Erika D. Smith

Next up for Women’s March? Hopefully not another family feud

More than 20,000 participants gathered at Southside Park during the Women's March on Sacramento last Saturday.
More than 20,000 participants gathered at Southside Park during the Women's March on Sacramento last Saturday.

“You have reached the end of the march!”

A brown-haired woman shouted the words again and again as tens of thousands of protesters, many of them sporting pink hats and ponchos to ward off the rain, came to a halt on Market Street. The Ferry Building loomed ahead in the darkness, just beyond Justin Herman Plaza.

“Either go left or go right,” she yelled, smiling warmly. “Thanks for marching!”

It was a somewhat abrupt and disconcerting end to an otherwise exuberant Women’s March in San Francisco, one of the last so-called “sister marches” to wrap up on Saturday. Sacramento’s ended hours earlier under similarly dreary conditions.

It was clear many people didn’t want to leave, though, or return to the real world where Donald Trump is president and people’s rights are at risk. “What now?” I heard a few women ask each other, rebellious grins still plastered on their faces, but fear starting to creep back into their eyes.

Indeed, what now?

More than 3 million people showed up for Women’s Marches across the United States, according to FiveThirtyEight, and thousands more made their voices heard in Europe, Africa and even Antarctica.

In Washington, D.C., the main rally brought more than 500,000 people to the Capitol Mall, dwarfing the crowd that showed up for Trump’s inauguration. In California, grandmothers and suburbanites who never even thought about protesting flooded public transit and braved the rain and cold for hours.

Watching in Sacramento and later in San Francisco, it was hard not to be awed by the wave of grassroots activism that Trump has unleashed. It’s testament to the anger and fear that his presidency has inspired.

But pulling off a gigantic protest is one thing. Getting those protesters to take the next step and work towards a common goal is quite another. Turning emotionally driven activism into sober public policy is what has to happen, though, or “the resistance” will fizzle as fast as the Occupy movement did.

So far, there hasn’t been much of a coordinated effort to do that. The Women’s March website is collecting e-mail addresses and has posted some suggestions for people to take in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. But there’s clearly still a lot of work to be done.

As David Axelrod, a chief strategist for former President Barack Obama, tweeted on Saturday: “This outpouring today is extraordinary and inspiring. But if all this energy isn’t channeled into sustained pol(itical) action, it will mean little.”

That’s a tall order, particularly for a new generation of progressives with often warring agendas.

As I wrote last week, the Obama administration’s biggest legacy is that millions of historically marginalized Americans have more rights today than they did when he took office. Same-sex couples can now get married. Undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed crimes don’t have to fear deportation. Black people can take some measure of comfort knowing the U.S. Justice Department is monitoring police departments for civil rights abuses. Transgender people can serve openly in the military.

These newly won rights are now at risk from a Trump administration, though, just like the rights of women. And so, even in planning the Women’s March, there was disagreement over how and whether to address all of those concerns.

Women of color wanted to be heard. To carry “Black Lives Matter” signs, not just “My Body, My Right” signs. Transgender women wanted to talk about discrimination they face. White feminists, mostly worried about losing abortion rights and disgusted by a president who fat shames women and who admitted to sexual assault, didn’t want to muddy the message of protest.

In some cities, including Portland, the infighting threatened to stop the march before it ever started.

In the end, there was compromise. For the Women’s March on Washington, that meant bringing in transgender activist Janet Mock to speak, as well as the Mother’s of the Movement, alongside traditional feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.

In the end, inclusion is always better.

But that’s the double-edged sword of Obama-era identity politics. And Republicans only see the side that cuts. I’ll never forget the way House Speaker Paul Ryan took Democrats to task at last summer’s Republican National Convention for “dividing people” with their policies.

“In America, aren’t we all supposed to see beyond class or ethnicity or all those other lines drawn to set us apart and lock us in groups?” he asked in exasperation, to the applause of the mostly white delegates. “...We are all equal!”

My guess is most of the people who came out for Women’s Marches understand that while we should all be treated equally in America, we’re not. The glass ceiling still exists for women in the highest echelons of corporations and government, even in California. The pay gap is real. So is the misogyny. And all of this is worse for women of color, lesbians and transgender women.

That has to change. But to do that, like-minded Americans have to keep finding ways to collaborate on causes like the Women’s March, and go beyond that by organizing, advocating and running for office.

Proving that people’s differences are strengths to be harnessed, not weaknesses to be avoided and ignored, will be as much of a referendum on progressive policies as any effort to stop Trump from undoing them.

“Women’s rights are human rights” is a nice slogan. But let’s be honest. This is bigger than just women’s rights.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith