I was flying from Austin to San Jose when the person sitting next to me tapped on my shoulder. I took off my headphones and gave them my attention. “Do you really need to wear a shirt like that on a plane?” they asked, gesturing to the Planned Parenthood tee I was wearing.
“It’s just — everything is so political right now. Do you need to add to it with a political shirt?”
“Every shirt is political,” I replied, and put my headphones back on and returned to my work, knowing this interaction would fester in my mind, but not willing to give this person my flight.
It was the Wednesday after the Inauguration. Just a few days before, I was in DC marching and protesting in resistance, where the sentiment above couldn’t have been more clearly felt: every shirt, every hat, every message was political. You were either wearing the uniform of the opposition (it came in many forms, from pink hats to black blocs), or you were there in support (whether you were wearing a “45” shirt, a MAGA hat, or just plainclothes — your attendance without exception was a message of affirmation).
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
– Howard Zinn
And — in a way that my plane neighbor didn’t know — they were right: everything is so political. But that’s nothing new. The only thing that might be new, for some, for many, is how high the stakes feel.
The feelings of protest have started to permeate American society-at-large. People are considering how the dollars they spend are used by the corporations they give them to; what the banks who they let hold their money are doing with it; and what daily political action they should take, knowing that voting, even with the majority, isn’t enough. Or people aren’t doing any of those things, but they’re hearing about them. They’re feeling pressured, or pushed, or judged.
We’ve become engrossed in a powerful zeitgeist where we’re facing the demons we feed.
When flying, I almost exclusively wear “political” shirts. I see it as a perfect time to spread progressive messages to strangers from all over the country and world, who I won’t likely encounter again. I have a stack of tees in my closet for just this purpose. Sometimes they draw attention (recently a couple flight attendants asked to take photos with my “I <3 Sex Ed” Shirt), but I’ve never had anyone push back like on this flight.
To this person, a flight was, for whatever reason, a political safe space. Perhaps one of the last in their life. And my shirt challenged that. It forced them to take a side, where they were only hoping to choose between peanuts or pretzels.
What they didn’t realize was that choosing not to focus on politics, or choosing to ignore injustice, is a side. And it amounts to more than peanuts or pretzels.
”If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
– Desmond Tutu
Last week, amidst a Muslim Ban that we were told wasn’t a ban, when protests broke out at airports all over the US, I was talking with a friend who came up with an idea for contributing their art to opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then I started thinking about how many coffee shops I love in Austin were donating their profits to the ACLU. Those ideas collided together in my mind and I saw the above story with new clarity.
What we’re not doing is as important as what we are. While that’s always true, we have more to lose right now, and less leeway to make mistakes.
Conversations we have where we avoid talking about politics are political. Purchases we make where we decide not to investigate the ways the profits are spent are political. Our banks, investments, and retirement plans are political. And every shirt we wear, even just a plain white tee, is political.
”In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Every day is a protest. You can’t choose whether or not you show up, only how. Resist or assist: those are your choices.
For me, this means I’ll be adding a few more Planned Parenthood tees to my pile.