When thousands share one emotion

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 10:52am

Last Saturday I stood in Chicago, across the river from Trump International Hotel & Tower, surrounded by a crowd of strangers. I’d found out the election results half an hour earlier, by way of a CNN push notification, on the 23rd floor of my dad’s apartment building. Within minutes, the honking and cheering pouring through the 12-inch glass window was too loud to ignore. I saw the camaraderie as an undeniable invitation to the celebration, ditched the homework I’d begun only minutes before, grabbed my camera and jumped in the elevator. 

I arrived onto the scene at Wacker Drive, a little out of breath after sprinting down Michigan Avenue. Small clusters of people milled around, eyeing each other excitedly. A woman walked past in front of me; noticing we had the same mask and smile hidden behind it, I raised my camera to take her photo. She paused mid-stride and looked directly at me, framed almost perfectly by the raised Wabash bridge beyond her. The irony was too good. 

(The Wabash Bridge, the only way to the base of Trump Tower, has been raised on and off for weeks “as part of a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of residents.” The street remains closed down a block beyond the tower, enforced by a multitude of maskless Chicago police officers.) 

The woman passed through the frame, then, seeing the excitement in my eyes and body language, turned around to chat. 

“I didn’t know where to go or what to do!” she said, breathlessly. “I just found out the results and I wanted to be with people, so I came here.” 

She wasn’t alone in that sentiment. I stayed, watched and photographed for two hours on Wacker as more people streamed in, taking note of the growing festivities: Cars pulled over to take videos, three different people popped bottles of champagne, someone played “The Wicked Witch is Dead” over their speaker, the crowd sang “We Are the Champions” not once but twice, a drummer set up shop, a city worker dedicated his shift to driving his street cleaner back and forth, honking relentlessly. 

Oh, the joy. It radiated from everyone in the crowd, almost none of whom knew each other. Eventually, the police blocked both sides of the street to traffic, triggering an impromptu block party. It seemed as if in that moment, like the woman I briefly spoke to, everyone wanted to be with people. But why?

***

In times of high emotion, whether positive — like joy, excitement or relief — or negative — like loss, pain or grief — humans have always come together. We hold protests, vigils, riots, rallies, and celebrations, among many other gatherings. 

LSA senior Amytess Girgis, a student organizer who works with the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and a variety of student organizations fighting for equity and justice, has helped organize many different functions for these purposes.

“Our primary focus, when organizing gatherings is to create pockets of liberation, where people can envision the world as it should be,” she said. “And so what that looks like is creating accessible spaces. Spaces where folks with any kind of need can have a presence and not feel like some kind of burden or unwelcome. We create spaces of joy … and then, of course, it's bringing speakers in that can inspire folks and tell stories. But ultimately, the types of community gatherings I want to be a part of are the ones that tell the story of who we want to be and help people believe that that’s possible.”

The emotions I felt on Wacker Drive were exactly that: I was seeing, and participating in, a future that I hadn’t thought was possible four years ago. First and foremost, it was a collective sigh of relief that our democracy wouldn’t be toppled. Then, at least for me, it was a reinforcement that love, acceptance, inclusion, diversity, morality and empathy were still alive and persevering in our country. 

This wasn’t an organized protest, or even an organized gathering. It was a completely spontaneous gathering of people of every ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and age. We’d previously only felt that joy in microcosmic spaces we’d deliberately constructed. Suddenly, those spaces bled together in the Chicago streets as a celebration of shared freedoms. 

“To me, fundamentally, humans reach their most joyous selves with other humans,” Girgis told me. “And when we gather in spaces to celebrate our ties, even if those ties are from common struggle, we are creating the hope that, at least at the end of the world, we can still love each other.” 

Yet as endearing of a sentiment that is, our nation is as divided as we’ve ever been. There was an entire demographic of the country not celebrating in America's streets last Saturday — one that instead had their moment in November 2016. The concept of celebrating shared principles and values isn’t limited to one side, but right now, it seems to be one side at a time.  

The Black Lives Matter movement, founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in July 2013, has long used protesting in the streets to form coherence around the treatment of Black people in America. This past year, America exploded into anger after the killings of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in March, with 74% of Americans saying they support the protests and 15 to 26 million people participating in them. 

But the movement quickly fell prey to the “Black is thug” narrative, which evolved into “Black protest is riot.” By definition, rioting is a form of gathering. Sometimes it’s a crowd out of control. Sometimes it’s a deliberate tactic of deterrence, like at the University of Mississippi in 1962, when a white crowd rioted to block James Meredith, the first Black student at Ole Miss, from attending classes. Rioting’s historical significance and current narrative have been marred by those who deem it an illegitimate form of expression. 

“The reason why the Black Lives Matter protests were immediately billed as riots is because of how we define violence in a country like America, and in many other places that lean heavily on capitalist ideologies and racist ideologies,” Girgis explained. “And by that I mean that violence on property is the equivalent to violence on real bodies. Violence on the stock market is the equivalence of violence on real bodies.” 

It’s true that small riots have spurned from protests this past year. But it’s also true that historically, rioting has been perpetrated by people of all races, not just Black communities, and as a movement, Black Lives Matter has largely decided to fight inequity and injustice with love and community. 

“By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives,” their mission statement reads. 

Its principles are clear, and its materials readily available for people to utilize in organizing a community event, rendering the movement impossible to pin down. It can’t be eradicated — it’s not just an organization, but a community of people who believe in a better future, organizing tangible spaces where that belief rings true. 

Joy has been part of Black resistance for a long time. “We can actively trace the spatial and temporal control of Black expression from slavery and colonialism through to today,” wrote Chanté Joseph in Vogue this past summer. “This is why the act of joy is resistance and as we use our physical bodies to protest, march and demand change, we must also use them to experience the pleasure of joy.” 

For BIPOC in America, and around the world, just existing is an act of resistance. Girgis pointed out how central oral traditions are to these communities — music, dance and art are embedded in their protest. “‘We Shall Overcome’ is one of the most famous movement songs of all time that sort of carries the waves of the civil rights movement,” she said. 

On Saturday, the music leaned a little more toward “FDT” by YG and Nipsey Hussle — cars drove past with the song blaring, drenching the crowd in an energy and freedom they’d been missing. That energy couldn’t be contained. And perhaps “FDT” is less traditional than “We Shall Overcome,” but the sentiment still remains the same: A community’s art and culture is woven into the way it decides to gather together. 

In the Candlelight Revolution of 2016 and 2017, millions of South Koreans took to the streets every Saturday for 20 straight weeks, demanding President Park Geun-hye’s resignation and the upholding of democracy. The protests were entirely peaceful, focusing around art and entertainment. Youngju Ryu, associate professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, teaches a class titled “The Candlelight Revolution: Democracy and Protest in South Korea,” and spoke to me about the impact of the incredibly successful demonstrations.

“Throughout the day, this space became the destination for anyone who wanted to express themselves,” she said. “You had a lot of homespun posters, a lot of performances, like puppet shows, you had incredibly satirical examples of what we would call ‘laughtivism.’ So people could go and just walk around and enjoy all these examples of creative and politically engaged voices, and then collectively come together in the evening, listen to speeches by prominent figures and sing together.”

She continued to speak about a sort of collective effervescence found in these scenes. 

“The spectacularity of a million people, holding up those candles together ... is something that became an essential part of showing, first of all, how many people there are, and how beautiful it is … I think what helped the protests is, again, kind of understanding the nature of a large crowd like that, and making sure that they remain entertained.” 

Almost a third of South Korea’s population turned out in the cold winter, week after week — so much so that Ryu noted a sense of loss after the impeachment was victorious. After 20 weeks of turning out together in pursuit of a common goal, they suddenly found themselves with free Saturdays. 

“What's bringing people together?” Ryu asked. “A strong sense of mission for protecting democracy that was hard fought and hard won ... faith in the power of the masses to bring about such a change, because they've done it before.” She continued, “They have this kind of relationship to democracy that I think is more visceral because they experienced authoritarianism in their own lifetime. Many of them fought against earlier, authoritarian regimes in their youth. And so the democracy that they have is something that they have to protect — that they won with their own hands.”

The South Korean Candlelight Revolution was largely deemed a political success — even a “democratic miracle,” by Ha-Joon Chang in the New York Times. Its playbook on keeping a massive crowd entertained is an interesting lesson for future political rallies, and its dedication to playing the long game is a perfect example of how, when unified, the will of the people is impossibly loud. 

“So much in the history of (America), and really any country, is the people dictating what it is that they want, they need, they deserve,” Girgis said. “And those in power only taking that which is convenient and co-opting the rest. Unfortunately, to those in power, what the people want, almost always will prevail, because the power of that many people in the streets can't be ignored for long.”

In South Korea, it took 20 weeks and millions of people, who were consistently ignored, to bring their goals to fruition. And the community that was built along the way astonished political analysts and the world alike as possibly the biggest example of the democractic power of gathering together. 

A different example of that power has been found, the past four years, in President Donald Trump’s rallies. His supporters are another American demographic that feels it’s been pushed to the edge and overlooked by those typically in power, and has found empowerment in creating their own narrative through gatherings. 

In 2017, Scientific American broke down the secrets and psychology of the president’s success. “In simple terms, a Trump rally was a dramatic enactment of a specific vision of America,” Stephen Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam wrote. “It enacted how Trump and his followers would like America to be. In a phrase, it was an identity festival that embodied a politics of hope.” 

For his supporters, Trump rallies are the equivalent of how I felt in Chicago: like those around me agreed with me, that we shared common principles and that our belief system is the one America desperately needs. 

His rallies are simple, but powerful. They create a coherent rhetoric out of a confusing political world. They make space for a group to come together and form a narrative on their terms. They allow a safe space for hate speech and racist ideologies — language that’s usually unwelcome elsewhere, but a uniting force there. And they’ve certainly confounded the ways we normally gather to support political causes.

For so long, both sides in our country have seen the other as “looking to screw things up.” We’re so far apart that progress in one direction is the antithesis of the other’s beliefs. This can’t possibly be how half of America is really feeling, we wonder. This anger can’t possibly be real

But it is. And it happened because we never stopped to listen. We collectively feel an overwhelming anger and hopelessness, though two very different ways. And those two emotions are punctuated by small moments of joy when our side collects a small win, or when we gather. 

There’s a reason Americans, and people around the world, will pour into the streets when they feel something needs to change. We collectively protest, mourn, celebrate, riot, march, sing and dance together — because it works. Sometimes these gatherings lead to policy change or a swaying of the public opinion. Sometimes they just show how big a group, and their need, is. Sometimes it’s a spontaneous anger, with violence and destruction, and other times a celebration, with dancing and music.  

In Chicago, it was, at least for me, a feeling of pride in my country again. That past week, we’d shown the world an America that values inclusivity and humanity. As I stood on Wacker Drive, I felt the community around me, and the majority of the country, at least in terms of the popular vote, represented my values. And as I read about South Koreans’ dedication to their protest and the pride they took in gathering together — millions of people, in pursuit of a common goal, I thought of Ryu’s words: “there’s no greater high than democracy.”


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