I was surprised to see Uncle Sam at the Amsterdam “March for Our Lives” solidarity gathering. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been –– the dry, dying grass of our crumbling imperialist hellscape is always greener from Europe, right? For expats, I can only assume this to be even truer –– I suppose, after years away from “home,” it can become easy to confuse a longing for Target’s welcoming bullseye with the desire to to get emotional about the Declaration of Independence. Or something. Or, perhaps, I’m still giving them too much credit.
So, the March –– which, for the record, was not actually a march but a gathering in a park adjacent to the U.S. Consulate building –– took place on Saturday the 24th of March, as others around the world did the same. I was, and am, glad I went: it was heartening to see the proportion of people under eighteen who were there rivaling overall adult turnout. Most of the speakers were teenagers; all are praiseworthy for their courage and eloquence, particularly a blonde fourteen-year-old who I could only describe (at the risk of sounding glib) as “spunky.” Needless to say, she sported a denim vest, assorted pin-back buttons adorning the front, over her “March for Our Lives” t-shirt.
Cool teenagers aside, one of the organizers –– a trim white woman in her fifties who had the look of someone who hand-knitted pussy hats and worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth Warren* –– helped my brief experience at the gathering to be disappointing from the start. She went up to the mic at around 2:00, the scheduled start time. She thanked the police for “protecting the people” and “making sure everyone had a safe protest experience.” She then encouraged American expat attendees to sign up to vote, at which time they could also pose for pictures with the aforementioned Uncle Sam character.
An adult speaker whose speech closely followed this woman’s used “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as its centerpiece. Most ironically, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, she took the Constitution as American gospel. The Constitution is, has been, and will continue to be demonstrably complicit in the U.S.’s colonialist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchial (yadda, yadda, you all know the rest) order. Although it appears to be a misconception that the Second Amendment was ratified solely to permit the existence of slave patrols, it was still an amendment that applied only to adult, property-owning, white men. It was still phrased in a way that did not permit individual black people to own firearms. It is still conveniently abandoned by “frightened” police officers when they decide to open fire on innocent black bodies; it was still only able to be restricted when the Black Panthers assembled their armed militia.
We were, after being pumped full of bizarrely patriotic rhetoric, reminded that we needed to leave the area by 3:00. There was another gathering authorized to happen at that time. I wondered if the schedule of legal, safe, non-combative protests for the day was up in someone’s office break room, right between the dirty Keurig and the recycling bin, perhaps attached to the communal refrigerator.
“Now for some chants! What’s a protest without chants?” The adults in charge of this thing seemed far too giggly given that we were protesting the U.S. government’s complicity in the murder of schoolchildren. She led us in some chants. I felt almost embarrassed –– perhaps we were doing this because of the high proportion of under-eighteens present, but I felt like I was acting out a puppet show of how to “peacefully protest” instead of actually, uh, protesting. This feeling was only amplified when we concluded our gathering, and were beckoned to a nearby hill to take a group picture that was sure to be, as the trim white woman in her fifties said, “Instagram-worthy.” I yearned for Jean Baudrillard’s counsel on all of this mess, but instead, I went for coffee with Isabel (which was delightful in it’s own right!).
This gathering, protest, whatever it was (or, laments Baudrillard, inevitably appears to be but in fact is not) evoked a number of conflicting emotions in me. My overwhelming takeaway from my hour standing in mild, 50ºF weather, cornily chanting and taking an occasional picture, was that this gathering was not necessarily empty of purpose but rather had the wrong purpose. This, I feel, can be dangerous given the number of kids that were there. Before I explain that further, I want to note that the primary happy emotion I felt throughout the rally was hope for ~the next generation~**. The sheer number of young people (particularly kids under twelve) present was heartening. Knowing that they knew what an AR-15 was when they were years from fifteen themselves made my heart seize. Seeing their energy and willingness to take time out of their day to demonstrate made it relax, just a little.
That being said, I do think that there is a danger in normalizing these (in)actions as what a protest is, and even more of a danger in framing this as what a protest should be. It would have been far more honest to call this a solidarity gathering or even a vigil, both of which are real and essential parts of grieving lives lost to politicized violence. If a protest is authorized by the authorities, who and what, exactly, are you protesting? If your protest wraps up in a timely manner so that the next scheduled event can take place, if your protest inconveniences no one, what is its purpose outside of making individuals feel more socially progressive? There was an atmosphere of faith in the American political system, despite the system (and its white male beneficiaries) being responsible for the very horrors they protested. Meanwhile, vote! Vote! Surely salvation from the present systems of power and violence lies in the system installed by powerful! My only hope is that those kids who continue to participate in this sort of thing realize the true scope of possibilities under the umbrella of “protest,” not just the G-rated kind.
I’m not going to rant anarchist-ly (that’s an adverb I’m saying is real now, because the real-fake-word-binary is socially constructed) anymore (in this post). I have several other interesting stories from the past week that I’m interested in sharing, but I’m going to keep the contents of this particular post focused on the March. All my love to the people of Florida, of Maryland, and to all those affected by gun violence who remain invisible.
*This was meant to be more observational than mocking. She fits neatly into a very specific breed of 40-60-year-old trim white women who have probably canvassed for the Democratic Party at least four times. They all have that voice, too, you know? Kind of Midwestern, a little like they’re chewing on something. In spite of myself, I find it rather comforting, in much the same way I’m sure they find their recent decision to only purchase organic fruit.
**Is nineteen old enough to start talking about the next generation? Do I get to consider “gen Z” kids as youngsters? No clue. But the spunky fourteen-year-old (b. 2004) who spoke at the gathering referred to 9/11 as a historical event in the same breath as the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although I (b. 1998) don’t actually remember 9/11, I still “feel old.”