I’ve never been much of an activist, even though I like to consider myself “passionate” about a lot of issues.
When I was in high school, some friends and I in my hometown organized a small protest in response to a local education referendum that didn’t pass. Because of the failure of the referendum, some funding was cut to public schools. The arts especially took a hit. As band nerds, we were outraged. The extent of our protest involved creating and selling t-shirts with clever and sarcastic phrases. I don’t think we even made enough money back to cover printing costs. Still, in our own way, we felt empowered. Even something as simple as putting on a shirt and wearing it in public was something.
I am ashamed to admit that was about the extent of my civic activism, aside from voting in every election, until January 22. For years, I have sat idly by and chosen to not get involved in protests, rallies or campaigns. Even though, for the past three presidential elections, there have been candidates I wanted to campaign against. Even though I watched and cheered on the protests for Black Lives Matter - from the safety and comfort of my couch.
Yes, I openly admit that I am one of the millions of white people who did too little, too late. I’m not proud of that fact. I always had some excuse. There was other work I had to get done, or I was tired from work and needed the day off. I told myself that there were other ways to show support, like giving money or writing essays, even though I rarely did either. I convinced myself that the protests might become unsafe, or that there were others better suited to take part. Really, I was masking cowardice and apathy behind a veneer of false support.
Then I paid attention, first with fascination and then a growing dismay, to the 2016 presidential election. The things that Donald Trump said and the ways he constantly attacked and vilified women, immigrants, and people of color, even to the point of bragging about his behaviors, nauseated me to my core. It seemed like everything awful that had happened the last few years had come to a head as we reached an utter nadir as a nation. Watching the election results come in, I knew that letting this be “Somebody’s Else’s Problem” was no longer acceptable. No - I knew that it never had been acceptable.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I read a sermon by Dr. King called “A Religion of Doing.” In it, King writes that “A man will do what he believes and in the final analysis he is what he does.” The words cut me, because I knew that if I continued to sit there and rail against the TV or complain to my friends about the state of things, but did nothing to change them, I was just a part of the problem. Worse still, I wasn’t actually a supporter or a believer in equal rights at all. I was a tacit approver of racism, bigotry and misogyny. The thought horrified me.
So, on January 21, I participated in the Women’s March in New York City. I almost talked myself out of it again. There were thousands of people going; what does one more matter? But I could hear MLK’s words ringing in my ears, and I knew that if I wanted to say that I was against oppression and violence, I could no longer stay home. I needed to get off the couch.
The “march” was more like a “shuffle.” There were so many people, we had to walk shoulder to shoulder, a few steps at a time. I’m not sure exactly what I accomplished by going. I don’t know if I can even count myself as an “activist” since I did nothing to organize. I just registered and showed up to someone else’s event. Still, it did force me to think about why, exactly, I decided to spend my time walking down 42nd street with tens of thousands of other people on a frigid Saturday afternoon.
For me, I decided that rather than marching against someone, I was marching for something. I thought of my wife, my sister, and my mom. I thought of the middle school girls that I work with every day in my after-school program. I thought of my niece, who is three, and the young daughters of my friends. I thought of my (hopefully) future daughter, whom if I am blessed to parent, I wish to be able to look in the face and say that I support one hundred percent.
There were a lot of great signs at the march, but one in particular stood out to me. It said, “White People - Our Silence Condones Violence.” I knew that they were talking to me, and I inwardly repented for all the ways I had remained silent until now. Since the march, there have been many people who pointed out that the event was just another show of white privilege. I think there’s a lot of validity to that argument, as I am a textbook example of someone who stayed home when he should not have. I pray it’s not too late to make amends.
The march may not have been the unifying force that I hoped it would be. But for me at least, I hope it was a thousand small steps in the right direction.