The presidential hopeful was about to answer a question on the wage gap when a man rushed onto the stage. The response to his protest reveals a lot about how we view female politicians.
For many women, the footage of a man storming onto stage during Kamala Harris’ most recent speaking engagements is chilling.
Aidan Cook, an animal-rights protester, interrupted Harris at an event in San Francisco on the weekend, barrelling onto the stage and grabbing the microphone from the presidential hopeful to declare that he has “a much bigger idea” that he wanted to discuss. (At the time, Harris was talking about wage inequality.)
Moderator Karine Jean-Pierre intervened immediately, putting herself between Cook and Harris and motioning him away. When Cook tried to make his way back onto the podium, Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff took him by the arm and escorted him briskly from the stage. After Cook had been successfully contained, Harris returned to the platform to rapturous applause, saying “I’m good, I’m good… All good. No worries.” At the time, many on social media praised Harris and Jean-Pierre for their “strength”.
We don’t doubt that Harris and Jean-Pierre are strong and that when Harris said everything was “good” she meant it. If anyone can handle the interruptions of a white man it’s the unflappable Harris. But it’s also equally true that the situation was potentially dangerous, and serves as a shocking reminder of how casually aggressions like this against female politicians are treated.
As many women watching video pointed out, Cook is a white man and Harris a woman of colour. By interrupting her speech – on the subject of the gender pay gap, no less – Cook is taking her time and her voice away from her.
Though Cook’s protest was peaceful, albeit selfish and inept, this is not always the case. In 2011, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot at point blank range and six people were killed during an event in Arizona. In the UK, Jo Cox was tragically assassinated while on her way to meet constituents in 2016.
Harris and the two women moderating her panel could have been in very serious danger. Where was the security? Why are we praising Harris and Jean-Pierre for being strong and not condemning the antics of men like Cook? Why isn’t Harris better protected from attacks such as this one?
“Black women ARE strong but partly because the entire world has demanded it of them,” one Twitter user wrote. “Every day, from birth, for centuries. For pete’s sake. They deserve proper protection as humans, moreso because black women are always under threat.”
Another added: “People are praising Kamala Harris for not flinching. Doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared. The petite woman who stopped the protestor was courageous but she could’ve been seriously hurt. Black women are not made of steel. Stop w/ the Strong Black Woman tropes. The security team failed.”
“I just saw this and it makes me so afraid,” another wrote. “I see [Jean-Pierre] act. I see [Harris] not flinch. I know they have no time for fear and I want to follow their example. But I’m terrified of these people right now. Their metastasized and amplified privilege. How do we stop them?”
Black women are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, in particular depression, and their symptoms are often more severe. Black women are also less likely to receive treatment and ask for help, something that is exacerbated by the myth of the ‘Strong Black Woman’.
“Many – myself included – wear the badge of Strong Black Woman with honour,” psychologist Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler wrote in the New York Times in 2018. “We are proud of our tenaciousness and never let the world see us crack. But we are suffering silently with the mental and physical health consequences of carrying the burden of family, work and community responsibilities, compounded by personal experiences of trauma and loss, all in an environment of pervasive racial and gender discrimination.”
Praising Harris and Jean-Pierre for their strength in the face of the protestor only further plasters over the real danger that they were in.
When a situation like this occurs, the usual response is to laugh it off and make light of it. But it’s important that we call out behaviour like this when we see it. We need to recognise that even harmless protests can put a woman’s life in danger. Women should feel safe and protected in their place of work.
They shouldn’t have to be strong while men invade their personal space and threaten their safety. They should never be put in a situation like that in the first place.