5 A woman holds a sign while marching to Freedom Plaza during the 2nd annual March for Black Women in Washington, D.C on Saturday, Sept. 29. (Michael A. McCoy/The Washington Informer)
5 A woman holds a sign while marching to Freedom Plaza during the 2nd annual March for Black Women in Washington, D.C on Saturday, Sept. 29. (Michael A. McCoy/The Washington Informer)

With the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) set to expire, Black women flooded the streets of D.C. and New York City over the weekend to demand reauthorization of a law that funds services for sexual assault victims and establishes law enforcement responses to rape.

Black female protesters on the front lines of Saturday’s event, touted as the March for Black Women, also called out politicians, Black men, White feminists and others who they say have placed issues concerning Black women on the back burner, even as Black women support their movements in droves.

“As Black women, our voices aren’t always heard, and people don’t think of us as vulnerable humans, just those with super powers,” a protester and Generation Xer who identified herself as Sharon A. said as she marched along 7th Street near the National Mall in Northwest.

“I’m a Black woman, and just like we protect every race of people, we need to protect Black women and raise issues specific to us,” said Sharon, a Largo, Maryland, resident. “A lot of single moms don’t get support; we’re losing our babies and live with subpar health care. Black women also experience violence from the police.”

In the early morning hours, Black women of various political, religious and organizational backgrounds converged on the National Mall before marching along 7th Street behind a banner adorned with Black Power-era activist Angela Davis’ likeness. The large crowd stopped at the intersection of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, waving signs that demanded respect for Black women and acknowledgement of their existence.

As they trekked west along Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Newseum all the way to Trump International Hotel, the smell of sage and other fragrances filled the air as female protesters dressed in white gowns and headwraps led the crowd in song, some beating large drums hanging from their necks.

Once the group arrived at Freedom Plaza, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, they gathered around a stage area to hear a bevy of Black female speakers, including Staceyann Chin, a Jamaican spoken word poet and LGBT political activist, lead a call to action.

“For centuries, rape was the word Black mothers couldn’t say out loud to their daughters, but we knew what that word meant,” Chin said to the raucous applause and cheers of hundreds of Black women standing in Freedom Plaza. Even those of us who spoke about it knew we would be silenced and punished.”

She continued, outlining the events that birthed the March for Black Women, including the “#MeToo” movement, which has emboldened Black women and others to speak openly about their sexual abuse.

“A Black woman, Black as the sexiest night you ever saw, Tarana Burke inspired White women to say, ‘me too’ out loud,” Chin said. “This movement was born out of the badassery of a Black woman’s word. This word pulled sexual violence from the shadows and onto primetime television. [But] Black women are still missing from the conversation about sexual violence. In this place, we’re tired of being invisible. As strong as we are, we are not made of stone.”

The Black Women’s Blueprint, Inc., a New York City-based organization formed in 2008 in response to issues affecting Black women, launched the March for Black Women in collaboration with the DC Rape Crisis Center in Northeast, National Economic & Social Justice Initiative, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the Women’s March, reportedly endorsed last weekend’s activities.

Rallies took place in the District on Saturday, and in New York City on Sunday afternoon, in an effort to pressure lawmakers to reauthorize VAWA, set to expire on Sept. 30, and reverse the Trump administration’s restriction on the use of words such as transgender, fetus, diversity, science-based and evidence-based.

Organizers said they also wanted to shed light on intersectional women’s concerns, including poverty, affordable housing, reproductive rights, and immigration.

“There’s an intersection between race and gender and that affects how our violence is seen by the larger society [that can be seen] by our lack of access to supports,” said Dr. Tyffani Dent, Black Women’s Blueprint board member. “Those of us who have been doing this work are not surprised by the victim shaming and blaming going on the national stage. We’re centering survivors of color, and this conversation is not new. Anita Hill had the same conversation in the 1990s. There aren’t enough differences to show that we’ve improved in centering survivors.”

In the weeks leading up to the March for Black Women, veteran comedian Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and Supreme Court confirmation proceedings for Brett Kavanaugh, a federal judge battling allegations of his own, have dominated the news cycle and social media discussions.

Opinions differed between survivors of sexual abuse who identified with Cosby’s and Kavanaugh’s accusers and others who divulged conspiracy theories, questioned the timing of the accusations and asked why White men in power didn’t receive similar scrutiny.

For some protesters at Saturday’s march, such schisms revealed what they described as a lack of understanding about the gravity of sexual violence against Black women.

In Black communities, four out of 10 women said they experience intimate partner violence, including humiliation, insults and coercive control, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The study also said more than 20 percent of Black women said they’ve been raped at least once in their lifetime. In 90 percent of sexual assault cases against Black women, survivors knew their assailant.

This conflict often permeates into the political realm, as women have gone toe to toe with lawmakers over abortion rights in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Kentucky and other states. As for VAWA, passed in 1994, three years after Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at his confirmation hearing, lawmakers included an extension in a recent measure that would keep the law alive until Dec. 7.

Protesters at Saturday’s march hardly saw that as an overture, demanding more out of politicians, and people who vote them into office.

“It’s important that we’re seen,” said Jennifer Driggins, a program manager from Prince George’s County, who took part in the protest. “When you’re fighting for survival, you don’t have time to fight for yourself.”

Driggins said that after hearing about the March for Black Women two months ago, she worried about the turnout and level of support from Black women and other groups.

Though she expressed pleasure about the solidarity she witnessed on the streets of D.C., she still saw Black women placing others’ needs before their own.

“We don’t have the time or opportunity to invest [in ourselves] and that’s why we stay invisible,” said Driggins, 40. “Even if you listen to the chants, you only hear about Black women every 15 minutes. No one’s saying Black women’s lives matter. Yes, Black lives matter, but we’re not here for that, because there would be no life without Black women.”

Members of SisterSong, a reproductive-justice organization for women of color and indigenous women, traveled from Atlanta, Charlotte and Durham, North Carolina, to take part in the rally.

Dr. Eveangel Savage, a member of the caravan, conversed with other women about what she described as the mental, spiritual, and physical rape that has afflicted Black women from all angles.

“We spent a lifetime helping others, but we’re lost in all the helping, and it’s time for us to come back and share with one another,” said Savage, suggesting that Black communities employ culturally suitable solutions to rape culture.

She said she also wanted Black men to recognize, as best as they could, the trials that Black women endure.

“We need Black men to believe what’s happening to us and support,” Savage, a resident of Greenville, North Carolina. “I don’t want you showing up thinking that you understand because you don’t. I want the Black man to be a fence, support me and listen to me. I want him to collectively be a part of our movements in every way but show up in the way we need you to show up.”

Xavier Richie, a George Washington University senior and member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, joined his brothers and members of sister organization Zeta Phi Beta at Saturday’s rally with signs in hand. He said he had no choice but to stand with Black women.

“This is a poignant time where Black men have to choose as side,” said Richie, 22. “Rape culture is divisive, and we have to come together and realize that this isn’t OK. We have some White counterparts not being held accountable, but that’s not an excuse. Rapists deserve punishment.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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