The Protesters The Women's March Forgot About
On Inauguration Day, I volunteered on a hotline providing legal support to protesters. Hundreds were arrested. Before they were out of jail, mainstream feminism had already cast them aside.
Police are unleashing torrents of mace. The spray is so dense it is opaque. The police are standing in the street, two blocks from my old apartment. In case you haven’t been to a protest, you might be picturing the kind of mace people carry for self–defense. Instead picture a fire extinguisher. It might be tear gas. The spray travels far. But the police aren’t aiming far; they’re not really aiming at all. They’re spraying people right in front of them, where the force of the spray is the greatest and the chemicals are most dense.
One of these people is a short elderly woman, a grandmother, an indigenous woman. She is doubled over on the sidewalk. 10 cops are standing in front of her. None show any concern or notice her at all. There is a man on crutches in front of the old woman. He is shielding her. He is blinded by mace and thus unable to move. Someone runs over to help the old woman and the disabled man and is promptly sprayed point–blank in the face. The same cop continues to intentionally spray this trio as they slowly hobble, huddled together, further away from the street. People run, faces red or covered. Coughing, chaos, a drum beating. Press photographers anachronistically walk through the scene, faces strained with fear, looking naked next to the stormtroopers. The worst sound: a woman howling, “My child!” She runs past, holding a bawling, red–faced little boy. The police have used tear gas on him. People rush to help her carry him quickly away. Everyone is screaming for a medic. The screaming for a medic goes on and on. No medic comes. They have already been arrested. So have legal observers, journalists, and bystanders. Rounded up en masse and trapped.
This is a 2min 20sec video where the civilians are mostly on the sidewalk and the police are all in the street. The police are heavily armed and masked. The civilians are cowering, immobilized, or struggling to help each other. There are so, so many cops. This is an example of asymmetric warfare. This was Inauguration Day in DC.
I was nine blocks away, volunteering on a legal hotline. We were providing support to people who were trapped and awaiting arrest, or taking info from friends of people who were arrested. We were swamped. We had the names of over 300 people. As night fell, we learned that–in an unprecedented move–230 of them were being charged with felonies. Felony – Riot Act in particular, which holds a maximum sentence of 10 years and a maximum fine of $25,000. The arrestees were held overnight, slowly arraigned the next afternoon, and all released by late Saturday night.
Saturday was the Women’s March.
I know the Women’s March was an important and moving day for most of the thousands of people who came here for it. People felt inspired and empowered. People joined with old friends and made new ones. People heard good speakers and good music. And during this scary time, people felt less alone. I know that’s true because it’s what I’ve heard. But here’s what I saw: pussyhatted people walking past MAGA–hatted Trump lackeys without confrontation. People hugging cops. People thanking cops. Cops wearing pussyhats. I spent most of that day answering a phone, telling people how to get to the courthouse to pick up their friends, and warning them that nobody was getting their cellphones back. When I got home, I saw troubling tweets:
“The #WomensMarch had zero arrests. I wonder if it was so peaceful in part because it was organized by women.” (Jonathan Riley)
“Zero arrests made at historic Women's March on Washington http://hill.cm/7KhE1za” (The Hill)
Twitter was awash in self-congratulation. Of course, other people–particularly Black women–rightly pointed out that the absence of arrests is the prerogative of the police and has an overtly racist dimension.
"Considering how American policing is about protecting white women and property, i'm not surprised." (Jamilah Lemieux)
"The high-fives of cops at the Women’s March & the blows raining down on BLM are the front & back of the same hand" (Jess Zimmerman)
“Let’s be real. A large group of mostly white women wearing knit pink hats is simply not going to be policed in same way a large group of people of color would be.” (Zeba Blay)
But largely, the zero–arrests narrative prevailed, as though the absence of arrests was the March’s sole goal, rather than the building of a broad feminist coalition. “Intersectional feminism” is an important term coined by critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. It pushes back against feminism as the exclusive domain of middle-class white women, instead demanding that it critique all forms of oppression. The term gets thrown around a lot by the Women’s March crowd. But does their feminism not include the 230 people facing felonies from the inauguration, one third of whom are women or gender nonconforming people? What about the hundreds of people who faced violent police repression on J20? Where was the feminist outcry about them?
The lack of arrests at the Women’s March was about one thing: optics. It would have looked terrible for large groups of women to face brutal repression. That those protests remained peaceful – by the will of the police – served another purpose, too. It upheld the idea that there are good protesters and bad protesters. Bad protesters inconvenience commuters and set trash cans on fire. Good protesters get a permit and hold signs. Bad protesters get headlines about violence (no matter that it’s directed at them, not perpetuated by them). Good protesters are peaceful. After the Women’s March, the newly–crowned President praised the good protesters, saying he supports their rights. The state has an investment in the bad protester/good protester narrative: it exists to enforce that the desirable form of protest is that which does not pose a threat.
Another way to describe the good protest is to call it symbolic. I don’t dismiss the usefulness of a symbolic protest – these days, we need all the protests we can get. Symbolic protests are the only kind in which many people feel comfortable participating. The counter-inaugural protests were not symbolic. Here is what protesters did on J20: they formed blockades designed to obstruct alt–right revelers from accessing the Capital. They demonstrated at Big Oil–investing banks. They engaged in civil disobedience and other forms of direct action to prevent business as usual from taking place on a day when an openly white supremacist, autocratic, sexual assaulter was to be sworn into the highest office in the land. That was the day that the prominent neo–Nazi Richard Spencer got punched in the face, a beloved and rightfully praised act. It was the “bad” protesters who did all this, and yet somehow the hundreds of people whose lives were thrown into upheaval with extremely serious charges...they have been forgotten.
Why don’t women care about the J20 arrestees? Bad protesters, regardless of their actual gender, get masculinized due to the sexist idea that aggression is the sole domain of men. Only men are allowed to be angry, only men are allowed to express their anger without being called irrational. Women, the fairer, inherently peaceful sex, are relegated to expressing their dissatisfaction through clever, uterus–adorned signs and pink headwear. Of course, this is a sexist double standard.
Another thing that’s women’s work is the role I was filling I was doing on J20 – invisible, menial, emotional labor. Carework. It wasn’t women alone doing the work of supporting the arrestees, but I’ll tell you who was in the majority: locals. Locals built the infrastructure that will support these folks through the long legal battle ahead. Locals will bear the brunt of this work, and locals will bear the brunt of the dangerous precedent these felonies set–the new era of hyper–criminalized protest these charges herald. DC, our home, is the proving ground for this era. DC, with its whopping 13 police agencies with jurisdiction; DC, where we are forced to live alongside the employees of each new administration. I love the city in which I was born, but we bear a heavy burden.
The Women’s March, like most national protests that come to our home, barely liaised with local organizers here. It certainly didn’t include our struggles in its platform–our lack of representation, our lack of budget autonomy, our increasingly privatized school system. It’s hard seeing political tourists traipse into town for their grand symbolic statements, their national mobilizations. It hurts when out–of–towners show up and brag about not being arrested while our friends face life–changing charges.
We now know that Inauguration Day was a coup. Since then, governmental power has rapidly begun consolidating into the executive branch, with the police as armed enforcers of its will. Is that who you want to decide for you who is a good protester and who is a bad protester? When power is arbitrary, we have no option other than to challenge power relations themselves. This requires vigilance and solidarity. As of now, charges have been dropped for the five journalists that were among the arrested. Those are the highest-profile arrestees, and the U.S. Attorney's Office thinks they can bury this story by dropping those charges. It thinks it can disappear the remaining 225 arrestees, just like the prison system disappears huge swaths of the population, hiding them from our eyes.
This is how power operates – it separates us, isolates us, because together we are a threat. Since the inauguration, huge rallies at airports are starting to destabilize the dichotomy between symbolic protest and direct action. It’s a good start, but we need to disrupt that dichotomy further by demanding support from the people who participated in the Women’s March for the people who participated in J20. Good and bad protesters in solidarity. And once you accept that it’s the police’s prerogative whether a protest is violent or results in arrests, that realization should necessarily raise the question: why not embrace a politic of direct confrontation? Or at least, why not support those who do? This is a time to be bold. There are sweeping calls for “left unity,” seemingly deployed in an effort to silence anyone to the left of Democrats. What if left unity was organized around supporting those who engage in direct confrontation and those who are victimized or criminalized by police? What if it was organized around jail solidarity and prison abolition? Our only hope for surviving these brutal times is to join together... but we’re not together unless you’re with us. Don’t forget about the J20 arrestees. Don’t forget about DC. Your fate is bound up with ours.
For more information about the J20 arrestees and how you can support them, visit disruptj20.org
Beck Levy plays in the band Hand Grenade Job, which is celebrating the release of its debut album Devotionals this month. She produces work in multiples under the imprint Astropress. Her current research interests include autonomist movements, psychopharmacology, and makeup tutorials.
By Beck Levy, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
Image by Elvert Barnes', distributed under the CC-BY-SA-ND creative commons license.
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