The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The women’s march was once a model of the modern nonviolent movement. Now it looms as a lesson in what can go wrong.

Attendees cheer during the 2018 Women's March in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

After a leader of Women’s March Inc. attended an event at which Nation of Islam firebrand Louis Farrakhan criticized “powerful Jews,” the public reaction was swift and fierce. A statement from the leadership condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry was dismissed as too little too late.

In the months since, a movement that once bragged about its inclusivity has been roiled by reports of battles over diversity, hate speech and branding. The impact is not yet clear, but less than a week before the third-annual women’s march, some regional events have been canceled. Organizers of others say they have lost funding and social media followers.

Some see the rifts and rivalries as the expected growing pains of the most successful of the new wave of social movements. But the negative publicity risks turning off followers — and thus voters — that such movements depend on to gain influence, experts say.

The women’s marches now loom as a lesson on what can go wrong when the decentralized grass-roots movements that gained traction after Donald Trump’s election adopt rhetoric and behavior that challenges public sympathy.

“Why shut that sympathy gap?” asked Tom Hastings, an assistant professor at Portland State University who studies nonviolent social movements.

In the two years since Trump took office, activists have used a variety of tactics to reinforce their messages — organizing mass marches, disrupting legislators at dinner, demanding on-camera answers from a senator in an elevator and chanting hostile messages outside a Fox News host’s home. Participants in the militant anti-fascist, or antifa, movement have engaged in street brawls, most prominently in response to the deadly white-supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017.

“There is a battle within the movement to try to have the peaceful model ascend and the antifa model evaporate,” Hastings said.

Even behavior that falls short of physical violence can threaten the sympathy gap. Demonstrations that block highways and shut down sports events, as protesters in Sacramento did in response to police shootings, may win media attention but risk eroding public support. It is what Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer — who has studied responses to tactics used by animal rights, Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protesters — refers to as the “activists’ dilemma.”

Not all agree on where to draw the line. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) last week drew criticism from fellow Democrats when she used a profanity to call for President Trump’s ouster in what was meant to be a rallying cry for the left.

Political scientists who have tracked crowd behavior say the vast majority of protests against the president and his policies, including the women’s marches, have relied on noncombative means.

“Well over 99 percent of protests against Trump’s agenda have been nonviolent, even when protesters volunteer themselves for arrest through civil disobedience,” said Erica Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She began collecting data on crowd behavior during the first Women’s March, in January 2017, as part of the Crowd Counting Consortium.

That commitment to nonviolent resistance was foreshadowed shortly after the 2016 election by a surge in sales of scholarly materials from a small Boston-based nonprofit group.

A 900-page tome called “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” flew off the shelves. An 80-page booklet titled “From Dictatorship to Democracy” was suddenly in demand, as was a printed list of “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.”

“A one-year supply of literature disappeared in a week,” said Jamila Raqib, executive director of the 35-year-old Albert Einstein Institution, which studies the use of nonviolent action to achieve political change.

The controversy among the women’s marchers erupted after a leader of Women’s March Inc., Tamika D. Mallory, attended the event at which Farrakhan spoke. She subsequently rejected “all forms of racism” in a tweet but did not denounce Farrakhan himself.

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Emiliana Guereca, who is executive director of the Los Angeles march and describes herself as a “Latin Jew,” said the outcry will probably reduce the number of march participants across the country. She has been trying to turn the rift into a “teaching moment” about the damage that can be done with hateful speech, even when it stops short of inciting physical violence.

Katherine Siemionko of the New York-based Women’s March Alliance said the disputes have been about more than anti-Semitism. Women’s March Inc. has gained disproportionate attention over the years, she said, because its march is in Washington and its organizers are thus viewed as national leaders.

Siemionko said she thinks the negative vibes are at least partly responsible for a decline in Women’s March Alliance fundraising, which she said grew from $45,000 ahead of the 2017 march to $75,000 last year but has now fallen to $20,000.

The disputes have led the two groups to plan separate events in New York on Saturday — the annual Women’s March Alliance march and a rally arranged by Women’s March Inc. and its allies.

The New York mayor’s office said that it “worked with the Women’s March Inc. and partners to find an alternative location” for its event.

Linda Sarsour of Women’s March Inc. has tried to tamp down the controversy in media appearances denouncing hate. Central to the marches, she said, is a shared commitment to nonviolence, modeled by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example:

“We really believe that nonviolence is not passive,” she said. “It’s very powerful, and history has taught us that it does work.”

Albert Einstein Institution founder Gene Sharp is often viewed as a pioneer in the study of nonviolent action, which is promoted by groups and individuals whose work ranges from supporting research to providing online skill-sharing sessions. They include scholar-activists such as Hastings, as well as the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which focuses on how “ordinary people wage nonviolent conflict to win rights, freedom and justice,” and its U.S.-focused offshoot, the James Lawson Institute. The Boston-based “movement incubator” Momentum provides training to organize at scale.

Many warn against equating “strategic nonviolence” with the pacifism espoused by Mohandas Gandhi or Quakers and the moral commitment it entailed.

It is a “pragmatic approach,” ICNC President Hardy Merriman said, based on a growing body of data showing that nonviolence is effective in achieving political goals — and that violence often backfires.

Nonviolent activists vary in how rowdy they are willing to be. A new environmental group, Extinction Rebellion, which launched in Britain, is planning to broaden its impact to the United States with “a nationwide day of nonviolent civil disobedience and protest” one week after the women’s marches.

“We are 100 percent committed to nonviolence,” said U.S.-based organizer Gregory Schwedock, describing the philosophy as “core, core, core” to their mission.

They have also caused disruption. In mid-November, protesters held up London traffic by blocking bridges and glued themselves to buildings.

Many activists speak warily of incidents such as the November protest by a group called Smash Racism DC at Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s house. Protesters banged on his door, chanting: “We will fight! We know where you sleep at night!”

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Two months earlier, as debate sharpened around Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the same group confronted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife, disrupting their dinner at a Washington restaurant.

Activist Lacy MacAuley, who was present at the restaurant encounter with Cruz, defends the actions. “I am far more worried by people maintaining a complicit civility while the right wing marches all over us,” she said.

A study published after Charlottesville and based on an Internet survey of politically diverse respondents suggests that strongman tactics can backfire for groups that have built their identity around ideals of peace and justice.

“Violence led to perceptions of unreasonableness,” according to the study, “which reduced identification with and support for the protest group.”

By contrast, Chenoweth said in an email, “right-wing (especially white supremacist) groups are not typically politically punished for violence, since people ‘expect’ them to be violent.”

Today’s heightened partisan tensions sometimes prompt allusions to the 1960s, when King and his followers promoted nonviolence to advance civil rights.

Few see exact parallels with that era, when activists, whose concerns included the Vietnam War and the environment, were responsible for many acts of terrorism and the government responded with force.

But the ’60s also set the stage for a theatrical style of protest that some on the left are trying to emulate today.

Daniel Hunter, a Philadelphia-based activist, developed a following after he came up with creative ways to demonstrate against plans for casinos in the city more than a decade ago.

The intent, he said, was to form a goal-driven campaign.

“Rather than one march after another, we built a whole story line,” Hunter said. It included pranks such as washing the windows of organizations that had refused to share documents, to symbolize the need for transparency.

The theatrics won media attention, putting pressure on authorities to rethinking their approach and turning Hunter into something of a celebrity. Now he trains other activists.

“Demands on my time grew after Trump’s election,” Hunter said.

Guereca, of the Los Angeles march group, acknowledges the challenges ahead as march organizers who were unprepared for their success find themselves running an ongoing movement. “It’s a completely different skill set,” she said.