In the 70 days since Teresa Shook posted the Facebook event that would launch today’s Women’s March, the demonstration’s messaging has been tweaked and prodded, denounced for its lack of intersectional awareness and slammed, most recently, for slyly removing language in solidarity with sex workers. And though it comes just a day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the president, its framing has been as a demonstration, not a protest—an optimistic show of solidarity and respect for human rights rather than a refusal of the specific set of policies. But to decouple Trump’s swearing in and the march is virtually impossible, given that hundreds of thousands of people are marching on the capitol on the first day they live in Trump’s America.
Marches like these can be a useful display of numbers, and they’re good linchpins for media outlets desperate for political metaphors. But as the horror of Trump’s presidency began to settle in and the next four years loomed on the horizon, some women are wondering what happens on January 22—and how useful a single event can really be against an administration that’s already started to erase key parts of its website.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation mentioned during an anti-inauguration talk at Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. Friday night, it’s maddening that a Facebook post sparked hundreds of thousands of people to protest, yet some of the largest progressive institutions in the country are still inactive, frozen in shock.
A few years ago the academic and activist Zeynep Tufekci wrote a story about mass protest in the social media age, focusing on dissent in the United States and Turkey; some events, she wrote, “look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime.” But in the long term, she worried, their effects are muted, in part because they take out the “tedious” work of organizing and long-term coalition building. “Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment,” she wrote.
The decision not to march isn’t “a clear binary for me,” a friend and organizer with an economic justice initiative tells me. (She’d rather not be identified because in her line of work, in this crucial moment, the last thing she wants to do is be publicly divisive of a lefty cause.) “I think protest should be used, but strategically.”
She cites the work of activists like Micah White, who recently published an op-ed in The Guardian warning that large and unwieldy protest movements like Occupy Wall Street can fizzle if not properly directed, and Jodi Dean, a critic who’s argued for a move away from protest and into the two-party system. She’s worried, she says, that marches like this, with their massive numbers and unwieldy messaging, are displays of catharsis for their participants more than a show of force. Not that she’s anti-march, she and nearly everyone I speak to is quick to say—it’s just that in the wake of so many protests that seemed to do so little, she’s wondering whether there are other, more pressing tactics.
Claire Zulkey, a writer in Illinois, donated what she could to Planned Parenthood and to the American Civil Liberties Union after the election. That still doesn’t seem like enough, but in the exhaustion of the inauguration she, too, is looking for something that feels useful, and she’s not sure going to Washington–or even her local march—is it. The heavily publicized squabbles and missteps seem like “a microcosm”; “there’s work to do to figure out what our strategy is,” she says. “I’m not convinced how much it’s going to help compared to the other ways I’ve shown up.” It’ll feel good for the people who go, she says, ”but will it really affect what Congress does?” (The assumption is: probably not.) She supports women in the streets today, “as long as you know it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Je’Kandria Trahan, one of the organizers of the D.C. chapter of the Black Youth project, says members of her organization and friends throughout the D.C. area have chosen not to march today as well. The perception of the Women’s March as a space for primarily white feminism has endured, even after the organizers made changes to the program and brought on additional organizers. Recently, Jamilah Lemieux outlined her reasons for skipping the march in Colorlines, writing that her mental health wasn’t worth “feigning solidarity with women who by and large don’t have my back.”
“We don’t feel the agenda is truly inclusive to all people of color and femmes,” says Trahan, so she and many people she knows are staying with their communities to focus on restoration, to spend time with friends, to focus on joy as they prepare themselves for a long fight. And her organization isn’t going to march officially today: “We choose to focus on building long term strategies” to dismantle and stymie the Trump administration, she says. “And to cultivate spaces for black healing and joy in the DC community. We will remain vigilant…as D.C. shifts in the aftermath of the inauguration.”
There’s a certain line of thinking you may hear a lot from the Boomer generation when it comes to the link between marching and social action. Recently, one of my mother's friends, in response to the idea the street protest was more business as usual than she might expect, insisted that marching stopped the Vietnam war.
Last night, at a panel, the writer Anand Gopal invoked the same idea, but with a little more nuance: When Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for re-election, he said, he couldn’t go anywhere without meeting masses of people staging sit-ins. His public appearances were plagued by protests, every day. He declined to opt for re-election. “A single protest, as important as they are, have never changed anything,” said Gopal. “But linked protest, that is the lifeblood of resistance.”