Coming to a Protest Near You: Tamika Mallory
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this lifelong activist is not going away after one massive march.
By Daniel Malloy
Tamika Mallory was out on a date when her mother called her home with the news: Her son’s father had been found murdered in a ditch in rural Pennsylvania. They weren’t together anymore, but she’d seen him just two weeks earlier at her son’s second birthday party. Sixteen years later, she most recalls an odd feeling: shame. Tarique’s father was involved with the wrong people, and he was gunned down and left to rot. How did that reflect on her? Or their son? It wasn’t long before the embarrassment hardened into resignation. His choices were not made in a vacuum. His parents had battled drugs and done time behind bars.
Mallory’s own upbringing had been different. The daughter of activists with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, she has the practiced voice of a speechmaker. “That act of violence comes from a litany of issues,” Mallory says of her thinking back when she heard the news. She was 20. “If I’m going to be angry about this and do something about it, I’m going to have to learn how to work on these different issues.”
On January 21, 36-year-old Mallory, one of the co-chairs for the Women’s March on Washington, rose to tell roughly half a million people gathered on the National Mall to “stand up for the most marginalized people in this society.” Across the country, millions more were marching. Backstage, Melissa Harris-Perry, the former MSNBC host, chatted with organizers. “We’re not going to ask, ‘Where have you been?’ We’re going to say, ‘Welcome,’” she said of the many marching that day who were new to activism. As Harris-Perry recalled weeks later for a crowd at Wake Forest University, where she teaches, Mallory replied: “I’m going to ask, ‘Where have you been?’”
We don’t believe that this system is able to do enough for people who are obviously sick.
Because she’s been there — the whole time. Mallory was maybe 5 years old at her first demonstration, which ended with the 300-pound, tracksuited presence of Sharpton rallying the crowd on 125th Street in Harlem. Instead of bowling or ice-skating, young Tamika, to her chagrin, was always on the march. After her own life was thrown by violence, she became a prominent gun control advocate, working with the Obama White House on gun control policies after the Sandy Hook shooting. Her proposed solution goes beyond magazine sizes and background checks. Mallory works in New York with Cure Violence, taking a public-health perspective on the problem — treating both the perpetrator and the victim.
The approach can cause friction even within her own family. When one of the two brothers convicted in connection with his father’s murder comes up for parole, Tarique usually writes a letter describing the void in his life and wishing the prisoner serve his full sentence. Mallory can more easily empathize with the killers. “I’m not going to stop my son at all from doing what he’s doing, and I support him,” Mallory says. “But the work that I do … we don’t believe that this system is able to do enough for people who are obviously sick.”
Mallory climbed the ranks to become NAN’s executive director, managing the organization’s sprawling national presence and carrying out the hyperkinetic Sharpton’s vision. She also helped organize the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013 before leaving NAN to strike out on her own as a consultant. As for this latest march? It began with a Hawaii grandmother’s Facebook post on November 9, which caught fire within progressive networks. Teresa Shook simply wrote: “I think we should march.”
Mallory and fellow veteran activists Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour were brought in to provide more structure and diversity to the event. Even now, Mallory cites the statistic that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump; she was reluctant to join the effort. But by then, 200,000 people had committed to march and Mallory wanted to make sure people of color were involved. The planning tested Mallory’s nerves at times. “This is not the Grammys — period. There will not be a red carpet,” she recalls telling stars’ handlers. (Scarlett Johansson and Katy Perry, among many other celebs, were in attendance.) But in the end, she helped stage what Erica Chenoweth, a University of Denver professor and expert on civil resistance, said was “the largest single-day continuous mobilization in U.S. history.” As a result, the women’s march has become “the central node,” Chenoweth says, of the Trump resistance.
“With Tamika, I like to just sit back and watch,” says Rachel Noerdlinger, Sharpton’s longtime public relations adviser. “She’s destined for greatness. The question is, what does that entail and what does she want to do?” She could run for office in New York, though she says she’s not interested “right now,” or continue her path as a movement leader. For now, she’s preparing to send her son off to college while shepherding the next phase of the Women’s March movement, which involves Mallory spending time on campus herself.
On a chilly February night in North Carolina, Wake Forest University’s chapel is dotted with pink pussyhats as Mallory joins Sarsour and Perez to discuss what comes next. She’s poised, at ease in front of a crowd; she’s there to listen as much as anything. Catching up with OZY later by phone, an audibly road-weary Mallory is heading to Indiana University. She’s finding that the next generation of activists is less concerned about reproductive rights than police brutality and education costs, and palpable racial tension on campuses. She needs this generation at airport demonstrations and town hall meetings.
“We Black folks were bracing, whether it was Hillary or Trump,” Mallory tells the North Carolina crowd. A lot of white heads nod along, and Mallory refrains, for now, from asking where they’ve been.