WASHINGTON — Despite internal power struggles, including accusations of anti-Semitism, thousands of activists braved cold temperatures Saturday at the third Women’s March to show opposition to President Donald Trump, demand an end to violence against women and push for equality.
Protesters also turned out at “sister rallies” in hundreds of other U.S. cities.
While spirits remained high and marchers displayed determination to fight for women’s issues, this year’s march paled in numbers to the hundreds of thousands who roared onto the political scene in 2017 in the nation’s capital after Trump’s presidential election.
Nationwide, the 2017 march drew 3.3 million to 5.2 million nationwide – making it likely the largest demonstration in U.S. history. This year’s looked to fall considerably short of that turnout.
Marches were planned across the country, from Boston, to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and in smaller cities like Burlington, Vermont, and Grand Junction, Colorado.
In New York, because of internal disputes between organizers, rival marches turned out, one along Fifth Avenue and the other some 50 blocks away in Foley Square.
Rallies were also held in almost a dozen foreign cities, including Berlin, Rome and Kabul.
Unlike the first Women’s March in 2017, protesters battled harsh winter weather this year, turning out in scarves and gloves. The cold did not dampen the mood, however, as protesters marched and chanted “this is what democracy looks like” and “women’s rights are human rights.”
Many also sported the pink “pussy hats” made popular by the first march through the nation’s capital.
Stephanie Helton, 52, attended the march with her husband, Joe Helton, 53, from Port Huron, Michigan. She decided to show up immediately after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation amid sexual assault allegations.
Helton said the energy at the march has been “wonderful.”
“We’ve been worried about the direction of the country for a really long time, the assault on access to healthcare for millions and millions of Americans, the fact that we have a government that focuses on the issues that degrade members of our society and culture,” Helton said. “So, it’s great to be out here. We have lots of friends at home who told us ‘represent us! Represent us!’”
Even in cold, windy weather, the Bugnitz family flew from Columbus, Ohio, to attend the march after Sadie, 10, Chris and Kristin’s daughter, learned about the march from a teacher.
“It’s really important to our family that girls and boys are all treated equally and we can listen to all voices,” Kristin Bugnitz said.
“A lot of people like Trump are being rude and sexist and trying to make sure that men only have the rights to do stuff,” Oliver Bugnitz, 7, said. “It’s not fair.”
Noe Torres, came to the march with a group from Los Angeles. He wanted to attend to stand with the women in his life.
“Some of the strongest people in my life are the women in my life: my mom, my sister and my girlfriend,” Torres said. “I want to do my part in helping to undo the systemic oppression that’s keeping these amazing people from flourishing and thriving and doing something for this world.”
The movement that galvanized the nation’s capital has morphed from a show of force on the streets and sidewalks, into a mobilizing force at the polls.
As the movement has grown into a political powerhouse, it has also run into headwinds in the form of a splintered leadership and accusations of anti-Semitism against some of the original organizers.
The controversy, which prompted the Democratic National Committee and other groups to distance themselves from the Washington event, threatens to erode the movement’s gains, or at least slow its progress.
Without the motivation of Trump’s election or the midterms, the marches this year face such obstacles as travel inconveniences from the federal shutdown as well as harsh weather Saturday from the Midwest to New England.
“This is the heaviest lift they’re going to have,’’ said University of Maryland sociology professor Dana Fisher, author of the upcoming book “American Resistance.’’
“In general, getting people to march in the winter is tough. It’s a hard ask, and right now there’s not an obvious goal, except for perhaps 2020 (the general election). I know Women’s March Inc. says they’re trying to use this as a pivot to start talking about doing more policy-based work, but I think that’s not a good mobilizer.’’
In some ways, the movement is a victim of its own successes, the power of women at the ballot box — a direct result of the strong showing in the 2018 midterms that sent a record number of women into politics and into Congress.
Women, especially those in the suburbs, helped drive the Democrats’ 40-seat gain in the House of Representatives, flipping control of that chamber. A record 102 women – 89 of them Democrats – were voted into the House in November.
“You can draw a direct line from the 5 million who marched that day and our effort after that to impact elections to the makeup of the current Congress as the most diverse Congress that’s ever been elected,’’ said Vanessa Wruble, one of the leading organizers of the first march. “Already you see the movement shifting from reactive to proactive.’’
However, with the growth has come distrust and division.
Much of the controversy stems from Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory’s refusal to condemn Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a proponent of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories who recently described Jews as “termites.”
A detailed story by the Jewish online magazine Tablet said Women’s March board members Mallory and Carmen Perez – whom Wruble recruited to add diversity to the original organizing group of four – confronted her about the role Jews had in oppressing minorities.
Wruble, who is Jewish, was asked to leave the group shortly after the first march, and she told The New York Times her religion was a factor. She later co-founded March On, an organization that provides support and guidance to women-led groups throughout the country, and estimates 50 percent of Saturday’s “sister marches” will have gotten help from the group.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who attended the Women’s March in 2017, published an op-ed in USA TODAY on Friday saying that she is “walking away” from the Women’s March.
“I cannot associate with the national march’s leaders and principles, which refuse to completely repudiate anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry,” Wasserman-Schultz wrote. “I cannot walk shoulder to shoulder with leaders who lock arms with outspoken peddlers of hate.”
Fisher said the controversy is taking a toll.
“Women’s March Inc. does not own the women’s movement, and it certainly does not own this march, which has been so much a combination of all of these locally distributed efforts across the country,’’ she said. “It’s a shame all of the bad press is having this effect.’’
While Women’s March Inc. has repeatedly denied charges of anti-Semitism, the issue was further inflamed when Mallory, a Women’s March co-president, appeared on ABC’s “The View’’ on Monday and declined to denounce the frequent anti-Semitic statements by Farrakhan, whom she has publicly lauded.
Women’s March Inc. provided a statement about the “sister marches” Saturday, most of which are not affiliated with the group.
“Women’s March is an organic movement, made of the fierce energy and power of millions of women and those who support them,’’ the statement said. “We’re thrilled to see hundreds of marches sprout up in small towns, suburbs, and cities across America and around the globe. In 2017, we marched. In 2018, we took our power to the polls. In 2019, we’re coming with an agenda created by women and for the people.’’
In addition to addressing violence against women, that agenda includes items such as reproductive rights, racial justice and immigrant rights. The objectives are worthwhile enough for sponsors like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood to remain on board.
A coalition of more than 100 supporters of the Jewish Women of Color signed a letter standing firm with the Women’s March.
On the other hand, the Jewish Democratic Council of America issued a statement joining the DNC and other groups pulling away from the Women’s March organization, though not the cause itself.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz
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