The March In January
The day before the march was warm. Months ago, I’d first heard of this small grassroots movement, a bunch of women upset about the general atmosphere in the country planning some sort of rally. I toyed with the idea of attending. I consider myself an outspoken feminist, and I had been to rallies before. But marching through D.C. with a couple hundred other women in the middle of January seemed unappealing. Still, I had a nagging feeling that I still needed to do something, so I designed a few posters for the march and posted them to one of the Facebook groups for anyone to use. On the day of the inauguration, images popped up of marches around Virginia with women holding signs, some of them mine. People I had never met had taken the time to print my posters before hitting the streets to express their dissent. Between the feeling of pride I felt scrolling through the photos online, and the unseasonably warm weather, I knew that I had to be at the march the next day.
I slept in my friend’s basement that night, hitching a series of rides to get there late into the night of the twentieth of January. The twenty-first came quickly; I believe we slept three, maybe four hours. We were at the Vienna metro by six a.m. to catch the first trains into D.C. Even this early in the morning, the seats were filled with women in pink hats. Vienna is the furthest metro stop from D.C. on the Orange Line, and every stop that we made between Vienna and L’Enfant Plaza added to the electricity in the car. Standing in the brisk D.C. air that morning, I thought that the initial estimates of 200,000 attendees was generous. How many people actually felt the drive to get up on a Saturday morning and trek into a busy city just to make a point to an administration, and perhaps to a world, that might not even notice or care?
Later that day I stood in the middle of the crowd, tightly packed between people on all sides. Only after the march ended did I learn that 500,000 women and men had shown up that day to march, with 673 other sister marches taking place around the world. Almost 5,000,000 globally took a stand that day, marching in their own communities, as far away from D.C. as Madagascar and Singapore. I could tell from looking at the crowd around me that being in D.C. for the march was important. The people we talked to came from Canada and California, both places with many marches of their own. There was something special about being in D.C. the day after the inauguration, being able to march the streets past Congress and the White House.
Tamika Mallory, the national co-chair of the march, was one of many who delivered speeches to the huddled crowds that day. I was too far away to see the main stage, but as I watched her message relayed through video screens and booming speakers, something she said resonated deeply with me: “When you go back home, remember how you felt, that instant, that gut, that said ‘I gotta get on a bus, a train a plane.” I heard this sentiment repeated multiple times by multiple speakers. However, the reaction from the rest of the country appeared more skeptical. Media after the march included headlines like “Women’s March movement: What’s next and can the momentum last?” and “Can women’s march make magic moment into a movement?” Even some of the marchers seemed to question what long-term effect the march would have. A nagging worry started to emerge that the march would only ever be a march. A movement contained to one day, one feeling, one moment.
When Patricia Kuntz spoke in front of the group of twenty-odd people congregated in the local library she was, quite honestly, pissed. Before she left home that afternoon she had been watching MSNBC, which had just aired a segment about whether the lower attendance at the Tax Day March meant the Women’s Movement was losing steam. She voiced her vocal opposition, and a few others chimed in with their opinion as well. This discussion wasn’t on the official agenda for the day, a brief black and white flier with “Indivisible NoVa West Agenda” written in bold on the top. A quick rundown of how the meeting was supposed to go covered the top half of the page, with the rest of the space devoted to upcoming events and actions.
When I first entered the Indivisible NoVa West meeting, I was shocked by the energy in the room. The library was a nice place, newly constructed with a sleek modern feel and lots of windows. Light green carpet sprawled throughout, muffling footsteps and preserving the serene library environment. But inside the glass doors that separated the community meeting room from the rest of the library, a small crowd was present. Immediately after I walked in, two women sitting at a small folding table showed me where to sign in and offered copies of all their literature. Today, they had four documents: the agenda, a list of their guiding principles, a flier for an upcoming town hall, and a stapled printout of a blog called The Prince William Muckraker.
Before I found a seat, I met one of the leaders of the group, a upbeat woman with pink-tipped hair named Marilyn Karp. Involved in politics for awhile, she had interned with the Obama campaign and already knew the ropes when it came to campaigning and getting out the vote. The day after the election, she went to a meeting at a local coffee shop where twenty other people, most of whom had never been politically active, met to answer the question: “Oh my god, what do we do?” They decided to organize their own bus ride to the Women’s March, as the closest one was full. From there, the group evolved into the political action committee it is today. Karp’s experience in politics guided the formation of the group: her experience with the Obama campaign taught her that “you never have a group of people together that you don’t collect their name and address and phone number.” She originally tried to merge the group of people she had collected into another local Indivisible Group, but the other group was already too big.
Since then, Indivisible NoVA West has grown tremendously. Karp says that the meetings average around seventy people, but events like town hall meetings and canvassing can return a lot more. Currently the Facebook group has over 700 members. They meet weekly with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine’s office on what they call “Resist Trump Tuesday” where they organize town halls, help campaigns for local government, and plan hundreds of other events that contribute to resisting the Trump administration. Karp also makes a point to explain that their meetings are interactive: people don’t just come to sit and listen and be told what to do. It really is a community effort that all the members engage in.
Once the meeting began, it quickly became apparent that Karp was telling the truth. The meeting functioned more as a discussion than a lecture. After a member brought up a new topic, there rest of the group was immediately ready to jump in and share their opinion. Sometimes it was just nods or groans, but often it was full-blown stories. People interjected with what they’d covered canvassing earlier that morning, ideas for future events, questions about the topic–really just anything at all. Despite the informality, it wasn’t chaotic. When someone spoke, all turned their full attention to whoever had the floor. In the short time the group had been meeting, they had learned to run like a well-oiled machine.
For this meeting, a few guests had come to speak. First was a candidate for the special Clerk of Court election, that voters would decide the following Tuesday. Quite a few people had already been out that morning knocking on doors and delivering fliers, trying to get as much as they could in before Easter. Someone else hauled in a huge stack of sample ballots and dropped them on the table. He told the crowd quite bluntly that if they delivered all the ballots before Tuesday, they would ensure a win. Everyone just needed to take twenty or so and pass them out to the neighborhoods on the canvassing list.
Next was a representative from the Working Families Party, who gave a presentation on how to create an effective event. Indivisible NoVa West has events going on most days of the week, and it’s easy to see why. Everyone seemed to have the ideas and passion to get involved. The biggest obstacle the training covered was media. As a new organization, it was difficult, yet imperative, to spread their message effectively. This meant contacting journalists and giving them a compelling reason to show up, as well as using new media to do things like live-Tweet the event or stream it on Facebook.
Indivisible became one of the largest rallying organizations after the march. The group currently provides resources for organizers and gives a way for others to find a group that they can join. A lot of the Indivisible groups easily translate from march groups because they are already clustered by location in Facebook groups that were used to plan transportation for the march. These groups resulted in an organic growth of people looking to stay involved in the movement. Since the groups started without a clear organizational structure, many leaders blossomed out of the power vacuum, becoming pioneers of a powerful political element. The Indivisible website lists 5,800 groups around the nation that are registered with the organization, at least two in every congressional district.
The NoVa West division is particularly interesting because its residents reside in two highly contested Virginia congressional districts. Two Republicans—Rob Wittman in the First congressional district and Barbara Comstock in the Tenth congressional district—currently represent a highly divided area. Due to what many of these activists see as political gerrymandering, the residents in the two districts are divided from neighbors in Northern Virginia but share a congressional district with Williamsburg, which is more than 150 miles south. Both Comstock and Wittman were elected in 2016 and therefore won’t be up for reelection until 2018. But not having an upcoming election does nothing to deter Indivisible members from showing up at their representative’s offices, requesting that they hold town halls in person, and holding public town halls without them when they refuse to show up, which they frequently don’t.
Despite the stereotype that Baby Boomers don’t understand social media, Indivisible NoVa West uses Facebook and Twitter for most of their networking and communication. Those same Women’s March groups that formed Facebook pages and later Indivisible groups, have now evolved into what is essentially a 24/7 town hall meeting. Without this electronic rallying power, it’s unlikely that they would have the turnouts they continue to have after the march. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing what some are calling a “Liberal Tea Party” movement. Despite the political affiliations being polar opposites, there’s quite a lot of similarity between how the two movements have formed. The bulk of the Tea Party was “newly engaged, politically conservative but not active with their local GOP and often registered as independents.” The Tea Party movement also grew out of a time when Democrats held the majority power in Washington, the exact opposite of what we’re experiencing today.
By far the biggest resemblance between this new liberal movement and the Tea Party is the way they’ve attacked locally. In many places around the country, liberal activists are showing up at town halls from Jackson, Mississippi, to West Plains, Missouri, to confront conservative politicians face to face. Because of the reactions they have been getting, many politicians just refuse to hold town hall meetings in person anymore, instead opting for phone-in town halls where they can screen the questions and avoid protests. Some politicians even go as far as not holding any public appearances. In response, some groups have decided to arrange town hall meetings without their representative present. On April 18, Indivisible NoVa West helped to sponsor a town hall “With Or Without Rep. Rob Wittman” at a high school in his district. Two other events of the same type in the southern regions of the district soon followed suit.
Rob Wittman was invited several times to make an appearance at the town hall, which the organizing groups offered to hold at any place and at any time. Nonetheless, he insisted he could not attend. At the event, after confirming that Wittman had decided not to attend, they brought out a cardboard cutout of Wittman onto the stage. A panel of moderators recorded participants’ questions regarding a variety of topics and later delivered them to Wittman’s office. The polarizing nature of the election may have projected as a strict divide between Republican and Democratic voters. However, both businessmen and high school teachers saw eye to eye on issues like universal healthcare.
It might be too soon to call if this new women’s movement has longevity, whether it will be able to stand up to the unrelenting pushback from established politicians. It’s been only been about three months since the first Women’s March, really not much time to assess the staying power of a movement. However, if those three months are any indication of how the future will play out, it seems reasonable to expect that Indivisible groups will continue to have long-term success. The biggest hurdle for the movement may just be finding a way to emulate the successful aspects of the Tea Party movement without spiraling out of control and creating a chasm within their own party like the conservatives did in 2008.
So far, the results of Indivisible’s efforts seem favorable. Tax Day protests, Not My President rallies, and a March for Science all had continued to have large turnouts months after the first Women’s March. The Tax Day march drew energetic crowds, including from cities like Berkley, New York City, and Las Vegas. Democrats in southern states like Georgia and Kansas are coming closer and closer to winning elections against Republicans on all levels of government, something that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago. Although massive grassroots opposition wasn’t enough to keep Betsy DeVos from being confirmed as Secretary of Education, the battle was close and certainly sent a message to other nominees that the public was paying close attention. Heavy opposition from the left caused Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder to withdraw his nomination before it even came to a vote. After seeing the chaos in the White House when National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned, Robert Howard, President Trump’s pick for replacement turned down the offer, calling it “a shit sandwich.”
For the 500,000 who first marched in D.C., and to every person that has decided to join Indivisible since, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the path forward for the new liberal movement must revolve around uniting the Democratic Party and working to fix the problems that allowed for a Trump victory in 2016. But Democrats can’t just be the movement of “not Trump.” The movement needs to be defined in terms of what it actually stands for. Whether this is a centrist policy that aims to gobble up independents and moderates, or a more leftist policy that embraces progressiveness and appeals to a similar sense of populism that elected President Trump, the most important thing is that people who are newly politically active remain politically active. It’s not enough to show up one day or go to a few meetings. Being an informed and active citizen is about consistency, and the ability to remain enthusiastic for the long haul.
When I began this project I originally set out to create an objective look at the way women’s groups have continued to organize after the historic 2017 Women’s March on Washington. However, as I began to write, I realized how much I also wanted to create a record of my experiences at the march. Combining these two goals gave me the unique opportunity to integrate factual reporting with firsthand experience. Not only does this documentation create a way to preserve my memories of the day, I feel that it also gives some personal insight for curious readers who may not have been there that day.
While researching, I realized I had jumped to conclusions before my project even began. I assumed that the vast majority of the women leading the charge at town halls and meetings were newly involved in politics. But as I began to interview the women present at the indivisible meeting, I realized that many of them were not political newbies. One of the women I interviewed, Marilyn, was a volunteer with the Obama campaign, while the other was a member of the politically active NEA (National Education Association). I was surprised while talking to these women, as I expected the answer to “Are you newly into politics?” to be a simple “Yes.”
This is not to say all these women are seasoned veterans. Many of the women in Indivisible are newly engaged. For example, the woman who organized the Wittman town hall had never organized an event of that type before in her life. I think the most important take away from this finding is that despite where they come from or how experienced they are, these women mean business. I am amazed that groups of women around the country, especially those who are not paid or powered by corporations or superPACs, have created a political force that is influencing real change.
I definitely get the sense that the meetings in Prince William County are a microcosm for the nation. I don't delve into this in my piece, but the NoVa West Indivisible group often gets visitors from both the north and south who want to be involved in the group simply because they think it is such a key area for involvement. Much like the march itself, people are traveling to the D.C. area instead of participating in events in their own cities because of how influential they perceive the area to be.
I would have liked to include more, of course. I had scanned copies of the documents that were given out at the Indivisible NoVa West meeting I attended, more photos of the march, and about an hour more footage from the Wittman town hall. It was difficult to pare down information that was all unique and interesting, leaving only the information that was most valuable. My hope is that most readers who examine the evidence and see the work that is being done would draw the natural conclusion that the Women’s March movement is not, in fact, dead. Like a rip tide, it moves unnoticed under the surface but is powerful in its might.