Last Friday, Nov 11, at 9:30am, a group of five UVa-Wise students stood on the low wall outside the Slemp Student Center to counter the alienating and oppressive rhetoric currently sweeping the nation.
Some had tape covering their mouths, which can be seen as symbolizing a lack of political voice in a country that needs to be constantly reminded that“Black, Brown, Muslim, LGBT, Immigrant Lives Matter”. I held a sign that stated, “Unity & equality mean fighting for the oppressed” in my handwriting in red Sharpie. Each person held a sign emblazoned with a message urging for equal rights and justice for all by re-evaluating and dismantling the current power structures designed to benefit primarily white, cisgendered, heterosexual men – “End White Power Now”declared one large sign. We stood to silently implore for empathy, understanding and love between people who are often divided by seemingly unquestionable systems and constructs, such as race, gender, sexuality and class.
As the day continued, passersby joined the protest line on the wall, which was surveilled by two police officers. Tears fell as one student dropped his backpack, hugged his friends and stepped onto the wall beside them. “I am trans and proud” declared his quickly made sign, written on a piece of college-ruled paper. Another student wrote “Love trumps hate” and joined the line. There were more taped mouths and more scrawling handwriting pleading for less violence against minorities and more critical analysis of current events. Protesters came and went, going from the wall to class and back as the day wore on. At its largest point, approximately thirty students stood along the length of the wall.
At 2pm, the silent protest moved into the Chapel of All Faiths. We stood in the back of the crowded room while Chancellor Donna Henry led a forum to discuss the aftermath of the presidential election. Students had a chance to communicate their concerns here. Some of the protesters broke their silence and spoke at the microphone. Kaitlynn Davis, a senior at UVa-Wise, said, “Before Trump was president, I thought I lived in a safe community. I really did. I never thought that I had anything to worry about. But now I feel as though any fear that I have is validated.”
She echoed the thoughts of many students and community members who are frightened by the repercussions of a Trump presidency. The country becomes insidious when headed by a president who routinely insults those who don’t agree with him, mocked a reporter with a disability, bashes women who aren’t attractive to his standards, said the infamous misogynist quote, “grab them by the pussy”, has several pending sexual assault cases and posits racist and exclusionary laws such as a Muslim registry. It is alarming to consider that his running mate, Mike Pence, supports “conversion therapy,” using taxpayer dollars to fund a variety of tactics, including electric shocks, in the attempt to make LGBTQ youth heterosexual. All this public discrimination and alienation emboldens private attitudes and allows people to normalize these types of behaviours and ideas, creating a culture that accepts racism, sexism, ableism and other prejudiced and dehumanizing actions.
However, it is important to remember that a single election was not the catalyst to all these -isms. This is not Democrats versus Republicans; all people must consider their stance on these issues, which are longstanding and nuanced. This is a call to question systems that have been allowed to thrive on the backs of others for centuries. This is a plea to analyze our media, our ideologies, our theologies, our socialization. These things were not built in the time between Tuesday’s election and Wednesday morning, nor will they be destroyed in such a moment.
What can we do to stem the hatred and legal discrimination? How can we challenge the problematic attitudes that seek to divide us from our fellow humans? Friday’s protest was just the beginning of the new civil rights movement that will – must – sweep the country in a deep and intimate way. We must use our positions, whatever those are, to advocate for the vulnerable people who are afraid to go outside and live in a country that demonizes them for the color of their skin, their religion or their citizenship status. Sometimes advocating means standing in silence and holding signs that remind those oppressed that they are not alone; we will not forget them or allow others to trample on their rights as a human being. Sometimes it means civil disobedience, such as sit-ins and blocking a highway like MLK did, drawing attention to the cause and stating that human lives are more important than the continuation of commerce as usual. We must provide “a visual that folks are willing to put their bodies on the line to create the kind of world we want to live in,” as stated by Chicago activist Charlene Carruthers.
There has been a lot of focus lately on the role of Millennials. Some think they are whiny, complaining when they don’t get what they want. Those people are halfway right. I promise to always whine and complain when I don’t get the access to the women’s health care/equal pay for equal work/end to domestic and sexual violence/legal and social equality that I want, and I’ll whine and complain (also known as advocating) for what other oppressed groups want too. The participation trophies, awarded by the generation before, have come to symbolize the flawed system handed down from our parents – shiny and gold on the surface, plastic underneath.
The so-called “crybaby Millennials” will be the generation that is willing to sit, stand and march for equality. We will not tolerate injustice in the public and private spheres. We will not yield. We will not compromise. We will not stop. And if you don’t quit, you win.