By Michaela Dwyer
This past Sunday I tweeted, “note: don’t wear Keds to a rally.” It was “favorited” (that benevolent form of Twitter approval) in quick succession by three friends.
The previous day—and the night previous to that—I’d spent much of my time mind-circling around the proper attire for Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh/HKonJ. I felt like I was preparing for a dance performance or field trip, much like the over-conscientious grade-schooler I once was. Then and now, my mother had ensured I had a bevy of warm jackets at my disposal. Also heavy-duty winter gloves. (I have Raynaud’s, so cold-weather outings quickly feel like an assault on my extremities—if numbness can be classified as an assault.) But I couldn’t decide on shoes: would the mood be rowdy, and would, in turn, nicer boots get scuffed? Would more sturdy hiking shoes prevent me from wearing the style of coat in which I felt most comfortable, most myself? What image did I want to present of myself to the other ralliers and would that image align with maximum body heat?
As I paced around my room considering outerwear and shoes, I realized I was treading a deeper insecurity about the next day. At the march, what would happen? Presumably, thousands of people from around North Carolina and elsewhere would walk a few blocks toward the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh. People would speak. There would be banners and flyers. There would, as online information claimed, be no civil disobedience—en contra to the Moral Monday protests that took place over the summer last year.
But what about the number of possible negative happenings that those bare-bones probablies don’t include? Violence—physical or otherwise—against the marchers, provoked by the sheer number of people gathering en masse? Overcrowding? Counter-protests? A pandering pile of cookies left out by our governor ? Promises of more of the legislation we were rallying against? Cold fingers and toes?
The DukeImmerse students and I have lately been reading a book of “anthropological philosophy” called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. The author, Jonathan Lear, profiles the Crow Nation just before their confinement to reservations, and how such confinement devastated Crow culture as tribe members knew it. A statement by Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, propels Lear’s investigation: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
Lear writes at length about what he thinks Plenty Coups means by such a pronouncement: After the traditional Crow culture is rendered non-functional by the introduction of a new culture and way of life (the reservation), things couldn’t “happen” in the same, or even remotely similar, ways that they used to.
At least partly to cut through my chronic fear of the unknown, I’ve been thinking about what it means for something to “happen” in the first place. Recently I feel as though I’m regularly bombarded by news about bad things happening: someone I’m close to being diagnosed with a serious illness, the perpetuation of statewide policies that I feel violate my rights as a woman, supporter of public education, voter, human, et al. My job at Kenan quite naturally brings me into contact—however physically removed—with issues facing communities worldwide that could be categorized as “heavy” and “complex.” It is both a privilege and an overwhelming task to sit, reflect, and write on these various happenings each week, to tidy and term them, at least for my mind’s own sake, under “ethics,” when I know that my contribution is not immediate and that these occurrences lie largely beyond the power of my outstretched arm.
On Saturday, that arm ended up bundled in a meager sweatshirt. I chose to cover my core with a down vest I haven’t worn since high school, and the two friends I drove to the rally poked fun at me (“nice vest!”) in the same way one might “favorite” a tweet. Underneath was a sweatshirt emblazoned in Helvetica with the words “Support Your Local Artist”; I thought the statement mildly appropriate for the event. I found the sweatshirt, discarded, while working for a state-funded program at Meredith College last summer, when Moral Mondays were hot, literally and figuratively, and I presided over teenagers while many of my peers marched a few miles down Hillsborough Street. I imagine that the bulk of those peers, and also several of those teenagers, were at the march this past Saturday. I didn’t see many of them, but I was at the back of the crowd and had no real sense of its size. It turns out there may have been 100,000 people there. Among them were more Duke undergraduates than I’ve seen at any off-campus event besides designated bar nights in downtown Durham.
Last fall, a friend, mentor, and former teacher wrote the piece I’d like to write about why I had to at some point stop imagining the rally into a negative realm, or at least straddle that fear while standing, flimsy Keds laced, among an enormously calm, ethnically and generationally diverse group early Saturday morning. He writes,
“The Legislature has made clear that it’s time to pick sides. The human instinct is to hope that this too shall pass, but this is no longer operative. We want to think bad things are just temporary and that eventually right-minded people (to be named later, but people with more strength and greater resources) will put this thing right. We want to believe this because we want to believe that the universe is essentially just.
But things do not just pass. And while we’re waiting, things are being done that can’t be undone.”
I think back to Plenty Coups. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Our (because it is our) North Carolinian predicament is far different, our contextual narrative far from that of a singular devastation. But we’ve internalized pieces of a similar threat as it pertains to us today. Laws and policies, especially those that come to counter the ways in which many of us live or want to live our daily lives, are peculiar at best and obliterating at worst in their power to ride along with our habits one day and invalidate them the next. After this nothing happened. It’s hard to think of our habits as something we actively create, as what’s happening, especially when it’s laws, policies, and major [largely negative] events that make the news. It’s radical to imagine that our quotidian experience matters on the large-scale. It’s radical to gather with tens to hundreds of thousands of people to attach bodies, signs, and a march to that imagination.
And it felt radical, on Saturday, to be a part of that happening. To say yes, we are able, and we are making this happen right now.