I was both heartened and worried by the protests outside of Gibson’s over the past few days, a response to the assault and arrest of an African-American student near the store earlier this week. I was heartened because they reflected our students’ and our institution’s fierce commitment to social justice, freedom, equality and human dignity. We all share a responsibility to reaffirm these commitments every day, and I was proud to see our students doing that.
I was worried, however, by two things: first, by a sense that these protests were oddly displaced. There is something incongruous about shouting “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” outside a family-owned business that serves the needs not just of white residents of Oberlin, but of all of them: white, Black, wealthier, poorer, College and city communities, abled, disabled, LGBTQ and all the rest. If we want to protest police racism, why not do so at the police station — which is a greater risk, perhaps, but also sends a clearer message? I can’t help but think that these protests were not exactly, or only, about Gibson’s — they were also about the looming threat to freedom, equality, justice and dignity that Donald Trump’s presidency poses. Racist policing is a real and very present danger. It is also one part of a much larger, malevolent, authoritarian agenda. We must be clear about that, too. The fear and anger that Trump’s victory has rightly ignited threatens to confuse our aims and weaken our efforts. Sowing such confusion is a strategy of the powerful, and one that we must resist.
As a white person, I understand that I will be seen as missing the point, as downplaying racism, as participating in and so reinforcing a white supremacist agenda that has also been emboldened by Trump’s victory. But I am not only white. I am also a Jew and a trans woman, a member of two other communities that may be under attack just as the African-American community is. I am also a person with a chronic illness and worry about my vulnerability to any changes to the Affordable Care Act under a Trump administration. I am untenured and rely on the College for my health insurance. I have pre-existing conditions that would make getting private insurance, should I fail to get tenure, virtually impossible. I say this not for the sake of comparing sufferings — a common, counterproductive and infuriating byproduct of struggles for social justice — but to emphasize the need for truly intersectional solidarity.
From this perspective, the protests disturbed me because they threaten to sow division even as they seek to unify us against police racism, and at a time when solidarity is more important than ever. I am not talking about division between those who acknowledge racism and those who don’t — the latter are clearly blind to social reality. I am talking about the fact that these protests — vital as they were — ignored the “town-gown” problem in Oberlin and significantly disadvantaged many groups: Oberlin’s older residents, for example, for whom Gibson’s may be much easier to access than stores further from the center of town; those with limited mobility, for whom access to nearby stores is also a significant issue; those who have cars but may not be able to afford the gas to drive to other stores, and others too. The Gibson’s protests completely ignored these groups, and they didn’t need to. They missed opportunities for solidarity and so played directly into the hands of an authoritarian president-elect who shows every sign of being hostile to marginalized groups and every intention of “managing” — read: squelching — dissent.
We may be facing some very dark times, and we are stronger facing them together. We must cultivate solidarity not only within groups but across them, acknowledging that different populations are vulnerable in different ways — that strategies that are right for some are not right for all. And we must, above all, extend love and compassion to all those under threat in these perilous times.