Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Opinion

Column: Why activism is for everyone

Half a million people marched on Washington for last month's Women's March while 4.8 million people participated worldwide.

But where were we before?

I had never held up a sign for a cause before participating in the Women's March in St. Petersburg. The one I held was borrowed from a friend. Hand-painted, it read, "Let's Grow Like Weeds" with green slinking-stems and blooming pink flowers.

In fact, before walking into Demens Landing with colleagues and friends from the University of South Florida's English department, I bought a "Sunflower for Solidarity" for a dollar at the Saturday Morning Market because I wanted to hold something.

Despite considering myself a liberal feminist, I have little excuse for why it's taken me so long to get involved. In college, at Florida State University, I watched Rosie fight rape culture and Jessica stand with Black Lives Matter, and I liked photos from my fellow riot grrrls protesting in New York, Washington, Seattle and beyond.

Where was I? Likely sitting on my couch, watching The Mindy Project, grading papers, reading for a class, or petting a cat. Maybe I was cooking dinner, folding laundry or sitting on the edge of my bed painting my toenails. I was on the sidelines, watching.

Then August tumbled into October and November, and I was reluctant to publicly post that I was voting for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. It seemed preposterous that Donald Trump could win, especially after watching his poor performance in the debates. I was afraid of publicly marking myself as a liberal, radical or leftist because I'm still a graduate student, still on the job market, and potentially vulnerable if I break the professional online persona I've carefully crafted.

But then Trump was elected, and I was numb. I began to realize that maybe it was this thinking — that Hillary Clinton had it in the bag — and my inaction and silence that helped Trump and his supporters achieve victory.

Word quickly began to spread on social media about the Women's March on Washington. For the first time, I felt like I had to do something, and this was an explicit invitation. My privilege in being a straight white woman has afforded me the ignorance of thinking that other protests — for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA and immigrant communities — were never "for me." But when I arrived at the Women's March in St. Petersburg, I saw how all of these groups intersected, how we were all fighting for equality as minorities of different groups, and why I needed to continue being active in all of them.

Enter Frank Leon Roberts, a New York University professor and activist famous for his syllabus and course geared specifically toward the Black Lives Matter movement.

It's three days after the Women's March when he takes the stage at USF wearing a red Jordan hat, a gold chain and a red long-sleeve shirt that reads "We Gon' Be Alright," an homage to Kendrick Lamar's recent platinum album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

Pacing the stage, Roberts speaks loudly enough so that he does not need a microphone. And first, he tells us what the Black Lives Matter movement actually is, that it's not just for black lives but for everyone.

"Black Lives Matter is a human rights movement," he says. "It's about who gets to be counted as human, including people of color, queer lives, and women's lives."

The crowd snaps, claps, and bellows yes, that's right.

I sit in the packed room, realizing that Roberts is validating the intersection I saw at the Women's March, and it seems so clear to me now how all of these movements are exactly for me. That if I support black lives, LGBTQIA lives, immigrant lives and women's rights, then I should be out there with them, too.

If anything, we can take one piece of advice from Roberts: "Have radical empathy. Care about a community you are not necessarily a part of."

I have not been there for the communities who needed me when they could have used more voices, more bodies, more presence. But I'm here now, and I'm not going anywhere.

Annalise Mabe is a Tampa writer completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of South Florida.

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