Americans are under attack by a demagogic president. And the only way we’re going to save this country—and ourselves—is through a unified movement.
On January 21, millions of people, mostly women, turned out for the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches across the country and around the globe in what is now being called the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Over 3.3 million people came out to support women’s rights and civil rights the day after the inauguration of autocrat Donald Trump, who got elected on a platform driven by fear and hate. Since November 9, the rallying cry of dissent has become “This is not normal” and indeed life has become less normal, and scarier, every day since.
I was on the ground in Washington, D.C., with what is now estimated to be as many as 800,000 people. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. Body to body to body we were pressed, a diverse ocean of women and men. People like me who flew across the country on their own dime several days in advance, those who bussed and trained and drove in from neighboring states, and who hopped on their nearest Metro stop. It’s hard to synthesize a few perfect sentences about the feelings this conjured: Not quite a celebration and not quite a protest, though we celebrated the power and courage and rights of women, and protested the Trump administration’s steady commitment to stripping away everything we hold dear. It felt like we were fighting for our lives—all women’s lives. The phrase of the day, spoken multiple times by the many talented speakers, was: “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Now that I’m home, the inevitable naysayers are slowly stripping apart the power of this movement. I try not to give too much of my attention to the Republicans, who inevitably dismiss us as whiny, ungrateful, stupid losers. I do listen to the legitimate criticisms from the left about the march—it had to be pushed to become intersectional; disability rights were not well represented; white people are quick to praise our non-violent protests when people of color are on the receiving end of police violence at triple the rates; the “pussy” hat doesn’t represent trans women—because they’re all true, and important.
We can hold this resistance movement to higher standards. But we also simultaneously need to take a reality check, because we are at a critical and unprecedented moment in our democracy. And if we don’t use it, we are going to lose it to an authoritarian president and his trigger-happy Republican Congress. So long as we’re picking one another apart, we’re taking our eyes off the resistance. Upholding real facts, not so-called “alternative” facts. Mobilizing ourselves to actions that put pressure on our legislators, and becoming active in our own democracy again. The women’s march may not have been perfect. Its original conception was far from it—too white and tone deaf to racial and gender and ableist issues. Thankfully it became better organized when the original co-chair, fashion designer Bob Bland brought in three American women of color—Carmen Perez, who is Mexican American, Tamika Mallory, who is Black, and Linda Sarsour, who is Muslim—who are experienced activists, to address intersectionality and made it the success it was. Mallory recently told W magazine, “What we have been doing is ensuring that the voices of women across this country, women of color, that their voices are heard and that we are the mouthpiece to be able to speak on their behalf, and to ensure that this movement looks like what it means to be a woman in this country.”
While it may be the case that more white women turned out than women of color, for a variety of reasons, the speakers in Washington made their platform clear: The mayor of D.C., Muriel Bowser told us, “We will not choose some of our rights over all of our rights.” We have to make this true by continuing to show up for the rights of people of color, for the rights of folks with disabilities, for the environment and freedom of the press, and more. Celebrated civil-rights activist Angela Davis made clear, “This is a women’s march and this women’s march represents the promise of feminism as against the pernicious powers of state violence. And inclusive and intersectional feminism that calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.”
We were further encouraged by California Senator Kamala Harris, who said, “Imperfect though we are, I believe we are a great country.”
Indeed, there is no perfect movement. There are no perfect activists. There is, sadly, no perfect union. People act for vastly different reasons, and selfishly tend to protect our own interests first. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better, that we won’t do better, but as Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of the book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, wrote in a recent article for The Guardian, “Liberals become radicals through their own frustrating experiences with the system but also through engagement with radicals. So when radicals and those who have already come to some conclusions about the shortcomings of existing system mock, deride, or just dismiss those who have not achieved your level of consciousness then you are helping no one. This isn’t leadership. It’s infantile and amateurish.”
We have to somehow hold two truths in our hands at the same time: This movement for change is imperfect, but we are only powerful when we come together.
I take inspiration from all the women who have never stopped fighting for our rights, from women of color like Dorothy Height, an early Black pioneer of the civil rights movements, to the founders of Black Lives Matter Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, to Congresswoman Maxine Waters who continues to be one of the few voices of dissent in a congress that often tows its party lines. I am inspired and indebted to the 94 percent of Black women who voted for Hillary, and I’m still fighting for the rights of the disappointing 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump. But I am also inspired by the first-time protester Midwestern moms and wide-eyed college kids, the comfortably complacent who felt the first itch of fight and got out there to make a statement, and the well-worn activists who stepped up alongside newbies with weary sighs and steady legs. If we discourage anyone, we weaken this movement by cherry-picking who gets to stand up and fight.
Let’s face it: Many women are criticized for not stepping up, and criticized for not doing it right. How can we grow a movement if we keep knocking women down a peg? How do we encourage women to join the resistance, and stay involved?
We have to nurture this seed of burgeoning activism and channel it. As Taylor reminds us, “There are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything. We need to open up our organizations, planning meetings, marches and other actions to them. We need to read together, learn together, be in the streets together and stand up to this assault together. Let’s engage people and stop writing people off before we’ve even gotten started.”
Otherwise, while we fight among ourselves, our GOP-led Congress and president are going to come for all our rights: to our own bodies, to health care, to education, and same-sex marriage, just for starters. They’re already shutting down media communications with government agencies, and cut off the National Parks Service Twitter account for showing a critical image of Trump’s small inaugural crowd. Executive orders have renewed the North Dakota Pipeline and made it harder for NGOs around the world to get funds for women’s health services. The Republicans are putting out bills to consider withdrawing the U.S. from the United Nations and the World Health Organization. If you don’t see what’s happening, you’re willfully not looking. If we don’t stick together, they’ll turn this country into an isolated behemoth that sets the world against us.
Taylor exhorts us, “[The march] was the beginning, not the end. What happens in between will be decided by what we do. Movements do not come to us from heaven fully formed and organized. They are built by regular people.”
We regular people didn’t march because we are sore losers. We didn’t march because we hate men. We didn’t march because we want to keep the nation divided. We marched because women’s rights are human rights. Because demonstration and protest are our constitutional rights. Because Hillary got 3 million more votes than Trump, but thanks to the outdated Electoral College, he’s still the president despite the innumerable lawsuits against him, alarming evidence of Russian interference and his questionable connection to Vladimir Putin, his refusal to release his tax returns, and his numerous business conflicts of interest. As Gloria Steinem encouraged us the day of the march, “When we elect a possible president we too often go home. We’ve elected an impossible president; we’re never going home.”
Indeed, this is still our country, and we’re not going to let it go. So let us hold each other to higher standards, absolutely, but still hold each other. We’re going to need every single one of us to keep our democracy from slipping away.
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