I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Writers Resist PHL event that occurred in Philadelphia and in cities across the nation on January 15, 2017. Would they tell us how to throw verbal Molotov cocktails or create a Twitter feed that would cause Trump to self-implode? Actually, it was none of those things.
The program was introduced by Philebrity editor-in-chief Joey Sweeney, accompanying himself on guitar to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Sweeney was in fine voice, well suited to Dylan’s plaintive lament, though at times I had to stick my fingers in my ears to avoid the high-pitched feedback. While there’s a certain logic in paying homage to Dylan and his recent Nobel Prize, it struck the wrong chord for me. Even though I could sing every word of the 1962 song, I don’t think it reflects the national psyche, which, these days, is more like Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.”
As it turned out, the entire program consisted of local poets, authors, and other writers reading excerpts of famous poems and speeches to the 225-seat theater’s standing-room-only crowd. The first writer to speak was poet Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, who recited an inspired interpretation of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Her delivery was spot on; the audience was with her.
We heard snippets from speeches originally presented in 1876 at the National Woman Suffrage Association; from a gay psychiatrist to the American Psychiatric Association in 1972; from Hillary Clinton addressing the United Nations World Conference for Women in 1995; from an abolitionist in 1799; and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s acceptance speech for re-nomination in 1936. FDR’s words, comparing the tyranny of American life under the capricious rule of the captains of industry to the tyranny of living under British rule, jolted the audience as if our seats were hotwired.
Yes, the speakers seemed to say, that is what we are up against now. The very “elites” Trump vowed to kick out of Washington are beating the drums of victory. They waited eight years to get rid of legislation that has given millions access to healthcare, protected the environment from hazardous waste, and stabilized the economy following the 2008 recession. The swamp hasn’t been drained. It’s been stocked with cabinet appointees who serve at the pleasure of Exxon, Wall Street, the NRA, and Vladimir Putin.
But who, among the hundreds of writers attending the event, didn’t know that before they walked into the auditorium? Which led me to wonder about the purpose of organizing Writers Resist events across the country. Did the organizers feel that the average freelance writer or staff journalist needed to be motivated? That we had grown complacent? Or did they simply want to remind us that no matter how small our market share, every voice is important?
While I pondered this, a clipboard was passed around the auditorium requesting names, email addresses, and phone info for an organization called Mighty Writers. I didn’t sign. Neither did the guy sitting next to me. It turns out Mighty Writers is a volunteer organization dedicated to helping Philadelphia’s schoolchildren improve their writing skills. Cool — but I would’ve just as soon perused a Chinese takeout menu.
There was also an enormous info desk outside the auditorium, draped with an ACLU banner. I love the ACLU. When friends have birthdays, I donate to the ACLU in their honor rather than giving them a gift card to a spa. I’m counting on the ACLU to kick butt as the new administration proceeds to curtail voting rights, make abortion inaccessible, and allow the fossil-fuel industry to destroy the environment. But, again, why were they at a writers' conference? And who exactly is Writers Resist?
All it says on their website is that they are “…a national network of writers driven to #WriteOurDemocracy by defending the ideals of a free, just and compassionate democratic society.” That loose definition could apply to last call at McGillin’s Ale House. Their site also promises opportunities for writers to make their voices “heard,” as if professional journalists lack media outlets.
If this organization seeks to encourage writers to defend our endangered freedoms, I am not sure they’ve figured out how to achieve that goal.
To hear Darnelle Radford's podcast interview with Writers Resist organizer Stephanie Feldman, click here.
To read Wendy Rosenfield's essay about the Writers Resist rally, click here.