At the Women’s March on Washington this weekend, not a single protester was arrested. That’s great news. But is it incontrovertible proof that when women lead, peace follows? Hardly. Instead of simply priding ourselves, ladies, let’s own what really happened: no one saw our majority-white-female bodily presence as a threat to contain. There are many reasons to be proud of how uplifting the march was — the sheer numbers! the optimism of resistance! the signs! — but the peacefulness was a testament to how relatively unpoliced the event was, which I’m certainly not alone in reading as due to our whiteness.
In the ebullient aftermath, we’ve got some unpacking and acknowledging to do. And it’s got everything to do with privilege.
Let’s talk cops. Peaceful protests are largely a function of policing — if you approach something like a threat, it’s more likely to become one. The march was treated as something that didn’t need to be policed, and the prophecy self-fulfilled. In fact, there was barely any noticeable police presence at all. Walking from K Street to the rally site, I spotted exactly two crossing guards, about a mile away from Independence Avenue. Once the rally began to wrap up, and marchers flooded the mall and then Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to the White House, I did not see a single uniformed officer.
Certainly, there were some cops out there — I saw people posing with them in my Facebook feed. But at the rally, their presence was mainly conjured when the mothers of sons slain by police (or a certain neighborhood watchman) for the color of their skin recited their children’s names. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Mohamed Bah. Dontre Hamilton. How did it feel for those mothers to travel from their communities to that stage and not see a looming force of men in blue? Not to mention the women of color performing for mainly white women who had the privilege of gathering in historic numbers without being shadowed with state-sanctioned violence. The leadership of the march reflected its truly unifying platform. But one has to wonder if there would have been peace in the streets if law enforcement expected marchers to mirror the women who labored to bring us together.
We unravel the powerful statements of intersectionality that we heard from that stage when we congratulate ourselves for the safety of the march. That safety is a privilege, among many privileges. We must consider the racial and economic factors behind the fact that there’s a different state system for women with skin privilege — and economic privilege. Failing to do so reinforces the oppression so many of us said we were marching to dismantle. The absence of an intimidating law-enforcement presence at the Washington march, in contrast with the policing of gatherings and communities of color, is part of a story we must tell if we are to speak the truth of this march. Not every woman there was a woman of privilege, whether it be due to the color of their skin or their financial comfort.
“I spent a fortune to come here,” one woman told me, who had flown in from Colorado and stayed at the Renaissance hotel where rooms were more than $800 a night. “Didn’t we all?” I’m glad that she came. I’m glad I had the funds to share an AirBnb with my friend who drove us down there ($150 per night for each of us). I’m glad I brought my 8-year-old daughter; I’m glad she brought her son. My mother flew down from Boston on JetBlue, with a ticket she bought the morning President Trump gave his acceptance speech, and Hillary Clinton gave her concession. I’m glad she had that privilege.
On my mother’s plane, flight attendants wore pink cat-ear hats, took pictures with the women who filled every seat to protest and cheered the marchers over the P.A. I’m glad for that too. But would they have taken pictures and cheered if the flight had been filled with people flying down to march against a Muslim registry? Would my mother have traveled as swiftly from the tarmac to the entrance to the metro? Would the flight attendants have donned hats in solidarity with those marchers? There’s a beautiful picture of a white cop in uniform wearing one of those pink hats, smiling alongside the march route in Portland. It’s hard to imagine him in a Black Lives Matter armband alongside a march for racial justice or wearing a button in support of immigrant rights.
Another photo has been circulating of three white women in pink hats smiling into their own phones near a black woman holding a sign reminding us that many white women voted for Trump. The image has been divisive. But that sign does not state an alternative fact — nor should we ignore that 94% of black women voted against Trump. These things are simply true. Just as our march was given the benefit of the doubt by law enforcement. (And surely no one in public relations was a fan of the optics of men in uniform roughing up a mass of white ladies.)
If we want a true women’s movement, our joyous, contagious celebrations must beware of self-congratulation. There is much to cheer in this historic, women-led moment that united so many of us. But we can’t fail to be clear-eyed about existing injustice as we fight against gender inequality. If we want a true women’s movement, that means not just marching on behalf of our own lady-parts but against injustice for all. It means loudly and affirmatively answering another sign that went viral after the march, the one that says, “I’LL SEE YOU NICE WHITE LADIES AT THE NEXT #BLACKLIVESMATTER MARCH, RIGHT?”
I felt optimism and hope and pride in our stunning numbers — in Washington, around the country and around the world. But I have to confess: I don’t think I’ve quite felt the magic like so many millions of other protesters did on Saturday and in the aftermath of our historic march. There is much to cheer, but instead of congratulating ourselves for showing up peacefully when it was our privilege to do so, let’s fight until everyone’s civil liberties are equally protected. Let’s listen to each other as well as chant. It’s not always going to be pretty or selfie-ready in a pink hat. But if we want to build a movement, we must march forward together, even if we blister along the way.
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