On Saturday January 21, millions of women, femmes, and allies across the world marched in support of women’s rights and in opposition of the new Trump administration. While the Montreal Women’s March included Indigenous elders and speakers of colour who emphasized intersectionality, the majority of attendees worldwide were white, cisgender women. The marches were praised for being “peaceful”: supporters extolled the fact that there were no arrests of protesters at many of the marches, despite the size of the crowds. However, the fact that the marches were deemed “peaceful” speaks more to the fact that the march was populated mostly by cisgender white women, than the fact that they were non-violent. If the march were majority non-violent protesters of colour, there would likely have been arrests, based on a racialized conception of violence. The number of arrests was determined not by what happened at the protests, but who was at the protest.
Racialized people are assumed to be violent even before they act. Since colonialism, racialized people – particularly Black people – have been seen as ‘dangerous,’ ‘irrational,’ and ‘inherently criminal.’ Trans people and undocumented immigrants face similar stereotypes. The elevation of their position in society (which is often the result sought by protests) is a further departure from the current status quo than elevation of white women: for this reason, cis white bodies are seen as ‘rational,’ ‘safe,’ and ‘civilized.’ This allows white people to protest and enact resistance without being perceived as violent, and without provoking state violence in response.
The state enacts violence against those who it deems to be violent. Protests which focus on the rights of queer, trans, intersex, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (QTIBIPOC) are met with heavy police presence, as well as condemnation from the mainstream media. This is nothing new. Nonviolence by racialized people is always met with violence, especially during times of Black or Indigenous resistance in North America. For example, nonviolent Black Lives Matter protests are met with violent responses because Black bodies are read as inherently criminal and aggressive. The numbers of arrests at Black Lives Matter protests – and more generally the high incarceration rates of Black people – then only serve to perpetuate the stereotype that Black and racialized people are inherently criminal.
Before we brag that the Women’s Marches had very few arrests because the marchers were “civil” and “peaceful,” we must consider that the march was only considered peaceful – and treated as such by the police – because of the demographic. White women enjoy an enormous amount of protection from police violence, because whiteness is not read as inherently criminal. Ultimately, we must carefully consider which actions we deem to be violent, and whether that reading is a product of the actions of the people, or their privilege.
—The McGill Daily editorial board