The bright-pink afterglow of the weekend’s massive Women’s March on Washington had barely faded Sunday and thousands of women were still boarding planes and buses home when the critics came out swinging.
No, not President Trump, who did wonder Sunday on Twitter, “Why didn’t these people vote?”
The critics were women and men of color.
They saw privilege in the march that allowed hundreds of thousands of women — the overwhelming majority of them white — to march freely, beyond the borders of their permitted route in Washington, filling the streets in Los Angeles, effectively shutting down downtown Chicago, yet never encountering police in riot gear, never having to wipe away pepper spray, never fearing arrest. They saw privilege in the women posing for photos with grinning officers wearing pink “pussy hats” alongside them. High-fiving police, even.
And how did Madonna get away with talk of “blowing up the White House” in a speech on the Mall when those with darker skin fear saying such things even in private company?
On social media, the peaceful march had started a ruckus.
“White women and white bodies can hold space on streets and shut down cities ‘peacefully’ because they are allowed to,” wrote blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 6,000 times. “Black and brown people who march are assaulted by cops.”
“In a world that doesn’t protect women much, when it chooses to, it is white women it protects,” Ajayi wrote.
Others burst the congratulatory post-march bubble with posts that contrasted gleeful, pink-hatted white protesters from Saturday with last summer’s viral image of Ieshia Evans, a young black nurse and mother photographed during protests in Louisiana over the death of Alton Sterling, as she stood, alone and stoic, facing two officers in riot gear barreling toward her.
In a phone call from Philadelphia, Ajayi, whose book “I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual,” debuted last year on the New York Times bestseller list, elaborated. “Nobody got arrested,” she said. “But I felt I had to remind them why nobody got arrested and what creates the atmosphere where they can have a successful march.”
She and others said they believed that the march is being heralded as a peaceful one because most of its participants were white.
“This march, the fact that it could go off peacefully and cops are wearing pink hats, and no one felt like they were in danger, and militarized police didn’t show up, that’s white privilege at its core,” she said. They have the access and ability to do the things the majority of black and brown people who protest don’t have.”
Ajayi didn’t attend any march. She says she felt she didn’t need to. “Black women showed up, and we voted for Hillary,” she said.
“It’s something they almost brag about. ‘No one was arrested. The police gave us high-fives,’ ” said Johnetta Elzie, a Ferguson protester who also refused to attend any of the women’s marches. “The people I’ve seen saying that are white women, and that’s really spoken from a complete place of privilege.”
In response, organizers of the march said in a statement that “the Women’s March on Washington was a women-led grass-roots movement that served to bring people of all genders and backgrounds together to take a stand on social justice and human rights issues ranging from race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration and health care.” Three of its organizers, the statement noted, are women of color.
Officers in Washington donned riot gear on Friday as widespread inauguration protests resulted in property damage, fires and attempts to shut down entry points to the swearing-in. Police arrested and charged hundreds.
But Sgt. Matthew Mahl, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, argued that the response was relatively subdued. “We are very restrained,” he said. “And not all of our civil disturbance units were in riot gear on Friday.”
And “Saturday, we were ready, just in case. But it just didn’t turn out that way.”
In Washington, where “there is some sort of First Amendment activity happening every day,” the response to demonstrations is nuanced as a policy, Mahl said.
He noted that Washington is a town where the second Million Man March could be held peacefully in 2015, and where the KKK has also marched on the Capitol a few times.
Tension over diversity questions plagued the march in the weeks before the event. Anger erupted over the event’s original name, the Million Women March, which echoed, without attribution, an important 1997 march by African American women in Philadelphia. After a post on the march Facebook page by ShiShi Rose, a member of its social media team, that reminded marchers to recognize the activist work among people of color that started ages ago, some white would-be marchers said they would no longer attend.
Despite reservations among some black women about attending the march, too, Brittany Packnett, a District-based educator and activist, went to the Women’s March and calls its turnout “a feat.”
“I went there not because I expected it to be perfect. I went with a bit of hope. But I also don’t blame anybody who didn’t go.”
Afterward, she had a message for those who hoped to continue the march’s momentum going forward.
“If we’re going to say ‘all women,’ then we need to consider the way that different women experience life,” she says. “When you are the kind of woman who has always been prioritized, it can be difficult to realize there are different experiences.”
She added: “When we acknowledge various realities, we actually knit together a stronger movement — when we are considerate of the fact that every woman is not comfortable walking up to a police officer, given the way police have brutalized black and brown women in this country.
“We shouldn’t dismiss that. We shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, well today was about unity, why are you complaining?’ ”