Last year, after the nightmarish haze that was Nov. 8, I found myself the next day standing on an overpass that looks over Interstate 280, hanging a “F*CK TRUMP” banner for all to see. After receiving an amusing mixture of supportive honks, jeers and middle fingers, I later joined hundreds of other women in the streets of downtown San Jose for the first-ever Women’s March. Posters clenched in my fist, I was convinced that I could dismantle the presidency with my own bare hands.
But on the day of this year’s demonstration, I was not out in the streets again. In fact, I had deliberately chosen not to go to the Women’s March. And before you stop reading, no, I had not suddenly become an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump in a year’s span. I chose not to go this year, not because I had lost my revolutionary fervor, but because I’m afraid the Women’s March has.
The first Women’s March was no doubt a momentous and historic occasion; an estimated 4.2 million people participated in more than 600 cities, making it one of the largest protests in U.S. history. While the sheer size of the demonstrations was impressive, the politics of some who participated were a little more questionable. The popular and now iconic “pussy hat” donned by some marchers has been rightfully criticized for alienating trans women and non-binary participants, narrowing the conversation about female empowerment regarding genitalia.
When your “protests” are deemed acceptable because they are escorted by police and granted city permits — in other words, sanctioned by the same state perpetuating the violence you’re organizing against — who are you really resisting?
The Women’s March deliberately changed their leadership to include veteran organizers of color (Tamika D. Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez for example) and to reflect the diversity of women’s experiences. However, women of color such as S. T. Holloway, who shared her views on the march in an article for Huffington Post, still expressed their reluctance to attend again, disappointed at the lack of intersectionality. The now viral photo of activist Angela Peoples holding a sign in front a group of white marchers that reads “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for TRUMP” was a stark but much needed reminder that messages of unity did not and could not resonate with everyone until underlying issues of privilege and white feminism were addressed.
There’s a reason why middle-class white women — some of whom proudly and unironically admitted that was the first time they’ve marched for anything in their lifetimes — came out in droves. There’s a reason why no arrests were made and why mainstream media didn’t refer to marchers as “rioters.” The Women’s March was not a protest; it was a parade.
From deliberately branding itself a “march” rather than a protest to not having a specific list of demands or stances, the march strategically made itself appealing to almost everyone. But in that ambiguity, it lost its radical potential. When public demonstrations are made palatable in mainstream public discourse, they stand to undermine the very movements they’re attempting to prop up; watering down “the resistance” only makes it that much easier to swallow. When your “protests” are deemed acceptable because they are escorted by police and granted city permits — in other words, sanctioned by the same state perpetuating the violence you’re organizing against — who are you really resisting?
In a bizarre turn of events, Trump tweeted his support for the Women’s March, citing a statistic about the “lowest female unemployment in 18 years.” It’s tempting to laugh at his cluelessness, but if the government is able to co-opt your demonstration in attempt to make itself look better, perhaps it’s time to ask if something went wrong along the way.
If protests aren’t eyebrow-raising and controversial and if they are complicit with oppressive institutions, then they are counterproductive. A perfect analogy from one of my favorite scenes from Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” comes to mind, when Red, frustrated by her seemingly rebellious boyfriend’s unwillingness to engage in active protest against the Soviet Union, yells “I thought you were brave. But you don’t want anything to change. You’re the rebel they can tolerate. …That’s why they leave you alone. You help each other exist”.
From deliberately branding itself a “march” rather than a protest to not having a specific list of demands or stances, the march strategically made itself appealing to almost everyone. But in that ambiguity, it lost its radical potential.
As the opposition to Trump’s presidency continues to grow, the Women’s March presents an opportunity to seriously consider the efficacy of public demonstrations. As students at one of the most politicized universities in the country and members of the larger Berkeley community, we will no doubt encounter our fair share of protests this year. Are we going to use them to see who can make the funniest sign and take protest selfies? Will we treat them as performative and self-indulgent image boosters, a way to increase our social capital to seem cooler and “woker” than we actually are? Are we going to mock, gawk at and create a spectacle out of people fighting for their basic human dignity?
Or are we going to organize, mobilize and agitate strategically and effectively? Of course, the former might be tempting, and the latter is much more difficult. But as progressive students and community members who are concerned with our country’s future, now more than ever is the time to challenge ourselves. So if you’re ready to take that extra step, then I’m ready too. Join me out in the streets; just leave the pussy hats at home.