featime image via BC Art Life
This piece was originally published on 1/20/2015.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and we stand in unequivocal support of the protests and uprisings that have swept the US since that day, and against the unconscionable violence of the police and US state. We can’t continue with business as usual. We will be celebrating Pride as an uprising. This month, Autostraddle is focusing on content related to this struggle, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for Black lives and Black futures. Instead, we’re publishing and re-highlighting work by and for Black queer and trans folks speaking to their experiences living under white supremacy and the carceral state, and work calling white people to material action.
Here at Autostraddle we’ve done a fair amount of coverage of the recent protests swelling around the issue of police violence and systemic racism. We’ve also covered how queer and trans women of color are often both at the center of violence from the police and prison system, and at the same time on the front lines of the protests to stop it. For people who want to see change, we are full, heavy, and undone by the outpouring of support in the streets. We feel as though, perhaps, we are on the brink of revolution. But many of us haven’t been on the literal front lines. Not for lack of rage or revolutionary spirit, but because our advocacy comes in many forms.
A friend of mine, an arts activist who is a theater-maker and who works a low-paying job serving coffee to wealthy fifth avenue suits, was on her way to work when a protester stopped her and demanded to know why she — a woman of color — was not in the streets demanding justice. Her answer? “I have to pay rent.” A luxury for many protesters is having a warm home to return to at the end of the night, a home for which somebody probably pays rent. Speaking of payment, getting arrested often precludes paying a fine, or bail, or having a friend or family member to call who can come pick you up. What if you are homeless, or estranged from family? What if you have a job that would not be patient if you are late or absent because you spent the evening at Central Bookings? What if you are physically unable to attend a protest because you use a wheelchair or otherwise disabled? What if you just don’t want to chant and march through the streets in the bitter cold?
Friends and family have leadingly asked me, “so did you ever go to the protest?” as though if I hadn’t, I was doing a disservice to our race. I know of other POCs who couldn’t bring themselves to protest because the very weight of the perpetual onslaught of depressing headline after depressing headline left them feeling emotionally weak. But I have found that those same people, wracked with guilt, have contributed in their own ways, sometimes unwittingly. After the first few nights of emotionally charged spontaneous protests broke out in New York, Autostraddle’s very own Gabby Rivera organized a Google hangout session for QTPOC Speakeasy members. We expressed our outrage, our exhaustion, as well the humor that might seem inappropriate to an outsider, but which was so very necessary if we were to have enough stamina to face the day. During the hangout, we came to the realization that what Gabby had done for us was community care. She was affecting change by giving others a place to prepare themselves to affect change. That is valuable. It’s not as visible as attending a march. There were no selfies to prove we had been there. But it had tangible value.
Alternative forms of protest are necessary to make activism accessible. Sometimes, they’re even more effective at creating change than a permitted march. Here at Autostraddle, we have heard from readers far and wide who say that the content on this website has given them a sense of community they couldn’t find elsewhere. I mean, not to toot our own horn but that’s freaking incredible! Where better to convene a mass of rad queers than on the web? Where better to plot the revolution? If you are feeling bummed about not being able to, or not wanting to attend a protest or a die-in, you don’t have to be. There are a myriad of ways you can contribute, and you might already be doing it without knowing.
When petition sites like Change.org started popping up, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the effectiveness of a petition that was just too easy to sign. Long before any of these phenomena, “Facebook activists” were taking advantage of easy access to hundreds and thousands of people to disseminate information from independent and alternative news sources, to the annoyance of some, but the benefit of many.
Now, the positive effects of cyber activism are becoming clear. Petitions on Change.org and other sites have countless success stories. I first heard about the Michael Brown case from a Change.org email. I know many others who received this tragic news the same way. This was amidst the End Stop-and-Frisk campaign taking off in NYC, and I believe the confluence of these two events have inextricably tied Ferguson to New York, even before the police murder of Eric Garner. Something as simple as signing up for an email listserve brought the Michael Brown case to the doorstep of every American, and helped galvanize a nation. Previously, the memory of Michael Brown would have been reduced to a statistic.
Entire revolutions have been facilitated via Twitter and Facebook. American movements have taken a page from their book, using Twitter to locate protests in real-time without alerting the authorities. Other hashtag movements have given a voice to those usually marginalized. For example, the twitter-facilitated movement, #YouOKSis encourages women, especially women of color to be active bystanders in instances of street harassment, and to share those experiences on twitter. Creating a community where women of color know they can rely on others to check in and prevent potentially violent interactions in the street can offer peace of mind to women whose voices are often drowned out by the patriarchy.
Speaking of creating space, #ThisTweetCalledMyBack recently came to the defense of what has been dubbed “Toxic Twitter.” Toxic Twitter refers to primarily POC women and marginalized communities that have found their voices in the Twitterverse:
We are your unwaged labor in our little corner of the internet that feeds a movement. Hours of teach-ins, hashtags, Twitter chats, video chats and phone calls to create a sustainable narrative and conversation around decolonization and antiblackness. As an online collective of Black, AfroIndigenous, and NDN women, we have created an entire framework with which to understand gender violence and racial hierarchy in a global and U.S. context. In order to do this however, we have had to shake up a few existing narratives…
The response has been sometimes loving, but in most cases we’ve faced nothing but pushback in the form of trolls, stalking. We’ve, at separate turns, been stopped and detained crossing international borders and questioned about our work, been tailed and targeted by police, had our livelihoods threatened with calls to our job, been threatened with rape on Twitter itself, faced triggering PTSD, and trudged the physical burden of all of this abuse. This has all occurred while we see our work take wings and inform an entire movement. A movement that also refuses to make space for us while frequently joining in the naming of us as “Toxic Twitter.” Why do we face barriers at every turn? If you hear many tell it, we are simply lazy women with good internet connections.
In an age where young women often have cell phones with internet access before they have access to healthcare and social services, why are so many so quick to demean the work of digital feminism in the hands of Black women?… When we ask these questions, we uncover that the only people who meet these qualifications of real activism are cis gender, able bodied people — frequently male.
Online activism is controversial, no doubt. “Hacktivism” is often synonymous with the vigilante hacker organization Anonymous, which has achieved many things by threatening to reveal the personal information of their targets. Often these targets are the subjects of high profile controversies, like the Westboro Baptist Church, or members of the KKK. More recently, Iggy Azalea has been the subject of Anonymous’s ire, after she got into a rather sticky (read: racist) twitter argument with Azealia Banks surrounding the issues of cultural appropriation and solidarity with Black people. The group threatened to release leaked sex tape photos and called her a “trashy bitch.” This kind of misogynist and childish behavior begs the question: who deserves privacy? While we all cower in fear of the elusive NSA, we often applaud Anonymous’ threats because they have progressive ends. But is it really progressive to lord over misguided individuals by threatening to distribute pornographic images of them? Vigilantes not associated with Anonymous, but with the same skill-sets have released nude images of famous women, not-so-famous women, and women who have dared to speak out against misogyny or rape culture. Hacking is a powerful weapon, often misused in the wrong hands. But then, what revolutionary tool doesn’t have the capacity to be misused?
Sometimes art can be more engaging and transformative than a rally or march. Sometimes art has the power to affect more minds than a riot. Theatre of the Oppressed (ToO) is a revolutionary form of theater that teaches visual literacy, and gives oppressed people a platform to not only express their grievances, but address them as well. The creator of ToO is Augusto Boal, a Brazilian man who considered this technique a sort of rehearsal for real life. One of the many forms of ToO is a performance called Forum Theatre, in which members of a community act out a play that describes their predicament, with a protagonist, antagonist and supporting characters. The audience is then invited to “intervene” in the action of the play, performing the piece over and over until a solution is developed that can then be acted out in real life. ToO groups in New York City do a version called Legislative Theatre in which actual legislators participate alongside citizens and social justice organizations to develop policies. In May of 2014, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC put together a legislative theatre festival addressing racism and profiling within the criminal justice system, called Can’t Get Right. Spect-actors (as Boal called participatory audience members), were invited to “watch, act and vote” alongside city policy-makers on reforms that would improve quality of life for Black and brown citizens of New York. In no uncertain terms, this is revolutionary: giving people the tools to be the change they wish to see.
I have heard some compare the recent protests to what it felt like to live through the Civil Rights movement. While I can’t personally attest to that, nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of the Civil Rights era does seem to be in the air. And with it, have come reworked, or brand new protest songs. Remember when Lauryn Hill came out with Black Rage? The AP recently reported on the resurgence of protest songs from the rank and file protesters, poets and songwriters. And then D’Angelo released his album Black Messiah, with a tribute to brothers and sisters in the struggle:
Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can be easily misunderstood. Many will think it’s about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us… It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.
Hip Hop and Black music have always had a sociopolitical undercurrent, but it does seem that we’re developing a soundtrack for our revolution — and it’s sounding pretty funky.
Beyond the web and the stage, there are unlimited ways to contribute our time, energy and money towards a world we would want to raise our kids in. Economic boycotts have been a major part of the anti-police violence movement. Temporarily hindering the economy sends a big message to companies that tend to ignore the plight of the very people they probably employ.
While the alternatives to protest discussed here are by no means all-inclusive, hopefully they’ve inspired you to employ the skills I know you’ve got tucked away in that gorgeous, complicated, infinite brain of yours to do something particular to your interests. If you really don’t know where to begin, Tikkun.org has released a flyer detailing exactly 26 Ways To Be In the Struggle Beyond the Streets. Some of my favorites off the list include providing childcare to protesters, and cooking a pre or post-march meal. Whichever way we choose to participate in this movement, it is important to recognize those who came before us and amplify the voices most often silenced. If we follow those two rules, no form of protest is necessarily more or less valuable than another.