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Stitching ourselves back together

Protesters today are only just beginning their transformative journey.

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RACHEL HAWLEY
  • Photo illustration by Rachel Hawley

In an undated clip that recently surfaced on Twitter, poet Gil Scott-Heron explains his intentions behind the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." "The first change that takes place is in your mind," Scott-Heron said, at ease in casual conversation. "You have to change your mind before you change how you're living and how you move. The thing that's going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film."

As the video came onto my feed, sandwiched between endless footage of mass revolt, it felt surreal; accompanying visual evidence of bountiful radical changes in motion left me a bit dizzy. Still, it helped explain a question that's been on my mind: What does it mean for millions of people to return to social life in the name of racial justice?

Should one choose to ignore Scott-Heron's explanation, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram would still attest to something remarkable taking place. Within days of the first mass demonstrations across the world, protest videos reached millions of views, marking a rupture from the unending churn of quarantine baking pics and coronavirus nihilism. Yet in taking to the streets, and witnessing the sense of social camaraderie and political comradery that's permeated my interactions, it's clear that the real transformations are only vaguely reflected on our screens, a pale imitation of the life-affirming experience of being surrounded by thousands of masked protesters, finding new ways of living beyond the myopia of heavily surveilled platform capitalism.

The hours spent scrolling and clicking between browsers, whether for work or pleasure, remind us of the depressing status quo of late-capitalist life. While distant socialization through Zoom happy hours seemed like a dismal, if necessary, stopgap early in the pandemic, being reunited with others and protesting in solidarity with Black lives has felt enlivening, even with the violent police retaliation against organizers and marchers. Where once I felt resignation and a grim hope that the obvious failure of our government would prompt change, the spontaneous return to sharing physical space with strangers and friends reveals both a disapproval of police brutality against Black communities and the unbearable slog of life being run through our phones.

I started taking estrogen on November 10, 2018, my 24th birthday. Before then, I constantly struggled to feel alive in my own body; something always seemed to slip in between my surroundings and my lived emotional experience. Despite the myriad upheavals that came from graduating college and moving to Chicago, amongst many other shifts, my body never seemed up for the task of moving through these events with the vulnerability they necessitated. Trans author and biologist Julia Serano captured these frustrating experiences perfectly in her book Whipping Girl: "When testosterone was the predominant sex hormone in my body, it was as though a thick curtain were draped over my emotions. It deadened their intensity, made all my feelings pale and vague as if they were ghosts that would haunt me."

On many occasions, these absent feelings were heightened by cell phones, ever present in daily life. I've written elsewhere about struggling to be present at concerts, held doubly at a distance from the performers onstage by my body's ghostliness and by the many other spectators filming the show in front of me. I could also see my absent emotions poorly reflected on the screen. The perpetual impetus to gain attention through social media, performatively offering goofy childhood photos and naive college-inflected social justice hot takes, perpetually overrode the misery I refused to let myself name and change for far too long.

Before transitioning, protest was one of the only spaces where I felt my body in resonance with its surroundings. In those moments, the act of uniting in righteous anger, bound to the common cause of liberation, broke through the barriers put up by my own biology. As I wrote in my journal on August 7, 2016, after attending a protest organized by Youth for Black Lives, following the police murder of 18-year-old Paul O'Neal: "There was a real magic in occupying State and Lake, marching down Michigan Ave., and seeing the city in a crowd, trying to make it a peaceful place for all people." (Ironically, I later found myself in a photo from the demonstration, the side of my head faintly but unmistakably present in a sea of raised hands. I cherish the image, despite any potential contradictions, because my presence within it is only possible in the context of the many other brave demonstrators willing to show up that day.)

In a recent Facebook Live event, activist, scholar, and prison abolitionist Angela Davis made the connection between the trans community and abolitionist thinking explicit. "I don't think we would be where we are today," she argued, "encouraging ever-larger numbers of people to think with an abolitionist frame, had not the trans community taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy."

Unsettling the damage that a "normal" reality had inflicted on my body was crucial to my own political evolution over the last several years. Before starting estrogen, "normal" meant inhabiting a body that only felt alive to the world when a sense of collective justice was in the air; otherwise, I constantly felt depleted and disconnected, no clear path available even within the bounds of my privileged identities: white, male, college-educated.

As I've watched more white friends become activated in the last month, doing mutual-aid food distribution or helping other protesters with jail support, I've come to sense my transition within the larger disruptive spectrum that Davis describes, witnessing growing numbers of people recognize that bedrock assumptions defining collective reality are more contingent than previously imagined. None of these shifts are visible in my Instagram feed, clogged as it is with documentation of protest schedules and links to petitions. Instead, I sense movement in conversations. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has ruptured whatever lingering sense of social disconnection had been fed to us: before the outbreak, it was easier to ignore our interdependence with every other member of society, even as the virus forced us to physically separate from one another for months.

Now, to know that Black trans activist and author Raquel Willis could lead 15,000 New Yorkers in the chant, "I believe in my power. I believe in your power. I believe in our power. I believe in Black trans power," is to appreciate a profound social and internal reckoning taking place, as even the most privileged individuals come to sense that lasting power can only be found in collectively uplifting the lives of those most marginalized. Watching these events on my phone in isolation would offer limited pleasure. What makes even the recorded facsimile of another protest linger in my thoughts is the time spent in action these last two months, a reminder that millions in cities around the world all find themselves linked in common struggle.

None of us know what will come next. Despite that uncertainty, people continue to show up, recognizing that more has changed in just a few weeks of mass revolt than in years of more gradualist efforts through electoral and legislative reforms. Staying open to the unknown and unforeseen is one of the most essential challenges in this moment. I'm reminded of a quote shared by Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank, a group that fights for LGBTQ+ policy change: "You do the right thing, and you keep doing the right thing until the path emerges."

As companies like Zoom collaborate with law enforcement, and the FBI tracks down protesters through microscopic details captured in photographs, our claustrophobic sense of free expression has only grown narrower. The strangeness of knowing that one is already being watched at every turn is not new to Black liberation struggles, of course. When tens of thousands of Black and Latino Chicago public school students went on strike in 1968, student leaders were carefully monitored by CPD's notorious "Red Squad," tracked from meetings all the way back to their home addresses. This treatment has become standard for leaders of radical movements, hoping to make a better world. Gradually, the rest of us have gained a taste of the invasive watchful gaze of the surveillance state.

For white protesters who are disproportionately less likely to face consequences for protesting, intentionally disrupting the dopamine-hit attention economy of posting photos that merely promote one's involvement is one of the most obvious, and perhaps most difficult, changes that must be made. Unsettling this normalized behavior forces us to question our true motives, and forces us to recognize that the only groups profiting from our addiction to viral recognition are the companies seeking to keep us glued to our phones, not building relationships that exceed surface-level interaction.

Still, however much the everyday surveillance of platform capitalism makes our present actions doubtful, tech companies cannot head off people's frustrations indefinitely. No level of social-media- and quarantine-induced isolation can prevent the surprising movement that can remake the world in an instant, unpredictable even to those companies selling total predictability as a normative social good.

The uncanny mix of overdetermined prediction and perpetual novelty was well captured in Transformation Scenario, a film by German video artist Clemens von Wedemeyer that I first encountered at last year's Chicago Architecture Biennial. The film is narrated by a set of nameless, faceless corporate beings; their vision would be not far off from that of companies like Amazon and Google that dominate life today. The narrators discuss the effort to engineer perfectly mirrored simulations of real life, which may anticipate all possible futures. "Instead of fantastic elements from an invented world, we could feed our agents real-time data in order to produce a very realistic crowd," the female narrator suggests. "We were receiving constantly updated data from millions of devices, which allowed us to make the simulation plausible and seamless."

This vision of total control is already sold to us today through every microtargeted Instagram ad, attempting to convince us that our best life is just one perfect purchase away. "Our modeling algorithms can help you find a safe way through life, the best possible outcome of your data," the female narrator beckons. "Who wouldn't be happy to be navigated through life, according to their character, their friends, their beliefs, without fatal accidents or personal problems?"

Yet the fiction that such coercion can ever be comprehensive is unraveled in an instant. "My satnav reroutes me to avoid traffic," the male narrator intones. "Would I also be diverted if a rebellion begins, or will the revolution be simulated?"

Can the revolution be simulated? The events of the last few months suggest otherwise. Coronavirus has made clear that those in power have far less control over reality than they'd admit; the bravery and defiance of Black organizers in the face of police brutality has pushed untold numbers of people out of resigned quietude and into the streets. We are together only just beginning to learn what it means to become fully embodied social beings once more, no longer held at a distance through a screen.

To dive back into intimate social contact in protest after months of separation is to feel the complicated emotional state of surprise. The immediate disruption of coronavirus, and the swift changes in attitude brought by recent protests, reminds us of the inherent unpredictability of the world, however much those in power would wish otherwise. Responding to the unexpected is one of life's fundamental challenges, and while the ruling class has leveraged the shock of the pandemic towards their further enrichment, the unexpected resistance of so many gives me hope for outcomes once unimaginable.

Surprise has been one of the defining factors of my experience while transitioning, and of the last two months of social upheaval. A sheet of the expected effects of hormone replacement therapy, shared by my doctor in November 2018, listed with precision the changes that would soon come my way. But that doesn't make any of the last 21 months any less unsettling, the perpetual subversion of any expectations I may have had—whether unexpected tears while listening to a Daft Punk song about dancing with strangers, or the deeper sense of gravity that I feel with every tough life decision—making every day an invigorating challenge. This year, that sense of heightened unknowability has only broadened into an all-encompassing state of exception to a tired and malfunctioning status quo. The loss of shared reality that came with having to go into quarantine made it seem like every single one of us was left on our own terms to make sense of what will be perhaps the most communal experience of our lifetime. Now, in protest, we attempt to stitch ourselves back together, however unevenly, into a more coherent sense of being part of something larger than isolated beings.

In protest, surprise is many things. For me, it was the first major gathering in Daley Plaza in late May, a spontaneous coming together to protest the killing of George Floyd. The presence of innumerable strangers in all directions, already a shock after months of averring any shared physical presence, only grew more surreal as unmasked police officers began swinging their batons and firing tear gas canisters. To assimilate the competing pressures of maintaining social distance and avoiding the police, all while marvelling at the massed presence of so many people lacking common purpose just a week earlier, was a shock that only began to clarify in the demonstrations that followed.

There was also spontaneity at the Pride Without Prejudice march in late June, the incongruous sight of unmasked people dining outside of Wrigley Field leading one marcher to shout, "No justice, no brunch!" A collective laugh rolled through the crowd, followed moments later by an uptake of the chant, the offhanded cry of a single person amplified more rapidly than even the most viral tweet. In conversations afterwards, that chant has since linked me with countless others who were elsewhere in the crowd, fostering a sense of shared reality that seems to slip from view inside of our ever-narrowing filter bubbles.

In this long, hot summer of unrest, a new world is being born in our city streets, day after day, week after week. I've felt it at every rally I've attended, but most tangibly at the No Brakes protest on the Fourth of July, shutting down the South Loop with hundreds of other bikers and skaters. There was plenty of pain and anger, yes; but so too was there playful defiance, masked smiles, and a chance to move freely in space, surrounded by strangers. I felt at ease amidst so many caring people, a sense of loving attention radiating inwards and outwards from my body to those around me, amplified in the cavernous echo of the skyscrapers surrounding us. The open city streets were a harbinger of better days to come, I am convinced, because their openness was mirrored in every participant, ready to live through every revolution yet to emerge.  v

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