For at least ten of the most exciting and dangerous years of my life, I believed change was possible and violence was defensible. I had faced down bayonets and been arrested. Police had shot my classmates on campus and someone had been blinded.
It was the 1960s which saw the initiation of political dissent in the United States resulting in the loss of innocence of the mainstream: the violent response to the civil rights activists were brought to national awareness probably for the first time because of the commonality of television in American homes. White middle class viewers witnessed a new reality—as they watched children being hosed down and attacked by dogs on the streets of Birmingham, and saw the shadows of the bodies of three young men—Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—who were murdered in Mississippi, having gone there to register blacks to vote. A steamy summer day in August 1964, I remember reading about their deaths, in particular about Andy Goodman, who grew up and lived ten blocks away from me on the upper west side of Manhattan. I felt guilty that I was alive and on the way to a family cookout in the suburbs. That was Freedom Summer and I was too young to participate.
Just a few years later, I wasn’t too young and along with so many others during the late sixties, I thought we could change the world. Demonstrating against the Vietnam War, walking in a circle with the Black Panthers waving Mao’s Red Book in the air, we protested racism, economic inequality, and white privilege. The violent reaction of the legal authorities to such dissent targeted whites as well as blacks, resulting in deaths that shocked the nation. For many white Americans it was one thing for members of the Black Panthers to be killed in their beds, but quite another for protesting students to be gunned down on their college campuses. And then everything quieted down, and our enemies became more external than internal.
I first met Obama’s presidency with exaltation—yes there had been change, an African American president, those who’d been murdered during Freedom Summer hadn’t died in vain. Martin Luther King hadn’t died in vain. Roe vs. Wade was going to survive. I got to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Selma March. But then it seemed like I was watching a house of cards crumble as the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated, as a gunman fired on nine church attendees in South Carolina, as the number of blacks that have been killed by police approached the number of those who were murdered by lynching, and as rights to abortion and to coverage for birth control have been threatened.
Is it possible that things haven’t changed and that those years meant nothing? I hope not. George Packer wrote, in a New York Times book review: “The revolution didn’t come — it never does in America, not since the first one, no matter how bad things get.” He continues, “But the collective discontent hasn’t gone away — far from it. It’s still with us like a chronic disease: the sense that the country has fundamentally betrayed its promise (freedom, equality, a fair chance, the American dream) and that the political system is too broken to offer hope.” (June 29, 2015). Emerging from the 60s and 70s, years when so many of us believed in the possibility of making a difference through action, some began to doubt how effective we could be, as we’ve witnessed the persistence of problems we thought were “fixed.”
And then there was the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Maybe you could call it a counter-revolution, reflecting how bifurcated the collective discontent of our country is. How the split has gotten worse, and how the “bad” guys have gotten louder, and better at what we used to do. Has there been a backlash against gender and sexual equality, toward traditional gender roles? A backlash which suggests that among a sizeable proportion of the population a return to old values is appealing, and that misogyny isn’t the sole preserve of men. What is the future of women’s health, economic security, and reproductive rights? These issues aren’t color coded, but an essential concern for all of us.
August 26, 1970, I was with 50,000+ women who marched for equality down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Again, we are taking to the streets and I will be there. The Women’s March on Washington, and its sister marches happening in 300 other locales (national and international) have brought to the fore controversies that are being addressed in a uniquely inclusive mission statement offered by the March coordinators, controversies that we can’t let interfere with our ultimate purpose—to show solidarity against policies supported by the President-elect and his impending staff, that are threatening to all of us, some more specific to women.
A friend of mine recounted what happened to her in the parking lot of a local store the day after the election. She was wearing a hat which, as she said, “camouflaged” her age. But men can’t help but notice her large breasts. As she was preparing to get into her car, the man in the truck parked beside her knocked on his window to get her attention and then proceeded to flick his tongue as one may imagine and pump his hand up and down in the air, also as one may imagine. The message that has been conveyed by the outcome of this election is that this behavior, once more, is okay. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not. This is no time for silence, for playing safe, for waiting and watching. The good news is that many of us have gotten the message; friends—women—who’ve been lifetime bystanders are going to be out there on January 21st marching for their lives, for our lives. We have to make sure that’s only the beginning.