When I was in graduate school at Rutgers University studying social movement, one thing I learned was that protest marches are where people can see possibility and where “freedom dreams” take hold. Folks can never realize anything if we can’t imagine it. But after being among the estimated half-million people who attended the Women’s March in D.C. last Saturday, I have to ask: Was that a protest or a memefest?
It was exhilarating to be around so many people who want Donald Trump to delete his Twitter account, and his presidency. But I felt like I was attending Woodstock for activists. What I saw in the streets confirmed my nagging skepticism about the efficacy of these kinds of feel-good “solidarity” marches.
I saw hints of intersectionality and women of color: Chicanas, Palestinians, Muslims, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Black Women’s Blueprint, and about 40 women from the Navaho Nation chanting warrior songs. Activists from #SayHerName, a national campaign to draw attention to how police brutality and racial violence affect black women, were there. But mostly I saw a sea of whiteness in pink pussy hats—which some folks have called out for excluding women of color and transwomen—holding up signs with pictures of giant vulvas, elephants and middle fingers drawn inside fallopian tubes, signs that said “grow a pair” of ovaries, and the very popular “This Pussy Grabs Back.”
Yes, I also saw white folks carrying placards supporting Muslim rights, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ people, and immigrant women. But overwhelmingly it seemed that white women were focused primarily on equal pay, reproductive rights, and health care, along with expressing their disdain for Trump’s misogyny. Meanwhile, the women of color I saw had signs focused on police brutality and racism rather than their own private parts or calling themselves “Nasty Women.”
After attending the Women’s March in Seattle, a Facebook friend, Jesika Wolff, perfectly summed up what I saw at the D.C. march. “There was no purpose, no direction … just vague wandering through a pre-planned route,” she posted on my page. “A local union showed up and chanted for their rights. A white man led the chant, ‘We are women, hear us roar’ and someone actually had the gall to carry an ‘All lives/genders/etc. matter’ sign. What the fuck was everyone marching for? Anti-Trump? Healthcare? It felt like a ‘grab a meme and wander the streets, we’ll figure it out along the way.”
Yet, for others, the purpose was clear: to publicly rebuke and even humiliate the new president. Political commentator Avis Jones-Deweever, who was part of diverse group of contributors who crafted the march’s guiding vision, called the march “a very public and visible rejection of Donald Trump. … It’s a method to embarrass him on a gargantuan scale. And with someone as narcissistic as he, that’s probably the best way to wound him personally if not politically.”
The uncertainty about its purpose shaped the differing opinions about participation. Among my professional and friendship network, many women, especially those of color, discussed reasons why they were not going to march. Many saw the march as yet another installment of the white feminist movement, which has historically ignored the struggles of women of color. And since so many white women voted for Trump, they should use this moment to get themselves together, to look at their whiteness in the mirror, before a truly intersectional coalition would be possible.
Yet, some voiced support for women of color who were leading the national endeavor; others participated, using the space to speak up for causes that move them daily. I attended an afternoon panel at the Martin Luther King Library where Black women with a long lineage in the Civil Rights Movement discussed reproductive justice, ending gender violence, criminalization and over-incarceration of women and girls, poverty, ending sex trafficking and child sexual abuse, violence against LGBTQ people, access to housing, education, the right to welfare, a living wage for all including mothers and other caregivers, confronting phobias, ageism, and discrimination against sex workers. Libations were poured while attendees called on ancestors: Harriet Tubman, June Jordan, Maya Angelou, Audre Lord, Paule Murray, Sojourner Truth, and others.
Still others represented their communities with their feet.
One of the values of such gatherings is the feeling of people coming together for a common cause. It was cool to be out in that massive crowd. This was my third protest march. I marched in New York City in 2000 when the four cops who shot and killed Amadou Diallo were acquitted. I marched to Zuccotti Park in 2011 during the short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement. This time, I came more as an observer, though I enjoyed finding small pockets of women of color to chat with briefly, sing, and dance a little.
Feel-good moments aside, these big marches trigger my political skepticism because they’re more of a symbolic gesture. Folks might come together in solidarity hoping that the collective energy will carry over into sustained activism that translates into policy change. Trouble is, that’s not going to happen because we’re in a country where instead of being creatively disobedient with a real strategy and agenda that will destroy the evils of white supremacy, we’ve been effectively socialized into asking for permission and craving acceptance and approval.
I believe that a big portion of the millions of people who showed up largely wanted to feel good—to do something—after being depressed since the election. Most of them don’t really know what else to do and for many, the high they got from the march will feel like enough for a while. In the absence of true political focus and commitment and radical courage, they don’t really know what else to do. And since the people in power don’t give a shit about what we have to say, these protests provide a way to feel buoyed without having to actually do anything.
As Guardian writer Micah White argued after the election, the state would be far more worried if we didn’t protest because it might mean that we’re up to something that will actually change things. White acknowledges that it’s great to see all the excitement and folks in the streets. But he also said the contemporary protest is broken. “The dominant tactic of getting people into the streets, rallying behind a single demand and raising awareness about an injustice simply does not result in the desired social change.”
He calls these mass demonstrations “magical thinking, and a dangerously misguided strategy, for activists to continue to act as if the masses in the streets can attain a sovereignty over their governments through a collective manifestation of the people’s general will. This may have been true in the past, but is not true today.”
White suggests that power comes from either war or electoral success of radicals, and from women willing to “take matters into their own hands, act unexpectedly and viscerally, and focus their collective energy on the only target that matters: concretely establishing the power of the people over their governments.”
Act unexpectedly and viscerally! That doesn’t mean wandering in circles, posing for selfies with lattes in hand, writing think pieces about your favorite signs, or taking photos with cops wearing pink pussies on their head.
Some of my friends and fellow activists would certainly disagree with this view, and my cynicism.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza posted this on her Facebook page the other day: “Let’s all imagine we are organizers for a minute. A new person comes to your meeting/event/protest. You say to them, ‘I see you’ve come to join us … but where were you when (insert whatever)? You ain’t shit and I’m not fuckin’ with you.’ You think they gonna come back? Serious question.”
“The Women’s March was an amazing step in a necessary direction,” Malkia Cyril wrote after attending the San Francisco march, which she described as well attended and largely white. “The many speakers of color balanced the need to build a bigger us with the mandate to demand a more resilient solidarity that does not rely on whiteness as its center nor leave room to give our most vulnerable people up. My mom, a Black Panther, used to tell me we have to dare to struggle if we dare to win.”
But Cyril, who is the Executive Director at the Center for Media Justice, understands Black women who refused to participate in these marches. “While Black women everywhere have every reason to treat white solidarity as suspect, I know I do, critique is not enough now. Winning rights and dignity over the next four years will take every single willing hand. Time to organize.”
What really happens when large groups of people gather to protest those in power? As a friend of mine reminded me, if folks are not protesting then the government would be anxious that we’re up to something more radical. But protesting is actually the most effective way to ensure the white supremacist state knows exactly who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing. Then they get to sit back and say, “Isn’t democracy grand? We are all free to disagree.” The marchers feel empowered without actually shifting the political balance of power in their favor.
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t satisfied with “feeling empowered.” He helped shut down entire cities through economic boycotts. Likewise, early feminists bombed buildings, and even committed public suicide. The leaders of slave rebellions didn’t march with placards. Workers destroyed factories. One doesn’t have to advocate for mass violence to understand that protest is not why workers, women, and people of color have whatever modicum of rights we enjoy today.
Memes and social media popularity might be the tools of protest in the Information Age. But let’s not get distracted by the optics. People all over the world came out to express their outrage—there were 673 marches worldwide, and at least 3.3 million people. Those are impressive numbers. It’s hard not to be inspired by that. But now it’s up to us to find new and more radical ways to work for change.
We have much to learn from history, from our ancestors, but we need to do so much more than simply gather and emote. As Robin Kelly, a former professor of mine said: “Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and a vision of what it means to fully realize our humanity, all protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about liberation.”
Protests have their place in movements, but if you marched on Saturday and then returned to life-as-usual on Monday, what difference have you really made? If we can truly harness the anger and fear around No. 45, then this will represent an opportunity to make this country better. If not, then white supremacy just tips his hat and says, “Thanks for coming out, now get back to work.”