One could say this administration has shaped me as an activist. It was when now Vice President, Mike Pence was Governor that I became vocal about social justice. Showing up regularly at the Statehouse to do what I could to speak out against legislators blatant attacks on the LGTBQIA+ community. It was when 45 was elected to the Presidency that I made a decision to shift my life’s focus. I turned to the nonprofit sector and became fully committed to being an advocate for social justice. These past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege to speak at several rallies, vigils, and panels. One, in particular, has changed me in more ways than I ever imagined.
Earlier this year I was asked to speak at the March for Our Lives Rally. A young woman from one of the local high schools had heard me perform (I’m also a poet) and speak at a panel a few weeks prior. I was ecstatic because this rally was being put on by the youth to talk about the gun violence that plagues their everyday lives. I was also able to speak in the building where it all began for me, the Indiana Statehouse. When I was writing my speech I made a point to write specifically for the youth that were present. I was fully aware of what the politicians were going to say, and I wanted to speak directly to the youth and be honest. I made a point to speak about state violence perpetrated by the police, not just mass shooters. I spoke about black lives, trans lives and Palestinian lives mattering. I left that stage being heckled by a few adults, but I knew the youth understood that they were not in this alone. I was inspired. I was ready to take on the world. I was reminded of why I decided to get into this work. I was full.
Days later, it came to my attention that a white supremacist vlogger got ahold of a clip of my speech. A clip that was filmed by a family friend and only shared on our Facebook pages. A clip used in a video released on YouTube with a picture of me and the term “Anti-White” next to it. He then used the clip of my speech to go on a 10-minute diatribe about why “blacks are inherently prone to violence”, used skewed FBI statistics to “prove” white privilege is not real, amongst other hateful, racist commentary. The video (with over 80,000 views and 2000+ comments) referenced my personal blog as well, where people began leaving hateful comments attacking me. Needless to say, I was (and mildly am still) in shock.
I had to come to terms with how open we are because someone had to send this hateful person this clip, causing me to reformat how I use social media. On top of that, I found it difficult to be in public. I became terrified that someone had seen the video, believed what was being said about me and would lash out. I worried about my children and my mother. I became worried that I’d lose my job due to backlash. I shut down and only found refuge in my home, behind closed doors and drawn blinds.
As I was going through this and trying to keep up appearances, I was supposed to speak for the 50-year commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination. The day of my speech, I pulled up to my house with my children in tow, to find a police officer parked in front of it. Mind you at the time I lived in an all-white neighborhood, that never had a police presence. Now, I am aware it could be a coincidence but will be honest in saying, I don’t believe in coincidences. He remained there for 30 minutes before he pulled off. I still to this day have no idea why he was there and will probably never know. What I do know is I was terrified because it was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t even safe in my own house. I canceled my speech as I couldn’t let go of what I was going through and the reason I was asked to speak that day. I do not consider myself anywhere near the level of Dr. King but am not blind to the world we live in either.
The reality of being an activist and the dangers that come with it became very real for me and I had to take a step back to consider how far I was/am willing to go, especially while being a single mother. This became even more evident when I learned that the (white) nonprofit I work for has no protocol for protecting it’s employees and did not take the video, nor my fear of police intimidation seriously. I realized that I had no game plan for myself or my family, for protection. I have changed how I navigate the world, especially as more articles come out about activists losing their lives or their loved ones. I feel grateful that my reality check came in the form of a defamation video and nothing worse.
Despite all that has happened, I’ve learned that silence is what they want. Those that benefit from our fractured system, want us to be quiet and complacent. I refuse to sit back and let this go by without exposing it for what it is. I am currently working on a chapbook and art installation, to be released on December 7th, using the video and the comments, to show people what it’s really like to be a queer PoC activist on the front lines. I hope that everyone that reads this will take the time to truly think about how far they are willing to go out on a limb to stand up for what is right.
Not everyone is made to be on the frontlines. Not all of us have the privilege to be vocal or the safety to be seen. Yet, we can’t just sit idly by in silence either. We must all take a stand even if it’s behind others. Know that it’s okay to take a step back to re-evaluate what your role is going to be.
Tatjana Rebelle is a 2018 Wayfinder Foundation Fellow from Indianapolis, who uses various art mediums as forms of activism and is especially focused on elevating the voices of young people.