What Does It Take to Make You March?

A woman is arrested during a protest in Baton Rouge. Photo: Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

I remember watching my dad load his car for a trip to D.C. on an October day in 1995. He was headed for the Million Man March, where a million black men were scheduled to descend upon D.C. The march was intended to address important issues in the African-American community; topics like unemployment, health care, and government budget cuts to programs disproportionately affecting blacks were all on the table. Another thing the marchers wanted to push back on — and this is wild — were the negative stereotypes that plagued black men. A few rogue guys in the spotlight had made life tougher for everyone else, and now a million men had to go to Washington to set the record straight. If it weren’t so intensely necessary it would have been hilarious. Can you imagine a million white men marching to affirm they all aren’t necrophile serial killers like Ted Bundy? It’s funny, until it’s not.

As a child, it was the first time I witnessed the compulsion to march for change. It was clear to me then as it is clear to me now that justice changes shape depending on your perspective. Protests and marches are tools we use to show others how justice looks to us. And now, a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of Americans are embracing those tools, looking to stand up for the rights of immigrants, the value of science, the importance of government honesty. The urge to protest comes from someplace visceral: an unignorable need to show up for what’s right.

We protest when we are locked between helplessness and hope; frustration and galvanization; despair and optimism; fear and disgust. We feel helpless when we can’t calibrate the telemetry required to see the world so differently. We feel hope when we are flanked by people who think as we do. Fear for our loved ones and ourselves unites us in action. Disgust at what’s been threatened pulses through us all. A protest or a march is a reminder to others that their moral compass should point north. Last Saturday, an estimated 3.2 million people joined together in protest. The women’s marches drummed up people from all walks of life: women, and men; young and old; gays, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, and Asians. But Saturday, when I looked around me, I saw crowds that were mostly white, many of whom appeared to be protesting for the very first time.

I asked a number of white women who were first-time marchers what had brought them out, and their responses were similar. The affront to their rights, as presented by the Trump administration, was too overwhelming to ignore. They couldn’t believe that an unqualified stooge like Trump had ascended to the presidency. They were worried about everything from religious persecution to draconian immigration measures. They had never felt the power of protest before because their family members hadn’t done it — the issues felt smaller or more distant, they couldn’t imagine policy affecting their own lives in such a dramatic way. “This was different,” I heard again and again and again.

I thought about the first march I attended as an adult. Nothing had felt more potently relevant to my life and the lives of those around me than the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. I’ve told people close to me about the feeling that festers inside me when I look at one particular photo of Trayvon Martin, and now I’ll tell you. It’s the photo where Trayvon is smiling and wearing a crimson Hollister shirt. He looks so blissfully sweet, completely unaware that his name will soon be a rallying call and a hashtag. When I see that photograph I can’t help but think of my brother, who often wore the same Hollister shirt. I think about my sensitive, nerdy baby bro, who often walks with his head bowed, eyes on his phone. How his introversion might be misconstrued as combativeness. He was 14 when Trayvon was shot on a grassy patch in front of a Florida townhouse complex. The realization that a callous death constantly looms within close proximity to those I care about is something that I will carry with me forever.

So I marched for Trayvon, for Jordan, and for all of the little black boys who were and will be robbed of being little black boys. I marched for Sandra, because when you’re black, something as patently innocuous as a failure to signal before a lane change is enough to get you killed. And I thought of all of this as these women told me that “now” was the time when they’d had enough, so they marched.

A funny feeling stirred inside me before I walked into Saturday’s inspiring, powerful, emotional Women’s March. It was a feeling shared by me and many black women who watched the protest grow from a kernel of an idea to a call-to-action behemoth. We hated the idea that only now was there a roster of issues so divisive, so indefensibly unacceptable that millions would be moved to march en masse. We hated that any hesitation to support the march might make us appear recalcitrant. We worried about our safety, the acute vulnerability of our bodies in close proximity to the Trump supporters who had descended upon Washington the day before. We feared the reaction of the police who would monitor the march, and really, could you blame us?

Not everyone will arrive at a point of political consciousness. And even for those who do, the transformation won’t happen at the same time. This is a fact: As humans, we prioritize the issues that matter to us differently, the ways we feel their impact vary, and awareness arrives in disparate ways. That doesn’t mean it hurts any less when I hear that Black Lives Matter wasn’t enough to propel the millions that the women’s marches did. In fact, it hurts more. But truth be told, I’m happy that we march at all. I am reminded how it’s necessary, every day.

What Does It Take to Make You March?