This article is composed of photographs and remembrances: my own and those of several students and friends who participated in the Women’s Marches in New York and Washington, DC, on January 21, 2017. The images and text raise questions brought to life by the marches. They address the efficacy of mass marches and similar forms of protest in an era driven by polarization of both social media and mainstream news media. The article poses such questions as, what was the nature of the Women’s March, and how did it differ from previous demonstrations? What did it achieve? Can solidarity be sustained in an environment of heightened and ongoing divisiveness?
The election of President Donald J. Trump was a nightmarish event for a large number of Americans and peoples worldwide. Aside from his obvious lack of qualifications and a long list of ongoing questionable business practices, Trump’s discourse of hate and fearmongering, coupled with his authoritarian white nationalist agenda and apocalyptic tweetstorms calling for a strong man to “fix” the nation’s problems, has set in motion forces and policies that, if implemented, would deny whole segments of the population the very basic dignity of their humanity. Trump’s attacks on historical memory, facts and science, public education, the press, and the institutions of governance are paired with his shocking disrespect for the rule of law, including civil, individual, and political protections. Trump’s rhetoric has given right-wing extremists in our own and other nations a sense of confidence in their appeal to xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and bigotry. After the presidential election, thousands of people assembled in streets around the world to protest his presidency. Strategies of organizing and coalition building have given rise to a robust movement that aims to take crucial steps toward protecting the rights of communities and those who are most vulnerable who have been targeted by Trump.
While many women worked tirelessly for the election of Hillary Clinton, the final breakdown of statistics for voting revealed that 53 percent of white women who voted, voted for Trump, despite his blatant misogyny and self-proclaimed record of sexual predation. In stark contrast, 94 percent of black women voters voted for Clinton (WITW Staff 2016). Ingrained white privilege and racism proved strong motivators that vied with historical injustice and even the shock of the ongoing murders of African Americans killed in incidents of police violence. To combat structural racism and misogyny and to build collective awareness of the myriad ways in which community interests may interconnect, women’s groups organizing the marches looked to the movement Black Lives Matter as a model, developing long-term strategies for implementing a platform for human rights and social responsibility (Ruiz-Grossman 2016; Movement for Black Lives 2017).
The organizers of the Women’s Marches aimed to create an opening for new patterns of political networking to build an effective resistance mobilized by intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to describe the ways in which individuals face multiple threats of discrimination when their identities overlap the several categories of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and disability, among others. Intersectionality bolsters a movement by connecting disparate communities through a critical analysis of issues, focusing on specific social actions and political interventions. The bridges built by intersectionality link advocacy for legislation and policies regarding women’s rights, racial equality, immigration reform, health care reform, environmental issues, LGBTQ rights, and workers’ rights. March cochair Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Organization of New York, highlighted the movement’s “stand on social justice and human rights issues ranging from race, ethnicity, gender, religion, immigration and healthcare” (quoted in Reddin 2016; see also Women’s March 2016a). Sarsour is cochair with Tamika D. Mallory (political organizer and former executive director of the National Action Network), Carmen Perez (executive director of political action group Gathering for Justice), and Bob Bland (a fashion designer who focuses on ethical manufacturing). The four women brought a range of experience and resources to organizing a mass mobilization (Women’s March 2016b). They expanded their networks by partnering with Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, the National Immigration Law Center, and the ACLU, among other organizations (Hartocollis and Alcindor 2017).
On the morning of January 21, 2017, I reviewed a PDF file from the National Lawyers Guild and the Black Movement Law Project to prepare for participation in the Women’s March in New York City. As I dressed for a mild winter’s day, I wrote with a Sharpie pen on my forearm the guild’s legal support hotline number in case of arrest. My good friend and colleague Sharon Vatsky and I decided to attend the march together. Although we had experience protesting in a number of marches over the years, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, we were not sure what to expect in 2017 with militarized police forces and escalating violence deployed by Trump supporters as a tactic against Muslims, Latinos, people of color, Jews, and LGBTQ communities.
The subway platforms were teeming with homemade pink knitted pussy hats, their wearers cheerfully greeting one another with an immediate recognition of unity. The stunning visual effect of streams of rosy red and bubblegum pink ears, each hat different from its neighbor while collectively creating a vision of solidarity, taunting the thin-skinned “grab ’em by the pussy” president, highlighted the hat’s symbolic power (Vulture 2017). The meet-up point for our group, We Make America, was at Grand Central Terminal’s iconic clock, the entry point and first glimpse of New York City for generations of newcomers. Circulating around the clock were women dressed in an array of homemade Statute of Liberty costumes and men and women holding green cardboard torches emblazoned with the word Truth, a notion foreign to a president who relies on “alternative facts.” The creativity and originality of the signs impressed us, at turns inspiring and clever, provocative and eloquent—everything from children’s bright crayon scribbles to excerpts from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” ( 2002). While there were a few printed posters designed by Shepard Fairey, most art, costumes, and banners were individually made and focused on positions in solidarity. As the group gained critical mass, we had nowhere to go except outside, heading toward 2nd Avenue and then walking north. The plan was to cut eastward to get to 5th Avenue, walking uptown toward Trump Tower at 55th Street. But the crowds were so immense and peaceful that the NYPD removed street barricades, retreated to their cars, or posed with marchers for a photo op while detouring traffic around a massive swath of midtown Manhattan, allowing over four hundred thousand marchers to chant and protest well past sunset. It was an incredible sight: a 360-degree sweep revealed not a car on the horizon. People gathered in every direction as a vast public space emerged. We did not want to leave the strangers we met on the march, almost as many men as women, families with children, and people from every walk of life. It was not until we arrived home that we saw the number counts and camera views on TV; people all over the world had marched with us. At least 4.2 million people protested in over six hundred US cities, the largest demonstration in our nation’s history (Frostenson 2017; Kuang 2017). The Women’s March in Washington, DC, totaled five hundred thousand, roughly three times the size of the audience at President Trump’s inauguration, reminding us that Clinton won the popular vote by three million and lost the Electoral College tally by only seventy-seven thousand votes in just three states (Frostenson January 2017; Krieg 2016). Was this march just a “feel good” moment, or would a coalition hold and be effective in the long struggle ahead?
The next day my friend Sharon wrote: “For me, the election of D. Trump was such an unbelievable and negative event. Over dinner with friends we would commiserate. Across the kitchen table my husband and I grumbled. On the phone with my kids we agreed that this new president lacked any humility or capacity for reflection. I knew there were millions who felt the same ‘punch in the stomach’ but I had not found an outlet for these feelings” (pers. comm., January 22, 2017). About a month later, she wrote:
Although I did my share of marching in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had been years since I participated in a large-scale protest. Being part of the Women’s March in New York City on January 21, 2017, was truly hopeful. It was wonderful to see midtown Manhattan streets filled with marchers—not bitter—just determined to keep their rights and speak out. The signs, the costumes, the camaraderie lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of belonging. There is a rough time ahead, and every new day brings new challenges to the rights we have come to take for granted, but I am encouraged by the press, the courts, and especially by everyday citizens that are continuing to challenge these crazy policies at every turn. (Pers. comm., February 20, 2017)
Historical significance is embedded in the very name of the Women’s March on Washington, evoking the legacy and power of nonviolent direct action in public demonstrations to achieve strategic victories. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a coalition of civil rights groups organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a momentous public demonstration of solidarity for equal rights and economic justice. Because of Dr. King’s efforts and commitment and his alliances with other civil rights and religious groups, critical and transformative knowledge was networked that gave people an understanding of how private injustices connect to wider discriminatory structures and systems (March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963a, 1963b). Marching in solidarity may shift the narrative, foster a change in consciousness, and provoke questions. The Occupy Wall Street movement was criticized for not accomplishing a set of achievable goals, yet mass media and an array of organizations often refer to the “99 percent” versus the “1 percent.” With social media deployed to educate and advance progressive democratic agendas, advocates and organizers saved the Affordable Care Act, combining grassroots efforts that prompted people to call Congress and attend local town hall meetings (Dubonis and Weigel 2017; Fluke 2017). The Women’s Marches have become a model for moving forward with its wide-ranging agenda: “10 Actions for the First 100 Days” (Women’s March 2017). Websites such as Indivisible Guide organize grassroots activism, concentrating on local elections, school boards, and state legislators (Indivisible Project 2017).
Sinead MacLeod, a graduate student at the university where I teach, wrote of her experiences in the Women’s March on Washington:
I attended the Women’s March in Washington DC with artist friends and my mother. We listened to the inauguration on the radio on the drive down to DC. We put a sign in our car window that said “Fuck Trump,” and enjoyed pointing out other signs and guessing how many of the cars filled with women were headed where we were. When we stopped at a rest stop, it was packed with women in pink hats, buzzing with excitement. So many of them had never been to a protest before. We stayed with my grandparents, immigrants from Ireland and England. I was shocked by how much they were interested in talking about Trump and the protest. I got to see my grandmother as a person and a woman while she discussed her own experiences in Ireland. It was overwhelming to talk about the rise of fascism with my grandfather who experienced the same rise in the 1930s in London.
We never got close enough to see any of the speakers and the March filled the space until there was literally no room to march. As a participant in Occupy Wall Street, I was slightly bored milling around without direction. Where were the front lines? It was a completely different kind of action, more a show of solidarity and support than a protest. It was exciting to see that many people, shocking numbers of people, an endless stream of new posters and more hats. The overwhelming numbers stood for something meaningful. We spent the day reading posters and chatting with people, all excited to be there. It seemed that everyone felt they couldn’t miss this moment in history. Walking past hundreds and hundreds of abandoned signs left outside the White House gave me shivers. Each sign was created and handmade by an individual as a small contribution to a giant, coordinated action. (Pers. comm., April 3, 2017)
On January 28, 2017, thousands of people gathered at various airports in the United States to protest President Trump’s Executive Order 13769, returning refugees and other visitors from seven countries considered unsafe. According to various sources, more than two thousand people were at the protest at JFK International Airport in Queens, New York, with protests appearing at international airports and other important sites around the United States. The Women’s March organizers’ newly formed “rapid response” team, along with the ACLU and other organizations, used e-mail, Facebook, and text messages to help spark spontaneous protests at airports around the country and aided lawyers to arrive at the scene immediately (Frazee 2017; Friedersdorf 2017). Organizers created circles of solidarity in which citizens could physically intervene when immigrants were in danger. Trump’s two executive orders on immigration and his sanctuary cities funding bans have since been struck down by federal judges (Zapotosky, Takase, and Sacchetti 2017).
Yates McKee, #J20 Art Strike organizer, in his book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (2016), has called for similar coalition building and a reinvention of the art field as “direct action, collective affect, and political subjectivization” (6; see also Frieze 2017; McCanne 2017). Artistic skepticism has the capacity to problematize established interests, the nature of representation, and static stereotyped identities. Taken-for-granted narratives and histories can be fractured and remixed through art that retains social and political implications. While the current political situation champions simplistic discourse, polarizing world views, and uncritical thinking, art can establish spaces and materialize modes of representation in which peoples can recognize themselves and their struggles, enabling a sense of compassion in collective responsibility, social action, and political intervention. As artist Chitra Ganesh has written recently in “Unpresidented Times” (Ganesh 2017): “As we forge paths of resistance in a post T——America, let’s keep our eyes on the culture of protest that has already been thriving around us. In our art world(s), we could align more intentionally with those who have had no choice but to stand up against white supremacy and xenophobia, institutional erasures, sexual violence, or strangling economic policies, beyond the United States as well as in our backyards.”
An undergraduate student at the university where I teach, Naomi Lawrence, writes movingly and critically about the contradictions of the march:
The election of Donald J. Trump came as no surprise to me. It was more than anything, the actualization of invalidated fears and insecurities I’d learned to familiarize myself with over the course of a lifetime. I am the oldest daughter of a refugee, an immigrant, people of color. I had never felt the security of ignorance, and somehow, now, this was comforting. What shocked me was the sense of betrayal I felt from my non-marginalized counterparts. Those openly lamenting to me about the atrocity of this election and the impending end of the world they were sure would come upon the inauguration of our new president. It felt as though the innumerable times I dared to verbalize my hurt and frustration about micro aggressive acts of racism I’d experienced were not real. If they’d truly been listening, they would have gathered enough breadcrumbs to lead them out of their naiveté.
I was slipping into apathy by the time of the inauguration. What was once a sleep-like state of complacency and “not my problem” politics was replaced with the stinging shock of reality. It was this awakening that signaled for me, a searing silver lining on an endless night. On January 21st, in the streets of our nation’s capital, I was surrounded by people from all walks of life. This for me was not a solution. It was a step forward in materializing intersectionality. For the first time, it felt like everyone was seeing what I had known my whole life. The outpouring of love and support I experienced left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. (Pers. comm., March 27, 2017)
The bittersweet taste remains for too many citizens, but focused action is an antidote to despair and anger. The resistance movement against Trump and the GOP should be as inclusive as possible, sustaining alliances to achieve common goals. Myriad communities must coalesce and refocus their resources to target systematic injustices and disenfranchisement. Resistance movements on social media emphasize citizens’ daily communication with members of Congress, grassroots efforts engaging in local politics, and concrete political action. Mass marches continue to be a platform for organizing action, providing momentum, dialogue, and visibility (Ioffe 2017; Khazan 2017). The March for Science drew tens of thousands of protesters across the country on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Sociologist Dana Fisher and her colleagues gathered data from 527 participants and found that 70 percent of those at the climate march had also participated in the Women’s March. Fisher and colleagues speculate, “Perhaps the Women’s March is distinct in this way because protesters were not just motivated by concrete issues, but they were also motivated by a desire to protect and reassert a vision of America that embraces diversity and inclusion as a strength rather than a threat” (Dow, Fisher, and Ray 2017; see also Kaplan 2017). The Women’s Marches reminded us that we have a strong and vibrant civil society and solid historical connections to social justice and true equality (Greenwood 2017; Johnson and Fernandez 2017).
Many thanks to Builder Levy for permission to publish his photograph of the New York City Women’s March and to Jim Blasi for his preliminary design.