Last week, the Women’s March organization said it is planning a “socially distant march” in Washington and more than 30 other cities on Oct. 17, days before Senate Republicans aim to vote on Trump’s pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, whose writings have led conservatives and liberals to believe she would be willing to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. She has also been critical of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act.
The goal, the Women’s March group says, is to “send an unmistakable message about the fierce opposition to Trump and his agenda, including his attempt to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat.”
The organization plans to organize a rally in Freedom Plaza, followed by a march to the Supreme Court, and estimates that about 10,000 people will participate, according to an application for a permit submitted on Wednesday with the National Park Service. A permit has not yet been issued.
“We had an idea of what was to come, but I don’t think we knew how bad it would get,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March. “This march is different, but the stakes are the same, and that’s everything for women … our health, our family, our wellness. Our stakes have become higher and higher.”
Each year since pink-hatted women first flooded the nation’s capital in 2017, the Women’s March has organized marches in January in D.C. and across the country, promoting a list of policy demands and helping energize women to run for office in record numbers. But the recent marches have drawn much smaller crowds than the seminal event after Trump’s inauguration. The national organization has at times struggled to remain relevant, as scores of its initial attendees have redirected their attention toward other causes. It has also overhauled its leadership, following national controversies and accusations of anti-Semitism that frayed the group’s relationship with Jewish women.
At the most recent Women’s March, some attendees said they hoped they wouldn’t need to march again, following the 2020 election. And amid the covid-19 pandemic, the organization’s leaders were unsure to what extent they would be able to mobilize an in-person event for 2021.
But then, “the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reset the whole country,” O’Leary Carmona said.
The day after Ginsburg’s death, more than 7,800 people signed up to host vigils for the justice across the country, O’Leary Carmona said. The following day, Women’s March organizers started conceptualizing the idea for an October event. The rally is part of a broader focus to become an organization that can be responsive and flexible to “meet the political moment,” O’Leary Carmona said.
It’s also an opportunity for the Women’s March to capitalize on the Supreme Court fight and the sustained protests nationwide, said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland professor who studies protest movements. But it’s unclear how the march will find its place amid the historic demonstrations calling for racial justice.
“It really does seem like Women’s March sees this as an opportunity to take advantage of their network, to get people into the streets and situate the organization in a new way,” Fisher said. “The question is whether everybody has the energy and feels like they’re going to bring something to the streets that wasn’t already there.”
Among the many groups mobilizing protests in D.C. in recent months, including during the March on Washington and Juneteenth protests, the Women’s March has been somewhat absent, Fisher said.
In the days after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, the Women’s March released a statement expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and explaining why it wasn’t planning its own protests.
“Women’s March has always been an organization that is led by women of color with a significantly white base,” the statement on Instagram read. “Some have asked why we have not called for mobilizations. Black organizers explicitly asked us not to mobilize outsiders to Minnesota. We listened. We encourage ppl to support organizations where they live and to take their lead from them. This uprising is about protecting Black lives and fighting against police violence. It is not time for non-Black people, especially White people, to center themselves in a way that puts more labor or risk on Black people in this moment.”
O’Leary Carmona said the organization has worked to strengthen its relationships with racial justice movements and is working closely with Rising Majority, a coalition formed in 2017 between the Movement for Black Lives and allied groups.
There is significant overlap between the participants at the Black Lives Matter protests in the District this summer and those who attended Women’s March events. Fisher, who has collected data at protests throughout the summer, said 34 percent of the people she surveyed at the March on Washington in August said they also attended the Women’s March in 2017.
But the question is whether those same protesters will be inspired to return to a Women’s March.
Makia Green, a local organizer for Black Lives Matter DC, said that at this time, BLM organizers are not official co-sponsors for the Oct. 17 Women’s March event. While a D.C. Black Lives Matter organizer is planning to speak at the rally, it’s not clear to what extent local activists will be involved. The community is grieving right now, Green said, following the decision not to bring homicide charges against police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and after the funeral Thursday of Deon Kay, who was fatally shot in Southeast Washington on Sept. 2 by a D.C. police officer.
“We’re in defense mode right now,” she said. She’s not opposed to a mass mobilization of women ahead of the election but said the focus needs to remain on protecting Black lives.
“Do I think there is a need for women, especially White women, to be organized around the election to defend communities from white supremacy?” she said. “Yes, I do believe that is necessary.”
Concerns about covid-19 could also lead to a drastically lower turnout, Fisher said, given the relatively older demographic of the Women’s March base. The average age of those who attended the Women’s March in 2017 was 43, Fisher said, while the average age at the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer was more than 10 years younger.
“There’s no way in a million years you’re going to see a bunch of women in pink pussy hats flying in air planes right now,” Fisher said.
O’Leary Carmona agreed the pandemic would probably lead to smaller numbers. Organizers are prepared to plan different types of protests across the country, including virtual events and car caravans.
Beyond the election, O’Leary Carmona said, she could not yet say whether the October event would replace the annual Women’s March in January.
“Where there is need,” she said, “Women’s March will be there.”