What I Witnessed At The Women's March

Janelle Monáe took the Women’s March on Washington stage with a box office hit under her belt, hope for unity among the hundreds of thousands of women before her in her heart, and what should have been a simple request of those women on her lips.

As she performed her anthemic protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” Monáe would call the name of Sandra Bland, a young black activist who suspiciously, supposedly took her own life while in police custody.

“Say her name,” were the words Monáe charged the audience to respond with, invoking the African American Policy Forum's 2015 campaign that recognized police violence against black women.

“Sandra Bland!” she yelled.

“No!” pockets of white women around me yelled in response.

We were a great distance from the stage, and though we could hear Monáe clearly, we could not see her. We were not where the action was, where the excitement was most infectious. Excitement, not intersectionality, was what these Marchers came for.

Over and over again, the white March attendees in my vicinity proved that they came to the Capitol that day to assuage their own rage, their own guilt, their own wild energy. They wanted to do so with immediacy. They wanted to do so with ease. They were not dedicated to doing so under the leadership of, or even in partnership with, women of color — with the most marginalized among us.

They grew impatient with the long, carefully curated roster of women organizers and politicians of color who spoke — women who represented trans communities, immigrant communities, indigenous communities, disabled communities.

The crowd around me told accomplished Native activist Judith LeBlanc  that they “don’t care,” about her Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma.

They spoke over black liberation icon Angela Davis as she spoke of the prison industrial complex.

They ignored stories of blood sacrifices and life-long commitments to women’s rights.

The program was running late, as such momentous programs tend to do, and they simply wanted to march. So much so, that as the Mothers of the Movement joined Janelle Monáe on stage, painstakingly screaming the names of their slain black children, the crowd rejected Monáe’s demand to join them in remembrance and resistance. When the attendees should have exclaimed “say her name,” or “say his name,” they instead riotously exclaimed “MARCH!”

As if marching would preserve Planned Parenthood’s government funding. As if marching would end sexual assault. As if marching would reverse the results of the presidential election. As if marching would bring back Sandra Bland.

This gross disrespect towards women of color was exactly what made one attendee — Lakeshia Robinson, 30 — hesitant about attending the Women’s March. She worried, like many black women did, that it was not about unified action but about white emotion. Then white women nearly stopped her from getting there.

“The white women on the Metro trains wouldn’t make space for me. They wouldn’t move. And it wasn’t just once, it happened twice,” she explained to me.

As Robinson attempted to board a train to the March’s outskirts, a pink-pussy-hatted white woman put her arm across the entrance, barring her from entering, then pushed that arm into Robinson’s abdomen, she told me. Robinson pushed back, forcefully making room for herself. She then cried for most of her journey to what was to be a massive act of solidarity.

"I felt embarrassed, ashamed, petty, and a good deal pleased, but mostly I felt angry that safety pins and pink hats didn't mean I would be treated any differently," wrote Robinson of the the ordeal on Facebook — a post that has garnered over 12,000 likes.

What I saw at the March and what Robinson described to me reminded me that this is what our democracy looks like — a point driven home by the sign Robinson brought that reminded all who saw it that a whopping 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, while only 43% of white women did the same. This is what our democracy has looked like since women of color were excluded from the Suffrage Movement. Since Hazel Bryan hurled hatred at Elizabeth Eckford as she desegregated her Little Rock high school. Since at least 1952, when a majority of white women have supported Republican presidential candidates (with two exceptions).

“History cannot be deleted like web pages,” said Angela Davis in her address to the Women’s March. It lingers, ugly and true, in the present. It lingered, ugly and true, at the March.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC or WMC Fbomb. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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Mankaprr Conteh
WMC Fbomb Editorial Board Member
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