The morning of January 20, 2018 dawned crisp and clear; walking down Chicago Avenue, I was reminded of how much I love this city. The wind was just fierce enough to hurt a little bit, the sidewalks just grimy enough to require care as I walked east toward the eminence of the Hancock building. I had a spring in my step - a cautious optimism - which was buoyed when I noticed clusters of people gathered for the 66 bus. They clutched homemade signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” “Get your TERFy hands off our movement,” and “Proud DREAMer.” Though I wasn’t wielding a sign myself, I exchanged nods of solidarity with this Humboldt Park collective. Their positivity gave me hope; their fierceness gave me resolve. If these people were heading to this march, then it was a place that I wanted to be.
Admittedly, I wasn’t certain whether or not my route would actually end at the Women’s March - a byproduct of both general anxiety and a specific skepticism toward what I’d find there. The part of my brain that generates and holds tightly to contingency plans had already decided to spend a few hours lost in a used bookstore instead of going downtown. I swallowed that uncertainty, hoping that I’d stay the course and ultimately jump into the multitude where insights might come.
I entered a coffee shop along my route in an almost synesthetic burst of energy. But just minutes later, with a full belly and a buzz, my jubilation had already waned. You see, the further east I went, the more the bus stop crowds changed. A pink pussy hat appeared here, a “Love is Love” sign appeared there - and by the time I found myself on Michigan Avenue I was engulfed by pink hats, empty slogans and white skin.
The crowd’s enormity commanded attention. But as I snaked my way through the throng in Grant Park, between the waves of well-coiffed millennials taking selfies, silver-haired ladies ranting about President Cheeto’s small member, and rows of cheering cops, I felt more vertigo than vim. In the sea of expensive strollers, Canada Goose jackets and pink pussy hats, I realized this was not a space for me.
If this wasn’t a space for me, a well-off cishet white woman, how must a black woman feel? How must a trans, non binary, or gender-nonconforming person feel? How must people with disabilities feel? How must immigrants feel? This was a celebration of capital A America, a place explicitly condoned by law enforcement, and a place where the hegemonic class asserted their historic control over “these streets.”
I caught my breath on a ledge where a few old veterans stooped. Some held signs like “I Won’t Fight Another Rich Man’s War.” They wore only caps and leather jackets despite the chill in the air. Though several of their t-shirts bore either a flag or reference to the military, they exuded no sense of patriotism. They muttered to one other, heads shaking in disapproval or disgust at this charade, which it seemed they had seen before. They observed their surroundings as if from another place - and perhaps that’s precisely what they were: representatives of a different place, an unpopular perspective, a forgotten kind.
These veterans probably seemed “crazy” in the words of the marchers, but to me they were a godsend. At least we shared a common understanding of the dangers of American imperialism. As I stood there in their leather-skinned shadow, the world fell silent for a moment, like it does in the movies. I noticed eight helicopters chopping above, capturing Getty-worthy video of the nearly 300,000 people crammed between Randolph and Congress. I noticed unique cliques within the vastness of the march. And I noticed several distinct manifestations of “us” versus “them” - cool kids versus outsiders, seasoned activists versus social media show-offs, housed versus houseless.
With each new observation I felt myself sink from skepticism to disdain. This large-scale performance of liberalism and egoism irritated me, like a flash mob interrupting a commute. In my frustration I felt myself stereotyping the people around me. I called them millennials, selfish, entitled, clueless, bigoted, brainwashed and more. I blamed them for all of those qualities.
I don’t mean to stereotype. I’m often stereotyped myself. I’m almost always the youngest person or only woman in the room. I know what it feels like to be dismissed as aloof, clueless and self-centered. I know what it feels like to be judged as much by my outfit as my contributions to a project, or as much by my ability to fetch lunch as my ability to anticipate problems and create solutions, and it sucks. But that’s why I draw conclusions about people based on how they act - and why my mood only darkened as the route opened and the crowd started its slow procession. There was no way not to join in.
A loud, generic whooping sound arose, like the sound that springs up inside a baseball stadium during the last lingering notes of the national anthem. We shuffled forward, unable to see the forest for the trees. Then, a small break opened up ahead. Inside that pocket stood a man who may have been homeless. He had a styrofoam cup in his hand. He politely and delicately asked passersby, “Do you have any change to spare?” In the best case scenarios, he was ignored. In the worse case scenarios, he was almost pushed to the ground. His presence seemed to somehow distract from the day’s so-called purpose. I could count on one hand the number of people who responded with so much as eye contact, even in this magical, theoretical place of love, unity and gentleness.
I wasn’t expecting anyone to pull out a $100 bill (although I’m sure many could afford to), I just thought they’d acknowledge a fellow human being. When I told him, “Hey man - I’m so sorry, I’m gonna run grab some cash and will give it to you when I get back,” I meant it, and I was grateful to have a reason to leave the throng in search of the closest ATM.
I found a 7-11 on a corner and rushed in. Inside, I found no traces of fanfare. Inventory. Small talk. Normalcy. Amid the pageantry on the street, working class people kept on trucking. For the customers, the manager, and cashier, the March was perhaps an inconvenience, perhaps more. Either way, they didn’t have a day off to spend at a march. Shit, they probably didn’t have a day off for anything. Time doesn’t stop when you don’t have money to spare.
I unpacked that notion as I checked out at the counter and headed back into the crowd. How many of the marchers had health insurance and paid vacation days? How many claimed they “don’t see color”? How many proudly claimed to be “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”? How many of them called the police on their neighbors? And though I celebrate my own departure from that worldview, how far had I truly evolved?
Fighting upstream to return to the man proved near impossible, for the crowd had long since spilled onto the sidewalks. By the time I returned to the spot of our first interaction, he was gone, literally and figuratively swept away. My stomach sank. I didn’t move, following the instructions of my childhood -- “If we get separated, stay put. We’ll find you more easily if we can backtrack to where we left you.” Rooted there, I realized that my micro-mission was actually a misguided attempt to salvage the day, an ultimately futile quest in which I played both knight in shining armor and damsel in distress. A sketch of American individualism.
Irritated, embarrassed and claustrophobic, I surrendered to momentum. As the crowd turned from north to west, I started to feel the enormity of its presence. The concrete pulsed with every step, the buildings resonated with every song. Every protest I’d ever been to, combined, would fit in the pocket of this march. What was it about this cause, this moment, this branding, that opened the floodgates? What brought these suburbanites, college students and professionals out into the streets on a cold January day? Was this rolling thunder the sound of a paradigm shift toward equality, or the drumbeat of an inbound fascist regime?
I noticed a young marcher, no more than three feet tall, in front of me. She walked in a pink jacket and pink-and-purple tennis shoes, and her little afro bounced along with a life of its own. Her neck worked overtime, swiveling owl-like in every direction, taking in the same images, sounds and smells as I but on a tremendous scale. Two middle-aged women, one white, one black, flanked her on either side. The taller of the two, the woman of color, offered her shoulders as a perch. The girl climbed aboard this prime real estate, hair still bouncing, and we all slid underneath a train on the L tracks.
The clangor subsided. The girl’s gaze swept across her new vantage point. With a deep breath, in a sing-songy, yet firm voice, she began to chant: “Black lives matter. Black lives matter.” Though this phrase has echoed through the halls of the nation’s most elite campuses and been co-opted by neoliberal institutions, it felt - in this moment, from this child - radical.
A few of us in her vicinity immediately chimed in, equally surprised and touched, eager to encourage. Several others shirked association with the phrase. The chant sustained in our pocket of people for a while, then died down unceremoniously, a blip on the radar followed by an awkward murmur - the lifecycle of most of the calls of that day.
In that disorganized quiet the girl was repositioned from shoulder height to hip height (all the better to listen at). The white woman she was with looked at her with a teaching-moment-gaze and said,
“But honey, you know that all lives matter, right?”
The black woman nodded in agreement.
The girl stared, comprehending or questioning?
“So when we chant, we want everyone to know that all lives are important. Okay?”
The girl nodded, “Okay.”
Two kisses by two sets of lips, one per cheek. Then back up she went, butt on shoulders, lesson absorbed.
A few moments later, her lovely voice started a new chant - “All Lives Matter” - that the crowd picked up with more enthusiasm than the last. I only caught a thumbnail glimpse of her, a splotch of pink and a bounce of hair, out of the corner of my eye as I ducked out of the horde to distance myself from the absurdity and violence of the chant. I knew at that point that it was time to abandon the day for good.
There was no silver bullet or secret sauce behind this march. No unifying framework, no cohesive strategy, no inspiring vision for change. It was so obvious. The Trump/Putin analogies, the high fives with police, the sign that said “Let’s thank all the great men in our lives for supporting us.” I was discombobulated because the march was discombobulated.
There were liberals, libertarians, democrats, republicans present. Internalized sexism, transphobia, xenophobia and racism were on display. What had been heralded as a world-shattering display of unity was in fact just the world’s largest gathering of mostly white women trying on the clothes of activism for a few hours in exchange for social capital. It was a low-risk, high-reward transaction with the state, within the status quo, with great optics all around.
In Talking Back, bell hooks writes, “It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized.) It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist - the potential victim within that we must rescue - otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
In this moment called #womensmarch and #metoo, which comes uncoincidentally on the heels of a horrifying presidential election between two fascist candidates, many feminists are reconnecting, or connecting for the first time, to the power dynamics of gender. Under banners like, “smash the patriarchy” and “nasty women,” white women are lashing out against some forms of gender-based violence and lamenting how little progress has been made toward equal pay or access to abortions. Those issues are important and valid, but in the process of railing against them, it’s easy to internalize the identity of victimhood while ignoring the oppressor within that hooks mentions.
It’s also easy to ignore the myriad challenges facing people without race and class privilege. In Chicago alone, South Side school closures are harming youth and displacing families; homeless people are literally dying in the cold; food deserts are growing; and victims of domestic violence are wrestling with impossible decisions between remaining with their abusers or living on the streets. None of these issues surfaced at the march. Few are represented in mainstream discourse more broadly. White feminism is the trendy wool pulled over the eyes of many liberals and progressives, allowing them to continue living comfortably while others suffer.
In any given day, I profit economically, socially, sexually and psychologically from the exploitation of others - and my life’s quilt is woven with that thread. It has taken me years to internalize and articulate that fact, and I still slip into defensiveness sometimes. Fact is, it’s not easy to identify or digest the ways that my whiteness harms others - but starting that hard work is likely the most liberatory thing I’ve done for my community and myself. I’ll be resisting my “potential oppressor from within” until the day I die, because I know how many flesh-and-blood oppressors are enabled if I don’t.
If I had a direct line to all self-proclaimed feminists (especially white folks), I’d implore them to unpack this idea. I’d ask them to unzip their public personas, toss their egos in the hamper, look in the mirror and identify - beyond the one-dimensional category of penis and vagina - their oppressors within.
That project of radical self-discovery is succinctly captured by Audre Lorde, who wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Releasing our collective grip on the master’s tools is a decades-long charter, and an essential display of capital L Love, which will move the needle toward capital L Liberation.
Speaking of liberation, I believe that “there can be no real mass movement without women.” And yet, I do not believe that the Women’s March is a mass movement. The challenge on our hands, of course, is what to do with the undeniable momentum generated by the march, and how to relate to the volume of people who participated? Can some - and should some - be stewarded by the left to create a more equitable world?
Tentatively, I say yes, because I know that I used to be the woman I (and great revolutionaries from Clara Zetkin to the Combahee River Collective) have complained about. I was the woman who is self-righteous and defensive in her liberalism, and unwilling to consider the ways in which she benefits from and perpetuates white supremacy. A year or two ago, I wouldn’t be willing to admit that - even as I write this article - I’m still learning from mistakes and diving into uncomfortable conversations about accountability, a practice that will last a lifetime.
This is why, on top of the fact that marginalized people have done too much teaching on white people’s behalf for far too long, I am well-situated to talk with marchers about the ways that patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism intersect to silence voices and end lives. I believe in this work, although I know the deck is stacked against anyone who advocates for true liberation. It is neither popular nor profitable. A massive, ruthless, well-funded, political machine rigs the game and moves the goal posts at every turn.
And yet, all it takes to stop a machine is a well-placed wrench thrown into its parts. We haven’t pinpointed that wrench yet, or where to place it to shut down this broken system, but one thing is for certain: we will have to put down the master’s tools to forge the way forward.
Casey Ernstes was born in the Atlanta area and moved to Chicago in 2014. She is grateful to have found community, socialism, and great donuts in this city, and looks forward to deepening her praxis through honest conversations with people like you. Connect with her on Twitter: @caseadilla_12