“What if we shift the question from ‘who do I want to be?’ to the question, ‘what kind of life do I want to live with others?’?… If the I who wants this name or seeks to live a certain kind of life is bound up with a ‘you’ and a ‘they’ then we are already involved in a social struggle when we ask how best any of us are to live.”
Last year on January 21, the Women’s March was held following Trump’s inauguration. The protest movement against Trump’s misogyny, bigotry and chauvinism had spread to many cities worldwide and thousands of Vancouverites showed up in their local rally as a show of solidarity and support. Despite the heartening turnout, the Vancouver march was highly criticized for failing to invite Black Lives Matter representatives as speakers or organizers. In addition, particularly in North America, protestors were encouraged to don “pussyhats” by the Pussyhat Project, a gesture that was condemned for excluding trans women from the movement.
This year, event organizers titled their rally “March On, Vancouver! The Next Step” to reflect a spirit of healing and rebuilding and to encourage a way forward. This march aimed to tackle misogyny, white nationalism, xenophobia, settler colonialism and racism more broadly and organizers emphasized that it wasn’t a march about Donald Trump. A desire for meaningful inclusion seemed to be reflected in the speaker lineup –– this time, two Black Lives Matter activists, Azuka and Ariam, were invited to speak. There was an effort towards raising awareness about how certain issues manifested locally in Vancouver itself. Noor Fadel, the Richmond hijabi who had been physically assaulted on a Vancouver SkyTrain last year delivered a powerful spoken word piece against racism. In an effort to make the movement more inclusive of trans women, march organizers discouraged wearing “pussyhats” to the demonstration and there were certainly less hats in appearance than last year (although there were also less protesters, and some still chose to wear them).
Given the organizers’ efforts to address their mistakes from last year’s march, this year’s march was pretty well-posed to be an inclusive and inspiring event. However, in spite of their best efforts, the march ended up rather fragmented.
While listening to the last few speakers (which, incidentally, happened to be activists of color Angela Marie MacDougall and Judi Lewinson who spoke about race), I was apprehended by a couple of (pussyhat-bearing) women who seemed rather angry that we hadn’t begun to march yet. They began to shout “March now! March now!” and gathered a small group of people to chant with them, all while speeches were still going on. Audience members near the speakers turned to look, surprised at the commotion.
The small group of dissenters quickly grew as people got restless in the cold, rainy weather. About 15-20 minutes later, a crowd of a couple hundred people had formed. One woman sounded a horn (again, while official speeches were still going on and march organizers hadn’t given any announcement whatsoever) to announce their departure –– the “unofficial” march had begun.
I remember feeling disappointed, hurt. I understood people’s restlessness, their impatience — they were cold, and many had brought along their young children too. The march organizers could have done a better job of announcing what time they intended to march to give people the luxury of heading indoors to warm up if they needed to. Still, the entire commotion, the shamelessness in taking lead from the event organizers, the anger directed towards the organizers and speakers showed me a remarkable amount of disrespect and entitlement –– a desire to put self at the forefront of the movement. Event organizers may have given a greater diversity of individuals a platform this year, but that platform was denied them the moment protesters chose to walk away, to fail to listen, and to encourage others to do the same.
Sometimes I wonder why I still place hope in broad social movements –– a friend once told me that they’re bound to disappoint because people’s political outlook often emanates from their lived experiences, and everyone has such a variety of such experiences. I think lived experience is a necessary and incredibly powerful starting point for politics. An exploration of issues that enlighten your lived experience can be wonderfully healing and validating. However, politics should never stop at your personal experiences, at the issues that only affect you, or it’s disingenuous to believe you’re fighting for meaningful social change. I’ve had people try to tell me that it’s impossible to advocate for every single cause out there –– but if your politics stop at your own experience, fail to listen to others, fail to give others a platform to speak up about issues that lurk in your own community, it will always remain insular and self-centered. Along the march route this year, hundreds of people stopped at the Trump tower for over 20 minutes, standing determinedly in the cold and the rain, chanting anti-Trump slogans with gusto –– many who, earlier, had refused to stay to hear speeches from local community activists.
As disappointing as my experience was this year, I don’t think it’s naive to continue to believe in large movements. There’s truth to “strength in numbers,” to being able to rely on one another. Large movements draw in more people, making social issues more accessible to the general public. However, while accessibility is an important aspect of shoring up support and creating meaningful change, it shouldn’t fall on organizers and activists to make their movement more easy to understand, more palatable to the public. When we listen, when we offer movements larger platforms to promote social justice, and when we show up to these platforms to learn, we fulfill the other side of the endeavor.