I am surprised and glad I went to the Women’s Marches in Oakland and San Francisco on Saturday, the day after Trump was inaugurated. The Friday night march in San Francisco was also worth going to, though more predictable and less inspiring than the surprisingly gigantic turnouts for the Women’s March, not just here in the Bay Area but across the U.S.
In general I have grown to dislike the mass demonstration because of its utter predictability, its function as a zone of narcissistic self-congratulation, its exclusionary dynamics that often depend on a high tolerance for having speakers barking their slogans at you, or monitors scolding you for walking too far out of bounds, etc., or in any case an assumption of shared ideas and values where they barely exist. The fact that so many demos are organized by groups that I disdain or actively oppose only adds to the problem.
I’ve seen a few facebook friends going off in various ways about the Women’s Marches. Why didn’t these people protest earlier? Aren’t they all just a bunch of liberals and democrats? Why aren’t they more radical? Why didn’t they show up for all the other issues that smaller numbers of people have tried to mobilize around during the past decade? etc. etc. I’m sure there is plenty of truth to these complaints, but it really misses the point.
For the huge swath of the country that has been resolutely unresponsive to radical critiques of this society, their world has shattered. The idea that we are basically a decent place with good people doing the best we can in a world where the neoliberal consensus has convinced most that there is no alternative to markets and meritocracy and capitalism has been impossible to shake with leftist chanting, anti-racist organizing, gender liberation struggles, etc. We might think the problem is with the folks who accept the anodyne platitudes of normalcy who we think should be more critical, more engaged, more thoughtful, and show more solidarity and compassion. Sure, I can see that. But it doesn’t matter. The left has grown smaller and more marginal over the past decades. Whatever we’ve been doing in whatever corner of the left we are in (gender, racial, labor, etc.) has not been working very well.
The Women’s March did not change all that. But to blame the people who turned out for all the failures of left organizing is just bitter and weird. I was really moved by the energy and earnestness of the tens of thousands of people (90,000+) I saw on the streets of Oakland during the morning and midday sunshine and then even more amazed by the over 200,000 people who doggedly stayed to march for hours from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building in the pouring rain. Sure, I know there’s a long way to go from one day of vocal repudiation and assertion to a developed movement that can impose its hegemony on government and the economy. But given the fear and panic and depression that so many people had fallen into since the election (or earlier), this was a huge morale booster for good people. To take the streets in such numbers is a powerful experience, even if the sign had it right: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this fucking shit!”
I congratulate everyone who turned out, the wonderful creativity that went into the thousands of homemade, heartfelt signs, and I’m glad we opened a space for dialogue and critical thought. Now we can argue about how to fill that space, and to develop those muscles and skills in the time ahead. It’s going to take a mighty effort to wrest control of this society from the kleptocrats and militarists and ideological purity is a useless tool for this project. We all have to get better at talking to people we disagree with, and to accept the usefulness of argument and debate, and to learn to live with not being right, and not getting our way, and not always feeling “safe.”
And now a long gallery of images: