I marched last weekend despite my ambivalence. I was ambivalent because I wasn’t sure if marching is an effective strategy for the situation we’re in. I was pretty sure no one in power would pay much attention (I was among the 250,000 marchers in NYC before the Iraq war who then-president Bush dismissed as a “focus group.”) I was concerned that it would be merely a feel-good exercise. I wondered if many, post-march, would think they had done enough. Even as I appreciated the work of organizers to create a deeply inclusive agenda, I wondered if that would carry over to the hearts and minds of the marchers.
I decided to march anyway, because it was happening and it felt important to show up. Because it felt good to be doing something. Because as one of my heroes, Audre Lorde, is famous for saying, “our silence will not protect us.”
I marched in Montpelier, Vermont, the smallest state capitol in the United States, with a population of a bit over 7,000 people. 20,000 people showed up, far surpassing organizers’ expectations, even creating Vermont’s first ever highway traffic jam.
There’s a tangible energy when that many people are together in even the loosest of accord. Huge puppets, week-old babies, veteran activists and veterans of war in wheelchairs, banners and signs as colorful and certain as any we saw later on the national news. A phalanx of state legislators marched at the end of the line with a banner that read, “we have your back.” The crowd roared when hometown hero Bernie Sanders showed up, a surprise, firing up the crowd with his raspy Brooklyn holler.
The organizers brought together a powerful line up of speakers, beginning with Vermont’s only-ever woman governor, and leaders in women’s health and anti-violence work. Among other Vermont leaders, we heard from a water protector, a farm worker without US documentation, a black lives matter organizer, a queer activist, and a nationally recognized spoken word performance group made up of Muslim high school students from Burlington.
The mood was up, determined, even relieved. I felt good when I got home, hopeful at the numbers that came out across the world, grateful that I didn’t read or hear about any violence associated with the march, glad to have heard from so many voices.
So, about that ambivalence.
I don’t imagine the march made a dent on the intentions of the new administration. I hope it supported people in government who are working on behalf of justice and democracy. I think it stirred up precious hope. I think it brought people into action who had never acted before. At the same time, as the typically very white Vermont crowd chanted “Black Lives Matter!” on Saturday, even as I teared up at that much noise for Black lives, I was very aware that my partner’s t-shirt, my sign and the signs of the organized Black Lives Matter contingent were all I’d seen of that sentiment before we were invited to chant.
I felt the same about the cheers in response to Sanders and others including gay, lesbian and trans rights in their speeches. Where had all of these people been after the homophobic murders in Orlando, when a scant 40 showed up on the statehouse lawn for a vigil? Would all of those white folks keep showing up for the Black Lives Matter movement when the chanting was over?
So I’m still concerned about the feel-good aspect of the march. I’m not alone in saying these times call for deep introspection among people whose day-to-day lives seem to be untouched by the stuff we were rallying about on Saturday.
I’m thinking maybe that introspection will lead to less defensiveness and more listening, to stepping around the temptation of relative safety, into the risky world of genuine solidarity.
I’m daring to hope that many who never marched before, have “caught the bug,” and will now show up in solidarity, in huge numbers for people of color, queers, immigrants, people with disabilities, native people, Muslims, Jews, and for the earth itself.
Solidarity begins with understanding why we haven’t shown up so far, with honesty and humility about that, taking up the anger of our new colleagues and friends as they say, essentially, “Where have you been?” Not making excuses, never expecting gratitude, just speaking the truth: I didn’t know, I was afraid, I was sheltered. I see now, and I am sorry I didn’t see before.
Then we just get busy. Find ways to embody solidarity in every way we can. Soon enough our actions may be the balm that creates connection, sometimes even forgiveness.
But connection, and certainly forgiveness, cannot be the reason for solidarity. Solidarity is for one thing only, making a solid cloth. Solidarity is the weft that moves under, over and through the warp of myriad experiences, histories, and cultures to make a whole, unassailable thing. Solidarity breeds trust, the fertile ground for relationship. Relationship makes sharp empathy possible. Such empathy makes it tough to retreat into safety; the only way then is into the wind with the other.
Oppression is hard put to prevail against lives thusly, finally, honestly linked.
If we don’t feel anxious, a little afraid, we have probably not yet stepped into solidarity. We start slowly, notes and flowers and food to mosques and synagogues with hate scrawled on their walls. For sure, we get beyond social media. We get next to people whose lives are unlike ours, whose forbearers suffered at the hands of our forbearers, whose people still suffer at the hands of our people. When we hear of injustice, we go to where it is, ready to listen more than speak, and to put something real – our bodies, our reputations, our comforts, our safety — on the line.
In 1961, on the evening before their first freedom ride, a group of students gathered to get ready. Among their preparations was that each freedom rider wrote their last will and testament. Such was the extent of their risk[i].
If our marching takes us even close to solidarity that deep, then I say let’s march some more.
[i] For a quick article about this story, see Mikulich, A. (2014) “A Last Will and Testament for Freedom. The National Catholic Reporter.