Perfect Protests Don’t Exist, But We All Have A Part To Play

Photo: Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images.
Since the Day Without A Woman strike was announced, I’ve seen the same event take place on my social timelines over and over again. A woman tweets or posts a Facebook status saying there’s something about the strike that seems “off” to her, but she can’t quite say why. Inevitably, another woman comments that the original tweeter/updater probably feels “off” because some people have more to lose by striking than others. This is a fact. Many of the people who were able to strike today were people who make more money, come from more money, and have access to more resources than the average American woman, let alone marginalized American women. This is also nothing new.
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The ability to participate in this protest, or that march, has always been thorny when it comes to matters of economic privilege. In fact, I’ve often challenged activists (particularly white, cis, wealthy, able-bodied activists) to be considerate of those they're asking to stand up with, and for, them, who often have more at stake than they do. Even the most progressive women need to be reminded where they are privileged when it comes to activist work. When we all put our bodies on the line, some bodies are more likely not to return.
The 2017 post-inauguration Women’s March was praised for the lack of confrontation incessantly, before a few people pointed out the demographic difference between their march and a Black Lives Matter march, and how that might have something to do with the lack of violence. I am all for calling out organizations, and organizational leaders, who don’t acknowledge that not all have the privilege to participate for more reasons than lack of money. But that critique wasn’t my problem. These social media conversations were a symptom of a broader issue: these women believe Perfectly Uniformed Resistance is the only kind worth taking seriously. As an acronym, "Perfectly Uniformed Resistance" is fitting: PUR, a take on the notion that to resist effectively, you must adhere to a pure form of activism existing above reproach. Well, I don't.

What we’ve gotten wrong, we can do better in the future, but not doing at all is not the way to go.

As I did my research on who was behind the organization of the women’s strike — here, here, and here — nothing seemed particularly “off” about their message or intention. They wanted a day to acknowledge women’s contributions with both hyper-visibility (wearing red, social media outreach), and absence (not engaging in paid or unpaid labor, buying only from women-owned businesses). In fact, the expectation was never that we could all skip work. This was just one suggestion for participation. We could make phone calls to our representatives, or volunteer. These were well thought-out, reasonable options. Was it a perfect “protest?” Surely not. But perfect protests don’t exist.
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It’s an easy thing to believe in: thousands of people find common cause, all marching in the streets in solidarity. We’ve watched movies (Hair in which song and dance truly change the world), and very special episodes of our favorite shows (Saved By The Bell: The College Years when A.C. Slater is radicalized by the sudden realization that he’s Mexican), for years. The arc is always the same: several people stand up for The Cause, stick together, and win. The protests are always led by good people, with good intentions, who always so the same good thing, and the outcome always lands on the right side of history. There’s drama for entertainment, but it rarely affects the outcome. We only see movies and TV shows about the protests that worked, and even then, they're shown to us through rose-tinted film. Reality is messier. People are messier. There will never be a resistance we all have the privilege to participate in equally. This is not, and cannot be the goal. Critique is vital, and often spot on, but the continued dismissal of every imperfect effort will certainly be how we paralyze our own progress.
This is something the strike organizers seemed to understand. How we define a protest is changing because we have more tools at our disposal than any generation before us. Social media has made it incredibly easy to organize a demonstration across the country, and across the world. We also have the tools to document these events. If news organizations don’t provide coverage, we can always cover ourselves. While it is effective, and often preferred, it is no longer required that one show up physically in order to Show Up.
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I am not someone who will march in the street, even though by all measures I’m physically capable of it. I have severe anxiety, and it is amplified by being in the middle of, or near, extremely large crowds. I get dizzy. Breathing becomes difficult. I sense danger all around me, and so begin to cower from bodies innocently brushing against mine. In these moments, my fear has no filter. In these moments, in a crowd of people fighting for something I believe in — fighting for me — in my mind, I am scared and alone.
Twice I’ve attempted to march with Black Lives Matter protestors. Both times I’ve had to bow out early, gasping for air, and embarrassed. The second time it happened, a stranger helped me find a safe place to stop, and sit. I explained to her between deep breaths that I was experiencing an anxiety attack, thanked her for her help, and lamented not being able to return to the march. She listened to me patiently and kindly before responding, “This isn’t for everybody. That’s okay. Maybe marching isn’t how you protest. That doesn’t mean you’re not a protester.”
The woman’s words stuck with me. I knew there was more than one way to give back.
Since then, I donate money. I fundraise. I contact my representatives. I find small intentional ways to contribute my time and resources to the most vulnerable people around me. There are many people who can’t do the things I do because they don’t have the same privileges. I have disposable income. I have a job that does not discourage me from having and voicing political opinions. I have friends and familial support. This is not true for everyone, and that’s okay. I don’t need them to do it my way for them to be effective. Unity is not about everybody being able to do the same thing. It’s about everybody doing a good thing in service to the same cause. There is no Perfect Unity, because unity is not equal to uniformity.
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Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, offered this as her reason for encouraging domestic workers, some of the most vulnerable workers among us, to protest:
“We must demonstrate the collective voice of women workers in this country, both seen and unseen.”
Whether invisible by choice or circumstance, we won’t get anywhere without understanding that criticizing a protest’s model or effectiveness does not have to lead to abandoning the effort. What we’ve gotten wrong, we can do better in the future, but not doing at all is not the way to go. We win by moving forward in all directions, not just one. When we stand together, it should always be to push forward those of us who suffer most from our invisibility. This means the women who will strike today, must strike for us all, even the ones who don’t believe. A movement led by humans will always have human problems. If perfectly is the only way we can move forward, we’ve reached the end of women’s progress.
Today, I came to work. I am wearing red from head to toe, in solidarity with the women’s strike. Women I don’t know have smiled at me on the train, chatted me up in the hallways of my new workplace, and even the cashier where I got my lunch said, “I know what the red means. Thank you.” I want to say to them all, “It’s for you. I wore this for us both.” But that seems corny, so I won’t say it. I’ll prove it.
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