#WomensMarch: Whose March Is It, Anyway?

A day of mourning. That’s what inauguration day 2017 would have been for me if not for the Women’s March.

I had spent the previous evening at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, celebrating the release of The Meaning of Michelle, an anthology of essays paying tribute to our beloved black FLOTUS. The week straddled her birthday as well as the most divisive inauguration day of her, or my, lifetime.

Even as we celebrated the Obamas that night, the air was heavy with the dread of what was to come. The transfer of power would bring an unthinkable shift from everything we respected and revered to everything we distrusted and despised, and we felt utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Marching? #NotWithMe

When that next day dawned, the sun was bright and I had somewhere to be. I jumped on the train, my phone lighting up with texts from girlfriends all headed to march through New York City. It was electrifying to be united in our public outcry against Donald Trump.

Our goals were simple and we accomplished them: we successfully avoided having to actually witness 45 taking office (I refused to even watch the replays); across the world, we upstaged him while giving him the collective back of the hand; and we had church in those streets, momentarily lifting each other out of the darkness and mind-blowing disbelief that had enveloped us from the second the election results were in.

Headed home on the train, I caught another black woman’s eye and we both smiled.

“Wasn’t it great?” I said, assuming she’d marched. She shook her head. “White women got us into this mess and now they want to march? Not with me.” Oh, right. I thought of the election’s exit polls, so shocking, I knew them by heart: 94% of black women voted for Hillary. In fact, the majority of all women voted against Trump – except white women, 53% of whom voted him in.

Whose Lives Matter?

Fast forward one year. In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March 2018, there were plenty of articles about black women planning to sit it out.

A lot had happened during the year, and not a lot of it was good. I’ll spare you the recap – it’s all all too familiar and, for some of us, raw. Having moved across the country in October, I looked forward to the march, needing the sheer lift I knew it would offer, and curious to compare the Oakland, California vibe to New York’s.

But when the flu landed me in bed, I was forced to watch the march unfold in the media and through the accounts of friends who I thought would be marching on both coasts.

Funny thing about that: As I reached out, what I found was that while many did join in, a surprising number did not. Their reasons for making either choice speak to a fissure in the current women’s movement that is as old, deep, and race-based as the movement itself.

As president and CEO of the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) for the last 24 years, Regina Jackson has participated in more marches than she can count, but not this one. “My commitment to my girls and our Links book club won out,” said Jackson, an activist since her college days at UC Berkeley. “I am clear that if I really wanted to participate, I would have, so I am faced with the challenge of asking why I didn’t.”

Last year, Jackson purchased a ticket to attend the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, DC and says she was preparing to fly across the country when a chance to do a service project in Haiti “trumped” her plans.  This year, she opted out of even attending her local march at Lake Merritt in Oakland.

“While I absolutely think that equal pay, abortion rights and other humane issues are important, I am moved to prioritize the needs of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the dreamers,” Jackson said. “I guess the issues of this women’s march do not speak to me the way the issues of the civil rights marches do.”

A Movement with Too Many Messages

For others, the choice not to march seemed less intentional. Maybe emotional fatigue from the constant drone of Trump tweets and upsetting daily press took their toll. Or maybe the press of daily family life simply took precedence as women on both coasts chose to shuttle kids through the normal weekend gauntlet of dental appointments, sporting events, and birthday parties that last year’s commitments to marching disrupted.

There were those, however — tens of thousands by news estimates — who prioritized this year’s march with as much gusto as ever. Jamelle Simon Wallace attended the Oakland march with her 16-year-old daughter, Kendall, as she did last year. This time, her husband, Joaquin, joined them and, although he said he expected to see more “Black Lives Matter” signs, he was impressed.

Kendall noted that that the energy around Lake Merritt wasn’t as high as last year and the crowd, estimated by local news organizations at 40,000, was smaller. She thinks the movement’s lack of focus is partly to blame.

After standing in the bright cold through speeches spanning #metoo, wage equity, immigration, DACA, healthcare and education reform, and dumping Trump, she expressed frustration. “It’s just so many topics,” Kendall Wallace said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Her mother, Jamelle, a business development consulant, agreed and expressed concern that the issues she most cares about barely made the list.

“I am not angry at any race of women, but … the [white] womanhood thing concerns me,” Jamelle Simon Wallace said. “Not that I expect for us to have one dialogue, but damn, the police are killing our babies.”

Signs of the Times

Jackson, part of whose mission is to empower the young girls at her youth center, echoed the Wallace family’s frustrations.  

 “I am so overwhelmed with all the horrendous decisions that 45 has made that I am unsure whether my marching will make a difference,” Jackson says. “I vote, I work in my community and try to be what I want to see in this world.

“Maybe I will catch the next march. Until then, we will keep addressing the most urgent issues in my community, and try to keep hope alive in the face of hatred and injustice.”

The next march is actually today, in Las Vegas. Billing itself as Power to the Polls, it may offer the most reasonable focus for women trying to figure a way forward through the morass of complex issues.

Tamika Mallory, the black woman credited with being part of the multicultural group of core organizers of the Women’s March efforts, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that last year’s march was about resisting authority, and the 2018 march is about redefining it.

A popular message posted on signs at many of Saturday’s marches sent a message black women and white women can perhaps all rally behind: “Grab ‘em by the ballot.”

Of course, the only way to do that is to vote for the interests you claim to care most about. Black women have consistently done that. White women have not – and the only way to change that has little to do with marching. Which brings us to an Instagram post of two black women in New York’s march on Saturday. “We tried to tell ya’ll,” said one sign. “Are we gonna have to do ALL the work?” asked the other.  


Correction: This piece originally incorrectly referenced the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as the Schomburg Center for Social Research.