On Saturday March 10th a new energy, a new defiance, and a new commitment to fight for the full liberation of women, were felt on the streets of New York City.
Beginning at noon in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, proceeding on a tour of many sites which concentrate the oppression of women, and concluding in front of a strip club and porn store near Times Square ; people of all ages, many nationalities, and all genders condemned the enslavement and degradation of women.
As people gathered in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, beneath its towering spires and enormous brass doors designed to make humans feel small and humble, their faces were filled with both exuberance, but also hesitation. It is not typical to confront churches. In fact, it’s not typical these days to directly confront woman-haters of any kind.
It is all too typical for people to complain in hushed voices or to send money and sign petitions to politicians in the hopes that maybe someone else will do something. So, it is understandable that this felt new to many people.
As people picked up signs and decked themselves out in stickers, I was reminded of something told to me by a self-defense instructor years ago. She made a point of taking the time to insist that all her female students learn to yell forcefully. She did this because women are so deeply socialized to be polite, demure, docile, quiet and agreeable that they have to learn to trust their anger when they are under attack.
I shared this story with the crowd and added, “Today, women around the world are under attack and we ought to be angry about that. We ought to be loud about that. We ought not to be the ones telling our stories in whispers and through tears while woman haters scream ‘slut’ at the tops of their lungs. Today, we are going to get in touch with our anger. We are going to yell at the tops of our lungs. If it feels funny at first, that’s okay, keep at it. After a while it will stop feeling funny and will start to feel really fucking good. And then, it will be contagious. That is the point of today. We are taking it upon ourselves to defeat the war on women. We are changing ourselves in the process. And we are launching a new movement that wakes up and draws in others wave after wave until we win.”
After that, a powerful piece of street theater was performed in which a priest and a porn producer pushed two women down onto their knees, both barking at them to submit and obey. One yelled for her to, “Keep her legs closed,” while the other insisted that she, “Spread her legs.” Back and forth they went, until the difference between them was indistinguishable. Finally, the women rose up and snatched the pornography DVD’s and the Bible from the men’s hands and threw them to the ground. They spoke of their refusal to be reduced to objects of either kind – sex objects or breeders – and declared their determination to unleash their fury as a mighty force for the liberation of all women and humanity as a whole.
From there, and throughout the day, a powerful collective transformation took hold. As we marched from one institution to the next, people who hadn’t planned to speak out stepped up and found their voices. In front of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, which sponsored a billboard last year in downtown Manhattan which claimed that, “The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb,” a young Black woman asked, “Should Black people fear genocide? Yes!” She went on to speak of the epidemic of police brutality, police murder, and mass incarceration of Black youth. “But these ads, they don’t call out the system. Instead, they blame Black women.” She continued, “Do Black women get higher rates of abortions than white women? Yes they do. But why is that?” She answered that Black women have the least access to real scientific sex-education, contraception, affordable and reproductive health-care, so they do end up with more unwanted pregnancies. But that is as a result of the genocidal conditions facing Black people, not the cause of it! Not only do these ads scapegoat Black women for the oppression of this system, they use this shaming of Black women to attack the rights of all women who seek abortions.
She, and others throughout the day, emphasized that “there is nothing wrong with abortion.” Fetuses are not babies. Abortion is not murder. And women are not incubators.
The protest continued and a young woman and a middle-aged woman stepped forward to speak out in front of Fox News about the way it had been a mouth-piece for the vicious attacks on women who use birth control. In an area where hundreds of tourists gather and thousands of tourists walk past, surrounded by billboards as tall as buildings, people stepped forward to object to the way women’s bodies are displayed half naked and half starved and dehumanized everywhere you turn. Down at the U.S. Military recruiting center in the center of Times Square , Elaine Brower, a military mom and member of The World Can’t Wait, apologetically told the story of having gotten an abortion at age 17. She recalled the horrors women faced before abortion was legalized and proclaimed her determination, and strengthened the determination of others, to never let those days return. From there, she spoke out about the violence the US military does to women and people around the world as well as to female soldiers.
In Times Square
Then, she read a statement from Mathis Chiroux, an anti-war veteran. His statement read, in part, “We know that women in our society are under attack and all men, be they men of conscious, must stand now with them in solidarity. We know their rights to reproductive freedom are under assault from both the state and the conservative base. We know their bodies are likewise under assault; that rape and violence against women is a problem that has not gone away by ignoring it. We know their minds are under attack by our culture which continues to value women’s thoughts less than men, and at a lower level of significance than their physicality. We know that pornography, which has become one of the most powerful economic forces in the world today, continues to portray women as the mere sex objects of men, and continues to earn primarily male profits, and that this helps reinforce the rape culture that seemingly constitutes American culture today.
The military is guilty of some of the worst offenses carried out against women. In the U.S. Military, women continue to be raped and sexually assaulted at a rate much greater than the general population (1 in 3). Very often, the perpetrator of these crimes is a male within a woman’s ‘chain-of-command’ making it near impossible for her to seek and attain justice. So often, when violence is done against women in the military, it never becomes known. Rather than become a cause for public outrage, too often these incidents turn into private shame.”
Mary Lou Greenberg read from a statement issued by the 8 March Women’s Organization (Iran-Afghanistan) which drew lessons from the experience of the 1979 revolution in Iran which was hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists, stood with women all over the world rising up, and ended, “We must not confine ourselves to what might seem possible. We must identify the obstacles and demand the impossible, keep our sights high and climb rocky and huge mountains. We must fly over the old order of religion, capitalism, and patriarchal society to gain momentum and capture new and higher mountaintops of emancipation, where the freedom and equality of women is carved out and shines as a centrepiece. Let us join together to celebrate International Women’s Day on a massive scale, with pride and joy, with our struggles focused against patriarchal order that rules the world.”
On the march to the final stop of the day, we passed Cheetah’s strip club and restaurant. Protesters held crime scene tape which read, “Danger! Crimes Against Women” in front of their sign advertising bachelor parties and corporate parties where someone can eat sushi off a naked woman’s body.
For our last stop, we gathered in front of a strip club and porn store on 8th Avenue and 43rd street. Some of us had visited that particular porn store earlier and one student who had begun unconvinced by our arguments against pornography wrote about how this visit changed her views here. As soon as we arrived, the bouncer of the strip club pulled their doors closed and the police, who had been escorting and pushing us to “move along” the entire day, stepped to the doors of the porn store to prevent anyone from the protest from approaching it. Meanwhile, they allowed men to continue entering to shop as we protested in front.
Throughout the day, as I have attempted to capture, people stepped forward to speak. At first it was one and then it was two, but by the time we reached the porn store something had taken hold of this crowd. The chanting got louder than it had been all day as people shook their fingers at the strip club and porn store yelling, “No more porn kings, no more of YOU, telling women what to do!” I spoke for a few minutes about the degradation and enslavement that is concentrated in pornography and called forward others to speak. Here, there was finally an outpouring of bitterness that had been welled up for far too long.
I do not have footage, and thus do not have transcripts to share, of everything that was said. I do not have a transcript of the middle-aged woman who spoke of a young woman she had been close to who was raped. Not only that, out of the guilt and the shame that is placed on women who are sexually assaulted, as well as the horrible way in which women’s value is reduced to being sexually attractive to men, this young woman committed suicide. By sharing the story of her friend, this woman was turning her anger and sorrow into fuel to prevent this fate – both the rape and the internalized shame and devaluation that are heaped on women who are raped – from claiming more women. I do not have a transcript of the young woman who stepped forward to tell of how she plays online card-games and, like all online card-game-players, she has to pick an online picture (or avatar) to represent herself. She described how, if she picks a female avatar and starts to win a card-game against a man, about 25% of the time the man will start calling her a “cunt,” “whore,” “bitch,” “slut,” and worse. Finally, not willing to continue to face such harassment from anonymous strangers simply for playing card-games online, she switched her avatar to a cat. Immediately the harassment stopped. The cat got more respect than the woman did!
I don’t have a transcript of the young woman who brought a home-made sign which read, “I am not an incubator” speaking out against pornography and how normalized it has become among her generation. She continued to link up the way that women get reduced to sex objects with the way they get reduced to breeders and held her sign up above her head and screamed at the top of her lungs, “I AM NOT AN INCUBATOR!”
There were others that I missed. But I do have transcripts and I will share them of two young women who had visited the porn store earlier in the week, of a young man who spoke about being with other men in the military while one of them nonchalantly watched rape porn, of a young Black woman who spoke about the connections she saw between pornography and its view of women and the way women get treated throughout society. I am sharing much of this below, because it was powerful.
It was a window into the suppressed rage at the multitude forms of disrespect and violence that women endure, from the laws enforced by the state to the customs of patriarchy enacted in the homes and the bedrooms. It is a window into what began to transform in this launch of a new movement. Of a new force being brought into being and coming to feel different about itself, about each other, and about its determination to go forward.
First, a woman who had visited the porn store with us spoke:
“When we’ve gone out to talk to people about this movement, we’ve run into a lot of people – and a lot of young female students who ask us, ‘What is the problem with some good porn?’ So we invited women and men to come to a porn shop and see exactly what the problem was. Well when we went in, I think most of us were quite devastated. I don’t think we could even imagine some of the things that we were going to see. The level of degradation, humiliation, exploitation of women for the pleasure of men. This hatred of women by a society that has normalized and mainstreamed the degradation and exploitation of women is appalling and unacceptable. We must end this. And we will end this. And we’re not going to stop until women all over the world are fully and equally treated as human beings.”
Next, another young woman who had visited the porn store spoke:
“I want to say what I saw when I come into the porn store. And not just what I saw, but what I felt and what I realized about pornography made with women. When we went to the porn store, on the ‘Torture Wall’ we saw women with these things on their breasts that stop the blood and that is very painful for women. It is not something that we enjoy but the people who made [did it] because that made money and because of this society thinks that women enjoy doing that. But that is not true. And then we saw women giving pleasure to dogs. Because they said that women enjoy this. Which women enjoy this? I am a woman and I don’t enjoy that. And the other things that we saw was a tv showing the second floor of the shop and what was on the second floor were women selling their bodies and they were showing us, the people who were not on the second floor, how the women sell their bodies and how the women are ‘happy’ because of that. It was fucked up. Then, we need to join this movement. You need to join this movement and you need to build it. Because a whole different world is possible. Because we can imagine it and we can build it. You can do it with us.”
A young man spoke:
“I just want to say that my first experience with porn was when I was about ten years old. I was walking in my cousin’s room with a bunch of friends and everyone was there trying to emulate the sexual movements that was going on. The point of that, I mean the point of what I want to say is, that it turns a little boy’s natural curiosity into something perverted. And also when I was in the military I had a friend specifically that was in one of the barracks I was in and we were just hanging out together and he was like nonchalantly on his laptop watching rape porn. In front of about maybe 6 of our shipmates. You know this is something that people shouldn’t view as something that is normal. And I don’t think men should think they have the right to even view something like that or even look at women that way. And at the end and at the beginning of the day we are all humans and we should be treated as such.”
A young Black woman:
“I am speaking out about how porn affects us as a people. Not just men and women, but young people, families, communities. I, too, I believe was ten years old and my father, I had an older sister who were in the room and they too were watching porn. And out of curiosity, I heard noises I went in the room and seen what they were watching. And myself I had looked at porn. I, at first, when I went to Revolutionary Bookstore and heard Sunsara speak I didn’t see the seriousness of porn and I kind of just brushed it off. You think, okay this is something that’s pleasurable, you look at it maybe with your boyfriend you don’t want to seem too feminist you don’t want to seem too sensitive. But I come from a community, an urban community where guys kind of have these sexist attitudes. A lot of their attitudes, I believe, is shaped by porn. But it is shaped by, me as a young person of color, it’s shaped by the music industry. Watching BET, seeing how guys depict women, its like a watered down version of porn. And when you don’t look that way they kind of have these attitudes that you are not woman enough or you’re trying to be the man, look how you dress, you got your hoody, you got your coat. If I have Timberland boots. And often times, why I dress the way I dress I because I don’t want to be fucked with and harassed, you understand? I’m a care-giver. I also graduated from college; I wear many different hats and it’s a shame that I feel that as a woman of color that I’m already being reduced down in society because society sees me as a fucking bitch trick or whore. And you hear what they have said about Whitney Houston about her being a crack head and whore. It’s not just about porn, but it takes it to a macro level. When you have executives and how they view women. My sister works in corporate America and these guys who wear suits, who wear briefcases when they leave from work where do they frequently go? You understand? Strip joints! They purchase escorts…
“And I feel like these attitudes is not just between men and women, it’s not just between men and women and relationships; it goes to families. It goes to young kids, young boys who are not even men, they’re even fifteen-sixteen years old already walking around thinking this is how I have to be as a man because it’s already ideally shaped what manhood is like and what womanhood is like. I’m on the train and see young girls, African-American girls and also young Caucasian females, wearing tight clothing. They sizing up one another because this sexist-assed, racist, okay, porno-patriarchical society already tells women this is how you are. And then kind of has us cat-fighting one another. You understand? And they have men also bull-fight one another. So this is what’s going on. It’s not just taking it in the context of the bedroom, but it’s taking it everywhere in every aspect in every corner of life. And me as a young woman, okay, I walk different avenues of life and I’ve seen the attitudes of how you are dressed and how you are supposed to be treated as a woman, um, and also as a person of color too…
“I was raised in a household that was abusive. My father destroyed my mother’s life and there is a precinct in this community, I won’t say where, they know my family have a history record of my family, of my father abusing my mother, and that’s another reason why I’m walking today because I’m sick the sexist-assed attitudes that even, excuse me police officers, but even some of the police may have towards women. It goes in many different avenues. Like I said, it’s not just the porn shops, it’s not just in the bedroom, but it’s all over.”
After these women and men all spoke, I led the crowd in one final call and response “mic check.” Together we made a promise, to ourselves, to the faces around us, to the women throughout the country, and to the women throughout the world, that we will not stop until never again is a woman demeaned, degraded, enslaved, disrespected, spit upon, set on fire, beaten, raped, humiliated, mocked, tortured, stalked, devalued, or dismissed simply because she is born female. As people made this promise together, as we all looked in each others faces as we did, the change in all of us was palpable. People felt alive with fury and lifted up with joy.
After all that was said and done, some twenty plus people traveled together back down to Revolution Books where we shared a delicious dinner and talked, laughed, continued speaking bitterness, ranged to questions of philosophy and popular culture, and generally breathed the liberated air of the space we had begun to carve out for several more hours.