Activist Kelly Hayes speaks at the Women’s March in Chicago, Illinois, on January 21, 2017. (Photo: Aaron Cynic)
I was invited to speak at the Chicago Women’s March because I complained about it, and I accepted the invitation. Many of these events were mired in controversy, so I won’t dwell on specific online scuffles. I had the same reasons to go or not go as most conflicted, marginalized women. Around the country, women of color, non-binary people, disabled people, and other community members raised many concerns about the march’s handling of issues of state violence, disability justice, sex work and diversity in leadership. But the march itself promised to be historic in size, and came at a time when women and other marginalized people are undeniably under threat, so many of us chose to engage with the moment, in some way or another, despite our concerns.
Those debates boiled over on the Chicago march’s event page, and behind the scenes, in Chicago’s organizing community. Eventually, my own frustration with the Chicago event led me to write a Facebook post critiquing the event, and highlighting the ways I thought the event’s organizing was causing harm within the community. The organizers had touted the event as being especially safe, because they were working closely with police. When women of color and other criminalized community members and their allies objected, saying that close collaboration with the police didn’t actually enhance the safety of criminalized people, they were relentlessly dismissed and ridiculed on the event page. The organizers chose not to intervene.
As the situation worsened, the total whiteness of the event’s leadership was called into question. The leadership, rather than reaching out to the organizers who were being insulted on their page, reached out to organizers of color who were unaware of the situation, to try to persuade them to participate. When one of these invitees contacted me to ask what I thought about the event, I got angry. To approach these people and explain that there were difficulties, but that they wanted to get it right, would have been one thing, but to erase the whole controversy — this was appreciated by no one. The Facebook post I wrote got a couple dozen shares and initiated some conversations, and within a few days, I was invited to speak at the march myself.
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The invite included the organizers’ stated prediction that I would reject their ask, which made the whole thing feel a bit insincere, but I took some time to run it by my community. I was not at all inclined to accept the offer, but everyone I spoke to offered either encouragement or questions. No one discouraged me, and more than one person reminded me of Audre Lorde’s speech at the National Women’s Studies Conference in 1981, wherein Lorde made an essential intervention, challenging the rejection of Black women’s anger. And while this was no keynote, and I am no Audre Lorde, I was presented with the possibility that the women’s march — a flawed but momentous moment — might be an opportunity to challenge people, and myself, to build forward in the way that we need to. I also felt that with so many people present, there would have to be some people, and maybe a lot of people, who are new to movement work and ready to talk about the things I hope everyone will talk about right now.
So I said, yes. It wasn’t an easy call, and even now that it’s happened, and it didn’t go horribly wrong, I can easily see how it could have. It’s not as though the event’s organizing was bandaged by my inclusion, or that of any of the other amazing women who were invited to share their thoughts. I was actually so concerned about my participation being interpreted as an endorsement that I told the organizers not to list me as a speaker. My uneasiness with how some things played out resurfaced shortly before I was handed the mic, when the organizers announced that there would be no march. “We are going to rally in place,” they announced enthusiastically, as though being told by the police that we had too many people to march was a victory.
Too many people to march. These words may sound a bit confounding to some organizers, but in the organizers’ dialogue with the police, this decision was made, and tweeted out by the Chicago police. Police estimated that 250,000 people had amassed downtown — a number that undoubtedly exceeded whatever was outlined in the march permit. The cancellation was announced on the main stage, shortly before I was handed the mic. From any political perspective, that was a curveball. The Women’s March would not march? I hoped that people would decide that having ungovernable numbers was their permit, and march anyway. But I had no idea if they would. With so many first-time protesters in the crowd, anything was possible.
The chaos of the event had led the organizers to tell speakers who had previously been granted two minutes each to stretch their remarks a bit. I had already been told I could take three, and was happy to stretch a bit further. Because let’s be honest: When you offer 16 diverse speakers two minutes each — inadvertently or not — you are not honoring diversity, you are displaying it. After the march was cancelled, I thought, “Fuck it, it’s not like there’s a march to delay,” and I decided to take them up on their offer, and stretch things out. I decided to say all the words I could find that felt important to the moment, and hold that space about three times as long as I had been asked to, for Native people, for queer people and for disabled people — and for everyone whose experiences of harm are glossed over in celebrations of good intent.
Only a fraction of the estimated 250,000 people who were in attendance were within earshot of my speech. And after the last speaker, who spoke immediately after I did, people far from the stage started marching in spite of the official cancellation. Many would later say that they simply hadn’t heard the march was cancelled, and that when people started walking, they assumed it had begun. The police did not interfere. After all, with 250,000 people, you don’t really need permission.
There’s a lesson in that.
There are obviously more lessons to learn, with some participants haughtily declaring the supremacy of this event over ones where people are “doing stupid stuff and getting arrested.” It may take time for some people to understand that if this moment becomes a movement, and actually undermines the system, its activities will not be well tolerated by the state. And some may never acknowledge that if the women’s march crowd hadn’t been as white as it was — or if its central message had singled out the police — that they may have been treated differently. But there were definitely people who didn’t think or feel that way. I have heard from many of them, and I am grateful for that.
I hope everyone who started organizing on November 9 keeps building and learning, in spite of any mistakes. It was a beautiful community-building experience for many people. But we must acknowledge that, most of the time, the resistance will not be permitted, or feature celebrity performances. The resistance will be messy. It will sometimes strike you as offensive, and that might be because you have something to learn.
We won’t build forward if we don’t build honestly.
These are the words I shared. They’re a little messier than I might have planned for, but as a Black woman who stepped back from the event’s working group said to me, “What comes from the heart reaches the heart. Period.”
Hello, my name is Kelly Hayes. I speak to you today as a Native woman, as a disabled woman, as a queer woman. I also speak to you today as one of the co-founders of the Lifted Voices collective. We are a direct action oriented collective, and as soon as we got word that Donald Trump had won the election, we organized a winter-long series of direct action 101 trainings. Because without tactical knowledge political will means nothing. I come here to raise awareness about efforts like that, to help point people in the right direction in terms of what work is already happening. Because it’s very important for us all to realize that any issue we’ve become alarmed about since seeing Donald Trump ascend is already a struggle in progress. There have been people on the ground fighting for their lives, for their communities, fighting what’s killing and kidnapping our peoples for as long as our oppressions have existed.
Under Barack Obama, 2.7 million people were deported. If you’re afraid of what’s going to happen under Trump, the people who are fighting that are the first people you need to talk to. They have been in the streets; they know what they’re doing. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations, they’ve been out there. They can tell you how to help, how to plug in, how to learn; because we all have a lot to learn, right? I have never showed up to help a cause and not had a lot to learn about that cause, even the issues that affect me. I often have a lot to learn. As a direct action educator, I’ve been around the country and I’ve been in Standing Rock three times this last year. As a Native person, that of course meant a great deal to me, to be able to go to that place, share my knowledge, and help people prepare for the fight. Direct Action is a creative act, and we all carry so much power. We’re already empowered, but we always don’t know the step-by-steps, the little things people have been figuring out for generations that can make being strategic and successful in the streets so much more likely.
But in saying all of this, I am also here to challenge you.
I’m here to challenge myself. I’m here to be real about the fact that while this convergence should be celebrated, it is a moment, not a movement. A movement happens when we keep it going, when we build community, when we build culture, when we take consistent action. Because gathered in this place today, if we all go home and feel like we’ve done our part, then this was nothing but a pep rally and I don’t believe that it has to be that way.
But when we challenge ourselves we have to be real. We have to be real about the fact that we all wade through sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, all of this ugliness every day. Fanon told us that a society is either racist or it isn’t, and this one is. So to pretend as though wading through all of that all day we don’t have that muck on us is to pretend that our good politics exempt us from the very ills we’re fighting. I have seen far too little self-examination from those who consider themselves activated in the aftermath of Trump winning. I am not exempt from any of this. Being disabled, being oppressed doesn’t mean that I don’t have to analyze my own part in what’s hurting people. As a Native person I know there’s a lot of anti-Blackness in Native communities, a lot of transphobia. It’s my job to help attend to that, while also fighting for my people.
And to the white folks out here, y’all got a lot of cousins to collect. Because what did this, what put us all up against what we’re up against did not come from my community, didn’t come from the Black community, it came from white communities that have felt disempowered by a Movement for Black Lives, by a Black president and by the march of history that is chipping away at white supremacy piece by piece every time we stand up to it, every time our ancestors have stood up to it.
If we are not honest to ourselves about the fact that white supremacy is the structural harm at play here, we will not examine what we need to examine. Audre Lorde asked a room full of white academics in 1981, “What woman here is so enamored with her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?” We have to echo that question. We have to ask ourselves, “Where am I failing?” “When am I letting others down?” “When am I benefiting from someone else’s oppression and how can I push back against that?”
And for the record, Standing Rock is not over. It’s truly amazing that so many of you have seen that struggle, know it by name. Because one of the greatest things that we are up against as Native people is that we are unseen. Native people are more likely than any other group in the United States to be killed by law enforcement. Statistically we are more likely to be killed than anyone by police. And we know that says a lot, because we know that we have Black communities and other Brown communities that live in fear of state violence all the time. But this is our lived reality. Who here can name a Native person that was killed by law enforcement? Go ahead, yell it out. I heard a couple distant voices. Thank you, thank you those of you who have a little awareness. And I’m not coming down on those of you who don’t. This isn’t about you being a bad person who doesn’t care about the right things. You are not meant to see us die. We were meant to suffer in silence and disappear because American mythology, the myth of American exceptionalism doesn’t exist when you have to factor in all the terrible things that have been done to my people, that are being done to my people.
Black exploitation on the other hand is performed in public, for a reason. Because whether it’s a postcard of a lynching, or a YouTube video, or a person left hanging in a tree there is a lesson. It is an attempt at social control. It’s about keeping people in their place because this country could not function without the financial exploitation of Black people, and never could have. To change that we have to upend everything.
Should you call your congressman? Yes, but if that’s all you’re doing, we change nothing. We have to culture-build together, we have to community build together. We know that bad things happen when we call the police over mental health crises but what are we doing to build alternatives? How many of us know our neighbors and are building phone trees for our own emergency responses when things go wrong in our communities? We have to build what we know they won’t. This government is not safety. Racist policing is not safety. We have to build safety together.
Self-defense is a creative act, tyranny is not and that is why we’re going to win. Because the creativity of oppressed people will always, always outmatch that of tyranny.
Last thing I want to say: I love all of you who have been showing up for justice, I hope to know those of you who are just joining the fight. And if you are ready to challenge yourself, you are ready to approach all these questions I’ve asked of you. Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you. We need you!
There is no freedom without abolition. I love you all.
Kelly Hayes is a direct action trainer and a cofounder of The Chicago Light Brigade and the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She is community relations associate and a contributing writer at Truthout and her photography is featured in the “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Kelly’s contribution to the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? stems from her work as an organizer against state violence and her ongoing analysis of movements in the United States, as featured in Truthout and the blog Transformative Spaces.