What happens when you're too afraid to protest?

Above: Crowds from the Women's March in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Alyssa Kibiloski. 

Above: Crowds from the Women's March in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Alyssa Kibiloski. 

Before the Women's March in January, I met some fellow protestors at a breakfast send-off. After filling our plates with bagels and fruit, the organizers suggested we write emergency phone numbers on our arms: police stations, lawyers in case we got arrested. They passed out markers as one of the older women shared tear gas memories from the 1960s.

I scribbled some digits onto my arm. I couldn't imagine that kind of chaos erupting on Fifth Avenue, but I wasn't taking any chances.

After Charlottesville, I'm more than spooked. I'm scared. The Ku Klux Klan makes me think about my Holocaust survivor grandma, who used to tell stories about rallies much like the one in Virginia last weekend: Nazis shouting obscenities at Jews, beating victims with sticks and clubs, wielding flames. 

I have no illusions about the Klan's anti-Semitism, and if I did, the footage from Charlottesville would have nipped that in the bud. Last night I watched a VICE interview with one of the neo-Nazis at Emancipation Park. He skewered Trump for "giving his daughter to a Jew." He explained to the reporter, "I don't think you can feel about race the way I do, and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl" (3:46 - 4:06 below). It reminded me chillingly of the words a man once murmured as he passed me on the train platform in Fairfield, Connecticut: "Looks like a Jew girl to me." 

Watching footage of white supremacy groups chanting, "Jews will not replace us," I feel like I'm in danger. Had I counter-protested at UVA, would I have been recognized as Jewish for my curly brown hair? Would I have been hurt?

I know that people of color feel their own version of this endangerment. So do many women, queer and gender non-conforming individuals, the disabled, immigrants... And so, the question remains: What happens when you're too afraid to protest? If you don't literally stand up for your beliefs and put your body on the front lines, are you complicit in letting the KKK run wild? Are you a bad activist?

Audre Lorde's writing has helped me make sense of my mixed feelings. She reminds me that my guilt is a waste of energy: "Guilt and defensiveness," she notes in Sister Outsider, "are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures." Instead of feeling guilty about my unwillingness to protest, I'm trying to convert that guilt into something constructive. In this case, it was donating to the Charlottesville victim relief fund, and then writing this blog post.

Over the last several days, I've also embraced self-care. When she was dying of cancer, Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light that her own self-care was a form of protest: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." If racism and sexism and homophobia threaten to obliterate her body -- much like her cancer does -- then surviving is her greatest form of resistance.

Sara Ahmed points out in Living a Feminist Life that Lorde's statement invites all sorts of accusations. Self-care sounds frivolous. Taking a mineral salt bath while other people fight Nazis? Meditating while hate crime victims are shuttled to the ICU? It's easy to dismiss these kinds of activities as selfish and out-of-touch -- especially if you're not fighting cancer the way Lorde was. 

But Ahmed also clarifies that Lorde wasn't advocating for escapism into the back rooms of a spa. She was standing up for the right of all humans to tend to their emotional and physical health, even (and especially) when violent groups are out to undermine their existence. Ahmed remarks:

"This kind of caring for oneself is not about caring for one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in a world that makes it difficult to exist...For those who have to insist they matter to matter, self-care is warfare." --Sara Ahmed

Insisting that you matter when the world says otherwise doesn't make you selfish. And is hardly a solo act. In fact, self-care often manifests as a form of community care. For instance, New Women Space held a drop-in event Monday night for community members to regroup and decompress after Charlottesville.

Gatherings like these are important not only because they keep individuals afloat, but also because their very existence inverts power structures. Tending to yourself and the people around you means turning your attention away from the media, away from those figures who take up so much space within it. Instead of watching David Duke's hate speech playing on CNN, you're nurturing the humans that he wants to hurt. According to Living a Feminist Life, you're putting your energy right where it matters:

"In directing our care toward ourselves, we are redirecting care away from its proper objects; we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist, and antiracist work, self-care is about the creation of community...We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday, and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other." --Sara Ahmed

 

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