New York City — On Wednesday, Linda Sarsour and other activists were arrested for barring entry to the Trump Hotel at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Their act of civil disobedience was part of the “A Day Without a Woman” strike that they helped organize; it was also likely a publicity stunt.
Sarsour was joined by a heady mix of strikers ranging from fist-raising revolutionaries to idealistic left-wing students to dotty nonconformists seeking fellow travelers. These diverse groups had ostensibly come together over a shared concern for women’s rights — but the disconnect between the rally leaders’ priorities and the average protester’s indicates that the broader movement might not have a singular platform around which to coalesce.
Speaking about issues near and dear to the left-wing activist community, the female leaders of the revolution were hoping to use the momentum given to them by the progressive anti-Trump backlash to ignite a broad protest movement. But, on closer examination, they seem to be talking past those listening to them.
The day’s festivities were conspicuously bent toward activist causes: Palestinian liberation, labor unions, and local-issue organizing. Speaker after speaker took their turn at the microphone to tout their “lifelong activism” and various no-name community groups. One activist bragged about her “Justice for Janitors” T-shirt; another pontificated about improving conditions for “sex workers.”
To any casual observer of the not-too-political variety, it seemed that the only issues uniting the disparate progressive protest movement are identity politics and opposition to Donald Trump. And while it’s true that identity-politics issues are critical to progressives’ beloved “intersectionality” theory — just ask any sophomore at Haverford College — it’s an open question whether the Left can build a big enough tent on the back of identity politics and anti-Trump animus.
And that’s assuming the Left’s focus on undergraduate-style identity politics doesn’t strike the vast majority of Americans as too wacky to embrace. For example, shared identity through sisterhood is no doubt a powerful thing. But an art professor named Patricia articulated a version of the collective idea of “Woman” that had evolved to the point where she felt comfortable pointing at me and exclaiming, “I gave birth to you!” In her view, I came to realize, women are so bonded as a collective unit that she could use the English personal pronoun “I” to describe women across all time and space.
“You came from my body, how dare you say now that I can’t do something with my body?” Patricia demanded of me.
Of course, this conception of collective female identity must be inclusive of the transgender community (the already lively crowd cheered especially enthusiastically when a speaker read a letter berating the feminist audience for not bending far enough to the “trans” concept of gender).
I saw little indication that the rally-goers’ concerns extend as far into activist special interests as the organizers demanded.
As for Trump himself, the president’s name was on everyone’s lips, even as speakers tried to use only nicknames such as “President Agent Orange” and “No. 45.” Trump’s bluster and history of insensitivity toward women and minorities serve as the linchpins of the “resistance.” Three young students I spoke with credited Trump with uniting the whole movement. One student added, “You haven’t seen organized marches like this since the civil-rights era.”
The protesters I spoke to wanted something more radical than the current iteration of the Democratic party and relished having people to protest with. That said, they were mostly concerned with big-ticket political issues such as health-care reform and abortion. Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories or local unionization efforts did not seem to be what was providing the energy. To be sure, several speakers did take shots at GOP health-care proposals and pro-lifers, but the activist leaders’ brand of leftism often failed to overlap with that of the average attendee — who was mainly concerned with stifling the Trump administration’s agenda.
Interestingly, the Left’s emphasis on “local political organizing” must inevitably reach a tension point: Progressive solutions are uniform and top-down, not flexible and local. When anyone at the protest discussed Obamacare or transgender rights, they explicitly rejected any attempt to devolve those issues to state or local authorities. Among the protesters, I did hear some references to separation of powers and the Constitution, but this core contradiction within progressivism hung in the air. Federalism, at least as understood by conservatives, was a non-starter.
Another of the rally’s striking contradictions was the denunciation of capitalism combined with activists’ constant solicitation of money. Men sold official T-shirts by the stage (for a reasonable $10); “Our Revolution” promoters sold bandanas, with proceeds supposedly going to the Standing Rock Sioux (the money could help them recoup their casino’s losses incurred as a result of the pipeline protest); and a spokeswoman for RefuseFascism.org asked for donations. Refuse Fascism was one of many groups — along with socialist and other minor political parties — using the day as a chance for self-promotion.
At one point, somewhat trapped between barricades, I had time to give the chief fascism-refuser my extended attention. She spoke on a platform in the shadow of Trump Tower, leading chants that were echoed by the crowd:
They are stealing people’s lives now!
They are kicking down doors of immigrants!
This takes millions and millions staying in the streets!
Not just one protest!
Staying in the streets night after night!
And day after day!
Get organized today!
Refuse fascism dot org!
Over the course of several minutes, one could hear the passion undulate depending on the topic of the chant, and the increase was palpable when they screamed about Donald Trump or Planned Parenthood. That said, the crowd seemed to have tepid faith that organizations like Refuse Fascism could bring the Trump administration to its knees. Demonstrators seemed to care much more about partisan political issues, not bankrolling activist groups’ blueprints for revolution.
I saw little indication that the rally-goers’ concerns extend as far into activist special interests as the organizers demanded. For example, my friend Patricia, the art professor, didn’t talk to me about women’s need for labor unionization; rather, she complained about Trump not having women in his cabinet: “When they sign bills and there are only men in the room and not one woman represented, that’s hypocrisy — you just slapped us silly, disrespected us.”
How about “regulating” women’s bodies? Patricia argued that men are the real problem. “Regulate the penis, don’t regulate my ovaries,” she said.
When one speaker said, “Join me in this sacred chant: Long live Palestine!” many chose not to join in and seemed uncomfortable. On this umpteenth speech of the day, as evening was setting in, it seemed like overreach for the woman to announce from the stage, “Where there is Zionism there is racism and injustice!”
Another speaker tried to extol the virtue of unionized labor to resist capitalist oppression, but her tone seemed decidedly non-idealistic. She had no sympathy for businesses (no, not even for female-owned businesses) that do not pay workers “enough.” She said that striking was the best thing for her, since, as she put it, “We got our motherf***ing coin!” Such an attitude threatens the sisterhood for which the rally-goers longed.
The institutional Democratic party certainly seems to be disappointing those who attend protests like this one — and yet Sarsour and company do not seem to be offering an enticing alternative. Progressive activist leaders might find meaning in ideological crusades such as Palestinian advancement, but their challenge is to promote those causes while holding onto Patricia and her more mundane feminist concerns.
The Left’s activist leaders may be stretching feminism’s intersectional coalitions farther than they’ll go.