My Inauguration Day Vows to the Work
Holding on to hope and staying accountable in the weeks, months and years ahead.
In the summer of 2011, I was meeting with a client in Marcy, New York at one of the “mental health” facilities within the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. A Black trans woman who had survived years of violence in the “care” of multiple state systems (foster care, homeless shelters, prison), she generously shared her experiences with me during that late morning conversation — a conversation during needlessly and cruelly separated by a plexiglass partition.
At the time of our meeting, this woman’s father and two siblings were also incarcerated within the New York state prison system. This, she explained matter-of-factly, was unsurprising since the prison system is designed to control and displace Black families, communities, bodies. A linear progression from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the cages of today serve the very same purposes of the plantations that built our country and its legal, social and financial systems.
We spoke during that meeting, not of her legal cases, but of resistance. She was going to spend her entire life in prison and her focus was on creating art and tools for survival. Not just for herself but for the community of people inside with her and in the free world. “My father taught me how to make eyeliner and lipstick from the items in my cell, my siblings taught me how to create art out of kool-aid packets, and I learned how to open my a window just to catch a moment of fresh air,” she explained. She shared these lessons with her siblings on the inside — her community of loved ones by birth and by choice.
Resistance was oxygen for her. Art was her lifeline. Solidarity was her healing.
I learned in that meeting that the tools of the law pale in comparison to the creativity and power of survival-driven resistance.
At times I am tempted to deny that I am a work inside the system person. But of course I am — being a lawyer is reformist by definition. Some of the sadness today is the product of losing the power that comes with having had access to our federal government — the President, the Department of Justice, the various federal agencies. But that access always came from having power. And the power I have is not because of my skill but rather because of my whiteness, my wealth, my resources.
I would like to think that my having this power can create cracks in the system and breathing room for the real movements to have more space — movements and people that are transformative and visionary in ways that I will never be. Leaders like my incarcerated friends and clients who fight harder and built more with so much less. But I must remember that my role is still validated and made possible because of white supremacy and white supremacy’s most concrete machination — the legal system.
So on this Inauguration Day, I vow to resist. I vow not just to resist the policies and practices of the incoming administration but the policies and practices that have terrorized people for centuries.
I vow not to glorify the Obama years.
I vow to stay loyal to the truth that our lives and our visions are not won or lost through legal norms or legal recognition.
I vow to exploit the tools of the legal system however I can to create pathways for survival.
I vow to to share tools of survival in the form of financial resources, legal information, shelter, and love.
I vow to put my white body on the line for the Black and Brown people whose lives are at risk.
I vow to center the people detained by our carceral systems — both those systems that are explicitly punitive and those that are allegedly protective.
I vow to, as Muslim-Iranian author Hoda Katebi urged, “[c]onsume what lights [my] soul on fire.”
I vow to be kind and joyous and creative.
I vow to dream and strive for whatever seems impossible.
Congress has been sworn in, state legislatures are in session. In an hour Trump will be President. We will no doubt see the escalation of anti-trans, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-disability rhetoric and policy making. This will build on centuries of that rhetoric. But we have the tools to fight this, to dream transformative dreams and to resist repressive power structures. If you need anything I am here, I am following the guiding visions of our elders and our youth who have created extra-legal survival communities for years. We will lose forward, love each other, and fight for our lives.
Don’t normalize anything but the imperative to resist.