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The #StandWithCharlottesville march: How did it go?

Organizers in Grand Rapids were quick to bring together a rally against white supremacy, but we're still complicit in racism in our own town. When well-meaning white people cause harm, we must own it and do better.
The #StandWithCharlottesville march

The #StandWithCharlottesville march /Emily Jones

The #StandWithCharlottesville march

The #StandWithCharlottesville march /Emily Jones

On Sunday, August 13, 2017 hundreds gathered in Rosa Parks Circle for a solidarity march and peace vigil in support of those fighting the recent white nationalist terrorism in Charlottesville, VA. Wearing black as a symbol of mourning, we took over the streets of downtown, chanting as we went. The event ended with a vigil in Ah-Nab-Awen Park.

The event was organized over group messages in 24 hours, with one person reaching out to key people in several organizations. Dozens of people contributed their efforts, creating smaller decentralized circles to work on specific tasks. We quickly figured out basic logistics and a message of coming together in solidarity against white nationalism. As the work evolved, several stepped into leadership roles, including myself.

It was a tremendous feat to pull it together that fast. And yet, during this event created to oppose white nationalism, we ended up centering whiteness far more than we centered people of color or other marginalized folks. Many of the speakers were white and went on too long about political or economic ideals without centering the experience of people of color and others who are at the most risk. The accessibility of the event for folks with disabilities was not announced. Many people of color were put at actual risk from white supremacists without adequate support, which you should read about from a local Black organizer who was affected.

What’s more, many people of color shared that they did not feel uplifted and honored - in fact, quite the opposite. They needed space to process their feelings and the continued risk to themselves and the people they love, and they did not have it.

We in Grand Rapids need to learn these lessons and talk about them. We must ask what went right, what went wrong, and how to make it better. The racism and white supremacy in this city seeps into everything we do, including organizing for social justice, and we can’t fix it if we can’t name it.

What went right

  1. The organizers and speakers who were people of color were clear and challenging to white supremacy.
  2. We learned we could channel our power quickly if we needed to.
  3. Our call to action was for each white person in attendance to have at least one conversation this week about our own complicity in the white supremacy right here in Grand Rapids.
  4. Most importantly, we passed a hat at both ends of the march to raise over $1200 for Black Lives Matter in Charlottesville, money that will assist organizers on the ground fighting for their lives.


What went wrong

  1. White people largely relied on ourselves. Though we invited some leaders of color and tried to center them, we had not yet developed the relationships over a broad base and over time. When we count on just a few people of color, we end up tokenizing them.
  2. We never questioned whether we should even have the event, or if there was another, better way to actually support people of color.
  3. White people held the rally largely to make ourselves feel better and to distance ourselves from white nationalism. This was evidenced by a fair amount of talk about peace and love rather than the work of organizing, fighting white supremacy in ourselves, and uplifting, honoring, and compensating people of color.
  4. We made mistakes in language that erased and harmed indigenous folks and other folks of color.
  5. The worst part of relying on mostly white people to organize is that we were sorely unprepared for the arrival of a few militia members who carried their weapons openly and bore white supremacist tattoos. We did not make clear on social media that weapons and militia were not welcome. We did not get our peacekeepers in place to turn away militia. Because these white supremacists appeared to be talking reasonably, white folks felt reassured. Our whiteness and lack of experience with racism made us unaware of how harmful, violent, and triggering their presence was to the people of color there.


What we can do in the future

Some ideas based on what I’m hearing from people of color:

  1. As white people, we need to stop being so shocked and unprepared for white nationalism and events that hurt marginalized people. Our country was founded on slavery and colonialism, or white violence. We perpetuate white supremacy every day. There is no distancing ourselves from it.
  2. We need to seriously consider whether we can organize these events effectively or not. There may be other ways to support those most affected, not with our words or feelings, but by moving power and tangible resources to them.
  3. We must pay people of color for our anti-racism training, take it seriously, and commit to it for the rest of our lives. This is why I subscribe to Done For DiDi, in which I learn how to contribute in more meaningful ways to the movement for Black lives, while getting guidance and educational resources from experienced Black women and marginalized gender (MaGe) organizers.
  4. Once we are more firmly grounded in anti-racism training, we must offer real support to people of color who do offer their leadership. We cannot always ask them for the answers, but we must check in and make sure they are not having to do the work alone. We must offer our support in ways they deem helpful, which may be making copies, providing food or offering daycare so they can work or do self-care.
  5. We must also get in the habit of announcing the accessibility of events for people with disabilities, and looking for adaptations and support.
  6. If we do decide to continue organizing events when we are asked to do so by a broad base of people of color, we could create checklists of the things we need to know. Who to contact, how to break into circles, how to prepare for white supremacists or other threats, etc. All of this knowledge is available if we will research and be prepared. We can train ourselves to deal pro-actively with white supremacists and fascism. But to do so, we must face our fear and admit the world we have created.

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People can pay Black Lives Matter Charlottesville at .

They can support Briana, who faced off the white supremacists and who has been generous with her critique and advice so we can learn, at .

It's important to pay #reparations to those on the ground fighting for their lives because of our white nonsense.

If you're wondering how to do better anti-racism work, watch this