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Our Democracy Is at Risk’: ‘Writers Resist’ with Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Readings

Using the rallying cry, "Writers Resist," hundreds of writers in more than 90 cities in the United States and around the world participated in literary protests timed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Jan. 15, reading stories, poems, and speeches, about the ideals of democracy and free expression.

A view of the Jan. 15 Writers Resist reading hosted on the steps of the New York Public Library. Courtesy of Writers Resist

“Our democracy is at risk,” Giles Li, a poet and community leader who participated in the Boston event, told NBC News. “Growing public cynicism and an alarming disdain for truthfulness is eroding our most dearly held democratic ideals. As writers we have tremendous power to bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate society.”

The flagship event in New York City was hosted on the steps of the New York Public Library and co-sponsored by PEN America. Other cities hosting events included Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, Portland, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Seattle, London, Zurich, and Hong Kong.

“The right to free expression is something we treasure and is essential to our lives in a democracy,” Meena Alexander, who read her poem “Winter Light” at the New York event, told NBC News. “Remember and do not forget the power and creativity of shared expression, the ability to repair and remake the fabric of this fragile world we share.”

Organizers said that they sought to bring together diverse communities to focus on how writers could be a unifying and healing force to protect free expression, democracy, and justice.

“Poets need to be awake and active,” Fresno Poet Laureate Lee Herrick told NBC News. “I hope the events across the country help fuel a new consciousness, a new chapter of social and literary activism, and a sense of compassion and resistance against bigotry, misogyny, and racism.”

Other organizers hoped to use the gathering as a means to community healing and building.

“I've been dismayed by the number of hate/bias incidents such as racism, transphobia, sexism, normality of sexual assault,” Houston poet and community organizer Ching-In Chen told NBC News. “My goal in helping to organize Houston's #WritersResist readings was to participate in gathering communities together — Asian-American communities, LGBTQIA communities, Latinx communities, Black communities, indigenous communities, communities of folks with disabilities, and other allied communities — to stand together in solidarity to resist this kind of oppression.”

The Jan. 15 readings are just a start of what the event's national leaders hope will be a larger movement, they said. More than 150,000 people have signed a PEN America pledge to defend the first amendment to be delivered to President-elect Donald Trump this week, according to the organization.

“These events, which came out of a wish many of us had to take action following the results of the recent presidential election, are just the beginning,” Erin Hoover, an organizer for Writers Resist, told NBC News. “In coming months, you'll see our network of writers respond to the threats to democracy as they materialize."

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