Lessons from the Women’s March

I attended both the gigantic Women’s March in Los Angeles on Saturday and the smaller Inauguration Day March on Friday, and while they were both Trump resistance rallies, the two were different in nearly every other way.

Friday’s march was put together by “the usual suspects” from social justice community and labor organizations — groups that are well-practiced in the art of bringing working class members out to initiate chants from movements of decades past like “The people! United! Will never be defeated! El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” and making sure to rep their T-shirts and banners for potential member recruiting and media visibility. They utilized the march as a literal and figurative megaphone for the most marginalized communities as a call to end oppression in all its forms, and the speakers — movement leaders from Standing Rock to BLM — called out white environmental organizations and Republicans and Democrats alike, while demanding an end to the patriarchy, racism and capitalism. It was a small crowd, with heavy representation from people of color and queer and trans folks. You kind of got the feeling that everyone there was already plugged in in some way and on the same page with what they wanted.

With 750,000 participants, yesterday’s march was maybe 200 times bigger than Friday’s. There were a ton of white people. And it was clear that most of the attendees had never participated in a protest before in their lives. Although gigantic, this gathering was noticeably quieter — without organized groups to initiate chants, the few calls every now and then of “He can’t build a wall, his hands are too small!” was met with a bit of nervous laughter and some self-conscious chanting in return which quickly died down. I overheard the three girls behind me try to recreate a chant they overheard an hour earlier and started yelling “United! United! We’ll never be divided!”, which didn’t pack exactly the same punch as the original, but was a heartfelt attempt nonetheless. It was fascinating to watch all of these people make their tentative forays into collective action for the first time.

I cringed a few times, like when listening to the speeches given predominately by male elected officials about fluffy things like “the only registry we should be signing up for is the registry of love!” (what does that even mean?) It seems like a no-brainer that women should have the loudest voices at the Women’s March, and in my opinion, elected officials shouldn’t be the ones rallying a crowd because as people in power, they are targets, not movement leaders. All the jovial selfies being taken around me also made me wonder if some people were just there #forthegram, and the whole atmosphere felt a bit party-ish.

But overall, the march was hugely successful in 1) getting people to realize that there are tons of other people around them that are as pissed off as they are by the results of the election and that they don’t have to accept it, but they can actually resist, and 2) affirming to the world that we want our country to stand for freedom and equality for all.

There are a few lessons we can take from the staggeringly successful turnout of the Women’s March.

  1. We need to be better at meeting people where they’re at to bring them in. Yes, the speeches on Saturday were fluffy, but for the people taking political action for the first time in their lives, talking about intersectionality and dismantling the two party system would have been completely over their heads. It would have been great to shut down freeways, but people new to direct action wouldn’t have understood it as a strategic tactic. We’re often quick to critique actions that aren’t as radical as we want them to be, but we have to remember that engagement and consciousness building happens in baby steps. We want these people to have a positive experience so they will come back. When they do, we should be ready to lead workshops on identity, power, privilege and oppression and introduce everyone to the awesome principles of grassroots organizing.
  2. Talking about values is the best way to inspire and mobilize people. “My body, my choice”, “The future is female”, and “Immigrants make America great” were just a few of the thousands of simple and genius statements written on handmade signs — all by people without any experience in politics, policy, or messaging and communications strategy. Progressives often get stuck in our wonky little policy bubble where we’re so surrounded by people that think and talk exactly like us that we forget how to talk to real people. Our facts and statistics don’t win hearts; values and stories do. The way to connect with people is to talk plainly and simply about core values, even if they’re as basic as “love for everyone” and “rejecting bigotry and hate”. Yesterday made it very clear that people show up when they believe their values are under attack.
  3. Everyone understands interpersonal acts of racism and sexism. Most people don’t get structural racism and sexism. What does that mean? Trump said a lot of obviously racist and sexist things in his campaign, like calling Mexicans rapists and talking about grabbing women by the pussy. People were very offended by that. It obviously goes against their values. And that’s why they hate Trump so much. But while everyone at the march could tell you that Trump is a racist person who is appointing other racist people to his administration and that that’s shitty, I bet that only a tiny percent of the march attendees understand that we’re not just waging a war against Trump, but against the racist systems that we’re all living in. And that racist people suck, but even “non-racist” elected officials (California Democrats for that matter) are choosing to invest more in prison spending than education, and that screws over more people of color than all the “bad hombre” comments in the world. The trick will be to figure out how to get people as riled up about racist systems as they are about racist comments, and that means again, getting back to values.
  4. We need to make political action a natural part of our culture. I think a big reason why so many people came to the march was because it felt like everyone was going to the march — like you were just kind of expected to show up. We have to figure out how to make regular political action this normal and this social, like going shopping or watching a movie. All week, my friends were texting each other “Want to meet up at the march?” — imagine if that could grow into “Want to go to the city council meeting?”. Most people know next to nothing about their elected officials and the bills they’re voting for, so we have to figure out how to inform people. Maybe someone launches an app that has weekly updates on pieces of legislation in your state assembly which you can track and check for updates as naturally as you would scroll through your Facebook feed. We also need to integrate politics into our institutions — high school ASBs should get involved with their local school boards, Girl Scouts should go on lobby visits, and work offices should invite their local representatives to pay them a visit.

We’re at a surreal moment in time — nothing remotely like this has ever happened before in the history of our country — and so I think this event has opened infinite possibilities for our movement. It’s quite possible that we may be shocked enough by this threat that we could all get serious for the first time about engaging in politics and forcing bold progressive change at every level of government — hopefully, the kind of change like free education and universal healthcare that we so desperately need.

And I’m fairly certain that the movement will be lead by young people. The little kids who were at the march on Saturday with their parents and grandparents were what eventually won my heart. An old man with a eight or nine year old pointed out a sign to her and said, “See that sign over there? My grandchildren deserve better.” I walked past a little girl clutching her mom’s hand as they walked to the metro who was chanting quietly to herself, “Say yes to the people no to the man.” These kids’ worldview will be changed forever by this moment in history. These kids will grow up believing that politics is relevant to them and that people power has an impact. And because of them, I believe that we will win.