On the Edge of the Great Plains
Marching for Equality in Omaha, Nebraska
Nebraska is a deeply red state, overall. Donald Trump dominated Hillary Clinton in the general election here, scoring a 25-point victory. Nebraska is also home to Grant County, population 641, which has the highest rate of enrollment in Obamacare in the nation. Yet, paradoxically, 93% of the residents there voted for Trump on election day. We have a multi-millionaire Tea Party governor and an extremely conservative congressional team.
But amid this sea of red, Omaha stands out as a blue dot. In 2008, for the first time ever, our Electoral College vote was split, with Barack Obama earning one vote from our congressional district. It was an epic achievement that suggested the changing dynamics of political life here. Like so many other places across the country, though, local Republicans gerrymandered our district in 2010, including more rural and suburban areas, to ensure that what happened in 2008 would not happen again in the foreseeable future. As a result, Obama lost our district in 2012 by roughly 7 percentage points. But in 2016, while our congressional district went to Trump, Douglas County, where Omaha sits, backed Hillary Clinton by a little more than 3,000 votes. We are home to Warren Buffett, two universities, a vibrant and young creative class, as well as a variety of thriving tech firms, prompting some to refer to us as the “Silicon Prairie.”
Given these local realities, perhaps it is not a complete surprise, then, that more than 18,000 Omahans poured into downtown streets the night of January 21st to support the Women’s March on Washington. (OK, it was a bit of a surprise, admittedly.) Because our event took place in the evening, most of the participants had been watching the amazing turn-out in D.C. and other major American cities, like Chicago, Denver, L.A. and elsewhere, earlier in the day. By the time we gathered at the Qwest Center for a series of motivating speeches by a diverse array of community leaders, there was a palpable sense of excitement, energy and cathartic positivity after the gloom of the previous day’s Inauguration. Most knew we were a part of something historic. Young and old; women, men and children; long-time activists and those who were demonstrating for the first time, all joined together to make it an unprecedented success for this emerging heartland city. Manny felt inspired and uplifted. As Leslie Spethman, a white health care professional, told me, “I marched because I could. I marched because strong women who came before me fought hard for my right to have an opinion and march about it. I marched because my daughters are watching. I marched because real people in my life will be affected by the hateful rhetoric, divisive policies, and blatant inequality that is supported by so many around them. I even marched for all of the women who criticized me for doing so because I know they don’t understand why I did it. I felt proud to be a small part of something so peaceful, beautiful, impactful, and bold.” We paraded through downtown in a rare show of defiant progressive strength in Nebraska and there is much reason to be hopeful that we might continue to build on this outpouring and further turn the political tide out here on the edge of the Great Plains, at least in our little corner of the state.
Digging a little deeper, though, a more complicated portrait of the event and the politics of the march, quickly emerges. The previous day, about 200 protesters, mostly people of color, gathered downtown to register their opposition to Trump’s inauguration. At that rally, snipers lined rooftops and police in riot gear stood by militarized vehicles, tear-gas at the ready. This was a sharp contrast to the Women’s March, which was overwhelmingly white and disproportionately middle-class. Gone were the signs of a militarized police force and the menacing, adversarial posture, replaced by respectful officers in regular uniforms, next to standard police cruisers, sharing hugs with demonstrators, some even donning pink pussy hats. The difference was not lost on local activists of color and their allies. As community leader, Ferial Pearson, “a queer Muslim immigrant woman, mother, teacher, and survivor of sexual assault and molestation,” wrote me afterward, “If you aren’t afraid to go to police officers when you need help, check your privilege. If people predominantly of your race gather in a group and it doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of society, check your privilege. If you enjoyed the march yesterday and didn’t have a moment of fear, isolation, or a feeling of being marginalized there, check your privilege. If you consider yourself an intersectional feminist and you marched, I’d better see you at our Black Lives Matter rallies, ready to use your body to shield us.” It is a refrain heard regularly from local activists of color, but too often lost on local white folks, even of the liberal, progressive and left variety. In another revealing moment during an after-march panel discussion, a white feminist from the crowd yelled “Bullshit!” as the lone African American woman on the panel spoke her truth and challenged her white sisters to step up and toward a truly intersectional approach to women’s issues. These and other similar moments reveal the fragile alliance that came together in Omaha on January 21st and the need for much more work, if the success is to be maintained and built-upon. These challenges, of course, are not unique to Omaha, but national issues we must all confront moving forward, though they do take place in a very different context than in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York or Washington, D.C.