Can Black women save our democracy?

Tanya Chutkan, Fanni Willis and Kamala Harris
Tanya Chutkan, Fanni Willis and Kamala Harris (Photos: Creative Commons/YouTube screenshot)

It was 11:39 p.m. Monday night when I tweeted, “Fani Willis is about to speak on the indictments. Wow.”

At 11:42 p.m., I tweeted: “Fani Willis reading out every name with middle names and everything is breathtaking.”

Like millions of Americans who stayed up late to witness history being made — in this case with a former President of the United States charged as “head of a criminal enterprise” under the RICO Act — I was tuned in to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on what would be the top-rated show on all of TV Monday night.  

In addition to out lesbian anchor, Maddow, the entire team of primetime MSNBC hosts was on a panel, talking about the indictments which were sealed until Fulton County, Ga. District Attorney Fani Willis read the names of all 19 co-defendants starting with Donald John Trump in that late-night press conference. Among the defendants was Rudy Giuliani, who, ironically, prosecuted people under the RICO Act as Manhattan District Attorney several decades ago.

Prior to the announcement that the indictments had been delivered by the grand jury, the network and the nation was on “indictment watch.” But in the most serendipitous timing and perhaps karmic payback, Maddow’s scheduled guest for the show was former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Hillary has been a guest on Maddow’s show periodically over the years since she won the popular vote but narrowly lost the Electoral College in what would turn out to be the most cataclysmic presidential election in decades. It was a compelling interview and an extraordinary historical moment.

It was also a grim reminder of how a confluence of misogyny and racism put us here, with a former president now on his fourth indictment with a total of 91 criminal felony counts leveled against him in four separate jurisdictions. Yet, he is the front-runner for the GOP nomination with a very real chance of winning. 

It was painful watching Hillary, who was brilliant, and then Willis, who was forceful and stalwart despite the hour, delivering the news with the solemnity it deserved and to which Hillary had spoken. In a tweet that has gone viral with a million views, I wrote: “I will never not be sad that we were cheated of Hillary’s presidency–her intellect, her grace, her compassion, her historical memory. We would be in the middle of her 2nd term: with a liberal court and Roe intact.  With far fewer deaths from COVID. And no January 6th. Sigh.”

I had reported on how Hillary was the first (and to date, only) FLOTUS to walk in a Pride parade in 2000. I had reported on Hillary saying as Secretary of State in Geneva in 2011 that “gay rights are human rights” — the highest placed official in the world to do so.

In 2016, I was covering the election for a national LGBTQ+ publication. I covered the Democratic National Convention, live tweeting from the floor of the very hot and wildly exciting convention at which history was made every day. It would turn out to be my last on-site reporting. Just weeks later, I was paralyzed in a catastrophic event.

Throughout the 2016 election cycle, Hillary fought misogyny at every turn, but the specter of America’s deeply embedded racism was also a huge part of that election. Trump had announced his run with a racist screed against people of color. His hatred and envy of then-president Barack Obama was well-established with years of tweets and interviews. It was Trump who started the “birther” movement — the lie that Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen but had been born in Kenya, his father’s home country. (Obama was born in Hawaii, where his mother’s family lived.)

Hillary had a staff of women of color, as she’d had for decades as First Lady in Arkansas and D.C., as senator and as Secretary of State. Black women ran her campaign. She spoke in Philadelphia in April 2016 to thousands at an AME conference and called out white supremacy. She spoke at a church in Harlem. She knew the link between structural misogyny and systemic racism was inextricable. 

What we know as LGBTQ+ people is how inextricably tied misogyny and homophobia and transphobia are and how racism underpins all of it.

The transition from Hillary to Willis on Maddow was like the trajectory of the past seven years. Black women have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party. It was Black women who tried to deliver a Hillary presidency, with 94% voting for her compared with only 47% of  white women. It was Black women who got Joe Biden elected and also insisted on a Black woman Vice President. 

Kamala Harris, an LGBTQ ally for decades, was marrying lesbian and gay couples in San Francisco 20 years ago when then-mayor Gavin Newsom decided it was time. As senator, Harris stood up for Obergefell as “landmark civil rights law,” calling it akin to Brown v. Topeka during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. And throughout her tenure as VP, she has consistently been a voice for queer and trans people. In June, Harris visited the Stonewall Inn, a landmark for the gay rights movement, to affirm the Biden administration’s support the LGBTQ+ community “as it faces an increasingly hostile political landscape.”

Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the Jan. 6 case in D.C., has, like Willis, faced racist and misogynist tweets from Trump on his Truth Social platform. Trump has targeted both women, much as he has Hillary and Harris in the past. Yet these two women are who non-MAGA America is depending on to save democracy.

On Monday night — or rather, Tuesday morning — Symone D. Sanders-Townsend said on MSNBC, “Our democracy is in crisis.”

Sanders-Townsend was press secretary for Bernie Sanders in 2016, a senior advisor to Biden’s 2020 campaign and was chief spokesperson and a senior advisor for Vice President Kamala Harris before leaving to helm her own show on MSNBC. In a column on Tuesday, Sanders-Townsend, who is Black, detailed how normalizing fascist actions like those of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is dangerous for the country and allows for the authoritarian creep we have seen since Trump took control of our national discourse.

Sanders-Townsend wrote, “Make no mistake: There are anti-democratic forces working to minimize your say in how you are governed. These forces rely on division and disinformation to rob you of your voice. It’s time to take notice and act.”

Willis mentioned Pennsylvania and the attempts to steal our votes here with another fake electors scheme in the indictment. Pennsylvania will play a pivotal role in the 2024 election. While Hillary was speaking on MSNBC, Caitlyn Jenner was on Fox News saying, “I am a proud American… This is the first time I’ve ever been ashamed of my country.”

The current anti-LGBTQ+ legislative trend has a direct trajectory from Trump. We can’t afford another Trump presidency. We can’t afford to vote against our own interests. We cannot vote to shore up straight white male supremacy. Black women are fighting to save our democracy but 2016 proved they cannot do it alone — nor should they. We need to be all in on this fight — or we will be the first in the crosshairs if our republic falls.