In Defense of Dissent: A Critique of the Women’s March on Washington

When the organizer for Maryland stepped down from her role in the Women’s March on Washington, I thought her concerns were overblown. She criticized the March’s lack of inclusiveness, as well as the national organizers’ “disregard for safety and sanitation.” We hadn’t been organizing for long, and I thought that she simply hadn’t given them enough time to work out the details.

As time went on, I began to realize that she was right.

I’ve previously written about the serious issues around the lack of inclusion in the Women’s March organizing, but since then, much has developed that is worth addressing.

A recent article in the Huffington Post delineated the concerns regarding the Women’s March on Washington that have been expressed by numerous groups and individuals. The article goes on to perfunctorily address these concerns, glossing over the continuing issue of inclusivity while focusing on highlighting the three “fierce” activists currently at the helm of the march.

The article states that there were only two state organizers that stepped down due to concerns over inclusion, and that is not the case. Other organizers in states not listed in the article have stepped down, including women of color. Additionally, other states have chosen to either distance themselves or, keeping the shortcomings of the national organization in mind, completely separate to focus on their own states.

The Huffington Post article portrays the three “co-chairs” in a positive light. Considering the criticisms that have been levied on the March organization, an article such as this was eventually to be expected as part of the March’s PR push.

The Huffington Post article highlights three of the four national March co-chairs as women who are leaders in the Justice League NYC organization. An April 2015 article in the Gothamist, “The Fight For The Soul Of The Black Lives Matter Movement,” describes Justice League NYC as an organization “that has prioritized closed door meetings with police officials and politicians…over action in the streets and grassroots organizing.”

Additionally, the Justice League is described as “a new sort of political animal: It has all of [Al] Sharpton’s trademarks — compromise politics, access to power and media, rebel aesthetics, calculated outrage campaigns — but doesn’t feature the MSNBC talk show host himself.”

“Many members of the Justice League, including [the] former executive director of Sharpton’s [National Action Network (NAN)]…also work within the city’s nonprofit sector, which has maintained the legacy of reformism championed by middle and upper class Blacks…”

Digging deeper into the Al Sharpton-style of activism that “marked the Hip-Hop Generation” reveals some important criticism that is worth pointing out — in contrast to the activism that is truly needed in these times:

“This generation of people has grown up with the dethroned gods of Generation X and the failures of political courage that have marked the Hip-Hop Generation. The most faith they have, hubristic though it may turn out to be, is in themselves to be agents of change. But they will not invest in a nation-state project that hands them black presidents alongside dead unarmed black boys in the street. These are irreconcilable contradictions. And these are non-conciliatory times.” — Brittney Cooper, Salon

This will not be The Justice League NYC’s first march. They also organized the March2Justice, a 9-day “pilgrimage” from NYC to Washington, DC in April 2013. Among the criticisms of the March2Justice:

This so-called “radical” march for racial justice that has raised almost $20k perpetuates the erasure of antiblackness, tramples on the voices of local activists and is about generating publicity rather than long-term substantive change for all black people, including black trans women. — Mikael Owunna, Owning My Truth

Yet another Women’s March on Washington co-director mentioned in the Huffington Post and Gothamist articles has political aspirations, which “will prioritize being conciliatory at a time when liberal gatekeepers must be challenged and held accountable…Despite their rhetoric, their actions are already interpreted as watering down progressive and human rights work in [New York City].

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio met with members of the Justice League in December 2014, and he subsequently “alluded to their possible work as informants.” Justice League NYC denied this, but faced criticism for not “calling the mayor out on lying.”

NYC activist Josmar Trujillo questions what groups with celebrity backing such as Justice League NYC can “provide other than another token seat at the table.”

To be fair, I cannot peer into the minds of the organizers or directors of the Women’s March on Washington. I can’t know their motivation for involvement. However, based on my own research and understanding of the leadership, I fear that their involvement in the March appears to be opportunistic rather than a true measure of inclusion.

The Huffington Post article quotes one of the March’s leaders as saying that those who stepped down because of issues of inclusion were “misguided.” The implication here is that those of us who made this decision did so in a vacuum. On the contrary, all of us who decided to no longer be involved in the March did so after very careful consideration of many factors. We were all fully prepared for the time commitment and dedication to ensuring a successful march, without question. However, we could not in good conscience dedicate our time and effort to a cause that we truly believe to be fundamentally flawed in its execution.

The issue of inclusion may have been the primary reason for stepping down, however, it was not the only reason.

Who Is Responsible for Fundraising?

Many of the state organizers, for their own reasons, chose to pass the responsibility of fundraising on to the individuals who wanted to attend the March. As a consequence, many individuals created pages on fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe. Keeping in mind that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of individuals attending the March, this can quickly become problematic because of liability reasons.

State organizers, without realizing it, had formed a “unincorporated association” within their own state:

What happens, legally speaking, when a group of people get together and decide to perform some task without filing any legal paperwork or establishing any formal legal structure? Whether they know it or not, they have formed an unincorporated association. “Unincorporated association” means an unincorporated group of two or more persons joined by mutual consent for a common lawful purpose, whether organized for profit or not. (NOLO)

With individual fundraising pages popping up across social media, the state organizers had unknowingly opened themselves up to serious liability issues.

The biggest drawback to the unincorporated nonprofit association, and the reason nonprofits often abandon this form in favor of a nonprofit corporation, is that it has no separate legal existence apart from its members. Because it is not respected as a separate legal entity, its members generally can be personally liable for its debts and liabilities. (NOLO)

Those state organizers who had chosen not to pursue nonprofit status or seek a sponsor because they assumed pushing the fundraising to the individual level would relieve them of tax responsibility were overlooking a more serious threat. Without nonprofit status, sponsorship or nonprofit liability insurance coverage, state-level organizers can be held responsible should a civil lawsuit be brought against the state “organization.”

Is it possible that the March could happen without a hitch? Absolutely. But it’s difficult to believe that the national co-directors of the March, with their experience and connections, would be completely unaware of the potential legal ramifications for their state-level organizers. If they were indeed aware of this information, it’s also highly irresponsible for this information to not be clearly conveyed to the state-level organizers.

I believe that the vast majority of March attendees have important and carefully thought-out reasons for being a part of the March. I’m not attempting to dissuade anyone from being involved. However, it’s only fair to be transparent and understand that not everything may necessarily be as it appears.

The silencing of concerned voices of Women of Color through deleting comments and blocking dissenters is reprehensible. It also speaks volumes to the true tone and tenor of the March organization. Despite the flowery rhetoric of the March’s “mission” and “principles” suggesting inclusion, and the “fierce” activists at its fore, what happens behind the scenes is perhaps much more indicative of the reality of organization as a whole.