Some Thoughts on the Women’s March on Washington

News media concern trollers are wringing their hands over the possibility that what yesterday's Women’s March started may turn out to be another Occupy rather than a “Democratic Tea Party.”

Journalists such as these writers, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Elana Schor, perennially fail to note a few facts about movement organizing.

For one thing, movements are not one-day or even one-month or one-year events. Most reports are trained, I think, to report on small chunks of history – one traffic accident, one Presidential Inauguration, one battle in a war – at a time, and that is how they see events unfolding around them. When they do indulge in animadversions on possible future trends, they usually spin out whatever scraps they find in their memories, without much intelligent analysis.

For example: will whatever happened on January 21 turn out to be an “Occupy” (an alleged flash-in-the-pan, sadly mismanaged excuse for a “movement”) or a full-fledged “Tea Party” (an impressive piece of history that turns into a revolution, or at least a respectable-sized chuck of a major U.S. party)? In fact, the Occupy movement, while relatively brief in itself, has turned out to be a significant experience for many people who participated in it, leading them to continue to act politically in ways that would not have occurred to them otherwise. (And, by the way, the Women’s March was started by one Hawaii woman and a few friends, while the Tea Party was kicked off by a CNBC business commentator and a lot of big right-wing bucks.)

In this respect, I believe that the Women’s March was a mind-altering experience for thousands of people who had never had this sort of thing hit them in the face before. In fact, there has not been a coordinated mass demonstration on anything like this scale in this country since the national anti-Vietnam-War demonstrations of the 1970s, so a generation or perhaps two of Americans have grown up with only hear-say knowledge of such actions. Indeed, the nation-wide and world-wide scale of this action would have been impossible 40 or so years ago; it required the communication capabilities of the Internet to organize so many millions of people to create such an event. So this may in fact be the start of what many activists have been expecting since the birth of the Internet: a new era in political organizing.

An event like this is not just something to generate some newspaper headlines or 5-minute TV spots before the sports and weather news. It could well be called a catalyzing or igniting event: one which will stay in the memories of the people who participated in it for a long time. (Although the real catalysis, of course, was the Trump election victory and inauguration. One heard woeful Democratic pols crying, “Why didn’t something like this happen before the election, when it could have done some good?” But of course it didn’t happen before the election. All that happened before then, aside from Bernie’s agitation, was the usual Democratic pols’ platitudes.)

All of us who took part in the march, as I can attest to from my feelings as well as what has been reported from everyone else, were immensely strengthened and exhilarated by seeing so many people sharing the same reactions to the Trump inauguration. This will have the same effect as that of the “failed” Occupy movement, only more so. Therefore, I am not at all worried that it will fade into nothing; especially since I’m sure we can count on Trump and his circle to keep repeating their assaults on decency and humanity on a daily basis, so that the people who were energized by the march will be constantly reminded of what needs doing.

Another thing that conventional journalists like Dovere and Schor don’t understand is that an occurrence of this magnitude is very different from the usual “march and rally” or conventional campaign event that they are used to covering. They tell us that

organizers drew applause for promising to release a list of targeted political actions that attendees could take during Trump’s first 100 days in office, but aside from repeated requests that people in the crowd share their phone numbers with organizers by texting “women," there was no clearly coordinated effort on site in Washington to collect email addresses or other information to build out a network of activists.

Dovere and Schor don’t take into account that a very large proportion, if not the majority, of the marchers were already connected up with one organization or another, or they would not have heard about the march as it was being organized in the first place. In the snail-mail days, march/rally organizers had to pass around clipboards to get lists of addresses and phone numbers, but now (no one should need reminding) networks are created by Facebook and Twitter and organizations’ web sites which can be found in an instant by Internet searches. Things happen much more efficiently these days, as long as people’s interest is sustained, and as I suggested above, Trump is likely to be the chief on-going organizer of the new movement, as he was for this march.

Another worry in news stories such as this one is that there was not enough “focus." With such a bewildering variety of “causes” in evidence, how could a coherent “movement” possibility be created?

Now they have to figure out what to do next to channel the raw energy of the marches into political action. And what is it that they’re about: Women’s equality? Reproductive rights? Race? Climate change? Stopping Trump from putting someone they don’t want on the Supreme Court? Making him release his taxes? All of the above? Signs (and costumes) for all of that and more were all over the place on Saturday.

“All of the above” is precisely right. It is a bit ironic that journalists of this kind continually complain that  movements for peace, women’s rights, racial justice, and on and on, never seem to be able to coordinate with each other, and then, when a giant demonstration like this does spontaneously draw in people with all of these concerns, they complain that it seemed too disorganized or scatter-shot. As it happened, this event was initiated by a handful of women who envisaged a women’s-rights demonstration, but it grew rapidly and organically, as millions of people learned about it through social media, into just the sort of comprehensive Left view of the world that everyone dreamed of in the 1960s and 70s, when mimeo machines, typewriters, expensive long-distance phone calls, and snail mail were the only ways we had to organize anything. I well remember that, in those days, Students for a Democratic Society organizers couldn’t afford to make constant phone calls from one campus to another, so they had to resort to using donated jalopies to drive around the country. It’s a Brave New World! (Well, not so much.)

This brings up one more misunderstanding that afflicts conventional journalists as well as conventional political operatives: the idea that only politics in the mainstream liberal sense of running candidates in the Democratic Party is important. Listen to one of the most prominent of these folks:

'This outpouring today is extraordinary and inspiring. But if all this energy isn't channeled into sustained pol action, it will mean little,’ tweeted David Axelrod, the chief strategist behind Barack Obama’s winning campaigns.

I don’t think I need to remind anyone that, important as the gains made during the Obama administration were, there were many radicals who were and are very dissatisfied with the size of those gains. I saw many signs at the local march I was in that reflected long-established Democratic-Party, liberal political orientations, but also many others that went quite further. I doubt that Axelrod’s campaigns attracted very many people putting out messages like “Resist!” and “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!”

And we must never forget that Axelrod and his colleagues feel that their main duty is to “channel” as many people as possible into voting for the candidates they work for, whereupon they consider their work done. The cry of the Paris radicals in 1968, “Another world is possible,” is not really up their alley.

Dovere and Schor quote one young marcher who seems to have got the point of this giant demonstration.

As for what to do next, it’s too early to tell, said Sarah Jaffe, a 28-year-old who works in book publishing and came to Washington for the march there. “Immediate outrage and sustained outrage are two different things. I’m gearing up to be mad as hell for a long time.”


qedd© Jon Johanning 2011