Resistance and controversy

The Sacramento Women’s March faces leadership troubles and accusations of exclusion. Will it survive?

The 2018 Black Women’s March.

The 2018 Black Women’s March.

Photo by adrian sims

It’s difficult for Charis Hill to tap into how she felt on election night 2016. She’d walked around Sacramento in a suffragette-white pantsuit all day, expecting to witness the election of the first woman president.

But that wasn’t the case.

It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton’s loss that devastated her and so many other people, particularly women. Countless were stunned over the election of a man who made racist and sexist remarks with reckless abandon. The businessman who’d once bragged in an interview that his power gave him the go-ahead to sexually assault women, who had called Mexican immigrants rapists and mocked a disabled reporter.

As election results rolled in, people worried about the implications his administration would have for the Affordable Care Act, immigration, Supreme Court nominations and Roe v. Wade.

“I think there’s a lot of trauma there that I blocked and that says something,” Hill said.

She was 29 at the time, and in the process of applying for disability benefits. In 2013, she’d been diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable disease that causes inflammation throughout the body, especially in the spine. The chronic pain and fatigue Hill lives with affects her mobility, mental health and ability to work. Already struggling to make ends meet, she saw a future where the health care and public assistance she relied on were threatened.

“It was already hard enough and then it was going to get worse,” she said. “And not just for me, but for everyone.”

Many decided to put those worries into action. In the days and weeks after Donald Trump’s election, people were driven by fear, anger and disappointment to resist the incoming administration, forming grassroots responses around the country.

“I was looking for any reason to be around like-minded people,” she said.

Millions of others around the country felt the same.

The inaugural Women’s March, held on January 21, 2017, made history as the largest day of protest in the United States, with an estimated 4.1 million participants. In Sacramento, turnout surpassed organizers’ expectations with more than 20,000 attendees.

Since then, Women’s March Sacramento has been one of many chapters that has struggled to address complaints the event is not intersectional enough. Intersectionality—the focus on the ways identities such as ability, gender, class and ethnicity are impacted and interrelated in an oppressive society—has become a major topic of consideration and the source of some contention among feminists.

The national brand has also recently faced scrutiny amid claims of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement within the leadership of Women’s March Inc., the organization behind the flagship march in Washington, D.C. Ironically, this widespread response to President Trump—intended to promote diversity, tolerance and decency—is now under attack for its own lack of diversity, tolerance and integrity.

On the eve of the march’s third anniversary, chapters from Chicago to Eureka have canceled planned events. Locally, Women’s March Sacramento’s newest president resigned just weeks before the scheduled 10 a.m. kickoff from Southside Park on January 19.

While it’s unclear whether the Women’s March can overcome its damaged image and ongoing criticisms, some original organizers still see its value and encourage people to march this weekend.

Even so, some think this could be the march’s final year.

Approximately 20,000 women participated in Women’s March Sacramento’s inaugural 2017 event. Facing leadership troubles, among other issues, organizers say that number could be much lower this year.

Photo by Kris Hooks

Mobilizing after the election

It wasn’t feasible for Annie Adams to travel from her Bay Area home to Washington, D.C., in January 2017. She’d received an email invite to the Women’s March, but busy with two young children and the holidays, she instead looked to get involved locally.

“I feel like we had a collective political hangover that was very widespread,” she said. Her concern over Supreme Court nominations and the potential threat to Roe v. Wade motivated her to mobilize. “I thought, ‘There is nothing else to do but hit the streets as a first order of business.'”

Initially, Adams couldn’t find a march close to home, but eventually found a Facebook event page for an event at the state Capitol in Sacramento with about 100 responses. A social worker professionally, Adams had organized past political campaigns. She submitted a volunteer form to the event’s administrator, Jessica Browning. They quickly teamed up as event co-leaders, gathered volunteers and were up and running by mid-November. Around Thanksgiving, they saw other sister marches cropping up in major cities.

“Then it was just like dominoes,” she remembered. “It kind of organically rose … all over the country and all over the world.”

Adams and Browning didn’t know how many to expect at the march, held a day after Trump’s inauguration. As Adams maneuvered around Southside Park the morning of the march, texting with police officers and preparing to live-stream the kickoff, the crowd grew dense.

“We thought maybe 5,000 people would show up,” she said. As she marched alongside a drum line, however, and finally reached the stage on the Capitol steps, she was amazed by the approaching slow, heavy stream of marchers.

The turnout: more than 20,000, according to police.

“It was tons of people, yet the most peaceful feeling,” Adams remembered.

But the march’s signature pink pussy caps were hardly hung before organizers faced backlash. Local chapters, including Sacramento’s, felt the ripple effects of any missteps on the part of national organizers.

In its early iteration, the event had been called Million Woman March on Facebook, a title criticized for appropriating the 1990s Million Man March and Million Woman March, which centered on black Americans. Some of the imagery of the march, including the knit pink pussy hats, was called out for focusing on anatomy and excluding transgender and non-binary people.

Chapters nationwide shared some Women’s March branding—including the red, off-white and blue silhouettes of three women—although Sacramento used its own graphics the first year. They all posted the Unity Principles established by the national organizing body to their individual websites, which in part announces, “We believe that Women’s Rights are Human Rights … We believe Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice.”

But that brand has been tainted in the past year by unfolding claims of anti-Semitism, starting in February when national co-chair Tamika Mallory attended an event where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has been widely criticized over the years for making anti-Semitic and homophobic statements during his sermons, made more anti-Semitic remarks.

The issue was exacerbated after accusations that Mallory, a black woman, and her Women’s March Inc. co-chair Carmen Perez, a Latina, had made anti-Semitic remarks to Vanessa Wruble, a founder who is Jewish. Since leaving the organization, Wruble has launched March On to continue her women’s liberation activism.

Some organizers have called for Mallory and Perez to resign for the sake of the movement.

“If they actually cared about the movement, right here and now … they would step down,” said Angie Beem, a Washington state-based march organizer.

Her organization, Women+s March Washington State, which supports marches throughout the state, will disband after this year. Similarly, Women’s March Los Angeles has been one of several cities to condemn Farrakhan’s remarks and acknowledge participants’ concerns over anti-Semitism.

At the local level, however, individual chapters organized with little if any direction from the national New York-based organization, especially that first year. Organizers pointed out that chapters had no say or vote on the leadership in Women’s March Inc. and do not receive any of its funds. But critics and some marchers alike question whether Women’s March is living up to its own ideals.

Adams, the Bay Area organizer, says she realizes the effort it takes to run a successful and inclusive march. Nonetheless, she’s disappointed with the outcomes so far.

“This has been damaging across the board, which really just breaks my heart,” Adams said.

Charis Hill.

Photo by Erich Weldon

‘I never really like having to beg’

Women’s March Sacramento, which formed after the inaugural march, faced its own specific challenges. Some complained that the co-chairs were both from the Bay Area, and that the march wasn’t representative enough.

“The original local leadership didn’t even live in Sacramento and that’s an issue,” Emiliana Guereca said. She’s the founder of the Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation, the nonprofit behind the L.A. march and president of Women’s March California, a volunteer-run umbrella organization comprising member marches statewide. She grew up in Chicago, where as a Latina-Jewish woman she advocated for herself and other marginalized groups.

“You can’t really organize a community without living in it and knowing the deep-seated issues that are there,” Guereca said.

Adams says she was receptive to some of the criticism, but stands behind her decision to form a march in Sacramento.

“Our goal was to do it on our capital, and for folks in California it would be a more accessible and easily attainable march to attend,” she said.

As for representation, she admits that in the rush to organize a march in a matter of weeks, organizers missed important aspects.

“Everyone was, including national, organizing at a very fast clip,” she said. “There was a lot of blind spots.”

To address that, Women’s March Sacramento hosted a community listening session in early January 2018, two weeks before the second annual march, to address intersectionality gaps.

Hill, a writer and disabilities advocate who attended the first Sacramento march in a clunky wheelchair borrowed from her church, showed up to ask how organizers planned to make the march more accessible. She pointed out there was no accessibility information on the website, and suggested having people with disabilities in front to make getting through in the crowd easier.

Hill said organizers listened—but didn’t take up all her ideas, possibly due to a lack of time.

They did, however, invite Hill to speak at the march.

“What I’ve learned in the world of advocacy is telling my story is the most powerful thing,” she said. So instead of marching, she saved her energy that day to speak.

“We don’t get a lot of visibility at all, as disabled people,” she said.

Other groups said they also felt marginalized.

Imani Mitchell, for example, never believed black women were going to be spotlighted at the Women’s March, so she didn’t share others’ widespread enthusiasm, before or after the inaugural event.

“There were women of color, trans women, people with disabilities who were coming out saying this did not feel inclusive,” the Sacramento-based filmmaker said. “I never really like having to beg to be included in spaces.”

Instead, Mitchell and others decided to try something else.

She teamed up with a few other women to launch a nonprofit, Black Women United, which hosted its flagship event, the inaugural Black Women’s March on July 15, 2017. About 1,700 people marched from Crocker Park to the Capitol, and Mitchell remembers the joy of black children and teens.

“Being in this space where they can be themselves [and] celebrated … For me, always, to see the youth there is why we do this,” she said.

Since then, Black Women United has hosted movie screenings, Thanksgiving breakfasts and other events, often partnering with local organizations.

Last December, Mitchell left her position as BWU’s executive director to work on an independent film. The third annual Black Women’s March is scheduled for June 22 at a yet-to-be determined location.

Meanwhile, despite Women’s March Sacramento’s move to be more inclusive, for many it’s clear that the organizers’ efforts haven’t been enough.

Imani Mitchell at the 2018 Black Women’s March.

Photo by Adrian Sims

Trouble, reorganization and strength in numbers

Through a public relations company, Activism Articulated, Jasper James collaborated with both Black Women’s March and Women’s March Sacramento. The company worked on more political efforts after the 2016 election, and last year helped run Women’s March Sacramento’s listening session.

James, a black activist, was recruited to become Women’s March Sacramento’s president after Browning and Adams stepped back as co-chairs. Adams stepped down when she moved out of state in August. Browning did not respond to interview requests.

In a mid-December phone interview, James looked forward to some of the changes happening at Women’s March Sacramento. Organizers were trying to be more responsive through a new volunteer program, and had aligned with Women’s March Global, a group that shares branding and Unity Principles with Women’s March Inc. but has no affiliation and connects chapters internationally to one another.

“We’re really excited … to go out into the community and start to build bridges,” James said.

But then on December 31, James resigned from Women’s March Sacramento and Scarlette Bustos was appointed the event’s lead coordinator. Neither gave a reason for the resignation.

The march is still scheduled, and as of press time, the event’s Facebook page shows 4,100 people going and 14,000 interested.

“This #WomensWave has a lot of work to do, and we’re … excited to be in solidarity with women all over the world,” Bustos said in an email.

But across the nation, organizers say Women’s March turnout will likely decline this year as individual chapters have canceled events, distanced themselves from Women’s March Inc. and announced plans to disband after this year’s march.

Still, some think that perhaps the marches have served their purpose.

Adams, for example, said she’s proud of the impact the Women’s March movement had on the 2018 elections, where Democrats took back the House of Representatives and a record number of women were elected. Women’s March Sacramento hosted candidate nights in Old Sac, trained California students how to lobby at the Capitol and participated at a die-in at Rep. Tom McClintock’s office to lobby for gun regulations.

“We really had a lot of very difficult times, and a lot of really wonderful times,” she said. “I’m most proud of the joy and excitement that we brought to so many people.”

Guereca, the L.A. march founder, said she understands others’ disappointment, but hopes people come out. There’s strength in numbers and, she says, the march remains important.

“More people are asking, ‘Should I march this year or not march?’ I would say, yes,” Guereca said. “We cannot afford to sit out.”