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The lessons of the Women’s March

The lessons of the Women’s March

What do we do with these inexact, overwhelming numbers: 3.3 million nationwide, 500,000 in New York City, 500,000 in Washington, D.C., 250,000 in Chicago, 750,000 in Los Angeles, and 22 on Scotland’s Isle of Eigg (population 81)? They do not matter in the context of how many people, by comparison, showed up to Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, nor should they be seen as an unerring harbinger for the resistance to come. The numbers, underscored by the stirring aerial images of crowds across the globe, might have cowed a more reasonable president and forced him to reckon with the damage his rhetoric has already done and the force with which people — his people — might resist, but Trump has yet to show the capacity to be swayed by criticism or even suggestion (although, when the president tweeted his now-perfunctory dismissal of his critics by wondering why the marchers hadn’t voted, he didn’t seem to doubt that there were a lot of them). The millions who marched shared no clear mandate or goal; there were no widely broadcast calls for impeachment or resignation.

All that may come in the near future, but what happened in cities around the world on Saturday wasn’t about change as much as it was about catharsis and the reminder that millions of people still want to live in a society governed by civility and equality. This reminder, I believe, was as much for those who marched as it was for Trump and his supporters. In New York, where I spent Saturday afternoon watching tens of thousands of people march by the Pershing Viaduct that leans up against the southern facade of Grand Central Station, the numbers seemed to be more about dissent through mass-scale affirmation than sending a message, whatever that may have been, to Trump.

This was no small feat, but one that presumably could have happened before Saturday. There were small protests the night after Trump’s election as well as pockets of violent resistance in Washington, D.C., on the day of the inauguration. These actions were dismissed, not only by the president’s tweets but also by the majority of the media. The timing of this march — the day after everything became official — should have actually muted the turnout because it removed the possibility, however faint, that an overwhelming response might help hasten the removal of the president-elect. It also seems a bit too rote to give “the internet” the credit because while the march’s myriad organizers got the word out through interviews with traditional journalistic outlets and a social media blitz that frankly didn’t feel as expansive as it could have been, all protests are now organized through the internet.

The success of the the Women’s March came, instead, from its simple framing as, well, a women’s march. The name, which was arrived upon after much negotiation and hand-wringing, provoked but did not alienate its core constituency. It built a sense of tribalism that obscured, albeit temporarily, the rifts between schools of feminists (even those that were going on within the ranks of the march’s organizers) and created a momentum that built quickly and blindly throughout the weeks leading up to the inauguration. Enthusiasm, as expressed through motifs like pink pussycat hats and photos of bus and train tickets to D.C., replaced politics. What mattered more was whether you were going to D.C.,, and if you couldn’t, where you could go instead.

Earlier this month, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait tweeted, “I think many men assume the ‘Women’s March’ is supposed to be for women only, which is why it was a bad name for the main anti-Trump march.” Chait’s tweet was met with widespread derision because it seemed to signal a belief that a massive protest could only be framed through the existing pathways of power — namely, through white men who were opening their arms for everyone else to gather. But Chait was wrong on another level: Outrage is almost always personal, and huge turnouts only really happen when the majority, namely white men and women, can identify with what they feel is a virtuous, specific cause.

At the Philando Castile protests in St. Paul last summer, I watched an older white couple talking to a young, Latina organizer and explaining that they had come out because they had imagined how they would have felt if someone who had worked at their children’s school had been shot dead during a traffic stop. They said they had heard Castile was a nice man and as the young organizer explained to them why it shouldn’t matter if Castile was nice by their standards, a look of sad confusion fell over their faces. The organizer, of course, was right, but the conversion she desired seemed, at least to me, impossible because it would have required that old couple to ignore how Castile’s death made them feel about their own lives. This sort of empathy, perhaps, should not be seen as radical, but the truth is that people rarely come out to protests unless they can imagine a threat to their own way of life.

Saturday’s picket signs — how many thousands have we seen now through social media? — reflected this personal bent. (A friend who marched in New York called it “the world’s first whatever you want it to be march”) But because the focus was pulled back so far, the tiered solidarity the organizers envisioned, in which the concerns of all women would be heard and white women would act as allies and acknowledge their privilege, was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm over the numbers. On Saturday night, as people were sharing their photos online, I saw the image of someone holding up a sign that asked white women if they would be at the next Black Lives Matter march. Those essential questions of what solidarity might look like over the next four years and whether there might be a way to hold a mass protest without placing the demands of white women front and center, were not asked on Saturday, except in the most perfunctory ways.

Chait wasn’t the only one who was wrong about the Women’s March. After seeing the mass protests in Korea firsthand, in which millions of protesters gathered for six straight weeks to demand the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye, I wrote that I did not think a comparably massive action was possible in the United States. The infrastructures of U.S. cities, specifically New York and Washington, D.C., couldn’t sustain a turnout in the hundreds of thousands, much less millions. The pain points, which mostly had to do with travel and the layouts of American cities, would prevent any massive gathering. A march in Washington, for example, shouldn’t have been able to contain hundreds of thousands of protesters because the roads into the National Mall and the Capital can’t handle that much volume. In New York, large marches almost immediately get barricaded and split up, especially when they take place in midtown Manhattan.

As it turns out, it didn’t matter that the hundreds of thousands who went to D.C. couldn’t march or gather in one cohesive unit. Nor did it matter much that the streets of midtown Manhattan were thronged with immobilized protesters who stood in place for hours on end. Some muscle was being flexed, torn, and then built back into something stronger. The numbers, in their self-evident way, expanded the imagination of what might be possible.

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