Many of us want to show up and be effective allies for our friends of color, but we can’t get out there and protest. Perhaps you are a person of color and this is your own fight. If you’re on the fence about attending a protest, read through my reality check before making a decision. We don’t look like there’s anything wrong with us, so we feel we have to justify ourselves when we don’t hit the streets with our friends. You may try to be brave and go out there. If you do, more power to you, but think hard about it before you go. It may cost you more than anyone benefits, and there may be better ways for you to help.
I went to the Women’s March in 2017 and 2018. By 2019, I had learned my lesson and stayed home. It wasn’t that I felt it was any less important—if anything, things have gotten worse. But I had to find other ways to participate in the movement. Missing 3 days of work while I recovered wasn’t worth the one more body I contributed to the event.
I’m not trying to dissuade you from activism—far from it! I just want you to think about what kind of activism is right for you. Marching is so much more than just walking a route.
First, let’s talk about the obvious—we are in a pandemic. For many of us, it’s a genuine risk of life to go out in a crowd. Don’t let anyone guilt you by saying “our lives aren’t worth getting sick to you?” It’s not fair. Even healthy young people are dying from this virus; some of us know we’re screwed if we get it. Even in a mask, even in an orderly protest where people maintain distance, there’s an unacceptable risk for people with compromised immune systems. Yes, black lives are in danger now. So is yours, and protesting in a street throng isn’t the only way you can help.
Now let’s talk about getting to the march. I live in a small city of about 100,000 people, in a rural county totaling about 200,000. You wouldn’t think parking downtown would be that big a deal, would you? Well, about 8,000 people showed up for the Women’s March and there was literally no parking for a mile from the event. I anticipated this and took the bus the first year. I did not know the bus stopped almost a mile from the march site because of blocked streets. I walked there and arrived worn out before the march even started. It’s not that I can’t walk a mile easily, but the logistics of waiting for the bus, riding it downtown, dealing with the unexpected—these things drain our “spoons.” I was really happy that I hadn’t taken the time to make a sign—imagine schlepping that an extra mile. (And now I recognize that with my damaged arms, sign-holding isn’t for me anymore.)
The second year, I got smart and rode my bike to the march, even though it was a rainy day in January. Riding back home after standing for 3 hours was every bit as grueling as a day on tour in the mountains.
The Women’s March was a peaceful event in my city. The police who provided security turned out in pussy hats. The crowd was orderly and there were food trucks along the route. Now imagine you’re in a protest that is not supported by your local police. (Again, I have a bit of privilege here, as my city’s police force is heavier on POC than the general population, and they have come out in support of BLM.) If the police turn on the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, can you withstand the fray of pushing and shoving, much less the tear gas? I know I can’t. I can’t even get on an airplane during general boarding without getting hurt. Think about the worst-case scenario. For me, the only part of my body that wouldn’t be injured worse than a “normal” person’s from a rubber bullet is my left buttock. Seriously. My right buttock has a knot of scar tissue in it that feels like a wadded-up washcloth. I’ve had multiple severe concussions and I’m at high risk for Repetitive Head Injury Syndrome. I can’t be in an unruly crowd.
Next, let’s head to the police station. That’s right, you got arrested. For me, having my hands cuffed behind my back has already done me serious injury. You might be better off, but standing in the booking line might do you in. They’re not going to let you sit down. Go ahead, try pleading disability. You regret saying anything, don’t you?
In the holding cell, there is seating on metal benches for maybe 8 people. There are 24 people packed into the cell, there isn’t even room to sit on the floor. Once again, try pleading disability. It doesn’t work on a crowded bus on a good day downtown, it’s not going to help you in the tank. You’re going to have to stand for hours on end. If you’re lucky, someone comes to bail you out. If you’re me, and the nearest person you could ask that of is 100 miles away, you’re gonna hurt. What if they make you stay overnight?
And speaking of hurting, they confiscate your purse in booking. Any pain meds are checked, and you don’t get to ask a guard to give you your meds on schedule. My prescribed pain control is oxycodone. You can bet they’re not going to administer that in jail. What if you take blood sugar medication? What if you need to eat on a schedule? If you’re in a small town where they know you, they might see that you get the care you need. In a crowd of hundreds of arrested people in a big city, don’t count on it. There might be rules about caring for arrested protesters, but the crowded situation is going to make compliance impossible.
And in all this, COVID 19 is spreading like a California wildfire on the Santa Ana winds.
You are not shrinking away from your responsibility. You are not a coward. You have the right to safeguard your health. Explain to your friends who might judge you that you’re not physically able to join them. Be open about why, and if they don’t accept it, let that be on them. Health privilege is real, and they may not get it about you. Let that be okay. Don’t let it get under your skin.
So you’ve decided to stay home while your healthy friends all go to the protest. Now what?
I’m writing topical blog posts in an effort to reach people and change hearts and minds. I have the platform to do so. If you have any media access, even a social media page, use it. You can do the profile photo frame and post the black square and all that, but that’s bandwagon fluff. Find and repost powerful articles and videos, like Kimberly Jones with her Monopoly analogy.
You can also do the reading. Many activists out there haven’t actually read the new classics—White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo, and so many more (feel free to recommend books and other media in the comment section). You can be the one who knows these books and is prepared to discuss them with argumentative people. Your group of friends probably needs someone who can do that.
If you’re craftsy, make some face masks with activist themes for your marching friends. Get creative—think about your sphere of influence and what you can do within it. Don’t just do the social media slacktivism. If you have some ideas that others could benefit from, share them in the Comments section. Let’s do some good out there.