Blowing Things Up. We Must Unite. (Or reflections on the eve of Martin Luther King Day)
SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS WHICH LED TO A REVISED VERSION OF THIS PIECE
A few hours ago, I posted some reflections initiated by an exchange that troubled and challenged me at my local supermarket. The piece went from thoughts arising from that exchange to grappling with the politics of the Women’s March and also my own desire to want both to press for justice and equity and not to succumb to a spirit of exclusion based on color, ethnicity, religion, or even class. The desire for the first is because justice and equity just make sense. The desire for the second comes because, in my heart I feel that by including you (any you) I challenge you to fully see, include, and respect me, as well as the many others that you (as I) may not fully see, or dismiss, or fear.
After posting my reflections, I kept being bugged by second thoughts and discomfort even though I didn’t really feel I was “wrong.” After having conversations in my head with young leaders in San Diego whom I trust and learn from, I think I’ve identified a couple of key sources of my discomfort and second thoughts about the piece as I first posted it.
First, while I tell a sensitive story about hurt and division in my neighborhood and asked for all women to stand for all women, I seemed only to thank people with more structural power who showed up at the Women’s March without showing how I (or others) can hold them accountable.
Secondly, I seemed to focus on the spirit of inclusion in Martin Luther King Jr’s conception of “beloved community” without clarifying and emphasizing the call for justice and equity in such a community.
I’ve changed what I wrote. Now I say, more simply, that we should welcome all allies, and hold the more powerful to more effort to see women different from themselves and to stand for those women as much or more than themselves. I would like all women to stand for all women, but, there is no getting around it, justice and equity require asymmetrical effort.
Further, I make explicit in the revised version that the inclusiveness of “beloved community” also calls for attention to and action on economic, political, legal, cultural, health, food, environment and other issues of justice and equity. I think I took this commitment on my part for granted, but you can’t know this part of my commitment to “beloved community” if I don’t say it.
On Thursday evening, a few days ago, I felt a cold coming on, so I went to my local supermarket at Broadway and 138th Street in Manhattan. The lines weren’t too long but they were very slow. Because I had only two boxes of teabags, a woman in one of the lines – in her sixties, evidently Spanish-speaking – motioned me, and then insisted that I stand in front of her in the line. The man behind her – evidently African-American and not Spanish-speaking, probably in his fifties – looked unhappy with my move so I asked him if he was ok with it. “No comment,” he said, but was clearly upset. The woman insisted I stay in front of her. Since I had only the two boxes and would pay quickly, I decided to stay, but I maintained inquiring eye contact with the man. I may even have gestured a question. In response, he burst out, “they voted for Trump, these people.”
“Well, African-Americans also voted for Trump,” I offered.
“34% of Hispanics voted for Trump,” he said. “Only 29% voted for Obama.”
“They voted for him and now see what’s happening,” he continued. “He’s screwing them.”
“We must unite,” I responded, more weakly and blandly than I felt.
“God is going to blow it all up and only then it’ll change.” He said something like that.
“I don’t think God operates that way.” Again I sounded a bit unconvincing, in part because I can’t claim a God.
“Oh yes, he does,” he said, and cited Biblical catastrophes visited by God.
My turn was coming up, the woman was between us (silent throughout our exchange), and I didn’t feel I could debate the Bible with him in that supermarket line, so I shifted my gaze and moved towards the cashier.
I didn’t check his numbers. I still haven’t. I don’t think they are relevant. What is relevant is that the man felt hurt and disrespected by what he saw as Hispanic patterns of voting – and probably by other things as well – and so he sought to hurt and disrespect the woman in front of him. Not once did he say anything about me jumping the line. Evidently his complaint was with her.*
No doubt there were all kinds of things in that lived scene that I didn’t hear, didn’t see, and didn’t know, including ways in which I acted and spoke and was seen and heard. So my interpretations may be flawed. But what stood out for me was the man’s veering towards “(God) blowing it all up,” and my response, “we must unite.”
I was struck by our range, but, while I wanted conciliation, I’ve also seen, over and over again, that people who use the language of “blowing it up” force the rest of us to face really hard questions. Of course, by “blowing it all up” neither the man at the supermarket nor I mean a bomb, though for people at the extreme end of hurt, desperation or political strategy, “blowing it up” might mean bombs or other forms of palpable destruction with human cost. In our supermarket conversation, “blowing it up” referred to the collapsing of an existing socio-political/socio-economic order.***
That conversation and the mullings it produced were still with me as, slowly and with a cold, I went to the Women’s March.
I went to the first March in San Diego in 2017. Last year I was out of the country. This year I was determined to join the March again. Why? I was asked. Which one? It’s controversial, I was told.
I hadn’t read or heard anything that made the 2019 Women’s March so out of bounds for me. I didn’t care which one I went to. I planned to go to the one closest to me, on the Upper West Side.
I got there late. I worried I’d missed it. But there were still people coming, though many were also leaving.**
My first glimpse of the tail end of the marchers was a dance group. Watching this dance group of young women made me smile. This is how women march. What a contrast to military or militant marching.
Of the marchers who remained or came late like me, the vast majority were women and were young. Most were white. From my first march in San Diego, I have heard and read discomfort with the preponderance of white women at these women’s marches. I am grateful that these women have come out to march.
As I wandered the end locations of the March, two images stuck with me. I took a photograph of one but not the other, so I’ve decided that, for parity, I would post neither.
The one I didn’t take was of a couple in their early sixties – white, exceptionally well-groomed, quite obviously wealthy. They stood quietly at one corner of the parade ending, at 44th and 6th Avenue, a nicely-finished sign with big letters proclaiming “lock him up” in front of them. They had come out to protest an administration I deeply oppose, and in my mind I thanked them for that. I was also struck by how unabashedly they showed their privilege and wealth. They didn’t hide. They showed up as they are, which means that they are allowing themselves to be seen, and questioned, and held accountable as they are. So while I do thank them for showing up, I am asking myself what it would mean to hold them accountable. In what way? For what?
The other image that struck me was three young women of color sitting, again quietly, in a very picturesque way in a relatively central spot, with a sign that read: “If you don’t stand for all women, you stand for no woman.” Yes, I thought. They may not have intended what I interpreted. I read their sign as a version of “we must unite.” As with the couple, they sat there simply, as themselves.
A call to “stand for all women” is often used as a reprimand to wealthier, and especially white, women who often appear oblivious and self-serving to women of color and lower-income women.**** I chose at first to read the slogan as we must stand for all women, in all directions of color and class. I do believe that the more we stand for each other, especially in a functional democracy – or one whose functioning we want to maintain and improve! – the more we claim agency and can hold each other accountable. That said, after much thought I’ve left that dream of parity aside and can only say, more simply, that we should welcome all allies, and hold the more powerful to more effort to see women different from themselves and to stand for those women as much or more than themselves. I would like all women to stand for all women, but, there is no getting around it, justice and equity require asymmetrical effort.
Where does that leave me? Still veering towards “we must unite,” which is not the same as I must allow myself to be blind or co-opted. And I still want people who veer towards extreme structural change to force us to look at very hard questions and to push us to make change. But don’t really plan blow it all up, physically and with human casualties. That I and others will speak and act against.
(Added a bit later…)
I read the NYT article about the fracturing of the Women’s March over charges of anti-Semitism after going to the March, in fact after writing the first draft of this blog post. It slipped past me before the March, and I deliberately didn’t read it before writing the first draft of this piece because I didn’t want to write reactively to that article. I’m glad I read it later. The charge of anti-Semitism is a very serious one. At this point, my thoughts are as follows:
Do I think Tamika Mallory should have repudiated Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism clearly and loudly? Yes.
Does her evading that strong and clear repudiation mean that I should not have joined her and other women (and men) in showing up to contest our current administration? No.
Does her evasion mean that I won’t listen to and try to understand her explanation for why she supports Farrakhan? No.
Does her leadership and activism in the Women’s March mean that I wouldn’t hold her and others in the leadership of the Women’s March accountable for not calling out hurtful and dangerously agitating anti-Semitism? No.
I don’t want, and based on current information, don’t plan to exclude Tamika Mallory and the Women’s Marchers from my community; another way of saying it is that I don’t plan to leave their community. I don’t want Tablet Magazine and hurt, disrespected, and fearful Jewish Americans to exclude me, a marcher. I want Tamika Mallory and the Women’s Marchers to call out racism and injustice in my country, I am grateful that they do it, and I will join them. I want Tablet Magazine and others to call out anti-Semitism when they see, hear, or feel it and I will hear them. Ideally I would want all of us to call all of it out. Here, as elsewhere, I push for the living of “beloved community,” but beloved community does not mean hard questions must not be raised.
The inclusiveness of Martin Luther King Jr’s “beloved community” also calls for attention to and action on justice and equity – in our world this includes political, legal, educational, cultural, health, food, environment and other issues. In the inclusive community I want and will press for, I want hard questions to be raised and I will act for change.
*For those who are interested, when I was done, I thanked her, touching her coat at her wrist, and waved to him uncertainly, and left.
** The photo of the posters by the subway stop is of a poster drop off and exchange spot. To me, it appeared touchingly trusting and civic.
***Metaphorically, “blowing it up” is used in many contexts, usually indicating some kind of drastic resetting. In many of those situations as well, I tend to veer towards a version of “we must unite.”
**** Worth noting: though I am brown, I am on the higher end of the income spectrum in my neighborhood. I may well have seemed oblivious and self-serving to the African-American man whose line I jumped, and others, at the supermarket. His apparent anger towards the woman between us may well also have been anger towards me or what I represented.