What’s the point?
As that famous philosopher and Saturday Night Live host, Aziz Ansari once said (just this past Saturday), “If you look at our country’s history, change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people — and if day one is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen.” Millions of women & children and the men who love & support them gathered in Washington, D.C. and all around the country this weekend to march for their rights, and the response from some quarters was “why bother?” I’m talking of course about the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday. Approximately half a million women & men showed up in D.C. to take a stand in support of women’s rights and the rights of families and children in general. Many thousands more turned out to satellite marches in more than 600 cities across America (at least one in all 50 states, for a total of 3 million or more people nationwide).
There were even marches held in cities around the world.
Political scientists think it might have been the largest day of demonstrations in U.S. history. All of these people were out there to send a message in the wake of Trump’s inauguration that their voices needed to be heard and that they were going to fight to protect their rights & the rights of their families, friends and neighbors. The day was truly extraordinary, as we really don’t have a tradition of protesting inaugurations in this country, yet this year, three times more people turned out for the post-inauguration Women’s March (just in the D.C. location) than turned out for the inauguration itself. In just about every protest location, the turnout far surpassed the numbers organizers had been expecting to show up.
Facebook and Twitter were filled with people posting pictures of the best and funniest signs from the various marches, pictures & videos showing the huge crowds, and supportive & thankful messages for those marching.
(And yes, as an aside for those wondering, I do also have lots of friends & acquaintances who support Trump, and support Republicans in general). But one interesting response I heard from a few people was, “What’s the point of these protests when they’re not going to change anything?” There are lots of ways that question can be answered, so this response is in no way comprehensive, but I wanted to give just a few thoughts on it.
You Don’t Know if You Don’t Try
First, it’s true we really don’t know yet whether these protests will change anything. But it doesn’t hurt to remind Trump, “hey, more than half the country didn’t vote for you and you’re their President too.” Sending a message to Trump and the Republicans in Congress does serve a purpose. It lets them know that millions of people are paying attention and holding them accountable. Knowing there are watchful eyes upon them really can keep some of the potential excesses of a unified government in check, where traditional checks & balances might falter. True, Trump and the Republicans don’t seem like they will be easily dissuaded from the policies they’re determined to pursue. And many of them, particularly in the House, are cocooned in extremely “red” districts where they’ll be immune from the sentiments of the overall public when the next election rolls around.
But, by definition, the things in our history that have required protest haven’t come easily. Yet we’ve still had significant change forged through protest.
At one of Saturday’s marches, in Atlanta, Rep. John Lewis was a featured speaker. There’s no better example in this country of the impact that protest can have than Rep. Lewis. Ironically, the man that Donald Trump accused just a few days ago of being “all talk, talk, talk” is a living illustration of what can be achieved through activism. John Lewis, who fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., helped African Americans gain the right to vote by using methods that included protest marches. True, it didn’t take just one march. It took sustained, committed action. But protest was the foundation that allowed a young man who in the 1960s wasn’t even permitted to vote because of the color of his skin to become one of the most powerful Congressmen in his party 50+ years later.
So protest is important, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you saw any of the coverage of the various marches on Saturday, you might have noticed something interesting: the attendees generally weren’t angry (despite Ansari’s quote up top). At times it even seemed more like a celebration than a protest. Of course there were moments of anger expressed by different speakers, but overall, the participants were excited, happy, inspired. And when I turned on the tv, or saw clips on Twitter or Facebook, I too got excited and inspired. And I felt something about the direction of our country that I hadn’t felt in a while: hope.
The whole day was hopeful and positive. After Trump’s incredibly dark and negative inauguration speech the previous day, this was a much needed change of attitude. And importantly, it helped counteract some of the despair that so easily set in after Trump’s election. For a lot of us who opposed Trump, this wasn’t just a simple case of, “darn, our guy (or gal) didn’t win.” This wasn’t just sour grapes. Trump was so extraordinarily unqualified & unsuited for office in ways I don’t need to rehash here, that his election felt shattering in an unprecedented way. Add to that the completely unexpected nature of his win, and many who opposed Trump were left feeling powerless and entirely unsure how to move forward.
The Women’s March was the antidote to that. Thanks to one retired lawyer who was also somewhat unsure how to move forward, but took a risk and posted an idea on Facebook, a movement grew. Her idea, brought to life by a group of experienced organizers who joined her project, inspired millions of others to join in – people who otherwise might not have known what to do with their disappointment or fear. It all got channeled in a positive direction on Saturday at the Women’s March. And thanks to all of those people who showed up, the rest of us who simply viewed the March and saw the excitement, the energy, the positive vibes of the day – we got a reminder that we’re not powerless either.
This is essential because while everyone has their pet theory as to why Hillary Clinton lost the election, there’s no question that turnout was down in some key areas around the country, as compared to Obama’s winning elections. Yes, some Obama voters turned into Trump voters, but there were also significant numbers of Obama voters who just weren’t motivated enough to turn out this time around at all. Separate but related to that, Democrats have been decimated in lower level elected offices. Along with being the minority in the United States House and the Senate, Democrats are also out of power in state legislatures and Governorships all around the country (see my post Make a Run for It for details on just how bad these numbers are for Democrats). So Republicans not only control the policy making at a federal level now, but they are in complete control in most of the states as well.
There are a few reasons for these related issues, but one big one is that Republicans stay active and organized year round, every year, while Democrats typically only start trying to get organized when a Presidential election is approaching. So maintaining steady enthusiasm and participation among the Democratic base is a significant problem. Holding a march like this – a big nationwide event that gets wide coverage on cable news (well, not Fox News, of course), and takes over Twitter & Facebook – if it helps inspire and motivate democrats to become involved in more consistent, ongoing organizing, that would be a great thing for building the party from the bottom up. And in fact, as I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered that – in an effort to keep people organized & active – the Women’s March website had updated to include a page called 10 Actions/100 Days, giving people political action items they can work on – one every ten days for the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
United Against President P*ssy Grabber
The next reason these marches mattered is something on a less practical level: after a really long, emotionally bruising campaign that ended with a bullying, misogynistic, Neanderthal winning the presidency, I think women just needed this. We needed some solidarity, sister. It’s hard to express what a toll it took on the psyche having to watch Donald Trump batter his way through the election cycle: verbally taunting Hillary Clinton with jail threats & lurid 25-yr old allegations against her husband as he smirked & snickered about his own sexual predilections, casually brushing off his demeaning comments toward a beauty queen in his employ, belittling & berating Megyn Kelly for daring to ask him about his treatment of women, doubling down on his personal insults of Rosie O’Donnell & insulting Carly Fiorina for her looks at a debate, singling out female reporters to turn his angry rally crowds against, bragging about sexually assaulting women (whether any of the women’s allegations were true or not, it was uncontroverted that he bragged about the behavior). And that’s just a partial list.
When the country rewarded the man who did and said all of those things by handing him the Presidency, many women were left feeling like they were suddenly living in a country that was far more hostile to them than they had ever realized. Like the rest of the country was saying that all of those things were just a-okay. So it had to be powerful for many of the women at the various marches to be able to get together and robustly renounce that culture, whether verbally, or with clever signs, or simply by wearing their pink “pussyhats”. And for those of us simply observing, it was a powerful salve to witness a day when millions of fellow Americans got together – including thousands of men – to reject the same, and to say loudly and proudly that there are tons of us here who won’t put up with that crud.
I Don’t Belong to You
And now that the bruising campaign is over and Trump’s presidency has begun, many women fear how his policies might affect us. The people who marched on Saturday were there for many reasons: to protect the environment, to protect civil rights & voting rights, to protect loved ones who might be deported, to push for criminal justice reform and equal pay and more. But to focus on just one issue for the moment – since this one is perennially high on the GOP list of priorities – a big concern many women have is about Trump’s policies around their reproductive rights. Ironically for a party whose main mantra is all about freedom, one of their foremost goals is to limit freedom for women. Because being able to control her reproductive rights is the single biggest key to freedom that a woman can have: it allows her to make decisions about her family, her work, her financial well-being and ultimately her ability to be independent or not.
Trump and the GOP have promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade (for the one currently open seat & any future openings that may arise) and, at the same time, they want to make it harder for women to access contraceptives by defunding Planned Parenthood (the only source of preventive care for many women) and eliminating the requirement for insurance companies to cover it. This is not just a policy disagreement, but a genuinely terrifying prospect for millions of women. So a day like Saturday, where millions of women could get together – or watch tv or log onto Facebook — and see how many others are in it with them and feel support from the men around them as well, is incredibly reassuring. When it seems like so much of the security you depend on could be ripped away with a pen stroke, it feels a whole lot better knowing millions of your friends & neighbors are right there with you refusing to go down without a fight.
So will any of this change anything? There’s no way to know yet. But millions of Americans experienced an exhilarating – even celebratory – day of peaceful protest that allowed them to take part in one of the fundamental rights we have in this country. To me, the question isn’t why bother, but why not?