On Saturday, January 21, along with over two and a half million other people across the world, I participated in the Women’s March.
I marched in my home city of Charlotte, North Carolina. I was encouraged to see a diverse group: different ages, races, ethnicities, genders were represented in the crowd of over 10,000. I saw lots of familiar faces — former professors, colleagues, old classmates, neighbors, friends from church. In some ways, it felt like a bit like a reunion. For several of my friends there, this was their first protest.
One friend asked me how this compared to the protests that took place in Charlotte last September in response to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. “Very different,” I told her. I left it at that because we soon began marching, but her question stuck with me and since then, I’ve reflected about why it felt so different.
For one, there were no police in riot gear at the protests on Saturday. There were no national guard tanks roaming the streets. No threat of tear gas or rubber bullets being deployed. No helicopters hovering overhead, beaming bright spotlights down on us. Yesterday felt joyful, hopeful — fun, even. The mood was light and spirits were high.
The protests that I went to in the fall took a much different tone. It was somber, grim — scary, even. And what set that tone was the heavy presence of a militarized police force. Being stared down by hundreds of officers in riot gear is unsettling. I felt anxious and fearful. Part of me felt like I was a criminal just for being there. Getting arrested did not seem like a far-fetched possibility, despite the fact that it was peaceful. Our black brothers and sisters who have been marching for years know that feeling well. But the roots of my fear that night only extended so far as a white woman. As I stared at police in riot gear, I was not bearing the weight of centuries of government-sanctioned violence aimed at my family members and ancestors like so many of my black fellow protesters.
So what was the difference?
Here’s what I observed: when a group of a couple hundred peaceful protesters, the majority of whom are black, come to uptown Charlotte with signs and chants, they are surrounded by a militarized police force and a curfew is established. But when a group of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters, the majority of whom are white, come to uptown Charlotte with signs and chants, we see just a few friendly officers casually standing around, graciously opening the streets to the crowd when we originally had sidewalk-only permits.
Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly inspired and encouraged by the march on Saturday. I understand the circumstances and events surrounding these two protests are different. But the same plea resides at the heart of both protests: a cry for human rights, and human dignity.
I hope all the white people who marched yesterday see that and continue to mobilize. I hope we we show out like this the next time a black brother or sister falls victim to police brutality. During the Charlotte protests, I saw a lot of white people slap quotes on their Facebook timelines, sharing long posts about how racism is bad and how police brutality is bad. But I saw very few of those same people out in the streets.