Monday, January 30, 2017

The Women's March on the World

I attended my first political rally on January 21st, 2017. It was the Women's March on Arkansas, a sister march to the Women's March on Washington in response to the incoming presidential team and their horrid ideas for policies on women's health, social justice, economic justice, and many, many, many other platforms.

I had some difficulty with my sign. I saw a lot of great signs online, but I didn't want to rip off someone else's clever sign with no way to credit them. I decided on a quote, but who to quote?

At first, I thought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr--one of those quotes that white people conveniently ignore. A lot of Dr. King quotes, though, use the word "negro," and a white man carrying a sign with that word would probably send the wrong message. My wife suggested I quote a woman since it was, y'know, the Women's March, and I'm embarrassed that she even had to suggest the idea.

Here's my finished sign:

I watched many, many livestreams of the protests in Ferguson, so I wasn't really sure what kind of environment to expect. Even when the Ferguson protests were peaceful, the cops were many and on guard, usually clad in riot gear, driving military vehicles, some with snipers stationed on top. I remember the tear gas grenades, the running, the screaming. The whip-crack of rubber bullets whizzing past whichever brave person was livestreaming the horror.

We decided to come up with a game plan just in case. What if the police were antagonistic and hateful? There are so many police that take the phrase "Black Lives Matter" to be anti-police, which is patently absure, but what would we do if they deployed tear gas or pepper spray? Tear gas would likely be deadly in my case--I've had asthma since I was born. What if the crowd stampeded to disperse from the police, what would my wife do? She frequently has to use a cane to walk due to nerve damage on her left side.

We decided to be as prepared as we could. We bought 2 bottles of milk from a grocery store and kept them in a cooler which I kept in my backpack. We also packed beef jerky, nuts, bottles of water and other snacks just in case, along with my inhaler. We brought along a scarf in case we needed to cover our faces from the tear gas.

My wife and I live in the northwest corner of our state, and Little Rock is nested right in the center of the state, so it was a good 3-4 hour drive to get down there. We left around 6:45 AM to make sure we got there before 11:00 AM so we could find a place to park.

When I actually arrived at the march, I was struck by the size. I have never been to a group as large as that one before, even counting concerts and graduations. There was something immediately reassuring to see so many people that gathered together to protest in a deeply red state where I have felt virtually alone for a long time.

The second thing that struck me was how white the crowd was.

It was after seeing the racial makeup of the crowd--all those white ladies and so many white little girls--that I knew we'd be okay. Plus, the local organizer was a white woman as well.

There were tons of people that--I would later read that the estimated attendance was around 7,000 people. That was the largest demonstration in Arkansas history if I recall correctly. At first the crowd was daunting, but soon the energy, the anger, the passion, and love of this country got me amped and ready to march.

Unlike other sister marches that were apparently long treks through the city, this one was set up to be very short--just 3 or 4 blocks, I believe--to the steps of the state capitol. From there, we would listen to a series of speeches and then go to an expo of various local activist groups so that we could try to stay engaged.

The speakers were almost better than the actual march. As inspiring and amazing as being among so many fed up and awakened people was, the speakers were the real highlight. I have a pretty bad impression of my state. I feel those feelings are deserved given our state's history and our perpetual failure to live up to the ideal of America. So I didn't expect but was pleasantly surprised that this march, organized by a white woman, wasn't even hosted by that white woman. She did speak, eventually, but the event was hosted by a black woman activist, and featured gay, black, Latinx immigrants, and Muslim voices for the majority of the time. I was so glad that the people given a platform were worthwhile, with real messages that everyone needed to hear.

Unfortunately, personal circumstances meant that we had to leave slightly early--I think we only missed the last speaker--and after we got some food, we made our way back to the expo where we checked out some local activist causes and learned about what could be done

This was my first big political thing, but it definitely won't be my last. Even though marching and protesting is one of our constitutionally protected rights and a duty as politically engaged citizens, it felt so good to stand among the many saying that what was happening was not okay. My favorite chant of the day was, "Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!"

While among those, people, though, something kept fluttering at the back of my mind, buzzing just at the edge like a fly. As you can see from my photos, I was in a sea of white faces. There were other folks there that marched with us, which you can also see in my photos, but the crowd was overwhelmingly white and female. And the same was true at the expo. I saw, mostly from afar, a handful of cops throughout the day. They were polite, friendly, and kept their distance, mostly leaned against their cars which were blocking off side streets to clear a path for our march. It wasn't until we were leaving the expo that the idea took full shape.

As we were leaving the expo, we pulled down a side street to try to figure out how in the hell we were going to get back to the interstate. I haven't been to Little Rock since probably 2010 or 2011. It's been a long ass time. And even then, I've only been to Little Rock a handful of times. City travel makes me nervous--lots of traffic, surprise "right turn only" lanes, dummies with a deathwish, and general unfamiliarity with the terrain. So we paused a stop sign while my wife pulled up the GPS on my phone.

At the corner of where we were stopped, the city had cut into the hill to make space for the road and the sidewalk and built an off-white, grayish brick wall that staggered upward and downward matching the rise and fall of the hill's slope. A young black man was resting against the to of the wall, which was about waist high or so, reading his phone. If I had to guess, I'd say he was somewhere between 16-18. He was slight in build, average height. He wore a light gray hoodie or a sweatshirt. I didn't really even pay any mind to him at first--he was background just like the old couple walking on the other side of the street. What drew my attention was when not one, but two police SUVs pulled up in front of him and set off their lights.

This kid wasn't doing anything suspicious. He was leaning on a street corner reading his phone. Maybe he was waiting for a ride. Maybe he was resting. Maybe he'd stopped and was checking out a YouTube video someone linked to him on Facebook, or responding to a text from his mom. Who knows? But as far as I know, standing on a sidewalk isn't against the law. And yet, two different police vehicles felt the need to stop and flash their lights and interrogate him. For what?

The discussion was slightly animated. The kid talked with his hands a lot. He was clearly annoyed about being bothered for Standing While Black, but thankfully, the cops eventually went on and left him alone.

I saw two different kinds of police that day. The police at the march kept a respectful distance. They smiled, laughed, and joked with the protesters. They were relaxed. Hell, we even had someone with a giant stack of purple fliers with "Black Lives Matter" printed on them. No one seemed hostile or put off.

The other cops were more predatory, watchful. They weren't the cops I saw at the march around all those white ladies. They were the cops I didn't even notice at first in the largely black, slightly run down neighborhood the expo was held in later. It was only after seeing the young man questioned that I suddenly became aware of how many cops there were in the area--a cop watching the building the expo was held in, a cop that someone pulled over in an old beauty salon parking lot, and at least two or three cop cars that pulled up to stop lights while we were looking for a place to park.

At the time, none of this really registered with me. I'm white, and while cops make me nervous for various reasons, my discomfort is probably the same that most white people feel around them. It's the same discomfort teenagers feel when a teacher walks past them in the hallway. It's a deference to authority. But I've never been afraid of being shot, of being targeted for my skin color, of being questioned because I was standing and reading my phone. Police can just be another thing in the background for me.

It was a sobering reminder that I and most of the people that I marched with have wildly different experiences than black folks and many other communities of color. And when people began to inevitably praise the Women's March movement as "protesting done right" because of the low arrest records and lack of police pushback, I couldn't help thinking about the sea of white faces I saw and of that young man's face when those two vehicles pulled up.