By Laurel Dammann | Feature photograph by April Christie
Three little girls, no older than 12, balance on raised wooden platforms piled six high. In earnest they shout the question-half of a chant they’ve heard repeated throughout the day: “Show us what Democracy looks like?”
“This is what Democracy looks like!” a middle-aged man immediately shouts back, raising a fist in solidarity. The girls beam at each other, smile proudly at their parents standing nearby, and then raise their voices and ask again.
What does unity look like? With the recent Women’s March on Washington DC and its hundreds of sister protests for reference, a picture of unity can by no means be painted with a broad brush. The millions of individuals who turned up to march were diverse in race, culture, religion, gender, age, class, and creed, each bringing their unique experiences and backgrounds to the streets and giving them voice in the greater chorus of solidarity. The sheer scope of the demonstrations has naturally created an expansive list of goals that some view ineffective in its range. In the words of Julia Ioffe for The Atlantic: “…the environment, education, social justice, criminal-justice reform. The list went on, each new addition diluting all the causes that came before.”
Ioffe, while understandably concerned that stagnation will be a consequence if there is disorganization, misses the mark. The many problems plaguing American society do not “dilute” each other, but rather feed into one another as rivers feed into a sea. As I witnessed it, the heart of the Women’s March was intersection, the long-overdue public recognition that the many varied issues of our society are inextricably linked and one cannot be solved without addressing the others. Of course the messaging was overwhelming; protesters held signs that addressed everything from Black Lives Matter to Planned Parenthood, immigration to domestic violence, and that was because the march was designed to be inclusive. The world is a complex machine of many moving parts and it is broken. It’s not useful to just stare at it from three steps back, jiggling it every now and then to make it appear to work. The view is not so simple close up, but it’s necessary if you’re going to fix it. The march was a jiggle and a closer look, exposing a diverse array of views and problems through the magnifying glass of progressivism. It’s a start, but now everyone must roll up their sleeves.
While President Trump fought off facts about the mediocre turn out of his inauguration ceremony, the Women’s March on Washington DC was so crammed with bodies that actual marching was near impossible. While President Trump delivered a nationalist speech outlining the framework for a retreat into isolationism, the hundreds of thousands gathered in the capitol, and the millions marching worldwide, shamed bigotry while calling for inclusiveness. The Trump administration uses differences to divide individuals from their communities, communities from the nation, and the nation from the rest of the world. However, differences are, in fact, an excellent tool for education and unification. For some the march was the first class and for others it was just one more in a long career of fighting for social change, but for everyone who attended it was a historical meeting point and an opportunity to put a vast array of ideas on the table and faces to the issues.
It’s impossible to do justice to the wide range of emotions that guided the demonstrations, but if I were to pick two as the fuel for moving forward they would be tension and camaraderie. Both saturated the march and both must guide the discussions that will shape our future. The Women’s March, even before it began, raised tensions, particularly those regarding race, gender, and the feminist movement. While uncomfortable, tension is not inherently bad. Paired with an open mind, in can trigger the kind of conversations feminism and the progressive movement so desperately need. The Women’s Marches that spanned the globe stemmed from intersectional feminism, but that by no means indicates that every person who attended the marches was an intersectional feminist. Within the racially charged landscape of the United States, it is alarmingly easy for feminism to become exclusionary of minority groups, whether it be out of lack of exposure to the experiences of women of color or out of racial ignorance’s more malevolent sister, white supremacy.
Feminism has undergone many changes over its history and it has always been its most successful when it is diverse. The movement is a powerful force when it embraces differences and values what makes an individual and a culture unique. As we explore the sometimes painful honesty that intersectional feminism requires, we must welcome the difficulties that arise as we confront the complicated realities of race, gender, and cultural relations in America. The march was an example of the kind of spaces that we can create both inside and outside the context of protest to work through those challenges, for with them come opportunities for connection, understanding, growth, and, eventually, peace.
“We can, and we will, turn things around as long as we don’t stop getting up every time they knock us down and we remember that things are only going to change for the better if we stick together,” says Nick Rudauskas, a Volunteer Medical Advocate for Rape Victims Advocates in Chicago. If tension can spark dialogue, camaraderie is what keeps it open. There has been much important debate throughout the the social justice community about the intersection of racism and sexism and how to combat both through feminism that is truly intersectional in ideology. While white women at the march came from a place of privilege given how American society places high value on whiteness, they share experiences with women of color, particularly when it comes to misogyny. In turn, white women must realize that the experiences of a woman of color are marked by both racial inequality and sexism, making them vulnerable on multiple social fronts. There is opportunity to share common tears while using individual strengths and privileges of identity to lift each other up.
The march was beautifully symbolic and may it remain inspirational, but it cannot be a substitute for activism. We’ve walked, some of us in each other’s shoes, and while that exchange of perspective is necessary, it is barely a dent in the work that needs to be done. Activist’s sleeves have been rolled up for years, but for other new participants and allies the election was a new awakening. “Honestly, I was never very political before,” shares April Christie, a pastry chef who’s first protest was the Women’s March. “I just didn’t like politicians and I didn’t trust any of them. I stayed away from it. Then this election happened. I feel something shifting in me.”
The Women’s March made crystal clear that this is not, as it’s become colloquially dubbed, the “Era of Trump.” Too many stand in opposition to his ego for his administration to monopolize this sensitive time in history. This is the era of the progressive, the era of intersectional identities, the era to create a blueprint of policies that address the multi-faceted experiences of the America people and the world. Last Saturday, I saw men, women, those who don’t identify as either, and children stand upon their truths and bravely listen to the stories of others. When communities who spend their lives divided come together there are naturally moments of failure, but failure only remains so if frozen by fear. I saw many more instances where an open soul took that moment of failure and used it to positively guide their actions moving forward. This act of thoughtful self-reflection is what deepens unity. It is the backbone of progress.
A black woman approaches a Muslim woman wearing a hijab printed with an American flag and says, “You’ve given me some faith back in that flag. Thank you.” A white teenager gifts her “pussy hat” to a little black girl who can’t take her eyes off the vibrant pink ears. On January 21st, 2017, I see more determination and more open-eyed clarity than I have in years, joy and exhilaration made all the more powerful by underlying fear and the will to be courageous. Louder than any of the speakers on the stage is the understanding that this is a beginning, that the road ahead is going to be long, but that no one will be marching it alone.