Building intersectional resistance alliances during COVID-19

Despite the global challenges presented by coronavirus, activists can use this moment to strengthen solidarity between movements.
A black trans lives matter demonstration with the BQIC (Black Queer & Intersectional Collective) shutting down High Street in Columbus, OH. (Instagram/Ben Willis @lowrcaseb)

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more urgent than ever to incorporate an intersectional approach to resistance.

The systems that are currently in place have uniquely positioned black communities to be more vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19. Undocumented communities likely will not receive government assistance while many are essential workers. Members of the LGBQ+ and TGNC communities risk being turned away by a doctor who doesn’t support their identity. People currently experiencing homelessness do not have a safe place to shelter, while thousands of hotels and buildings remain empty. People who are incarcerated continue to be used for their labor while receiving no protections in some of the most populated facilities.

As we consider the world we are living in today, it becomes increasingly apparent that our government and those in power are mainly seeking to protect themselves and their profit. Even during a global pandemic, the needs and protections for the people who lack resources, power, or agency are still being overlooked, while the rich continue to be protected.

While there are many communities who have known this to be true for generations and have been fighting to be heard, it is in this moment when the flaws and cracks of our society are being so broadly exposed that we are finally hearing these voices and truly listening to what they have to say. However, our work cannot stop there.

Every day we are experiencing something new and unprecedented, and we have little knowledge of what our world will look like after all of this. On the one hand, that can be incredibly frightening and overwhelming, but on the other hand it can also be seen as an opportunity for true change and transformation. In order for us not to replicate the oppressive systems that have shaped the inequities in our world today, we must move forward intentionally and collaboratively. This means we must work together as a community, be open to learning and growth, and continue to listen to the voices that are often left out. We need intersectional resistance alliances. But what does that really mean? And how do we make that happen? First, let’s break down that term.

As defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality is a framework to understand the ways in which overlapping identities are uniquely impacted by systems of oppression. Crenshaw used this term specifically to describe the struggle of black women in the legal sphere, and how their identities as being both black and a woman create a specific set of challenges and vulnerabilities.

However, the idea of intersectionality dates back to the 1850s with Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, where she described her struggle with the white women’s suffrage movement as a black woman. This idea also came up in 1977, in the Combahee River Collective’s statement explaining their integrated analysis of the multiple interlocked systems preventing liberation. Using an intersectional lens in our work must be a priority, in order to fully see and address the needs of everyone in our communities. Without it, movements will continue to serve only those with more privilege.

A speaker at the 2018 inaugural Columbus Community Pride event honoring Black 4 Pride, a group that protested the Columbus Pride Parade in Columbus, OH (Instagram/Ben Willis @lowrcaseb)

Resistance is the struggle to survive, fight, and eradicate the systems of oppression and violence that continue to harm our communities, and especially our communities who exist in the margins of multiple vulnerable identities. Resistance is critical in actualizing the world of liberation and justice that we seek to build, as we must resist the structures and systems that are attempting to maintain their oppressive control. However, resistance must be done through an intersectional lens if we are striving for true liberation. This means that as we build our relationships, alliances, coalitions, and movements, we must always consider the varying ways in which our communities are affected, and use that understanding to inform our resistance and our work.

How do we create these alliances? In Columbus, Ohio the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective exemplifies the effectiveness of an intersectional approach to resistance. Their mission incorporates the understanding that our liberations are intertwined with one another, and so their actions gain more power as they unite multiple communities.

A report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration provides a number of examples of how different organizations have incorporated an intersectional lens to their work and have built relationships across and between communities. This is just one of many resources available online that can provide insight into how to begin these relationships, but most of the advice can be boiled down to three main points—connection, engagement, and education. The steps to achieve these alliances might look a little different during a time of social distancing and isolation, yet can definitely still be used in our work today.

Building Solidarity

The first step in creating these alliances is to build the relationship. It is imperative that the different perspectives and identities of the people within the movements are heard and honored. This means that an effort must be made to foster awareness and raise consciousness around the ways oppressive systems, such as capitalism, patriarchy and racism, influence the lives of our community members. These relationships dig deeper than just being an ally to a different community or movement, rather they build solidarity so you can best support and work with one another. In order to ensure equitable involvement and decision making, an analysis of power and privilege for yourself and those you will work with is required.

Nonviolent protestor being arrested by Columbus police at the 2019 Free Masonique demo in Columbus, OH, organized by the Columbus Freedom Coalition (Instagram/Ben Willis @lowrcaseb)

To build with a movement different from your own, it is crucial to keep communication open to learn from each other and to allow for the sharing of individual needs and experiences. Some communities may show up to this relationship differently, as capacity levels and access to resources vary, especially given the circumstances under COVID-19. It is important to be mindful that not everyone will want to show up in the same way or be interested in all the same goals, but leaving the door open to whomever would like to join and allowing for connections to be made is vital to the integrity of these relationships.

In this moment, this solidarity could look like organizing a rent strike to protect those who may not be able to pay rent, even if you can. The power of a rent strike is derived from the united front of the tenants, which can only happen if everyone chooses to be in solidarity with one another. But when it does happen, you are in solidarity not just with the people in your building, but with movements nationwide that are protesting the inequalities and injustice of our housing crisis, unemployment and class struggle.

Community Care as Resistance

Once we build our solidarity, we must move our ideas into action. In doing so, we use our intersectional lens to ensure that we are centering and uplifting the most vulnerable voices. The spread of COVID-19 has emphasized and exacerbated the myriad of existing issues in our society that leave many communities without protection. However, community care is a way to support and provide for these individuals, despite the lack of effective government assistance.

Caring for and redistributing wealth and resources to communities who have been historically and systemically silenced and neglected is an act of resistance. Our government is not interested in hearing these voices or providing protection for these communities, so it is up to us to create our own safety and support.

Recognizing and utilizing different communities’ and movements’ proximity to power and resources can help to more effectively organize and distribute aid in an equitable manner. Across the country, many mutual aid networks have been launched to do just that — organizers from different backgrounds and movements strategically use power from across their communities to provide support and to organize with multiple goals in mind, while still centering the most vulnerable in the community.

A black trans lives matter demonstration with BQIC (Black Queer & Intersectional Collective), shutting down High Street in Columbus, OH (Instagram/Ben Willis @lowrcaseb)

We are building not just for our communities now, but for the future of our world, and that must be done with intention. This is especially important to consider during a global pandemic, as it is easy to slip into “crisis mode mobilizing” which is reactive and lacks strategy or longevity. Right now, the needs and concerns of our most vulnerable community members are urgent and potentially life-threatening, however that does not mean that we have to move without intention or planning. We must build our movement in a way that is open and receptive to change, or in other words, with intentional adaptation.

In adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, she speaks about the act of intentional adaptation as accepting that change is constant, allowing the deeper purpose and vision of the movement to orient and guide your work through the changes. This is not just mindlessly adapting to new dysfunctional systems, but rather allowing the driving force of decision making and planning to come from the core goals of the work.

What would it look like to give ourselves a moment of pause right now to assess our goals and priorities for what we would like to see in our post-COVID-19 world? What would it look like to resist capitalist expectations to constantly produce, and instead choose to be visionary and build with intention?

Sharing Notes of Resistance

The educational component of building these alliances refers to the strategies used to grow the movement and disseminate information. Once you have begun to build solidarity, how will you continue to grow membership and reach more of the community? What is the unifying force that will be able to maintain the connection and the drive behind the multi-faceted movement?

Ideally, a shared analysis of power, oppression and community capacity will act as the cohesive bond that continues to keep your movements connected. There may be complexities and nuances to this analysis as everyone comes from a different background, although overall there is a deeper vision that helps to propel the work forward. As membership grows and goals adapt to change, this shared analysis will be the backbone of the movement and guide decision making and objectives. Once these foundational relationships and understanding are secured, you have opened up the possibility for true transformation.

Having strong community and movement connections means that you can more easily ask your community for the support you need. As brown advises in Emergent Strategy: be seen, be wrong, accept your inner multitudes, and ask for — and receive — what you need. Be present in your community and in the work, let yourself show up fully as you are with an open mind. Allow yourself the space to be wrong, because that is where learning and growth happens. Accept that you are complex and will experience internal conflict, and know that these conflicts will show you your ability to hold multiple truths and critically consider your next decision. Ask for what you need—this can be tiring and vulnerable, yet also liberating.

This work cannot be done alone, and intersectional resistance alliances are meant to unite people, groups and movements, so that our collective power can be used to better support one another and more effectively fight for liberation. When we do not have a government or systems that can adequately support the needs of the people, we, the people, must turn to one another to find strength and protection.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.