After two years of counting political crowds in the United States, we find that public demonstrations remain a powerful medium for people who wish to be involved politically. A significant proportion of the country’s population continues to reject President Trump’s agenda — and to put feet to pavement to make that point visible.
This year, news media coverage of the Women’s March focused on two things: first, the controversy over the march’s leadership; and second, that it was much smaller than 2017 or 2018. But Jan. 19, 2019 — the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president — was still a considerably large day of protest. We estimate that 665,324 to 735,978 people participated in 319 U.S. locations, ranking it number seven of the 10 largest days of protest since Trump took office. As in previous years, dozens of sister marches took place internationally, as well.
Marches were big and small
We saw the largest marches in Los Angeles with 200,000 people, Washington with 100,000, and Denver with 80,000. Sizable marches also took place elsewhere in California, with between 118,000 and 153,000 people protesting in San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Santa Ana, Sacramento and Oakland, combined. Other places where roughly 10,000 people turned out included Boston, Dallas, Houston, New York, Seattle and possibly Pittsburgh. The District of Columbia and every state except Arkansas and Louisiana hosted at least one recorded march.
We saw small demonstrations, as well. Scores marched in Kona, Hawaii. Roughly 50 turned out on Martha’s Vineyard. A few dozen came out in Alexandria, Minn. And nearly 100 showed up in Klamath Falls, Ore. In Aspen, Colo., the march began with skiing and moved to roughly 60 people rallying and marching.
The robust turnout in this year’s march is especially striking when you realize that there were about half the number of sister marches this year as during the 2017 Women’s March. And from 2018 to 2019, the number of locations dropped by 20 percent. Seeing a smaller number of events over time is a typical pattern for social movements, which usually see protest-fatigue and attrition. A decline in the third year was predictable. The fact that more than half a million turned out is more surprising.
How did the 2019 Women’s March compare with the 2009 tea party protests?
To put this mid-January march in perspective, the 2019 Women’s March involved roughly the same number of participants across the country as did the tea party protests of 2009. On April 15, 2009, during its first year in existence, the tea party drew between 440,000 and 810,000 demonstrators across 542 protests — with a mean participation of about 812 people per protest. In contrast, the third annual Women’s March, in its thinned-down incarnation, yielded a mean participation of about 2,088 participants per protest.
Moreover, the weather — cold, rain, snow — was challenging in many places. Hundreds of marchers in Rockford, Ill., faced “subzero wind chills and the hefty snowfall.” More than 100 people marched in Bemidji, Minn., where temperatures ranged from a high of minus-2 to a low of minus-32 degrees Fahrenheit. It was 6 degrees for the estimated 700 to 1,000 protesters in Montpelier, Vt. Some organizers canceled because of the weather, as happened in Benton Harbor, Mich.; Minocqua, Wis.; Trenton, N.J.; Dayton, Ohio; and Fayetteville, Ark. Others marched with diminished numbers, as in Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis and Nashville. Buffalo postponed.
News media lost interest in the local women’s marches
We note, also, that this year brought a higher proportion of women’s marches that got no media coverage, especially in smaller towns. Sources for our crowd counts include both news media and social media reports. Unlike in earlier years, where we were able to verify participant figures for 90 percent of the marches, in 2019 we were able to verify crowd counts for only about 79 percent of the total. This may contribute to the relative decline in our total crowd counts.
Controversies over anti-Semitism and racial diversity changed some plans
That said, there may also have been substantive reasons for the decline in participation from the two earlier years. The controversy over allegations of anti-Semitism among the march’s formal leadership made headlines leading up to the march, possibly discouraging some attendees. Organizers in New Orleans canceled their march in late December, citing inadequate fundraising. Organizers in Portland, Ore., announced that they would instead hold a gathering with a new focus in March, to correspond with International Women’s Day.
At the marches that did take place, many local organizers denounced anti-Semitism. For instance, at the D.C. march, national organizers addressed and denounced anti-Semitism within the movement. And the March On organization, which had established itself as a group “inclusive of all people,” organized marches as well. The controversy did, at times, lead to dual events in some cities, as in Philadelphia and Seattle, where organizers held at least two separate marches.
Questions about racial diversity arose, as well. Eureka, Calif.’s march was canceled while organizers worked to diversify their coalition. Tensions also surfaced between Black Lives Matter — New Jersey and the Women’s March on New Jersey.
Nevertheless, despite challenges, the Women’s March appears to have a more durable and resilient coalition than some skeptics suggest. Although it is still too early to tell definitively what this persistent mobilization might achieve, it is clear that we are witnessing a level of protest participation that is potentially unprecedented in U.S. history.
Jeremy Pressman (@djpressman) is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. He will be a Fulbright fellow in Oslo in spring 2019.