What the Women’s March on Washington can learn from Black Lives Matter
Time Magazine’s February 2017 cover will feature the Women’s March on Washington (WMoW), with the caption, “The Resistance Rises: How a March Becomes a Movement”.
The WMoW has rapidly become an umbrella protest for a variety of causes, and now shows signs of becoming a movement not just for protest, but to advance women’s rights and effect policy changes. But successful social movements don’t effect change simply via polite organised marches in Washington; they disrupt the status quo and pressure lawmakers into making changes with real consequences. And unlike certain other movements at work in the US today, the WMoW marchers are in a privileged position to make this happen.
After the WMoW on January 21, President Trump took to Twitter to demonstrate his approval: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views.” This is in stark contrast to Trump’s statements about Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Just before the election, he singled out a BLM protester at one of his rallies and said he should be “roughed up”. He has called the movement divisive. His new administration has added a new page to the White House website entitled Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community which states:
The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it … Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.
Many in the BLM movement have read this as a threat to protesters. So why the apparent double standard?
One obvious explanation is that the women’s marchers were, in Trump’s terminology, “peaceful” – no clashes between police and protesters, no violence, no rioting or looting. Indeed, many who supported the WMoW took to social media the next day to pat themselves on the back for executing a peaceful protest during which no-one was arrested.
But unsurprisingly, many BLM activists argued that white privilege played a major role in how the protest was perceived by the public and handled by the police. The Washington march itself was attended overwhelmingly by white women and was far less radical in tone than a BLM march despite their common goals.
Clearly, the two movements are disconnected. Two viral photos from the WMoW demonstrate the distance between them.
This image of Angela Peoples has received widespread attention. It’s a fair point: 53% of white women in America voted for Trump, and while the estimated 500,000 women protesting in Washington most likely didn’t, most of their peers did.
In this second photo, protester Amir Talai draws attention to the divisions between WMoW organisers and attendees about the role of race in the protest. As some women of colour began criticising their white allies, they started to make them feel alienated from the cause – and the sometimes heated dialogue between white women and women of colour on the WMoW Facebook page is testament to the tensions that persist.
While the WMoW’s white protesters are willing to accept women of colour in support of their cause, many aren’t willing to return the favour by supporting BLM: only 51% of white Americans aged 18-30 support BLM, and far fewer actually show up at protests.
It would be a huge wasted opportunity if these movements couldn’t bridge the gap between them. We should expect more and more protests during the Trump Administration, and the time is right for action.
Clearly, WMoW has something to learn from BLM. Here are five core lessons.
1. Be inclusive
The WMoW must be inclusive of all women, regardless of race, class, religion, age, political beliefs, sexuality, or their possession of a vagina (yes, trans women are part of this movement too). BLM has done this very well: spearheaded by LGBT women, many of the movement’s leaders are to this day young, queer, and trans women of colour. If the WMoW wants to succeed as a movement, it will have to live up to that standard.
2. Act local
The key to mobilising a movement beyond one march is to organise self-sustaining sub-groups across the country. This will include local organisations coming together under the banner of one name, whether the WMoW, the “Resistance” or something else. It also means lobbying local and state politicians. Activists can do this by asking their mayors to designate their cities as sanctuary cities for immigrants, or by calling state representatives to oppose legislation that would limit women’s reproductive health options.
3. Be political, but not partisan
BLM has deliberately represented itself as “revolutionary” in political orientation, often supporting left-wing candidates but not aligning itself with a particular political party. That helps it push candidates harder. From before the primaries even began in early 2016, its protesters were highly visible throughout the campaign, making their demands a constant issue. If the WMoW wants to match its power, it will have to step away from partisan alignment and push policy demands across the spectrum – especially once the 2018 midterm elections start to ramp up.
4. Civil disobedience works
A variety of nonviolent civil disobedience and peaceful protests must be used to have the greatest effect. Civil Rights campaigners in the 1960s used civil disobedience to resist Jim Crow segregation by sitting at whites-only lunch counters, resisting efforts to remove them; today, BLM protesters have taken to stopping traffic on busy highways. In short, peaceful protests are fantastic for bringing awareness to a problem, but they don’t disrupt the status quo or bring pressure on lawmakers to make changes.
5. Keep going
Angela Peoples’ photo speaks a very particular truth: many of these white middle-class American cisgender women are new to protest politics. That is not a bad thing – but if the WMoW is going to effectively challenge the Trump Administration and Congress on women’s rights, they are going to have to keep showing up. Even when they don’t feel like it. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when they might get arrested for civil disobedience. Successful social movements are not all sunshine and “pussyhats”; much of the work is tedious, tiresome, and thankless.
BLM protesters understand this. They show up day in and day out to have their voices heard. The Resistance, or whatever we’re calling it, will have to do that, too.