment. I’m part of a new Precariat class in America — the poor “working” class with diminished social mobility and no security. I’m an invisible statistic in America but there are a lot more like me out there.

I want to believe that people who march for causes would take up the reigns of equality and fight for all women especially those who suffer discrimination, racism, and poverty. But if that were the case, then we would have heard speeches from the ”working poor” and the “food insecure”, not just celebrities and the affluent.

“Those who would transform a nation or a world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.”

Eric Hoffer wrote this in his 1951 book, True Believer. It’s a classic treatise on the power of unbridled hope to move masses of people to action. He goes on to point out that “…The hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power — a slogan, a word, a button,” or a pink hat. While the frustrated pursue radical change, those who enjoy the status quo are disinclined to upset the systems that have contributed to their fortuitous circumstances. Thus, we have a demonstration that is “peaceful”, despite the fact that millions were ardently protesting the rise of a totalitarian government.

All women still have a throng of straight, white men stuck up their uterus and now, more than ever, along with the threat of a totalitarian regime, we are faced with losing control over our own bodies. Injustice such as this rarely gets corrected with measured actions but instead, with fury. Fury is something the poor and marginalized are familiar with — affluent white women, not so much. I’m not equating being marginalized with being poor. I’m making the point that poverty crosses all genders and races and it’s the only class that consistently remains invisible. None of the demonstrations featured a woman who stepped up to the microphone to say, “I’m poor, I work full time, I’m a single mother, and I’m on Medicaid. How many of you actually know what that means? It means I make less than 16,000 dollars a year. I live hand to mouth. Something has to change.”

That would have dispelled the mood. The whole point was to remove the malaise that Trump instigated. Subsequent commentary on the women’s march has included criticism regarding lack of inclusivity and the fact that very few of the white women marching had ever come out to support Black Lives Matter or made an effort to understand cultural cataclysms beyond their own “white” experience. “White” experience has always been privileged and in that canon are proclamations of racial and class superiority that hail from a belief system of white women as the driving force behind “dominant religious, scientific, and cultural ideologies,” writes Louise Michele Newman in White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States.

After the final determination that 53% of white women voted for Trump, Phoebe Lett wrote in the New York Times, “[White women] did not rise to the uncomfortable challenge of convincing other white women to support not just their own interests, but those of women and men of color, L.G.B.T. Americans, immigrants and people in poverty.” Others were less dispassionate. Erica Hart delivered a fiery lecture at the protest in Philadelphia saying, “The trauma of the pussy did not begin with Trump, it began when such a high premium was put on the power of the white one … No rallying of this magnitude happened for the 20 plus [26] trans folks who were murdered last year … or when Sandra Bland was murdered…If this march was for all women it would look a lot different and would have happened well before the day after the inauguration.”

The original suffragists failed to advocate for women of color, but they also disregarded poor white and indigenous women. Advocacy against patriarchy only worked when everyone was fully vested in the same social and cultural contract of superiority. When one is a trying to stay alive on minimum wage, or trying to care for a sick child and still work, or considering whether or not to pay an electric bill or buy food, demonstrations and speeches from the privileged fail to spur solidarity. Pink ”Pussy” hats also do little to reverse hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination. Iconic symbols conferred with elite manifestos provide a false sense of action and feed into a continued complacency. Millions demonstrated peacefully against a growing fear that America is about to become a tyranny, but to avert dystopia we must embrace rage.