They’re aware of the anti-Semitism concerns, but still support the movement’s larger goals.
NEW YORK — At the Women’s March rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square on Saturday, the controversy was evident from the beginning.
As Women’s March NYC director Agunda Okeyo addressed the crowd, which appeared to number in the hundreds, an audience member shouted, “The Women’s March does not represent Jewish people! The Women’s March is the real Nazi Party!”
The interjection came as the leaders of Women’s March, Inc., one of the organizations that grew out of the first march in 2017, face allegations of anti-Semitism. Women’s March NYC, which organized the Foley Square rally along with the New York Immigration Coalition and other local groups, is affiliated with Women’s March, Inc. I’ve been reporting on the controversy in the runup to the march, and I came to the rally on Saturday to see how — if at all — it was affecting women’s decisions about being part of the Women’s March movement.
Okeyo followed the interruption with a call for unity. “This is not a negative day,” she said.
“What we’re doing today is we’re going to uplift each other and we’re going to make sure we stay positive. I want to hear my Jewish family,” she added, to cheers from the crowd, which appeared to number in the hundreds.
Agunda Okeyo the director of Women’s March NYC is a Pan-African New Yorker who knows how to get stuff done. We applaud her for leading the charge with the policy platform and this rally! #WomensWaveNYC pic.twitter.com/WvA42Cpmox
— Women’s March NYC (@WomensMarchNYC) January 19, 2019
Even before the moment of discord, many of those braving the 30-degree weather in Foley Square were fully aware of the controversy surrounding this year’s march. But they said they still supported the movement’s larger goals, like gender and racial justice and opposition to the policies and rhetoric of President Trump.
Erica Edwards, for instance, who attended on Saturday with a sign reading “Las Vidas Negras Importan” (“Black Lives Matter” in Spanish), said she had heard that the national organizers had made controversial remarks. But, she said, “I still believe in what I stand for, which is equity, real justice, and getting this guy impeached.”
Women were aware of the controversy around the Women’s March. But they still supported the movement.
Criticism of the leaders of Women’s March, Inc., has been building since February 2018, when co-chair Tamika Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s Saviours’ Day event, where leader Louis Farrakhan made anti-Semitic remarks. In December, Leah McSweeney and Jacob Siegel of Tablet reported that Mallory and fellow co-chair Carmen Perez had made anti-Semitic comments themselves at Women’s March planning meetings, according to others who were in attendance.
In the wake of the allegations, the Democratic National Committee and progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have distanced themselves from Women’s March, Inc. Meanwhile, other groups, including March On, which focuses on helping progressive candidates win elections, are hosting marches and other actions today that are separate from those organized by Women’s March, Inc. A group called the Women’s March Alliance, which organized the 2017 and 2018 marches in New York, organized a march on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was separate from the Foley Square rally.
“The controversy has people confused about whether or not they should march,” Vanessa Wruble, executive director of March On and a co-founder of the first Women’s March on Washington in 2017, told Vox by phone. But, she said, “everyone should march. Doesn’t matter where you march, just march.”
She added that many in the movement were turning from marching to other forms of activism. “A lot of people have turned from a reactive position of marching to a proactive position of either running for office or volunteering for a campaign or focusing on registering people to vote.”
For some in Foley Square, attending the downtown rally rather than the uptown march was the result of a detailed decision process.
Hannah Lundberg, a seminary student who carried a sign bearing the Bible quotation “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the orphan, or the widow,” said she was concerned about the anti-Semitism allegations. But, she said, “it seemed like this rally was more focused on centering the voices of women of color,” than the uptown march, “so we felt more comfortable coming out to this.”
Anna North for Vox
“We just wanted to show up at this one,” said Lilit Suffet, who attended with her friend Olga Aguayo. “I’m Jewish, and I wanted to be here. I wanted to show that not everybody agrees just because you’re labeled as one thing.”
For some, the rally was an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with other women.
“There are some forces that would divide the women’s movement,” said Katherine Profeta, “and I’m much more interested in not even necessarily overcoming our differences, but just not walking away from each other, and understanding how we should join together to support the cause.”
Profeta said she had chosen to attend the Foley Square rally after reading a blog post by writer and Jewish educator Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, which stated that he would attend the rally.
Mallory’s responses to questions about Farrakhan were at least partially satisfying to Profeta.
“Tamika Mallory said she did not agree with all of his statements, but there are people holding her to a higher standard,” she said. “If she says she does not agree with his views, that’s enough for me to be in coalition with her, even if I don’t fully see eye to eye.”
For attendee Whitney Hu, criticisms of Mallory had a gendered element.
“I am always very aware of how we demand perfection from our female leaders and yet men are constantly forgiven,” she said.
Anna North for Vox
And for some, Mallory and the national leadership were somewhat beside the point.
“It’s really important that we not allow internal noise to prevent people from coming out,” said Laura J., who asked that her last name not be used. “I am not here for Tamika Mallory.”
Though the controversy was new for this year’s march, the women in Foley Square were gathered for many of the same reasons Americans have been protesting Trump for the last two years. For Laura J., it was threats to Americans’ civil liberties. For Aguayo, it was climate change. For Maha Akhtar, whose sign bore a quotation from newly elected Rep. Ilhan Omar, it was the wall and immigrants’ rights.
Anna North for Vox
Despite the seriousness of the issues at hand, the rally had much of the same sense of playfulness and humor that has helped define previous Women’s Marches. The crowd was significantly smaller than those at past New York marches, though some who marched in previous years likely chose to march uptown this year instead of attending the rally.
In Foley Square, some women wore pink “pussy hats.” At least three attendees carried signs referencing tidying guru Marie Kondo (“the life-changing power of Time’s Up,” read one). Another sign bore a peach, for “impeachment.”
And though the controversy was not far from anyone’s mind, speakers and attendees alike sent a message of unity across differences.
“Will you take the hand of someone you don’t know, right now?” New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray asked the crowd at one point.
“Reach out to a sister of another color, or ethnicity, or religion,” she urged, “and learn what unites us.”
Anna North for Vox
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