On February 28, 1909 the very first International Women’s Day was celebrated in New York City after a suggestion by activist Theresa Malkiel and was organized by the Socialist Party of America. The following year, women attending the International Socialist Women’s Conference proposed the establishment of a Women’s Day and in 1910, over one million people gathered globally to celebrate International Working Women’s Day.
As with many radical left-wing movements, International Women’s Day has seen itself co-opted by the establishment and has become divorced from its working class roots. This year, however, as a show of solidarity with movements and strikes around the world being organized and supported by our fellow anti-capitalist unions in the International Confederation of Labor (ICL), the Atlanta General Defense Committee sought to reclaim this holiday.
Rape culture is a pervasive, destructive part of our patriarchal culture and its impact on the women and non-binary people of Atlanta is no exception. For IWD 2019, we decided to hold a Midnight March down Edgewood Avenue, targeting one of the city’s most popular bar and nightlife scenes. We were there to be loud, be disruptive, and to make a statement that we will not sit quietly while people in our city are targeted by and victimized by rape culture.
Planning for the event deliberately centered the women and non-binary people in our GDC and relegated men to acting exclusively in support roles. We contacted dozens of feminist and women’s groups operating on local college campuses, rape crisis centers, Women on the Rise, and the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP). Our goal was to create a space that was inclusive of all women and non-binary people, especially those who face additional marginalization due to race, non-cis/heteronormative identities, differences in abilities, immigration status, or occupation as a sex worker.
We gathered shortly before midnight at Krog Street Market, a few blocks from Edgewood, to gather, distribute signs, and to hear from one of the organizers, who read a few words to inform the crowd of why we were gathered there that night:
“Thank y’all for being here. It makes a strong statement to see everyone’s faces out here so late at night. When the General Defense Committee started talking about plans for women’s day, we had a lot of options in front of us. We decided to settle on rape culture because it’s one of the most dangerous and disgusting issues our society faces today. I do wanna keep this brief, but keep in mind as I’m speaking, at least six people will have been sexually assaulted in the United States. But always, where there’s oppression, there’s resistance. We’re gathered here today because we are pissed the fuck off. Our statement tonight isn’t that we’re here to play nice. We won’t negotiate with rapists. We won’t ask nicely. We are here tonight to demand our rightful place in these streets. We’re here to take back these streets; this is our time, this is our night. We’re here to get rowdy. We’re here to make noise. We’re here to terrify abusers. We’re here to cause a disruption and if we disrupt even one sexual assault, we will have done our job. Lets fucking do this.”
Shortly after midnight, we began to make our way to our targeted area on Edgewood. People chanted, played drums, and carried signs and banners to deliver our message. We handed out a zine that had been created by the organizers that included statistics on sexual violence as it affected various marginalized communities, including incarcerated women, immigrants, and people of color. The zine also contained information about resources for people who had experienced sexual assault and alternatives for contacting the police.
We marched up and down the street for around an hour, completely shutting down vehicle traffic along that stretch, stopping occasionally to hear remarks given through a megaphone. The drumming and chanting continued and some members of the march lit flares or set off purple smoke grenades to draw attention. The police were ever-present and blocked the road to prevent cars from coming through. At one point, they informed us that they were going to be reopening the road and that we needed to get out of the street. However, we were not done. We continued with our action.
The response to the march was overwhelmingly positive. Many people from the bars or waiting outside cheered in support. That did not mean, however, that our night was entirely conflict-free. As stated, the police did attempt to shut down our action before we were ready to leave. An officer walked through the crowd where he was quickly surrounded by drummers and people chanting “Cops are rapists!” until he retreated back to his fellow oppressors. As we continued to march down the middle of the street, we were faced head on in opposition by a police car surrounded by police officers. Organizers leading the way decided not to back down to the cops power move and marched straight forward draping a banner inscribed with “Rapist Scum Your Time Has Come” over the police and their car. As the banner dragged over one police officer’s head, he attempted to snatch the banner from the organizers hand, but she did not give in to his intimidation tactics. She held fast to her banner and ignored his aggressive attempt to disrupt our display. Her grip was stronger than his, and he was left dumbfounded in front of his peers, surrounded by rowdy protesters.
The only real low point of the night, however, occurred near the end of the march when a driver who was apparently fed up with us blocking the road, leaned on their horn while a trans woman was trying to deliver a statement. One man watching from the sidewalk encouraged the driver to drive through our march and repeatedly misgendered and insulted the woman speaking. Members of the march moved in to respond, at which point they were rebuked by another attendee who implored them to ignore the man, relying on the rhetoric of “Love beats hate.” We still managed to hold the space until the speaker was done with her remarks before we moved on. Outside of this incident, our action was largely a success.
Going forward, our GDC certainly needs to have a discussion on how better to communicate our expectations to attendees, notably that we do not support or encourage individuals to “peace police” the actions of others and how they respond to agitators on the sidelines.
Overall, however, the event was a victory. We mobilized around 100 people to take the streets of the city at midnight on a Friday, disrupting one of the nightlife areas of the city. We held our space until we decided that we were done, resisting attempts by police and civilians to interfere. We were loud. We were seen. We were heard.
See you next year for IWD 2020!