By Herb Geraghty
The history of our country is filled with cruelty and dehumanization. From our very beginnings with of the colonization and genocide of the native people on this land to the human beings kidnapped and forced into legal slavery, violence runs deep in our nation’s past. Now, with countless deaths caused by our ongoing imperialist wars and the descendants of those aforementioned subjugated indigenous and black humans at increased risk of violence in the form of police brutality and inhumane incarceration—is this violence just a part of our national identity?
The answer is complicated. Yes, there are myriad historical and modern examples of widespread state sanctioned violence, but along with these examples there are also always those who risk their reputations, livelihoods, and even lives to bring about justice. Particularly, the work of members of those oppressed and subjugated classes of human beings has been instrumental in bringing about the societal change that has been accomplished.
A great example from history is the life and work of Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery, Douglass eventually escaped and chose to dedicate himself to the abolition of the inhumane practice. Douglass worked with many prominent abolitionists of his time, most of whom were not former slaves but white allies to the cause. In a culture, where many black people were denied legal personhood because they were deemed “inferior,” Douglass’s writing and public speaking was instrumental in the effort to rehumanize the enslaved people in the United States. Douglass’s words and existence as an educated black man disproved many of the misconceptions that society had about the people subjected to slavery. His white allies were also important in that they used their privilege and influence to share Douglass’ story and promote his perspective.
For a long time, I felt like I did not know how to best strive to be an ally to marginalized people, especially when it came to racial justice issues. As a white person, I did not want to speak over the experiences of my friends who were not as privileged as I on the axis of race, but I also did not want to be silent on these important issues. The best solution I have found to this quandary is the concept of “passing the mic.” This is what many of Frederick Douglass’ supporters did when they invited him to speak at events and shared his story. It is a direct challenge to the idea that we must always speak for the weak. Rather than speaking on the behalf of the voiceless, we should not accept that some members of the human family are metaphorically voiceless. We must use our privilege to “pass the mic” and highlight the lived experiences of those who are most affected by whatever injustice we are looking to combat.
This paradigm shift is vitally important to social justice and human rights work, especially when widespread dehumanization is at play. Take, for example, the problem of the disproportionate amount of murders committed against transgender people. “Passing the mic” does not mean that cisgender people should never speak to this issue; rather, that it is best to look to the leadership of those most affected by the violence, in this case: transgender women of color. The work of cisgender allies is vitally important, especially in spaces where there are no transgender people to speak for ourselves or where it would be unsafe to do so. However, when discussing this issue it is important to highlight the words and experiences of the people most affected. Showing that you value the humanity of the marginalized group enough to let them speak for themselves, while using your privilege to shine a light on their words, is one of the best ways to rehumanize the people affected by the injustice.
This rule is generally good; however, there are a few instances wherein the oppressed group literally cannot speak for themselves. The most glaring example of which is young children and particularly, the preborn. How can we best show solidarity to this group of human beings whose human rights are regularly trampled partially because they cannot defend themselves and proclaim their own humanity?
One display of creative, nonviolent direct action that has been incredibly successful in this endeavor is letting the preborn speak for themselves in the only way they can—their heartbeats. Last year, pregnant mothers in Chile with the pro-life feminist group, Reivindica, made international headlines when they chose to amplify their babies’ heartbeats with megaphones to protest growing support for legal abortion in the country. Recently, I saw this unique type of protest in action at the Walk for Life West Coast, as another group of women again used megaphones to amplify the “voices” of their preborn children. This innovative form of protest is a beautiful way to proclaim the humanity of the preborn and I hope that it becomes more popular; however, so far this seems to be the only way to figuratively “pass the mic” to the preborn members of our human family. The question then is, how else can we center the preborn when working to defend their rights?
Recently, a friend and I tried to do just that. We wanted to do our best to show solidarity with this marginalized group as allies. So much abortion apologism focuses on the inherent differences between prenatal humans and “real people,” or humans who have been born. Yes, of course, there are major differences between myself and a given fetal human being. I’m older, larger, more developed, I need less assistance from other people, and I no longer reside in one of my parent’s bodies. However, as members of the anti-abortion community know, things like size, age, level of development or dependancy, and location shouldn’t determine human rights. None of the differences between the born and preborn are enough to justify the widespread lethal discrimination against the latter group.
As someone who believes in equal treatment, I couldn’t help but notice that the biggest difference between the born and the preborn really is how we are treated under the law. For the first several months of all of our lives, it was legal to poison, starve, and dismember our bodies simply because we had not yet been born. Rather than our human rights being treated as inherent and belonging to us by virtue of our humanity, the state holds the power to determine which of us are worthy of living free from aggressive violence. As it stands, our government has determined that it is legal to kill us if we haven’t hit whatever benchmark they determine should grant rights —in many states this benchmark is simply having been born.
While contemplating this striking disparity, I couldn’t help but think of the document that most strongly represents this arbitrary distinction of rights—my birth certificate. Thousands of human beings are being legally slaughtered every day simply because they do not have that piece of paper. This realization sickened me.
That is why I decided to show solidarity with the preborn by burning my birth certificate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States along with my fellow atheist, pro-life feminist, Terrisa Bukovinac. We wanted to represent our rejection of the system where some lives are valued more than others.
We hope that this small act of creative nonviolent direct action inspires others to show their support for the marginalized groups who are still unable to speak for themselves.
This article originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 1 of Life Matters Journal.