written and photographed by Mario Rodriguez
photos by @_marzzz19 (x)
Stock photos provided by Pexels (x)
Quotes provided by Quote Fancy (x)
#Feminism #Protests #DonaldJTrump
About the Protest
This story was inspired and conceived in the shadow of the historic 2016 election campaign for president of the United States.
The day after the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th American president, Max found himself in the streets of Los Angeles with several thousands other southern Californians in what was said to be a march in the name of Women’s Rights around the world. Tired and disillusioned, Max encounters a young activist, Emma, who challenges his reasons for not only attending the march, but his entire social perspective. The conversation that followed touched on women’s equality and the true fate of civil unrest in this modern age.
January 21, 2017 saw the largest mass protest in the history of the United States. Some estimates mark the total number of protesters country wide at around four million. Four million Americans valiantly took the streets with signs and echoing chants to show their solidarity with Women all over the world. It was the day after the still shocking inauguration of the forty-fifth president, Donald J. Trump, and people were scared and pissed and confused and inspired, all at the same time. But still, four million marched through most of the major cities in America and even in some of the small ones. This was the idea, the idea of mass unrest that this country was founded on. Only now the People found their motivation to finally take charge!
But all of that was lost on the tired Max sitting on a slab of concrete in Grand Park LA, in the shadow of Los Angeles City Hall. The march had culminated here after starting in Pershing Square and the muscles in his legs ached with the memory of every step. People were all around him, swarming down the steps and into the street from all directions. But Max didn’t care. He was tired and hungover and just wanted to be back, sitting in his car getting high. He came to write a story about the protest as a member of the new age of media, the fabled rise of Independent Journalism. Yet now he could care less. He scrolled through his phone absentmindedly. He didn’t know why he was there. Or why anyone else was, for that matter. The sun was getting high and brighter by the minute and his car was parked several miles away. He yearned for his bed, and maybe a beer, but mostly his bed. Then..
Max looked up. The silhouette of a body stood over him and blocked the sun. His eyes tried to adjust in the brightness but all he could make out was a shadow.
“Why you just over here on your phone?” the shadow said in a sharp voice—stern yet silvery.
“Uhh…” Max leaned back and put his hand over his brow like he was trying to look at something far away. There stood a girl with a bald head. Her jaw was well defined, yet still gave off a type of delicacy. Her eyes looked deep into Max’s. They sat above these strong cheekbones and seemed to shoot right through him. He felt slightly terrified but couldn’t look away, hypnotized by such a keen gaze, sparking with ferocity. “I… I don’t know. Just… ah… resting?” He said it like it was a question. Like she was supposed to tell him what he was doing.
“Why even come to this if you’re gonna be on your phone?”
He could see her good now. The sun moved an inch and caught a branch that shaded his eyes. Her head was a perfect circle. He could see the tiny baby hairs just sticking out of that caramel scalp, glowing in the brightness like mother Mary’s aura. Now sitting, he was directly at chest level and had a hard time keeping his eyes anywhere else. The tank she was wearing was thin and there wasn’t anything underneath beside smooth brown skin–tight and naturally so. The tank ran out over a belly button that looked to go way back deep inside her. The curve of her hips were outlined by the flowing skirt that he could feel brushing up against his pant legs by the wind.
“Uh, hello? You could look back at my face now.” She said with a force that made Max embarrassed.
“Oh… ah… yeah, sorry.”
“You didn’t answer me?”
“What?” She had a mole that sat on her collarbone so perfectly and Max stared at without knowing.
“Why are you here? Just so your ‘followers’ can see you care?” She did finger quotes over ‘followers’. “Or did you just come to check out all the girls?”
“N—no, no!” Max struggled to find words to defend himself. He still didn’t know why he was there. He supported women, but was that what this was about? He came for a story but this wasn’t really a story. Maybe, he thought in a moment of honesty, maybe I’m just here because everyone else is, because it’s the thing to do… “I’m here to support women,” Max went on, “To show the new admin—“
“Okay, okay. I don’t need to hear the same old bullshit.” The girl said rolling her eyes, turning to leave.
“Wait! Why are you here?”
She turned around, settling those brown eyes back on Max, pausing, slowly looking him up and down, assessing whether he was worth it or not.
“I’m here…” she takes a step towards him, “I’m here because I believe in people. I believe in mass organization. I believe in disruption and resistance.”
Max didn’t know how to respond. She spoke with such vitality and certainty that each word struck him to his core. He felt the words like he himself had said them.
“But,” his voice cracked trying to come out with it, “isn’t this about women?”
“Yeah it’s about women, but it’s about a lot more than that, too. Women’s rights are human rights. That’s not just a cliché. It’s real.”
“Well, I know it’s real—“
“Do you?” She swiftly interrupted.
‘Well, I mean, I think I do?” Max was unsure of almost everything he said, mostly because he could tell he was speaking to someone who knew what they were talking about. Whatever was being discussed, whatever words were coming out of her mouth, he could tell they’ve come out before. Max waited for her to say something. She just stood there, studying him.
Then, softly, “You seem like a nice guy, but you should do some more research before you just wander into the street ‘cuz a bunch of people have signs.” She bowed her head, smiled softly and left going away from the flow of people, a flow still trickling down into Grand Park, toward the stage and the speakers. But Max wasn’t satisfied. How dare she insult him by saying he “should do more research”! Who was she to question his knowledge? After all, she didn’t say anything all that great. Just a bunch of vague statements she probably heard for a young government teacher back in high school.
Max shot up to his feet, legs no longer as tired, and sprinted in the direction she left. Darting through people, he tried to catch a glimpse of that perfectly round head in the crowd. And there she was, heading back up Temple away from it all.
“Hey! Hey!” Max was running in the middle of the street–no cars, some people walking around heads down of their phone. Everyone turns when he yells, the girl too. “Wait!” she did and he got to her out of breath. Bent over on a knee, sucking in big gulps of air, he could hear her giggling to herself. She did her best not to let him notice.
“A little out of shape there.” She says out the side of her mouth, people passed and she smiles at them.
“Ye—yeah… I know.” Max now standing up pressing the backs of his hips forward to open up his lungs, he’s sweating. “Let… let me interview you… ple—please.” He sucks in some cold air and it stings his throat. “I’m… I’m a journalist… covering this.”
The girls eyes open wide, she thought journalist would be more… well, more professional? “Who do you work for?”
Panting, “No one… no one.” Shaking his head, “I’m an independent journalist. Probably post the story on my blog or something.”
That made sense to her. Seemed like some poser blogger. “Have you done this before?”
“Well… no. But it’ll be good! I promise!”
She watched the creases of his face move as he pleaded. She liked this. She could say no and he could do nothing about it. It wasn’t her problem to educate him. But why not? Why not tell her version of the truth? She’d done it many times before, even had some punch lines that she stuck with to dig the point in deep.
“Yeah, I’m down. Fuck it.”
“Hell yeah!” Max shouted triumphantly. “Thanks so much… wait, I don’t even know your name!”
“Emma, just call me Emma.”
“Emma.” Max repeated. “Well, Emma, can I buy you a coffee?”
“I could buy my own coffee, thank you.”
They sat there in silence. Emma had her legs crossed, right over left. Her foot twitched to the light music easing out of the speakers in the top corner. Max was examining the big mural on the wall. They sat on plastic brown chairs that were woven together to look like wood in the back of a bookstore/café on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Echo Park, a neighborhood just north of Downtown. On the black iron table rested Emma’s cup of Oolong tea that was still steaming. Max held onto his mug because he liked the feeling of drinking coffee from a mug, holding onto the handle with one hand, and gently pressing his the other side with his free finger tips. It was how he imagined Camus would do it in cafés in Paris. He wished he had a cigarette.
“You smoke?” Max said, still facing the mural like he was actually looking at it.
Emma took her time answering, grooming the tension. “Smoke? Smoke what?”
Max smiled big, “Anything. Cigarettes, weed… meth?” He had his shoulders up in a shrug and a passive smile.
“Ha… no cigarettes. Weed, yeah. And meth… only sometimes.” She said it straight and Max laughed an awkward laugh. She caught it, smiled, and looked away.
They were close to the wall, across from them were a couple and their dog. The humans, reading thick books, dog, mouth open and breathing hard. Big black dog with honey brown patches on its eyebrows and armpits. There was an elevated stage area with two tables, four chairs, all occupied with people on laptops and headphones. One group but not there together. Two guys sat drinking coffee and talking in a level just loud enough to be noticeable. The volume discouraged Max and Emma from starting their conversation. It was Max’s idea to come to this little off-the-strip café among the hipsters and the dogs. Emma wanted to go to a bar where she had credit but Max insisted on coffee. So, they sat on squeaky seats in a concrete backyard, awkward, not knowing what to say. Max could feel he was losing her to boredom. Hell, his own interest was drifting and he could hear his pillow calling out his name. Then the guys in the loud voices got up, said a goodbye all without headphones could hear clearly, and went on their way. Max and Emma both watched the two men leave, then focused their attention on each other. The patio was quiet enough you could hear the tick of clicking keyboards on laptops sounding like light rain falling on a high roof in the middle of the night. Max knew he had to start but didn’t know where to begin. Then…
“I don’t really feel like doing this anymore.” Emma said staring right into the pupils of Max’s sleepy gaze.
“Phew!” Max let out a big exhale, “I really wasn’t either. We totally don’t have to. I mean, I’m tired as fuck. Last night I went to some bar with my friends and,” Max was just going and Emma stared back blankly, completely uninterested, “I got fucked up on some wine. And now I got this headache and I’m rea—“
“I wasn’t finished.” Emma broke in with that slicing tone that got Max to sit up straight and want to call his parents.
“Oh… ah—I’m sorry.”
“Like I was saying, I don’t really feel like doing this anymore, BUT, the reason we find ourselves in this current political climate is because people ‘didn’t feel like it’ or ‘didn’t want to discuss politics’. So,” she took a deep breath, “I won’t be making that mistake. Sometimes you gotta do the stuff you don’t feel like doing.”
Max just listened until the words stopped and rested in the silence that followed. Emma had the ability to choose her words so carefully and said them with such certitude that every syllable sounded absolute. He got out his phone, held it in the air and nodded at it to Emma, like saying, “Can I record this?” She returned it with a nod so slight Max almost didn’t catch it. She got her cup with both hands, blew on the tea gently sending little waves against the edge, and took a series of small sips, each more relaxing than the last.
“So,” Max adjusted the phone into a better position, closer to her. “Your name’s Emma… Emma what exactly?”
“I’d rather not say. Emma’s fine. All you need to know is I am an cis-gender, American citizen women of African and Mexican descent.” Her glow unwavering.
Max’s eyebrow curled up on one side, “Uh, okay… why though?”
“Because man,” she leaned into ‘man’, “I don’t know you. I don’t know who you work for.”
“You sound paranoid.”
“Well, fuck it… you gotta be careful nowadays. They killed the signal to our phones today, and even though it was peaceful, you know they ran us all through facial recon. They probably even had agitators in the crowd just waiting for things to pop off. They’re tricky.”
“Who’s this ‘they’?”
“Come on man,” she kept the emphasis of ‘man’, “you know who the ‘they’ I’m talking about, is.” She wiggled her body up and sat taller in the chair, legs still crossed, both hands on the wide cup, steaming. “The government.” she said ‘government’ not like most conspiracy theorists would, she said it clear and soft, almost innocently, like that wasn’t a condemnation of modern society.
A grin spread across Max’s face, “The government?” Emma nodded. “Why would the government,” every time Max said ‘government’, he said it slow, emphasizing every letter, like describing the definite, “be trying to hear what you have to say?” The silence made Max feel guilty for asking so harshly, “I mean, no disrespect, but why would the government,” gov-er-ment, “even care about what people like us think?” He threw in ‘us’ to demonstrate some sort of comradeship, like “we’re all the same here.”
“Simple. Because discussion, communication, interaction, those things are central to the psyche of a society. The ideas and issues discussed shape the shared consciousness of the population and to the ruling class, controlling that is crucial.”
“The ruling class? Ho—“
“Yes the ruling class. I know that’s generalizing the concept but it’s pretty accurate. The top 1% percent has more wealth than the bottom 90%. That to me sounds like a ruling class!
“Anyways,” Emma placed her tea down on the table and uncrosses her legs, settling into the chair, “the reason this all ties back to why we have to be careful is because the ruling class is at risk when ideas and theories that run contrary to the current power structure, are discussed. That’s why they are so involved in pop culture and social media. If the people are distracted and talking about the ideas and events that the establishment deems popular or trendy, then they won’t have the mind space to discuss things that matter, like unions and their relation to falling wages or the amount of data that is being kept on citizens without them knowing. Shit, this conversation is probably being heard in some windowless building in Costa Mesa.”
Emma was talking fast but completely in control. Max wanted to jump in. He wanted to show he knew things too but at the same time, he was in awe and just trying to digest her enormity.
“The establishment pushes trends to distract. Image what Twitter and Facebook could do if people weren’t so petty and superficial about it. But they are petty and superficial because they are told that those things like Followers and Likes are valuable. You seen what happened in Egypt! They used Facebook to organize a coup of an oppressive government. Unfortunately, they just replaced one oppressor for another, but that’s besides the point.” She let out a chuckle like she told a joke. Max didn’t laugh, not knowing anything about Egypt.
“Okaaay,” this interview had gotten out of hand way before he could even figure out what was going on. All he asked her was for her name and he got told a bunch of ‘establishment’ this and ‘superficial’ that. Wasn’t all this supposed to be about women?, he thought to himself. “D—do you go to school?”
“Like college? No.”
“And why is that?” As soon as the last part of ‘that’ came out of his mouth he was regretting even asking such an irrelevant question. He braced himself.
“Cuz it’s bullshit, if I’m being honest with you.”
Max looked skeptical, being a couple semesters from graduation. The first thought he had was about his bank account and how it was still reeling from the last round of books that FAFSA couldn’t even cover. But that’s just the way it is, he says to himself, limited by only having the experience of a whole lifetime of everyone saying college is the only way to success.
“Really it is.” Emma continued, “It’s a scam to make poor people poorer. And now you need a degree. Without it, fuck off! It’s a scheme. You know UC (University of California System) tuition is going up soon? Graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans then try to find a career and end up with a job and frustration. Not for me. I’d rather educate myself. Learn the truth from common sense, not some establishment crafted syllabus.”
Max nodded. Who the hell did he pick up here? Well, whoever it was, he was getting some good material from herl.
“Okay, let’s back way up here.” Max leaned in, “Wasn’t this the Women’s March? Wasn’t this about women? What is all this other stuff about? How’s it relevant to women?”
“Well, besides the fact that women are half the population of the world, therefore the problems I laid out are obviously affecting both women and men, but all that stuff was just responses to your questions. We could talk about women specifically if you stop asking me shit about myself.” She said this harshly but with a smile, playful almost. She was enjoying this more than she thought she would. Max, too.
“Okay. Yeah. Let’s talk about the march specifically, what do you think it showed the world? Because it seems like the whole world was involved. They even marched in Madrid.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Emma scratched the top of her head. She was getting visibly excited at the idea of international unrest. “This definitely felt big. I mean, you were there. There was sooo many people,” she had her hands up wide, “but at first I was worried that we wouldn’t march at all.”
“I remember that! On 5th we were there forever until everyone started up Olive.”
“Yeah dude, it was ridiculous because that was the point of it all. I kept thinking, ‘if we don’t move, this whole thing don’t matter. We have to move.’ And it’s true! If we all just stand around, we’re not doing anything. That’s not civil unrest, that’s the containment of civil unrest. And even once we started marching, we could’ve done more. Not to criticize the crowd but we could’ve done more, ya know?”
“What’d you think about the crowd?”
“Ehh,” Emma now leaned forward, tucking her elbows back by her hips, smiling, thinking about how to say what she wanted to say, “I don’t know, man. All I could say is I didn’t see a lot of those white ladies around when we were marching for Black Lives Matter, or even after the election. Those whole four days after we marched all through downtown and I didn’t see a lot of those people there. Granted, I’m not sure how I could recognize all those people to begin with but I’m just saying, this was a lot more white faces than usually pop up at the demonstrations over the past couple months. That’s all I could say about it.”
They both stood quiet. Emma was proud of her answer. She knew she got her point across without coming overtly condemning anyone. Max could decode it himself.
“But I will say,” Emma continued, “the handling of today’s Women’s March was far different than the protests of old. I did not see one cop all day until we were walking back up Temple to your car. That was the first time!”
“I seen an unmarked SUV by Angel’s knoll!”
“Okay cooool!” She said this with such sarcasm it made Max slouch back in his chair. “One fucking SUV? Every time I have ever marched, cops lead the way, motorcycles, SUVs, half a dozen helicopters. Every protest, except this one. Hell, two nights after the election, we did the same route, more or less, toward City Hall, right where we were today. In that little grass area that all the people we sitting in earlier? There, we tried to do the same, sit on the grass in front of City Hall, off the streets, peaceful demonstration. But no. Without warning, cops in riot gear stormed the two sidewalks and pinned most of us in. But we didn’t see none of that today. With a bigger crowd!”
“Hm, well they obviously didn’t perceive this crowd a threat.”
“More than that even, they didn’t want to be out heavy like they did when it’s a bunch of Blacks and Mexicans in the street. Today they used fire trucks to block the Hill, corralling us. Fire trucks! Who gets mad at firefighters? Everyone loves them! No ones gonna get pissed at a firefighter. They wouldn’t do that in other protests and I think it’s very reasonable to try to come up with why that is.”
“So what? Do you think it will mean anything in the future? Or was this just a waste of time?”
“No I wouldn’t say that, that it was a waste of time. I think it does send a message to the new president that people are aware and can have some impact, even if it’s only in a physical capacity. But I would argue that many of the demonstrations of recent years, apart from Standing Rock and maybe the early days of the Occupy Movement, fuck even that,” Emma looked off for a second, then continued, “none of it has had much of an effect at all. I mean, nothing has changed. If anything, these things are just ways to let out frustration with more people who believe the same shit you do for a couple hours. Just up until you get tired and go back to your life and your phone and your job. Like, I wonder how many of those people after this went to Starbucks or ate some expensive restaurant in a gentrified area, probably most. Look at us having this $5 dollar drinks in a city taken over by the white upper class. People need release, ya know?” Emma leaned back in her chair and looked back off to the side. “They need moments when they could walk on the street. Oh the chaos of being allowed to walk in the street and hold signs and scream at people who don’t hear us!” Her eyes snapped back to Max with fury behind them, wicked smiled underneath. “All the business leaders got their social media people in the thick of it but up in their offices they don’t give a shit. Soon all those thousands will be back at work and paying their mortgages and the tags on their car. So yeah, I would say contemporary civil unrest is ineffective in general. At least in its current form. And especially in this 24 hour news cycle! Watch, Trump’s gonna do something else crazy and everyone’s gonna forget about women. ”
Max didn’t reply immediately. He was looking back between Emma and his phone tasked with remembering it all. The women with the dog tied to her chair looked over inconspicuously from time to time. Emma sat, shoulders high, pleased look on her face. Her cheeks had gotten a warm pink tint from the tea, eyes still straight shooting arrows through Max’s skull.
“Okay,” Max feared asking another question. She was throwing information at him faster than he could process it. He took a sip of the coffee, still almost full. It had lost most of its heat. “So why did you come in the first place? Since the ones you’ve been too didn’t do anything? You don’t seem hopeful this one will either.”
“Well, I mean come on man, what am I supposed to do? What you’re talking about is nihilism, apathy. What good does that do us? Maybe this won’t change the fuckin’ world but it shows we got some teeth. That there’s still some fight in the People.”
“What would you do differently?”
Emma face grew very serious, “Well first of all, I’d become more active in neighborhoods other than Downtown LA. We have to understand we’re Their power is and where Our power is. Both are the same: money. The dollars they make and the dollars we spend. Let’s take the first one, the dollars they make. To truly disrupt the ‘ruling class’,” she did finger quotes and smiled, “I do those for you by the way.” She was having fun now, “But if we’re truly going to disrupt the ruling class we must occupy space where they have the most to lose. For example, instead of marching down Olive and Hill, disrupting the economy of downtown and south LA, an economy of thousands of minorities and middle class workers, let’s march down Sunset Blvd, in West Hollywood right before Bel Air, Billboard Boulevard. Or maybe PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). Let’s back up traffic all the way up and down the coast so that the CEO’s taking their mistresses out to seaside lunches will notice us. We have to take the game to them. As of now, we’re throwing our little fits in our own homes and the mansions up in the hills are watching and laughing. Or worse, participating.”
“And with Our dollars? You’re talking about boycotts?”
Before he could finish, she was already coming back with it, “Yes, exactly! We have to be very careful how we organize our spending efforts. If we could only contribute to the companies that value the People, then we could have the market shaped in the image We choose. If a company is against LGBT and Trans rights, then we won’t contribute to that organization. If a company is oppressive toward its workers, then we do not contribute to that company. In that way, the companies that prosper are the companies that We reward for reflecting the views of the People. It’s basic economics.”
“Right. Basic but maybe not realistic.”
“Well being realistic isn’t the point! Yes, idealism has it shortcomings, but
are we not supposed to hope for a better society?” Her voice started to pick up and the couple was now glancing very often, eavesdropping on the conversation. “And furthermore, should we not use that hope to guide us towards said society? It may not be realistic today, but if we don’t start thinking these things and discussing them in the open, they will never have time to develop and flourish. It’s not about over night change, it’s about taking steps, over time, towards that change.”
“That’s a valid point.” Max believed most of the things she was saying but he had the urge to argue. Mostly because some tape of two liberals jacking eachother off wouldn’t be anything substantial. There needed to be dissonance. There needed to be friction. But also, a little part of him wasn’t used to being the one listening, not the one spouting all the ideas.
“Let’s move on,” Max said before taking another sip of his chilled coffee, “I noticed a lot of kids at the march today. What do you think about having kids out there marching in the streets? You think that would have a positive effect on the future or a negative one?”
Emma took time answering this one. She pressed her lips against each other as she thought, making little creases along the sides. “I definitely noticed more kids out there today than in previous marches. I’ve seen them before, but usually not this many. And I don’t know,” she shrugged her shoulders and adjusted herself, chair squeaking as she moved. “I think it would be beneficial. You know, knowing they have power. Getting them acclimated with the idea of civil unrest. Teaching them that it’s possible. That they could still be American and not completely agree with everything their country does.” She spoke calm on this subject, not as excited as before, yet still very powerful, almost more so. “That’s important. I think it’s healthy for people to feel like they have a say. That’s what these things are for. If you think about, that’s what pushed the Republicans over the top this past election, people feeling like they didn’t have a voice, finally got a voice. Or at least someone to claim their voice as his own.”
“I could see that. But wouldn’t you say that an excess of exposure youngsters get to these types of things, wouldn’t you say that that will diminish the effect on the kids?” Emma went to answer but Max cut her off and it made him feel good, “like for example, if nothing comes out of these protests and marches, kids will learn that they don’t really matter, like you have, and will lose interest. Or maybe they’ll just be like, ‘whatever, this is just another protest’. Ya know what i’m saying?”
Emma’s eyebrows flatted out, she looked at him like a banker looks at a bum, “That’s a really morbid depiction of the next generation, Max. The young people of today are not dumb. They understand the world far more than you and I did at their age. They are the internet generation. The true internet generation. The generation that have grown up on YouTube and Netflix, that never seen a landline in anyone’s houses besides their grandparents.” She took a sip of tea and leaked out a smile, “I think you’re projecting a little there.”
Max laughed uncomfortably, “Just trying to throw in different perspectives.”
“I feel you. But to be serious, those kids should absolutely be in the streets with the marchers, today and everyday. They have the most to lose. They have their whole lives ahead of them. They’re the ones that are going to inherit a world with more water in the ocean and less in the homes of people. They’re the ones who are being psychologically assaulted by big business into becoming a consumer before a human being. If we are going to talk about kids, we have to address the fact that we teach them about parallelograms instead of taxes and what credit is. Let’s not just call the entire next generation of kids growing up apathetic materialists who lose focus in an instant. And if they are, it is not their fault but ours. Unfortunately, the children are the reflection of society, not the other way around.”
Max nodded, looked down at his phone, then at his coffee. It left brown patterns on the walls of the mug. He thought about his teeth. Then he remembered the person across from him, the political animal. He was in her cage. Voluntarily, at that.
“Let’s get back to women—“
“Let’s get back to women!” Emma shouted excitedly after him. The woman with the dog turned her head and stared through her sunglasses.
Max, grinning, “Yes, yes. What do you think should be the focus of the today’s Women’s Movement?”
Emma let out a big sigh and looked up. There was a plane passing by far off towards the setting sun. She watched it pass slowly. There were streaks of pink clouds that layered the sky, a hot orange blaze underneath. She took a couple deep breathes through her nose. The air smelled like toasted bread.
“That’s a hard question…” she fixed her skirt, smoothing out the material over her knees, “first, I think it must be hyper-inclusive. That was the main problem about the women’s movement in the early, suffragette days, and even in the 70’s for the most part. Today, the Women’s movement can’t, and won’t, survive being a white lady movement. The Women’s Movement must be inclusive to not only women of color and of any fiscal background, but also to the Trans and LGBT community. It can’t a cis movement. We cannot get distracted in ideological disputes over what defines a woman. We can’t afford to exclude the millions of powerful women of color. And that means defending the black women of BLM, the women subject to unconstitutional immigration restrictions from Latin America and the Middle East, and of course, women’s rights over their reproductive health, not only in this country but around the world.”
“Since you bring up reproductive rights? Would you say you are ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’?” It was Max’s turn to use the finger quotes.
Emma chuckles, “What do you think? I am for the rights of all individuals to choose what they could do with their bodies. Period. Point blank. I think we get lost in this unwinnable debate about these made up concepts that you just mentioned. It is pretty basic. How can we allow men, to make laws about women’s health? What you get is a congress that votes on Viagra subsidization over a reduction in prices of feminine products. It’s fucking amazing to me that women still have to pay for tampons!” She emphasized the word ‘tampons’, eyes reenergized. “Can you believe that shit? And to tell you the truth, none of this is the ‘right to life’ as the conservatives call it. There is an economic benefit to deny people abortions. Over 40% of abortions are received by women beneath the poverty line. And restricting that is to cause women, who are already financially struggling, to take on another life and another mouth. Even worse, big business uses religion to galvanize zealots to fight for the ‘right for life’ but it’s really a ‘right to birth’ exclusively. Most of the same people that will defend outlawing abortion are also against welfare and government aid. This is an attempt to trap vulnerable families into fiscal positions they can’t win. And businesses get another consumer, a consumer that needs to be fed and housed and treated when sick and could be arrested and placed in a for-profit prison.”
“Wow, I never really thought about it like that.”
“If you look hard enough, you could see the hands of the corporate elite in all examples of mass oppression.” Emma said as she sipped some tea.
“Well, let’s take women making 78 cents to every man’s dollar. If we break that down by race it’s even worse. Black women make 64 cents to every white man’s dollar, Hispanic women only 56 cents.” This woman’s a fuckin’ computer, Max thought to himself. Emma continued, “Why do we think this is? To most people, this doesn’t make much sense. But to business leaders, this is just a cheap labor market. If they could hire women and pay them less for the same work. They’re making a killing! And they could say, ‘hey, look at us! We’re so progressive. Look at all our women.’ While paying them less and letting only a couple of hand picked individuals penetrate the upper echelon of management.”
“Don’t you think you’re reaching a little bit? It can’t be—“
“Absolutely not! Did you know there is no amendment to the constitution that guarantees women the same rights as men? Under law, it is legal for anyone to discriminate against someone for being a girl.”
“That can’t be right.”
“Look it up! It’s real!” Emma had a big sarcastic smile spread thin lipped across her face, “Justice Scalia even said, very clearly, that the 14th amendment doesn’t protect against gender or sexual orientation. You don’t know how accurate ‘all men are created equal’ is. It’s all men, not all men and women. They tried to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, which would ensure the protection of girls and women from discrimination based on sex. It was first created in 1923 but didn’t get any attention until ’72. Then, after ten years, it failed to get 38 states to approve the amendment. You wanna know how many states they had? 35…” Emma’s eyebrows were huge arches on her forehead, “35 fuckin’ states! Three short. Three!” she held up three boney fingers. “So it’s technically legal to pay women less! After that, the women’s movement died off for a bit. After 1982. Since then, the women’s movement hasn’t gained any ground. Until today. Until today, the Women’s Movement was an afterthought. Now, we’re being played on every TV set in America.”
She sat there, chest puffed, eyes proud, looking off into the distance. She savored the momentary victory even though she knew it wouldn’t last.
Max looked down in the silence. He never knew women weren’t protected under the constitution. He remembered his mom and his sister. Both with jobs. Both getting paid less for the same work. Both having their bodies controlled by old white men. Both devalued. He couldn’t processes it all.
“So… what do we do next?” Max mumbled out, tepid. He felt defeated, not by Emma but by the world.
“Well, specifically speaking to the Women’s Movement, we must focus on reintroducing the ERA and getting women outright and clear constitutional protections as equal citizens. But in the big picture, we must organize and resist against any law that threatens not only the people, female and male, in the country but ensure that American principals, true American principles like freedom for all and liberty over death, are reflected in the policies coming out of Washington. We must organize intelligently and protect each other. We must educate ourselves and educate the next generation. We must use the tools that are provided to us in ways that are productive and inclusive, not destructive and divisive. We must understand consumerism and how we could manipulate the market through community action. But mostly, we have to remember we’re all just people on this earth and everyone’s just trying their best and that rich or poor, foreign or domestic, we’re gonna die some day. We can’t be afraid to love, we can’t be afraid to trust, we can’t be afraid to think, and we can’t be afraid to fight.”
Max nodded and looked over at the dog sleeping by his owner’s feet, jealous. He wondered if the dog ever thought about women’s issues. Probably not. The sky was dark now and the chill was setting in. The wind was shaking the patio covering and the lights hanging from wall to wall. He couldn’t help but feel like he was part of the problem. In the silence, he kept thinking about the plight of women. How he never paid for a tampon in his life. How he will never have to leave a job because he was pregnant. How he could be aggressively assertive and not be called a ‘bitch’ or ‘bossy’ but be rewarded. Emma watched his face as the thoughts ran through his mind. She could see him digesting the information, running it through dense memory banks and comparing experiences. She loved this. This gave her hope for humanity. That two humans can sit and discuss issues and maybe, just maybe, one will leave more informed—a broadening of consciousness. It is amazing when people realized not only the enormous obstacles in their path but also that they, themselves, held the power to effect change with action. Emma was witnessing this great metamorphosis right before her very eyes.
“Wh—what can men do? Like… to help?” Max voice cracked, weak sounding.
“Well, just like they did today. Join in the equal treatment of women, both cis and trans women.” Max face sank to the answer, it was too vague to be a true solution. Emma caught it, “Listen, women aren’t the only victims of oppressive gender norms. Men are too. Men are devastatingly affected by the pressure to be ‘manly’, and judged when they do not fulfill the given criteria of what it means to be a man. I know guys who are continuously ridiculed by their families and even some friends for having long hair, just like yours. Being told they look like a girl. Like, long hair is only reserved for women. I know guys who can’t even express themselves emotionally for fear they’ll be viewed by their peers as ‘too sensitive’ or ‘weak’. It’s ridiculous. These men are driven to censorship of emotion, and that leads to depression and anxiety and has even driven up suicide rates of younger adult men. 79% of suicides are men! Gender equality is not only something that is beneficial to women, but men as well. Social norms, even referring to masculine traits and feminine traits, trap our species emotionally and spiritually. We must realize gender and emotion exists on a spectrum, and are not limited to whether you have balls or not.”
“Is that the statement you’re making with your specific…” Max scrunched up his eyebrows, striving for the right word, a word that wouldn’t trigger any more heat aimed directly at him, “look?”
A slow smile crept across her face, “Look?”
“Well, i mean i di–”
“It’s okay,” she says, laughing, “I’m fucking with you. I guess it is a ‘Look’, “finger quotes, “but really it’s just my head. I mean I dress like normal girls, i just have a shaved head. See, that’s the problem with society today. Well, not the problem, but one of the parts that needs improving. Why’s it so weird if a girl has a shaved head?” She had her hands up and looked around, dramatically confused. “Or if she doesn’t shave her armpits?” She lifted her arms and showed her fluffy pits. “Even when it’s opposite, i just mentioned guys getting made fun of for having long hair but that’s waaay,” her mouth spread wide and the corners stretched into a frown when she said, ‘waaay’, “that’s waaay more common and acceptable than a girl with a shaved head. I still get weird looks from older ladies with that ‘can i talk to your manager’ hair. You know that hair style every white, middle aged mom gets around her forties?” Max laughed loudly and the dog by the couple picked it’s head sharply and stared at him. “But really, we got to get over these preconceptions of what people are supposed to look like. However someone chooses to dress and style themselves is a reflection and expression of their inner self. People have the right to look how they want to.” She paused, took a sip of her tea, “but hopefully in twenty years, when i’m that lady with the ‘can i talk to your manager’ hair, i’ll try to remember that.” Smiling.
Max runs his hand through his hair. It was felt thick, moist from the grease. Eyes focused on Emma’s bare head. It made him feel good that they were defying some unwritten cultural rule together. “Is that why you shaved your head? To express yourself?”
The teabag sat just on the side of the little porcelain plate that held the cup. It was a soaked dark brown at the base and faded beige at the top. Emma looked down at that tea bag and thought about why she shaved her head in the first place. There’s wasn’t a moment, or anything definite she could think of. One day, it just happened. It seemed like the normal thing to do. She was asked this before but she never thought too deeply about the answer she gave.
“I don’t know,” she said, eyes still on the teabag, “i couldn’t tell you. One day, it just happened.”
“It just happened?”
“Yeah…” she started diving into the depths of her temporal lobe, trying to remember the day, the very moment those clippers went across her head. She could feel them now, cold metal, vibrating. “I always thought hair was such a hassle. I mean, you have long hair! Sleeping with long hair fuckin’ suuuucks!” She exaggerated ‘suuuucks’ with a deep trembling voice and big eyes. “I remember my little brother just shaved his head and it seemed… well, efficient. So, the next day i went over to my friend’s house and he shaved my head for me.”
“How old were you?”
“In high school still, maybe summer going into junior? Yeah. I was a junior so, what? 16? 17?”
Max nodded, “What did your parents say?”
Smirking, “Ha… well, let’s just say, they didn’t take it well.”
“Why you think that is? Gender norms?”
“Yeah.” She says with a deep sigh. “But unconscious. My mom has this long, beautifully thick Latina hair that she always took pride in it. My hair was more curly, from my dad’s side. It wasn’t as curly as some of my other friends who are full Black, but it was still hard to deal with. My mom took it harder than my pops, though. She really loves hair.” She looked away, big nostalgic smile, thinking of her mom’s face and tears and overreaction.
“She get over it?”
“Oh yeah, took a couple years though but she’s cool now. They get it.”
“That’s good. That’s good…” Max looked back at his phone, pillaging his mind for anymore questions. He kept picturing her with hair, big wild curls, maybe honey brown. He tried to picture the way the hair would fall on the side of her soft face, lining her gentle jaw, those perfect cheekbones. He tried to imagine, her eyes, those burning eyes, peeking from behind curly bangs, lurking. Then he thought of it, “is that the same thing influencing you to not wear any make up?”
“What you mean?”
Max felt the tinge of embarrassment but persisted. “Like you said, a shaved head seemed more efficient. Is not wearing makeup just another thing a long those lines?”
“Oh no, not at all.” The pleasant look of remembering her mother’s sadness dissipated and the warrior was back, posture ready for battle. ”I don’t wear makeup because it’s a bullshit concept. Its an industry that thrives off women’s insecurity. It sells the idea that a girl’s looks are never good enough. Not without with lipsticks and foundations!” Sarcasm coming out hot. “That these things, these constructs are a necessary part of life. It’s bullshit. Women are beautiful the way they are! They don’t need to paint their fuckin’ face because the magazines and the social media stars are caked the fuck up! They don’t have to color their fuckin’ eyebrows in! Have you seen that shit? It’s ridiculous! Or have that ‘shimmer’ bullshit that makes their cheekbones all sparkly and weird. Why? Because that’s what ‘They’,” finger quotes again, “say women should look like. Fuck that. Imagine the money women spend on that bullshit. Apart from the tampons and pads and our clothes that happen to cost more. They even did a study that girls children toys cost more than boys children toys. They say it’s because it cost more to market girl products. I call bullshit on that!”
“Wow.” Max was beaming, amazed. That came out seamlessly yet was as quick as Norwegian lighting. “What do you tell people that wear makeup, or too much makeup? Does a feminist have to not wear makeup to be a real feminist?”
“Ah,” Emma curled her lips together, pushing air forcefully out her nose, “that’s really two questions, the second is the more important one but we’ll take our time.” Emma sat up, threw her shoulders back and crossed her legs, “Now, what do i tell girls who wear too much makeup? Nothing, usually. No one likes a preacher. If i feel comfortable with someone enough to maybe say, “Hey, you’re a beautiful girl and you don’t need to wear so much makeup’, then i guess i would? But not only that, i’d also wanna know why she feels the need to put the makeup on. If we could discuss why she feels the need to put makeup on so heavily then we could get somewhere. There, change is possible, but not by just going around say, ‘Hey! Stop wearing makeup you dumbass conformist’.”
“And the second question?”
“Hold on,” Emma’s hand was out stretched, flat, all fingers pointed at Max, “and it’s not just women who wear makeup. If women have the freedom to not wear makeup, than gender equality would give men the freedom to wear makeup. Just like the hair thing,” her hand and the band of pointed fingers pointing at her head then to Max’s, “that’s gender equality.”
“Okay, that makes sense.”
“See, you could wear eye shadow if you really wanted too! A nice hazel would look good.”
“Ha ha ha…” Max tried not to show his discomfort with the idea of wearing any kind of makeup, “No, no, no. Anyways, the second thing?”
“The second thing?”
“Yeah. do you have to not wear makeup, or have to shave your head or not wear a bra, to be considered a true feminist?”
“Oh right,” again, the serious revolutionary washed over her in an instant. “First off, we have to avoid using terms like ‘true’ and ‘real’ when describing groups of people. That’s not only unfair but it’s completely subjective. How could anyone describe what a ‘true’ anything is? A true feminist? A true American? A true Christian? That is completely based on the individual’s view of what ‘true’ should be what. That’s the problem. We over simplify things. ‘This is the way this is’ ‘All people that do this are like this’.” She mimicked the deep voice of a man like a little kid would while making fun of their father. “That’s just lazy. It’s another way we could protect ourselves from thinking, by making things black and white, this or that. You either shave your head and wash off your makeup or don’t claim to be a feminist. You either pledge blind loyalty to America or you’re not an American. You either worship this God the way we tell you to or you’re not a Christian and you’ll go to hell. Fuck dude, we’re doing that to a whole religion now! Islam and Terrorism has become synonymous because the people and the media and the government do not want to think! They don’t care about the intricacies of Islam! It’s a lot easier to paint things with broad brushes. We can’t do that. So, to answer your question,” grin back wide on her face, knowing she went off on a tangent, “no, you could wear makeup and be a feminist. It doesn’t matter. Personal choice and freedom of equality is what feminism is about, as long as that personal choice and freedom doesn’t discriminate against or cause harm to other people, of course. But we can’t draw lines. We’ve seen where divisiveness has gotten us.”
The couple and their dog were long gone and they didn’t even notice them leave. Emma was in a rhythm and Max was completely entranced.
“What would be your advice to younger girls? About feminism or life in general?” Max said, still drinking his black coffee, bitterly ice cold now but not seeming to care.
“Ughh,” her shoulders slumped, “that’s a hard question. Any answer would be based in narcissism, to think my words would be able to provide useful advice for another growing little person. And again, feminism isn’t just about girls!”
“Right! Right! Sorry!” Max smiled, “Let me rephrase that, what would your advice be to the next generation of girls and boys about feminism or just life, in general?”
Emma took a deep breath, chest up high holding it, and let it go, dropping her shoulders with it, “Well, i don’t know. I guess, about life in general, just love. In every aspect in life try to view it from a lens of love. Good, bad, whatever, handle things with love and compassion. Try to understand things for what they are, not what they seem to be. And that, sometimes, means listening to people with different ideas than your own and admitting when you’re wrong. It also means unmasking and accepting some uncomfortable truths.” She adjust herself, looked over and for the first time noticed the couple and the dog were gone and she thought to herself how sad it was that she would probably never see that dog again. “As for advice on feminism… i mean… i don’t know dude. Feminism isn’t even that crazy of a concept. It’s just like, we’re all human beings and deserve to be treated equal. No matter sex or race or sexual identity or fiscal status. That’s what feminism means, it’s not just about women, again that’s just a gross simplification of the term. Feminism is about equality. Period. If we view things that way, feminism as a concept will become irrelevant because it’s just a something normal, fighting for equality of all people.”
“Women’s rights are Human rights?”
“Exactly, Max. Exactly.” Emma relaxed in her plastic brown chair, legs still crossed. It was getting colder. The sky was a velvety black now, cloudless, tiny red lights moving in the distance. Planes never letting the it rest.
“Who are some women that you look up to?” Max shot in, crossing his legs, right ankle to left knee, big triangle on his lap.
“Historically or, like, in my own life?”
“Historically. That’s more interesting. First, probably the lady with the same name as me, Emma. Emma Goldman.”
“Is that your last name?”
“No! That’s a real person. She was an anarchist from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Her and her husband were anarchists who planned an assassination of a manager at the local factory, which Goldman funded by prostituting herself, which is empowering to some. Makes sense, why give up your body for free when you could exploit men for a fee. But that’s a discussion for another time. Anyways, the guy was some big name New York Labor head and their attempt failed. She was found innocent but her husband went to jail for a while. She would lead riots and in 1917 got kicked out of the US. The crazy thing is she wasn’t huge on the women’s right to vote, the suffragette movement of the time, because she didn’t believe in voting in a rigged system. She thought the vote would be nice but not extremely important other than symbolically. She believe the entire mechanism of our Democracy was flawed. Which is looking more and more accurate. Yeah man, she was a staunch anarchist. So cool.”
“Doesn’t anarchy mean chaos and disorder? Like, people doing whatever they want?”
“Ahh, Max, Max, Max,” She exhaled little breaths of disappointment every time, “you need to do your research buddy. All anarchism means, the true meaning of anarchism, before the word was warped into something completely different, is the belief in localized government. The abolition of centralized government. It’s complicated but allows the power to the people instead of a single governing force. It’s gives the workers the power through unions to run the companies instead of bosses and CEO’s who are out of touch with the middle class. That’s all anarchism is, power to the worker. ‘They’ have turned the word into something people fear, even though it’s something that values the people more than the current governmental structure does. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“Yeah! Of course! There’s thousands of inspiring women throughout history! Just gotta do the research!”
“Imagine all the ones who were never remembered? The greats who went uncelebrated.”
“Yeah it’s a shame,” Emma’s gaze fell, “but anyways, there was this lady named Noor Khan and she was a British spy back during world war II! She studied bomb making and worked inside occupied France. She was a muslim refugee, born in Moscow and grew up in mainly Paris and Britain. Her dad was from India and her mom was an American from fuckin’ Albuquerque! Anyways, she was part of Churchill’s secret guerilla offensive in Europe during World War II. When France was invaded by the Nazi’s she fled with her parents to Britain but instead of hiding out, she volunteered as a secret agent. And, get this shit, she was a fuckin’ princess! A for real princess from a distinguished family on her dad’s side, back in India. But instead of castle life, she chose international espionage! Fucked up part about all this was she got sold out by a woman! She was the sister of a guy who adored Khan. So the german’s raided her apartment and arrested her but she’s such a fuckin’ boss it’s said to have taken six men to drag her out of the apartment. She was biting them and scratching at their eyes, anything, but they got her. They took her to the internment camp, Dachau, and she was tortured for information. She never said shit. Then, since she wasn’t cooperating, a SS soldier took out a pistol and shot her in the head. She went down screaming, ‘LIBERTY!’ so they couldn’t take her soul!” Tears were forming in the corners of Emma’s eyes and one got free and slid down her cheek. “Sorry, just so fuckin’ beautiful.”
The door leading into the bookstore swung open and made a loud BANG against the wall that snapped everyone’s attention that way. A guy with a grimace on his face stood in the doorway, frozen, with his hands up. He mouthed the word, ‘sorry’, and walks out the back patio with his head down. The BANG surprised Emma and Max both. They felt like they just had awoken from a deep sleep. They took long breaths. Max rubbed his chin, scruff thick, unshaven. He felt tired. Emma looked at her watch.
“Well,” Emma said in an almost disappointed manner, wiping her face, “it’s getting late. I better get going. Got plans with my sister later.”
“Yeah of course!” Max sat up straight and grabbed his phone.
“But listen,” Emma got up and Max did as well, “keep doing this stuff. Post it wherever you can. It doesn’t matter if people see it, all that matters is that it exists. If nothing else, the stories are being told somewhere. From the way its looks, there’s going to be serious cuts to things like National Public Radio and government funded art programs. They’re going to try to commercialize all news and control information. And if it comes to that, we’re going to need a whole helluva lotta people like you, ‘independent journalist’,” finger quotes and a loving smile, “telling the truth… well, until they come for you, too.” With that, Emma gave him a wink and a handshake and vanished into the bookstore.
The time on the recorder was just over an hour and ten minutes. He clicked it off and put it in his pocket. Then it was only him, sitting in silence. The gentle click of keyboards off in the corner where the same group sat on their laptops. He rolled his shoulders around. His stomach felt hungry but he didn’t know for what. Scrolled through Instagram for a couple minutes, then got up. He put his empty cup in the tub marked ‘dirty dishes’ by the door, and walked out into the parking lot.
On the way home, in the flood of red brake lights of rush hour traffic, creeping down the 101 south, Max replayed the interview and listened closely to every word. He wondered if he’d ever see her again. Emma, Emma… whatever her last name was. He felt lucky, lucky to have shared that moment in time when all that mattered were the words coming out of her mouth. Not because she was so great, which undoubtedly was true, but because he was able to bear witness to the awakening of a different kind of interpretation of the world. An interpretation in its infancy. An interpretation still growing, not only in her mind but in mind’s of people all over the country. And now, after today, in Max’s own mind.