This year’s Women’s March was as beautiful and astonishing as last year’s. Surprising many, it created an even broader coalition, bringing out more people, and was more inclusive of women of color and queer women. I want to look at the problems of this coalition building — how to understand the alliances the women’s movement is making and the difficulty of maintaining identities within them.
Trump, the Great Uniter
Trump was not only the great divider, but also our great uniter, bringing together in one anti-Trump coalition every progressive movement. The first women’s march exploded in numbers out of shock, outrage and enormous energy for action after Trump’s election.
It was called a “women’s march,” but it was also a march about nearly everything wrong with America, since the Trump regime promised to be reactionary in the precise political sense of the term. The regime aims at breaking down every progressive change since the deep cultural shift of the 1930s Depression years. That was when vast mass movements ushered in the real New Deal, creating a new cultural consensus that society was responsible for the care of all its citizens and government’s role was to ensure the public’s welfare.
The meaning of the march: Not just a “March to the Polls”
The Women’s March in 2018 again was clearly an anti-Trump march, branded as a “March to the Polls,” and there were many Democratic Party officials among the speakers. But the marchers’ signs told a different story.
This was one of those demonstrations where people didn’t wait to be told what to hold up on a stick. They brought their own signs — scrawled, drawn, painted, photoshopped, collaged. There were plenty of signs about voting out Trump and Republicans, but far more showed a carnivalesque explosion of creativity expressing the breadth of marchers’ values.
For more on art in protests, read: The Women’s March: The look of a movement matters
Again in 2018’s women’s march, you saw not just “women’s movement” signs, but also signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “No One Is Illegal,” “Medicare for All,” support for LGBTQ rights, for protecting the environment, for religious freedom, for disability rights, for Palestinian women and for Ahed Tamimi, and so on, spanning the social justice movements.
Some people tried to put it all on one sign: “In my house love is love, black lives matter, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, water is life, and kindness is everything.” Or,“I Will Help Strengthen Our Community, Fight for Justice, Uplift Our Sisters and Brothers.” Many of the signs expressed what I take was the central experience of the march: It was a claim to power and a call to women for rebellion and defiance. “I Rise,” “Better Bitch than Mouse,” “Nasty bi woman,” “Patriarchy repent, your end is near,” “Girl Power,” “The future is female,” “Even Angrier this year,” “To the barricades,” “The Future is Female.” “This machine kills fascists!” (with a drawing of the female reproductive system).
New conversations, both needed and happening
Last year’s march was criticized for not being sufficiently inclusive. Bob Bland, who with Teresa Shook was credited with originating the idea of the march, were both white women. But after some initial missteps, Bland was joined on the leadership team within three days of the election by three organizers of the Justice League’s 2015 march from New York to DC, a march to protest police violence and racial profiling. The three were juvenile justice activist Carmen Perez, gun control activist Tamika D. Mallory, and Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab-American Association of New York.
The March leadership made efforts to include women of color. They say that from the start they decided to put racism and immigration at the center of their platform and organizing, and speakers at the Washington, DC, Women’s March focused on racial justice issues. There, an estimated 500,000 people turned out. Sociologists who surveyed the march estimated that 1/3 never took part in a march before, 1/4 were people of color, over 1/3 were motivated to march by racial justice and 1/3 by LGBTQ issues. There were plenty of signs, then and in 2018, with queer and trans slogans and artwork, and plenty of signs with immigrant rights and black lives matter messaging.
After the march in 2017, as march organizers set up a permanent organization to maintain the new movement, they reached out to racial justice and LGBTQ groups. They joined with Color for Change, the Movement for Black Lives and others to build September’s Charlottesville to DC March to Confront White Supremacy. Then in October, they held a Women’s Convention in Detroit with a workshop that “confronted white womanhood.”
All this made the march look rather different from stereotypical white, middle-class feminism. Still, many African American women voiced a lack of identification with the march, seen as a white women’s project. Some of their comments were widely read. In Colorlines, Jamilah Lemieux called Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour “living and breathing superheroes,” but wasn’t going to “feign solidarity with women who by and large didn’t have my back prior to November. … It’s time for white women to come together and tell the world how their crimes against Black women, Black men and Black children have been no less devastating than the ones committed by their male counterparts.” Having women of color in leadership is “significant,” but “their presence has given mainstream feminists permission to assume that their work in becoming intersectional is done,” wrote UU World’s Marchaé Grair. She wants to ask “if those attending the march would be willing to attend a Black Lives Matter action to say that black women matter.” Photos from a number of cities showed signs asking if the Nice White Women will show up at Black Lives Matter marches.
Then there was the social media outcry when someone put a pussy hat on the statue of Harriet Tubman in “New York City’s Black Mecca,” Harlem. But the pink pussy hats were not as widely seen at the march this year as last. Even then, they had been a project not of the March organizers, but of two designers in Los Angeles. But the hats caught on, with women buying and knitting their own across the country, gaining enormous media attention for the March. But while they were widely adopted as a symbol of defiance and pride by women who wore them, many women of color and trans people saw them as offensive and exclusionary. This year, Phoebe Hopps, organizer of the Lansing and Marquette marches in Michigan, said, “”I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people’s feelings, then I don’t feel like it’s unifying.” In Pensacola, organizers even asked marchers not to wear the hats, in a long Facebook post which ended with this warning: “The Pensacola Women’s March team will be removing all forms of hate speech that they encounter in an effort to promote a safer environment for all women.” The statement, ridiculed in the comments, was defended by some, though no one defended the threat to “remove” hats.
The hats were divisive, and so was the controversy over them, showing, as with the experience of the march generally, that new conversations were both needed and happening.
Four strategic challenges for the women’s movement
The fundamental challenge of movement strategy, now as always, is identifying your allies and enemies, and how, without sacrificing movement identity, to overcome difference to build coalitions. We see this tension also as opposition to Trump brings very different people together in a broad electoral coalition. The Women’s March made some serious efforts to be inclusive, but the activists are confronting four fundamental strategic challenges: four alliances and four divisions, four debates, four problems of difference and inclusion. There are not only differences and debate between white women and women of color, straight and LGBTQ, middle class and working class; there is also the conflict between insurgent “progressives” and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, and, not the same, the tension between the party’s base and its elites.
“Establishment” and grass-roots
The March organization’s “inclusivity” certainly extended to the Democratic Party establishment. The focus of the March for the next election and beyond, getting out the vote, is also a project of sections of the ruling elites and the Democratic establishment’s many institutional allies. Democratic elected officials, progressive and not-so, were on the speakers platforms everywhere, and “get out the vote” means vote for Democrats. Party officials appeared alongside spokespersons from giants like Planned Parenthood and representatives of small community groups; the speaker’s lists reminds us how the organizations we love in the not-for-profit sector depend on support from government. We are reminded of how their networks of staff, activists and donors intermesh with, support and are supported by the Democratic Party.
The March gained legitimacy from establishment figures, but also from grassroots organizers and activists. For example, in the Las Vegas March, this year’s strategically chosen central rally, Alicia Garza was one of the speakers. One of the founders of Black Lives Matter, she is representative of movement activists who quite naturally embrace this mediagenic opportunity to march against the Trump regime and all it stands for. There were speakers like her, but also Democratic Party politicians, celebrities, and big donors — a reminder that the focus, and the branding, of the march was narrow: “march to the polls.” It was not organize and empower your neighborhoods. Well, maybe organize them to get out the vote.
The difference between the marchers and the March leadership groups, with their ties to elites, reflects the political divisions and challenges to “establishment” elites emerging in the US (and Europe) since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In the future, we can expect the same struggle for leadership in future women’s marches that we have already seen in the new civil rights movement and the Democratic Party.
A different way to “march to the polls”: Black Lives Matter
The marchers included many people who are not just marching to the polls, who will not be satisfied just by Democrats replacing Republicans; we can expect differences about goals and methods to erupt as the movements become more successful in elections. After all, the march unites the anti-Trump mainstream with groups that have already asserted independence from the Democratic establishment and applied power at their pressure points: Witness the successes of the movement for marriage equality, the readiness of immigrant rights activists to denounce Obama as “deporter-in-chief,” or the uncompromising campaign disruptions of Black Lives Matter activists.
Some salient criticism of the march came from Black activists, who are also posing a challenge to establishment leadership Movement for Black Lives. There we have seen activists push aside older-generation black leadership. In Chicago, for example, Black Lives Matter groups promoted an idea of how to use elections that was quite different from the March’s messaging. After the 2015 mayoral election, the video of the police murder of Laquan McDonald was released and exposed how Mayor Emanuel had lied and suppressed the real story during the campaign. “15 Shots and a Cover-up” was the chant that greeted him everywhere, even when he appeared at a prestigious high school.
In the first Black Friday rally to demand the Mayor’s resignation, Black Lives Matter activists grabbed the mic cord and silenced Jesse Jackson and the ministers who had obtained the rally permit. “Indict Rahm!” chanted the marchers. “Let us pray,” said the ministers.” “We’re not here to pray,” said the marchers, “Send Rahm to jail!” (I’m not making this up; read The Chicago Sun-Times report, a dryly written hoot.)
The movement also targeted States Attorney Anita Alvarez. Activists exposed her as instrumental in this and many other cover-ups, and they succeeded in casting her as a symbol of police impunity and mass incarceration. But instead of promoting Kim Foxx, the progressive candidate running against Alvarez, activists focused on attacking Alvarez in a successful “Bye, Anita!” campaign. Their attitude towards Foxx? We’ll wait and see, we’ll watch her, hold her accountable and call her out when necessary.
This is one model of how a mass movement should exercise political power — electoral tactics based upon the movement’s political independence. Without real independence from the Democratic Party, the movement cannot hold officials accountable to the community; without independence the movement cannot make effective use of its power to mobilize the community to disrupt.
Similarly, in New York, there was marked tension between neighborhood activist groups and groups like the Justice League. Three of the March’s national leadership team — Mallory, Perez and Sarsour — came from the Justice League. The League was a part of New York’s movement against police violence, but the part that has access and connections to City Hall. (Mallory had been a director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and worked in it for 14 years.) Some neighborhood activists criticized their approach as accommodationist, too careful not to alienate Mayor DeBlasio, pulling punches on criticism and demands.
Independence from establishment leadership is rare. We saw the power of the Democratic establishment in the presidential primaries, where Clinton had virtually captured the Democratic National Committee; important organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and many unions endorsed Clinton. Sanders was attacked for calling them part of the “establishment,” but he had a point. Now after their historic defeat, the Democratic National Committee has purged and sidelined some of its progressives, bringing in more lobbyists and operatives; but even their establishment candidates have adopted progressive slogans and positions to attract the increasingly progressive base.
Everywhere the new generation of progressive candidates has to reckon with Democratic power-brokers funding the same “moderates” who lost them the last election. In Illinois, watch to see if the Democratic Party elites will support pro-choice Marie Newman in her run against one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant Rep. Dan Lipinski. In particular, watch to see if Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood endorse Lipinski or Newman, or stay out of this race, though their mission is to fund-raise for pro-choice women candidates.
How do these different forces in the movement ally? At least until the 2020 elections, Republican power will motivate all them to march together. But too often, the left loses its identity in the mass upsurges.
One group “inclusivity” leaves out
Marchers’ signs recognized the whole spectrum of progressive causes, except one. Where was the antiwar movement? How left or progressive can a movement be without opposing its government’s invasions, coups and support for tyrannical regimes?
The US is now threatening nuclear war with North Korea and trying to sabotage peace talks between North and South. The US is still killing families in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq with bombing, drone strikes, and murderous home invasions. It still pays for mass murder and a regime of famine and disease in Yemen. US troops are in 172 countries and territories, Special Operations Forces are in 70 percent of the world’s countries, and we are paying taxes for a military budget “bigger than the next five largest military powers combined.”
And yet, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America” (Andrew Bacevich).
The Women’s March was, apparently, a march for women in the US, but not for women in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen. I loved the women’s march, but I’m a bit sad that very many of the marchers and organizers recognize white privilege, but only in relation to people of color in the US. It’s too easy to forget that our tax money has long been paying for the disasters that the US has been visiting on women elsewhere.
Forgetting the women who are victims of US military action is another sign of the influence of the Democratic establishment and its close ties with March organizers. We need to remind ourselves that even progressives we support in Congress support the military spending for these wars; the militarism and the interventionist foreign policy is bipartisan. Witness how the Democratic establishment joined Republican hawks in their enthusiasm for threats against North Korea, cheered Trump’s bombing in Syria and the destruction of Mosul, just as they had supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the dismantling of Libya. Just recently only 5 Senate Democrats and 40% of House Democrats voted against the Defense Authorization Act, with its $700 billion funding of the military. I wonder how many in the women’s march were untroubled that Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War and, as Secretary of State, pushed for intervention in Libya and Syria?
After the elections, what then?
If the movement finally succeeds in retaking Congress and replacing Trump, what then? The massive antiwar movement during the Bush administration also united every progressive and every progressive cause, opposition to war included. Hundreds of thousands of people would descend on Washington and public spaces in countless cities; their signs showed the same diversity we see now, but they united over opposition to Bush and the Iraq War. But then instead of sustaining itself in independent organizations or a movement, the movement dissolved into the Obama campaign; the movement became a vast email list for Obama’s election, then was owned by the Democratic Party.
Two debates in the movement will be decisive in determining success and failure. The first is whether the movement will embrace the reality as well as the slogan of intersectionalism, and reconcile the competing demands of different identities and reach unity in action. The second is whether the movement will use elections to bring about its goals of fundamental change, or become absorbed into the Democratic Party as elections themselves become the goal.
They carried their goal in a t-shirt slogan into the streets: “All Girls Want is Fun(damental) Change!” Will they march beyond slogans and elections, “resist and persist” into a lasting movement for fundamental change? As always, powerful elites with vast resources have other plans, but when they mobilize the power of a mass movement, they do so at their peril.
Your reward for reading this far: More march photos, below.