Some 60 days later, Jayna Zweiman still cannot utter the words “election” or “President-elect Trump.”
“Nov. 8 happened, and it was a really big shock,” she recalls by phone from her home in a sunny, undeniably Democratic state. “We live in Los Angeles, where, honestly, I saw, like, one Trump bumper sticker.”
Stunned by the election that made Donald Trump our nation’s next president, Zweiman, 38, an architectural designer, took a brief period to mourn before emerging Nov. 16 with a protest plan. She and a friend, Krista Suh, would rally an army: women in every corner of the country, joined in a single cause.
They couldn’t undo the election. But they could knit hats.
Hats in every shade of pink, from rose to flamingo to fuchsia, with bold, pointed cat ears. Each one as unique as a snowflake. This yarn-loving-squad’s goal is to turn out 1 million pink “pussyhats” by inauguration weekend and for those hats to become the visual marker for activists attending the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington. For the hats to become symbols of the struggle for women’s rights.
To become a way, Zweiman says, for wearers “to take a stand in their daily life without having to say a word.”
The most divisive election of our time has triggered a wave of protests and rallies: not only street marches, but also Golden Globes tirades; hashtags; plans to “stink up” the inauguration with marijuana; and silent, warm-and-fuzzy stands such as Zweiman’s. It has launched a thousand Facebook groups and online petitions, spurred fashion trends (safety pins, anyone?) and spawned pantsuit dances.
But the election outcome won’t change. So what good do any of these protests do?
Passive protests in particular may be more about tending to the losing side’s wounded psyches than addressing America’s deep political rift.
“The amazing thing about knitting,” Zweiman says, “is that it’s like meditation.”
Thomas Plante, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, has another thought. “We like having control,” he says. “People feel they need to get control somewhere, whether that’s wearing a safety pin, or [signing] an online petition or posting things on Facebook.”
There is something soothing about it all. Clicking on a petition. Registering your rage. “Seeing how many likes you get on Facebook,” Plante offers. “You feel solidarity.”
You feel like you’ve done something.
In the antsy days and hours before the election, nearly 200 dancers pulled on vibrant pantsuits and “Wild Feminist” Ts and took to a New York park to pop, shimmy and back flip for Hillary Clinton. The Pantsuit Nation, a “secret” army of 3 million Facebook users, mostly women, reached for its blazers and rallied for Clinton so swiftly and solidly that the candidate herself made a winking mention of the group’s efforts in her concession speech. After it was all over, Trump opponents decked out their lapels with safety pins (#safetypin, because #hashtivism) and declared themselves walking, talking safe spaces.
“People are looking around for other ways to protest,” says Micah White, a founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement who has more recently authored “The End of Protest,” a book declaring old-school protest dead. “We invested so much effort into street protest, we put everything into it. And what happens? Nothing. And Trump gets elected.”
Approximately 10,000 Trump-related petitions have been filed on Change.org since the election, including one to suspend or cancel the Donald’s Twitter account and another urging his impeachment, according to site spokesman A.J. Walton. They’ve amassed 8 million signatures and yielded the site’s most popular petition of all time, to get the electoral college to choose anyone but Donald Trump as our next president. (It collected 4.9 million signatures, shy of its goal of 6 million.)
The creator of that petition, Daniel Brezenoff, 45, once taught American history and knew that, even as the election was being called for Donald Trump, there was still a glimmer of hope. So on Nov. 9, he created a plea for electronic signatures to urge the electoral college’s electors to choose Clinton over Trump. “My highest aspiration at the time,” says the Long Beach, Calif.-based social worker, “was generating a good discussion on my social media with people in my network.”
But the petition, which circulated, like so many protests these days, on Facebook, took off. And when the nation’s 538 electors met in their home states last month, Brezenoff printed and delivered his petition by hand to a few from Texas meeting in Austin.
The college did as expected and made Trump president-elect. But two Republican electors in Texas cast their votes for others.
“I took that as a great success,” Brezenoff says. “I think there’s a psychological benefit in having hope, and participating in the process.”
That hasn’t stopped critics from pointing out the seeming futility of some of these pin-and-pantsuit efforts.
“These pins — not the wearing of them or the pictures posted of folks wearing them — are not about safe spaces. They’re about not wanting to be perceived as a racist,” Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote of the safety-pin movement on the site The Root, which covers news from an African American perspective.
Over the holidays, Pantsuit Nation became embroiled in controversy when its former allies denounced founder Libby Chamberlain for profiting from the movement with a book deal. In the Los Angeles Times, an op-ed writer fretted, “I imagined we were mobilizing for the political fight of our lives.”
But was a Facebook group ever a political fight at all?
“We believe if we do some sort of ritual called protest, and it can take many different forms, then somehow our elected representatives will have to listen, and change will happen, blah blah blah.’ That story line is broken,” White says. “If I were Trump, I’d be so happy that they’re knitting hats. I’d be like, ‘Yes, please, knit some more hats, while I take all power!’ ”
Psychologically speaking, protesters are going to need positive reinforcement sometime. They need successes, Plante says. And that’s something these sorts of political statements don’t deliver.
“Taking to the streets creates traffic jams, creates big news, creates a more visible way of protest,” he says. “Taking it to Facebook really doesn’t. You get 300 or 400 likes on your rant, you might feel satisfied. But that’s not going to change anything.”
None of this has swayed Zweiman and her contingent of hatmakers from ferociously knitting and crocheting in preparation for their inauguration debut.
“I would not discourage anyone from signing their name to something they care about,” Zweiman says. “I don’t know what it actually does. It might do something.”
It might make them feel just a little bit better.
“They want to feel that they matter,” Plante says. “And if marching around with a pink hat on the 21st makes you feel all of that, that may be a good thing.”
Nevertheless, he wonders.
“What happens the day after the march in Washington?”