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My mom loves to tell the story about what she has labeled my “first protest.” I was a toddler, and I had just learned how to write my letters in the correct direction. I was a very serious kid. One night, my brother and my mom were playing on our kitchen floor and I was too tired for fun like that. My mother tells me that in a quiet rage, I snatched a sheet of paper that I had been using to practice my writing. I wrote “BED” on it, marching solemnly and silently around the room. I don’t doubt it. What a radical feminist origin story.
She laughed as she retold this story to me last summer. “I just remember you marching in, with this little stern face, interrupting our fun like you were the parent or something, Bri!” Maybe I understood that to voice my interests, I needed to interrupt those who were oblivious to them.
It was a summer of interruptions. #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted Bernie Sanders during Netroots Nation and at a rally in Seattle. Undocumented activist Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama during a White House LGBT reception. My peers interrupted me as I tried to explain why these acts of protest were not bad things.
The beauty of protests is that they are thoroughly contingent upon others’ reactions. #BlackLivesMatter activists were attacked for challenging Sanders on his proposed policies. Gutiérrez was booed by the other guests at the White House. Protests are actually really great for highlighting the ugliness of bystanders’ immediate reactions.
Yes, I said ugliness. My heart broke when Jennicet Gutiérrez dared to challenge the president. I was so hurt to see a transgender woman of color put her immigration status on the line to speak out against violence in detention centers, only to be met with rejection from her own community. I didn’t have the words to explain my anger at the Bernie Sanders supporters who completely invalidated the protests of #BlackLivesMatter groups at Netroots and in Seattle. I hated the fact that the white liberals who hopped on the hashtag bandwagon when it was trendy were now the white liberals who hated the movement for black lives.
People love to complain about hecklers, but they’re missing something major. For individuals like Jennicet Gutiérrez and #BlackLivesMatter organizers—people without access to the power that leaders like President Obama and Senator Sanders have been given—there are no other nonviolent ways to get your voice heard. These are the voices facing life-threatening situations every day in this country, but they’re also the voices that are easiest to ignore—the voices that will never get elected to any office, let alone the presidency. America can claim to be the land of the free and the brave, but democracy has its limits. An undocumented transgender Latina is not going to get elected anytime soon.
It’s undeniable that these kinds of interruptions make us uncomfortable. But why? I understand that respect matters, but I also want to acknowledge that we condition children with conflicting messages. Speak up when something’s wrong! Respect those with more power (read: more whiteness, more wealth, more richness, more political authority)! Aren’t we the experts of our own experience? If so, why are we being legislated without the inclusion of our own perspectives in the political conversation?
To their credit, Senator Sanders and President Obama were responsive to these protests, enacting policy changes that addressed protesters’ concerns. That does not excuse their treatment of the protesters, or the reaction of the bystanders in these crowds. I have so many questions for the individuals who were upset or angered by the disruptions in their exclusive, precious time with a president and a presidential candidate. Innocent transgender people and people of color are getting murdered at ridiculous rates. Undocumented immigrants hard at work chasing the elusive American dream are getting deported or placed in dangerous detention centers. But a gala or a speaking event are sacred spaces of respectability. Okay.
People love to frame figures like President Obama and Senator Sanders as ‘revolutionaries.’ But when I think of ‘revolution,’ I think of voices that were silenced by others within the movement. Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman active in multiple social movements of the 1970s, took the stage at a Gay Liberation rally in 1973. “I’ve been trying to get up here all day, for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail!” she exclaims in a video recording. I hear the booing and the jeers in the background, listening to someone from the crowd shout “Shut up!” as Rivera tries to speak. I wonder if this would happen today. Or did it already happen? Marriage equality doesn’t do much for an incarcerated or undocumented queer or transgender person. A white dude who did some civil rights work in the 1960s doesn’t mean anything to the black lives on the line today. Instead of pretending like the problems are solved, maybe people in power should listen to those without it.
I guess what I’m trying to drive home is the idea that in the U.S., not everyone gets a voice like Obama’s. Instead of forcing our tokenized black people and transgender people to silently take a seat at the table, why not encourage them to speak up? Why not get the perspectives of the populations for whom you’re trying to create policy? We can’t expect them to “lean in” (whatever that means) if we don’t even acknowledge the challenging conditions of so many of their daily lives. We can’t continue to demonize meaningful protest moments as heckling if we want to advance progressive politics. Every movement needs a revolutionary—but maybe that revolutionary isn’t a politician. Maybe that’s okay.
Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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