A rushing river of protesters flooded downtown Washington, DC, today, pink hats stretching as far as I could see. But it’s the signs that stayed with me. “I’m With Her” and “Love Trumps Hate” posters from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Signs mocking President Trump: “Keep your tiny hands off my rights” and “Can’t build the wall. Hands too small.” People waved “Science is Real” signs and “Stop gun violence” signs, “Black Lives Matter” signs and at least one proclaiming “Grab him by the tax return.”
I saw more vagina signs than I can remember—and won’t soon forget.
But amid the sea of signs, one best epitomized what the march was all about: “Too many demands to fit on one poster.”
People marched on Selma to secure voting rights for black Americans. They occupied Wall Street to smash capitalism, and joined Black Lives Matter to demand an end to police brutality. But the Women’s March on Washington and cities across the nation and around the world was, in internet parlance, about all of the things.
The Women’s March was, in internet parlance, about all of the things.
The hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who took to the streets of Washington—as well as the millions more who filled the streets in cities from Los Angeles to New York—brought their own agendas, hopes, and grievances. They came to defend reproductive rights and voting rights and housing rights, immigrant rights and racial equality, gun control and religious freedom, the environment, and the Affordable Care Act.
“What aren’t we here for?” said Catherine McCormick, a public defender from Charlotte, who’d come to Washington with three friends.
It was, in other words, a protest as sprawling, diverse, and ubiquitous as the platform that spawned it: Facebook. The social media platform of more than a billion people is stunning in both its scale and specificity. It’s the world’s town square, a venue far-reaching enough to connect people of all races religions and nationalities and targeted enough to elevate the petty squabbles of the local PTA meeting. All of it was there at the Women’s March—and at marches around the world: a massive outpouring of highly distributed opposition to the new most powerful person in the world, all under an umbrella that felt wide enough to shelter the divergent passions of millions.
‘We All Come Up’
You probably know the origin story by now: On election night, a Hawaiian woman named Teresa Shook, devastated by the election results, created an event page for a hypothetical march. She received some 10,000 responses by morning. Experienced activists joined the cause, and within two days the women who would later form the co-chair committee met at a rooftop bar in Manhattan to begin planning.
“Not only were we going to do a big project with a bunch of people who don’t know each other, but we were going to do something that should take a year to plan, and we’re going to do it in a month and a half,” Vanessa Wruble, the head of campaign operations for the march who helped organize that initial meeting, told me. “Not one of us thought this is going to be easy. But why should this be easy?”
Facebook became the place where people nationwide could volunteer and advertise sister marches in hundreds of cities around the world. “It would be hard to say that we would have had this kind of success without an existing platform like Facebook,” says Jenna Arnold, an advisor to the march.
The centrality of the social media platform to organizing the event also made the Women’s March a catchall for the breadth of liberal policy concerns. For some marchers, that seemed an inherent advantage, attracting far more participation than, say, a single march dedicated to Planned Parenthood would. “It’s about inclusiveness,” says Tina Davis, a 53-year-old marcher from Brooklyn, New York. “America is supposed to be a great melting pot.”
Davis says she believes President Trump ran a divisive campaign that hinged on pitting various constituencies against one another. “It feels like his whole campaign was about if we push them down, we’ll come up,” she says. “But really, if we pull each other up, we all come up.”
A Little More Action
Figuring out where the march ended and the rest of the city began was difficult. Over the border in Virginia, lines of marchers were still filing down the road—stopping in at the Chipotle for a bite—long after sun had set.
But starting a leaderless movement of this scale brings complications. Solidarity may have been the word of the day, but most people I met weren’t exactly sure what they needed to do to maintain momentum through the Trump presidency. For now, they were united by their need for catharsis that social media alone couldn’t provide.
“The election was hard for me,” says Belinda Harris, 54, who brought her husband and daughter from Richmond, Virginia. “This is a way to say that even though she lost, we still have power.”
“He needs to be able to look out the window and see that more people showed up against him than for him,” says Dara Marshall, a 44-year old advertising executive from Brooklyn, New York.
The challenge lies in acting on that power. Protecting voting rights and electing local officials to enact policies the protesters support requires more than liking Samantha Bee videos on Facebook. Without an executable plan, marching does about as much good as a hashtag campaign
A Little More Conversation
During a rally preceding the march, liberal America’s favorite documentarian, Michael Moore, emphasized the need for pragmatism. He urged people to join organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. And he implored the marchers to exploit a technology that predates Facebook by more than a century and call the members of Congress every day.
March organizers haven’t decided what comes next beyond letting non-profit partners like Planned Parenthood take the lead organizing around specific issues. “We will always be deferential to the experts around how and what to do,” Arnold said. And they hope to see those who are new to activism join those they met through the march—both online and IRL—and continue organizing.
But if the 2016 election revealed just how deeply social media has divided the country by allowing people to retreat into protective bubbles, Saturday’s March underscored it.
The Make America Great Again hats that had turned the National Mall into a sea of red during Friday’s inauguration gave way to a throng of pink pussyhats. Teal Simmons and Adam Krause were among the few Trump supporters I encountered during the march. After leaving the National Museum of Natural History, they were trying to find a way through the stream of marchers.
Krause was happy the protest was peaceful after the spate of vandalism and small riots that marred Inauguration Day. What’s more, he empathized with the marchers. “I completely understand how they feel,” he said.
The two of them said they support reproductive rights and feel that women should be paid the same as men. They distrusted Clinton and supported Trump and his plan to shake up Washington, but they appreciate the marchers’ efforts to promote women’s empowerment. Yet neither felt the march was something they could join, and were relieved that people left them alone.
“No one’s tried saying anything to me today,” Krause said.
He meant that as a compliment, an expression of respect for the protesters and their concerns. But given how divided, and how sheltered, the nation is right now in its Facebook-defined echo chambers, it’s hard to see that as a good thing. After all, Facebook can create great shows of solidarity like the Women’s March, but if people aren’t careful, it can also help them march right on past their common ground.