First 100 Days: Why I March: Social Action, Ambivalence and Powerlessness

By Kristin Davisson



In the weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump, many of us have struggled to manage our feelings of shock, outrage and fear while engaging in efforts of resistance and social action. Demonstrating, participating in local organizing and calling our representatives is crucial in opposing a demagogic political regime, but social action serves us psychologically as well, combating feelings of fatigue, depression and complacency with solidarity, liberation and endurance. Because the act of demonstrating is a visible act of protest (and one that is often exposing and dangerous), psychological experiences around demonstrating vary and typically, those making themselves the most visible are also the most vulnerable and least insulated by social and economic privilege.

The Women’s Marches on January 21 marked a shift in the level of engagement from a wider and more socially and economically privileged segment of the public. For me personally, this brought up thoughts and feelings I continue to grapple with around social action, privilege, powerlessness and self-care.

Prior to the Women’s March, a number of my patients mentioned they were planning on attending, particularly female patients who had been struggling with Trump’s overt misogynistic, dismissive and hostile attitude towards sexual assault and women’s rights. Many of them had expressed their explicit feelings of fear and shock that a presidential candidate could (or would) openly brag about assaulting women, have a number of serious allegations of sexual assault and misconduct leveled against him, and face essentially no consequences as he ascended to the highest elected office in our country. Several patients with trauma histories experienced a resurgence of symptoms, a sharp affectual reminder of what it felt like to be silenced or betrayed by bystanders, parents, or school officials that could (and should) have intervened on their behalf. They expressed concern that Title IX and other protections under the law would be stricken away and many remarked on a fear that Trump’s behavior normalizes and reinforces rape culture and behavior. A few queer identified patients and women of color expressed they felt particularly vulnerable, some not feeling safe or welcome enough to attend the march; they weren’t sure if the Women’s March embraced or accepted parts of their struggle or if their civil rights would be represented among the sea of pink “pussy” hats. Others didn’t mention the gathering and were focused on the difficulty of getting through parenting, work and financial stressors the days following the inauguration.

That Saturday, as I watched the Chicago streets fill with more and more people, I felt a range of emotions that I continued to process after the event:

Solidarity and hope – A movement that became the largest organized protest in America’s history was challenging the most regressive and openly hostile political regime I have ever witnessed in this country. The crowd, myself included, seemed relieved and ecstatic to voice our opposition. Pride flags, signs acknowledging immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, and environmental dangers were scattered among other signs proclaiming women’s rights as human rights and opposing any limitation on access to health care. Other signs poked fun at Trump or mocked his assaultive language in a way to diminish his influence and empower those hurt by his words and actions. In cities across the US and on every continent, this protest was taking place with an unprecedented number of people responding to an unprecedented occurrence. We were not alone or isolated at a time when many of us questioned the values of our fellow citizens. We can be heard. We must be heard.

Ambivalence, guilt and need for change – Was this march as intersectional as I wanted it to be – as it could be? As a white, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied woman, how was my experience of the “openness” at this demonstration connected to the privileged statuses I embody? This was one of only a few protests I had attended in my lifetime and as I observed the crowd, you could almost draw a line between those with demonstration experience and those for whom this was relatively new. Police were conspicuously respectful and media covered “no arrests made” in many major cities. We have to contend and with and critique the most inspiring part of this particular movement: the vast number of people who came out to stand together in solidarity. Where have we been? What could we have accomplished (on November 8th and elsewhere) before today? Will we continue to stand together for the most vulnerable among us or will those of us with less to lose shrink back into our “safer” realities?

Fear- The day after the March, I read an article published in the Atlantic by Julia Iofee entitled “When Protest Fails.” The article acknowledged the incredible accomplishment and demonstration of the Women’s Marches across the globe, but asked the question, “now what?” The author made parallels to demonstrations in Bolotnaya, Moscow in December, 2011 in response to fraudulent parliamentary elections when a record turnout of protesters far surpassed expectations. Following demonstrations, protesters continued to organize until, according to reports, they bickered over organizing principles and lost hope. Putin responded by passing laws restricting freedoms to protest, express dissent or to freely express one’s sexuality. While Julia Iofee acknowledges in her piece that “the US is not Russia,” and certainly I know that to be true, these similarities send a true shiver of fear down my spine. In the first two weeks of Trump’s administration, we have seen unprecedented action against the most vulnerable members of our population. The civil rights of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, women, Native People and immigrants are all in peril. The attack on black and brown bodies in this country is continuing. If we don’t stand up for each other now, when will we?

Powerlessness- Returning to my private practice after the Women’s March, my feelings of hope and solidarity gave way to feelings of powerlessness. There is so much to address, to resist, to stand up for…. and in a sense, we are powerless. Each of us alone can do very little to change the current direction of our country. In speaking with a number of patients about their feelings, they too spoke about feelings of powerlessness and many expressed fatigue and burn out after several successive days of depressing and overwhelming news. We spoke about the importance of self-care – of finding a balance of social action with time living life. As psychologists, we are familiar with this phenomenon – we need moments to breathe, to lift our heads above the water and remember why we care so much about this- to feel and be mindful of what exactly is at stake. This too, the very ability to “take a break” is connected to privilege – having a “safe haven” to retire to. While I don’t have an answer for this necessarily, my own sense is that the solution isn’t to martyr ourselves (perhaps running out of steam and collapsing), but to meet this challenge with the acknowledgment of privilege where it exists. It is because others don’t have the ability to step away that I must keep showing up and speaking out. If we can spread out our efforts in this way, we can shoulder the burden together.

So many people have written eloquent and valid critiques of the Marches, spoken about the importance of intersectionality in feminism and made a clear case for why our demonstrations and actions are not futile. Together we are not powerless and the work we do, whether it is with those who are like or differently minded, is not meaningless. It is with this belief and with an attempt to hold and acknowledge these different feeling states that I continue on and will march again.