Like a lot of people alarmed in general by the election of Donald Trump and horrified in particular after he lent aid and comfort to white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to respond. It’s hard to know what’s just a feel-good but meaningless exercise, what is effective, and what inadvertently gives the issues and views I deplore oxygen.
Since my activism is more aspirational than actual, I often turn to my friend Ruth, whose pragmatic idealism inspires me to try to at least occasionally emulate her persistent roll-up-her-sleeves-and-get-to-work ethos. When I bumped into Ruth after Charlottesville, I asked what she thought of the protests being planned to counter right-wing advocates descending on San Francisco and Berkeley. Was showing up a good idea, or just playing into their hands?
“I don’t know,” Ruth offered. “But you know what? I can’t go anyway—I’m going to be phone banking. We’re trying to get Democrats elected to the state legislature in Virginia.”
I don’t really like phone banking—who does? But as far as I’m concerned electoral politics are where it’s at. You snooze, you lose, particularly at the ballot box. Besides, I felt nervous about the volatile mix of right-wing rallies and counter-protests.
“That sounds like a much better plan,” I told Ruth. “Send me the info.”
Mid-week, Ruth texted that the phone banks had been canceled so people could participate in a San Francisco rally against hate. It would be several miles from Chrissy Field, where the right-wing Patriot Prayer group planned to gather, and I felt much better about that. Proximity often breeds trouble. Besides, I had been horrified to learn that, thanks to a 2010 federal law, national parks—which includes Chrissy Field–must allow open carry. (Thankfully, SF city officials wouldn’t grant a use permit until the Patriot Prayer organizers agreed to stringent contingents, including no weapons.) I also did not want to attend the Berkeley counter-protests even though I know many good people involved. Berkeley is a flashpoint, with the opposing sides in much tighter quarters. The city is often the epicenter provocateurs love to goad, with an Antifa contingent only too happy to oblige; predictably dismal results just feed the right-wing narrative.
But it felt important to show up in San Francisco. My husband and I made plans to take BART over to the city with friends. Ruth was making her own way there via a different route, and we texted back and forth about our anxiety and hope. Then, at the last minute the Patriot Prayer organizer canceled the Chrissy Field event, though his protestations of victimhood and promises of showing up elsewhere were disquieting.
“Are you still going?” I texted Ruth.
“Yes! As important today as yesterday,” she responded.
And so we went. Blue skies and a festive atmosphere prevailed in San Francisco. We arrived at the gathering spot long before the march to City Hall commenced, so sought shade and refreshment in the Mission District. We thanked the police lining the sidewalk. They were taking the scene in stride, but confessed to preferring a day off more than overtime pay. We checked out a “Dance for Equality” counter-protest, full of face-painted kids and rainbow attire. We detoured quite a bit from the march route, but caught up eventually to join the crowd at the Civic Center. Great signs, great spirit, great to see that people of goodwill vastly outnumber the haters.
We showed up, we stood up to bigotry, we went home.
Tomorrow we phone bank.