On Saturday’s Marches

Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP Images

Protesters in the Women's March in Los Angeles, California on January 21, 2017. 


A few quick reports and reactions from Saturday’s spectacularly, if conditionally, successful marches. I say “conditionally,” because, as Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the great 1963 March on Washington, wrote, the path that progressives must take to turn their values into policy is that of protest to politics. Happily, the speakers at virtually every march echoed Rustin’s prescription, urging participants to build organizations in their neighborhoods, work on campaigns, and run for office.

Turnout greatly exceeded expectation almost everywhere. Having attended both the Vietnam Moratorium March of November 15, 1969, which has generally been considered the largest demonstration on the National Mall, and Saturday’s Women’s March on the Mall, I’m confident that Saturday’s Women’s march was a good deal larger. Also far more female, with many more kids, and with its indignation intermixed with a sense of elation at the immense turnout and what it might portend.

A cautionary note, however. The two U.S. cities that conspicuously underperformed when it came to turnout were Detroit, a city of 677,000, where marchers were said to number “more than 4,000,” and Milwaukee, a city of 600,000, where the marchers numbered just 1,000. Many far smaller cities turned out many more marchers than Detroit and Milwaukee, both heavily African American, both disproportionately poor. The causes for the low turnout are many and varied, but one cause is surely the relative absence of effective progressive political and social organization in both cities and in those cities’ black communities—the same absence that enabled Donald Trump to win Michigan and Wisconsin last November. Progressive strategists, take note.

Three friends sent me reports from marches far from Washington. From Paris, Penny Schantz, who has represented numerous American trade unions in their dealings in Europe, wrote:

Signs displaying “Liberté, Egalité, Sororité” filled Human Rights Square at Trocadero. The huge multi-generational crowd, roughly half-American, half-French (and some other nationalities, too) included equal numbers of small children and dogs (this is France, after all). Crossing the Seine River, marchers passed the Eiffel Tower chanting in French and sang “We Shall Overcome.” A sense of “Solidarité” and empowering defiance prevailed. The police presence was discreet.  

From Los Angeles, which turned out more marchers than any city save Washington, Linda Burstyn, a television writer and longtime liberal and feminist activist, wrote:

Everyone knows Los Angeles is not the city for marches. We are progressives, but not marchers. And it was cold for LA. When I got to Pershing Square at 7:30 a.m., it was only 49 degrees. That didn’t stop people from pouring in.

By 9:30, we all knew that something unusual was happening. I was standing in front of the “early stage,” and while it was crowded, uncomfortably so, I could only see my immediate surroundings, so had no idea about the size of the gathering. It was only when I heard the distant roar that I realized I was in the middle of something bigger than anything I’d anticipated, anything I’d experienced before. The roar was thunderous and distant, as if a football stadium with loudspeakers was a few blocks away, as if the tail end of the sound was coming from another march altogether. The only rolling sound that I’d heard that even remotely sounded like this one was brought on by an earthquake years ago.

Police stood politely by; there was no need for them. This was a nice crowd. Multi-racial, with a smattering of men and thousands of pink hats, it seemed rebellious, cheerful, kind. No one seemed violent. Defiant, yes; indignant, yes. But the rally, way too big for the designated streets, was hopeful. What’s the opposite of beaten down? Strong. We were 750,000 strong and we roared.

And from London, Gina Neff, born and raised in the hill country of Eastern Kentucky and now an Oxford Don in communications, writes:

“Let’s follow the girls,” I said. In a crowded and aptly named Jubilee line carriage a group of three preteen girls in High Street camouflage fashions held signs as their mothers kept a half-watchful eye from the other side of the car. An announcement that the station closest to the start of London’s Women’s March was closed prompted my husband and me to figuring out how to get to the starting point of the march. That was when I realized the throng of people with us in the Tube were all heading to the same place, to what I had expected to be a small gathering of shell-shocked American expats.

Most of our car emptied out at Oxford Circus, and many of us followed the girls. What should have been a 15-minute walk was only five—the crowd for the march spilling about half a mile back from its Grosvenor Square start to Hanover Square, closer to where we debarked than we had anticipated. The crowd was young and old, people in groups and people walking along alone together, women and girls and boys and men. We ran into old friends. Groups of primary school girls marched together, herded by their mothers. People were smiling, helpful, orderly, polite and seemingly happy to be out together on a cold, clear day. A rainbow-striped American flag flew, while drums and whistles kept the crowd dancing. In characteristic British understatement one poster read “I am quite unhappy,” and another, “We are not fake news.” After an hour we finally passed Grosvenor Square, and my group swung back to a Mayfair gastropub for a late lunch. At the table next to ours, a little girl in a sparkly princess dress played with a glittery “Love Trumps Hate” sign, while her baby brother slept in their mother’s arms. It was a scene of blissful and ordinary weekend domesticity in response to extraordinary global events. Unlike any march that I’ve been to in 30 years, it was the sheer number of children and their parents that made this march in London seem so different. Like that family’s weekend brunch, the historic Women’s March on London seemed to emerge from a spirit that was domesticated, ordinary, and middle-class. And sparkly and girly. Follow the girls indeed.

Additional images by Penny Schantz.

You may also like