Photo by Sofia Sears / HS Insider.
Crossroads School

Opinion: Nevertheless, We Persist

A huge thank-you to all the activists and participants that came to the march. Particularly, a thank you to Sade Famuwiya, Peter Stern, and Liz Stewart for empowering Project Femme to represent young people at this march.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says Joan Didion. I’d have to agree. These stories are dreamt, diluted, often even dormant, but they are what keep us alive, nevertheless. My stories, or the seeming pipe dreams I so adamantly believe in, all seem to include one universal belief: that humans are good, intrinsically, and that people can move each other to do extraordinary things.

Nevertheless, we persist. I think that this line is the rare sentence that can accurately sum up the strangeness of the human condition. Earlier this year, I tried to reckon with this belief. I wanted to understand how to keep being a functioning person in a country that drained my heart. I don’t think that persistence always comes out of any self-congratulatory, courageous refusal to submit to weakness. I think that persistence is often not a choice we consciously make. We live and live and live, and most people can’t really tell you why they get up out of bed every morning and keep going about their lives. I don’t even know the answer to that. That isn’t existential dread. It’s optimistic nihilism.

So– the story I tell myself is the core language of my entire selfhood. It is the dialogue of my passions and my realism. I love activism because of that story. I am so adamant about my feminism because of that story. If I didn’t believe in the integral decency of humanity, I wouldn’t be an activist. I couldn’t be, because why try if nothing would ever change? If people were all irreparably unable to change, to do better, activism would be something I’d laugh at sympathetically. Nothing will change, no matter how hard you try. Why ruin yourself trying?

I know people who think like this. They are entitled to that. I, however, for all my sardonic bitterness, pessimism, and deep adoration for The Stranger, still harbor an inkling of faith in my fellow homo sapiens. It is not easily reached. I lose sight of that inkling a lot. And I know that in order to make that inkling grow, the work will be difficult.

A few months ago, Gabrielle Faulkner, a friend and an ambassador for my organization, Project Femme, was considering hosting a march. We discussed it and we decided to organize one together in honor of National Equality Day on Aug. 26. We’d never done anything so ambitious before. We didn’t expect what happened. Thousands of people RSVP’d on the Facebook page. Within a month, maybe, the DIY, haphazard little event we were trying desperately to organize became a real, legitimate march with thousands of people counting on us to make something extraordinary happen.

This march, this entire experience, did not arise from a clear-cut vision of an answer to this whole mess, but rather, as a question that gnawed away at the tired corners of my mind. Over and over, cyclical. Nevertheless, we persist, yes, but why? I’m not naive enough to think that my neurotic 17-year-old self is the first being to ever have this existential crisis; why humans keep on voluntarily living despite the entire futility of our existence, despite the mad world we live in, is the subject that every philosopher has ever attempted to comprehend.

On the same day as our march, which we’d named Nevertheless, We Persist, another march was scheduled, hosted by the LA Indivisible Suffragists. So we joined up and merged our marches into one hub of energized, passionate activists all trying our best to make it work. The Indivisible team altered everything. They made things happen that I had never considered I needed to make happen. They legitimized our march. They strengthened it to an unbelievable level of womanpower.

Brooke Teal Robbins, the head and founder of the group, refuted all the cynicism I had attached to political organizing. She led in a way I did not know how to appreciate until working with her. People like that– who are luminescent in their passion, in their insatiable optimism met with action-– I got to know them through community organizing. I am not one of them, but it doesn’t matter. They are the people we need to lead us through eras of discontent.

In organizing this march, I felt that familiar tug on my heartstrings: hope tinged with realism, or the general understanding that passion is hard to live with when you feel like you’re alone in that passion. We wanted the march to embody persistence. Persistence, in our thought processes, was not exactly the fight against something, but really, most vitally, the fight for something. It is hard to live today and not be infected with outrage, but I also believe that such anger can coexist with compassion. Out of our anger must come compassion– not for those who have marginalized and maligned and torn apart communities and individuals– but for the marginalized voices themselves.

As an ally, you are not here to protect them as much as you are to help make their voices loud and clear. We can be angry and still unyielding in our demand for simple human decency, because really, what we’re fighting for here is more than a political ideology– we are fighting for every person to be considered and treated as just that– a person, with all of the rights that come with personhood.

Respect for others’ opinions is essential. But respect for opinions that demean human beings to something less than human, to second-class citizens, is ludicrous. People can and will say whatever they want. We saw that in Charlottesville, Va. But it went beyond that. Heather Heyer knew the extent of just how far those “opinions” went, because they are what drove James Alex Fields Jr. to take her life from her, with aggressive glee.

Unabashedly. Publicly. If your opinion involves degrading someone else’s existence, simply for some intrinsic part of their identity, you should not be lauded and defended by the President of the United States. You should not be given a pass, a nod that lets you know, you have a point, maybe. Because. There are no valuable points to bigotry. There are no sides.

This march was about positivity. It originally was meant to celebrate and honor the passing of the 19th Amendment, to know where we were and we are now.

But what it became was different. A young woman died because she believed that humans were humans, all of them, equal. I’ve discussed the issue of marches and rallies with many people, and I’ve heard the discontent many have with the events. What exactly do marches do, besides being a reactionary but impermanent, brief moment of solidarity and outrage?

I myself was frustrated by the Women’s March, which I attended, because of the clear fact that many of those who had marched had no intent of maintaining that spirit of activism. It cannot begin and end with one march. But. As I’ve organized, I’ve come to realize what these events are actually about: visibility. A demand to be seen, to be heard, to be known. And without that visibility, we can’t get anywhere.

We need moments like this, raging against the “dying of the light” together, all as one, voices straining together, sweaty lips and sunburnt cheeks. We need rainbow flag highways and all shapes and sizes of people walking together, hand in hand, trying to tell the world that they exist. If we stop organizing moments like these, we are at risk of losing our collective passion. Let the world know that we are not done fighting, that we have forgotten about all the things the Trump administration and its many friends have done, what our own citizens have done, to hurt people. Let the world know that complacency isn’t something we’re going to allow ourselves to fall into.

The thing is, the 19th Amendment is beautiful, but it only applied to white women. This is the diseased part of our legacy of feminism: its exclusivity disregarded the reality that women led vastly different lives. Womanhood does not intrinsically connect us. A recognition that everyone’s womanhood looks different, that our liberation does not necessarily reflect anyone else’s, but that they should nevertheless be able to decide themselves, is what connects us.

After months of impromptu conference calls, furious emailing, and a deep, unrealized respect for activists who did this kind of thing as their job, I got tired. I got upset. When Charlottesville happened, my palms ached, my teeth itched, even. What’s the point of doing all this when these things will still happen, no matter what we do? Our tireless organizing didn’t save Heather. It didn’t save the people out in the streets fighting valiantly and exhaustedly for justice.

Look: organizing is damn rough. It’s hard. It’s not work that gives any sort of immediate gratification– you forget why you’re doing this, why these phone calls and Skype meetings and frenzied plans are worth committing your time to. It is not the kind of work that makes you feel like you’re doing something important all the time. In fact, a lot of it feels really, painfully bureaucratic and mundane. You can’t get out of the permits and paperwork and fundraising. I think of community organizing and I want to collapse into my bed. I always thought I would want to be a community organizer when I grew up, inspired by the effortlessly effective, extraordinarily empathetic man who did it so easily, with such endless passion– Barack Obama.

If I could ask him what that work was like, I now know he probably wouldn’t say, “energizing.” It is slow, tedious, aggravatingly gradualistic work. So why do it? Why did we keep on organizing, keep working with Indivisible to make this thing happen?

The answer is this:

–The symphony of offbeat, sore-throat cheers and chants and screams that felt like they could break the pavement.

–Women with belly-deep laughter, rainbow pins and hand-drawn signs clutched to their waists– all ages, little girls and elderly women, talking and singing and smiling like the world wasn’t an incurable mess.

–The clusters of young people with linked elbows damp from the afternoon sunshine, clicking their cameras rapidly and furiously, eyes emboldened by the microcosm of America right in front of them to reach out and touch.

–My hands shaking around a microphone, but then, the roar of solidarity loud and clear and heart-swelling from the crowd around me.

–Our chapped lips aching from smiling so much.

–Listening. Listening to people speak, sing, feel what they felt. Hearing stories that cut through me, knowing that this wasn’t about me, wasn’t about any one person. It was about all of us. All of us were tired from fighting, but then there were those who had to fight especially hard. They were exhausted and fierce.

When you march, you do, undoubtedly, do it for yourself, in some way. You feel like the anger is going to swallow you whole if you don’t do something. You march to stop the ground caving in, the walls suffocating you. But you also march for other people. You march for those who this country has diminished, disenfranchised, killed, and oppressed. You know that you are one small voice in a sea of other inimitable voices. And that’s the best part about it.

I am an introvert, but activism is never solitary for even me. My activism lives in my writing, in my thoughts transcribed into public thoughts, but even that– even art– inadvertently affects other people. Activism is never just about one person. It stems out of one thing that happened to you, maybe, or to someone you know, but those individual stories are so insidious because they represent systems and structures that make those stories commonplace.

I don’t ever want to be a spokesperson for queer teenage girls, because we’re all unique individuals and there is no “universal” experience we all share. What we do share, however, is the way the world perceives our girlhood and our queerness. Even these things we experience in vastly different ways. That is the whole premise of intersectionality. When I speak up for me, though, it’s never just about me. It’s not that I want every other girl to make the choices I do; it’s that I want every girl to be able to choose at all.

We need more young people getting out and organizing. I dislike when people tell me that young people are the future leaders. We’re leaders now. We’re worthy of validation and consideration now. If we need to organize to get people to understand that, we will.

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