Sartorially, at least, the recent protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd have been defined by a lack of the uniformity. The hodgepodge crowds painted a stark picture in contrast to the heavily militarized police, poorly disguised undercover cops, and even the far-right extremists counter-protesting identify themselves in Hawaiian shirts. The lack of uniformity left no doubt: this was a movement of the people.
But the estimated 15,000-person crowd gathered on Sunday outside the Brooklyn Museum and across the country in support of Black transgender lives after the deaths of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Tony McDade, Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, and others bucked this trend: the massive crowd sent a powerful message by wearing white.
According to Fran Tirado, one of the event’s organizers, the idea came out of a conversation with co-organizer West Dakota, who had floated the idea of mirroring the 1917’s Silent Protest Parade. That protest march against anti-Black violence was one of the first of its kind and gathered 10,000 on the streets of Manhattan. Men dressed in black, while all women and children wore white. The idea came to Dakota, a drag queen who'd heard from her drag mother that she felt unsafe at protests: was there a way to create a safe space for black queer people who were justifiably worried about attending rallies so often thrumming with the potential for police violence?
The 1917 march provided a useful template. “It wasn't necessarily a direct correlation but I knew that our movement needed to stand out,” Dakota wrote. Through their white clothing, protesters gathered Sunday for Black trans lives were able to bring history to the surface while evolving the message.
There is a long tradition of using uniforms in a protest. Suffragettes unified around white, purple, and green; civil rights activists in the ‘60s often donned their Sunday best; and more recently, the Women’s March used pink pussyhats to create visually arresting images. The very first stated purpose of the Pussyhat Project, which organized knitters of the pink caps, is to “make a unique collective visual statement which will help activists be better heard.” Protest uniforms aren’t just a reason to dress up—they serve as a codifying silent statement that is instantly recognizable.
Dakota and Tirado didn’t simply choose white to mirror the protest of 1917, either. White was chosen because of all the poetic splendor associated with the color. In literature, white often represents newness—a fresh sheet of snow, a blank slate—and it was the same for Sunday’s Brooklyn Liberation match. “Another part of our incentive for folks to wear white was to help the public understand a new, visual way to imagine our community—the dawn of a new era that would not just include Black Trans and gendernonconforming people, but put them at the front where they belong,” Tirado said via email.
Both Tirado and Dakota felt that the rainbow typically associated with Pride lost its resonance when corporations started using it to cover up otherwise problematic behavior. When rainbows appear on NYPD cop cars and hang outside precincts, they don’t make as much sense in a protest against those very entities. White was intended to make the crowd “stand out,” Dakota wrote. “Not only against the other actions happening everyday around the city/country, but also against the rainbow-washing, the co-opting of the rainbow flag by corporations, that say they are representing queer people. I wanted this to be a reminder, to ourselves, and to the world of what our community looks like.” Tirado added: “The overall sentiment of ‘Pride’ as a construct has unfortunately been tainted by corporatization, rainbow-washing, police collaboration, and a space predominantly for cis white folks—despite that being the exact antithesis of how Pride started 50 years ago.” (Pride, of course, started as a protest against the NYPD and its raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969.)
The striking photos that emerged from the march help prove the organizers' point: pictures from the scene are breathtaking in their vastness, like an avalanche that came to rest in front of the Brooklyn Museum. Together, the people dressed in white created an awesome display of something brand new—the birth, hopefully, of new ways of thinking, acting, and treating one another.
Originally Appeared on GQ