Around the world today, thousands took action in various forms to highlight the ongoing struggle for gender equality while marking the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. These demonstrations in recognition of International Women’s Day served as one positive indication of the sustained collective action that will be necessary to define, build, and carry on the legacy of January’s Women’s March on Washington. Let us not forget that just six weeks ago three to four million people, about one percent of the U.S. population, participated in the largest demonstration in American history. We are a new and growing one percent, defined not by the power we derive from material wealth, but from the power of the people, of democracy in action.
As evidenced today, many have continued to use protests and demonstrations as a core method for promoting a progressive agenda that upholds core American tenets of equality, freedom, and human dignity, views we see in direct contrast to the priorities of our 45th President. Despite this very active form of engagement, a growing disaffection is palpable among a subset of this population, which struggles to articulate a platform beyond mere “resistance.” After all, we have seen other young movements languish when they were unable to articulate an action-oriented platform motivated by specific policy goals.
Perhaps this struggle to define ourselves owes in part to the notion that promoting such fundamental values seems too rudimentary to be a movement in 2017. But this concern must be balanced with the fact that many find strength in an inclusive agenda. After all, our collective voice finds accord in such visions as standing for the “protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families,” diminished greed and corruption among the political and corporate elite, and a nation where segments of the population “are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
It is neither possible nor wise to dissociate from the recent progressive agendas of the Women’s March, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter; it’s precisely this inclusivity that makes the new one percent powerful. There is strength at this confluence, despite the fact that our individual motives for engagement are as multifaceted as our intersectional identities. We are all essentially concerned with the character of the new administration, from a complete lack of humility, to a disregard for science and fact, to a series of policies seemingly motivated by fear, bigotry, and intolerance, all the while disregarding process and undermining institutions. Yet, the resistance movement is mobilized around issues as diverse as climate change, immigrant and refugee rights, criminal justice reform, health care, reproductive rights, and gender equity.
As we parlay the singular events of January 21 and March 8 into a sustainable movement, it is imperative to consider, first as individuals and then as the collective, what we are fighting for; it is not enough to simply “resist” or levy character attacks at one man and his cabinet. Reflecting on the history of successful social movements, that stated cause must be something concrete and achievable. A woman’s right to vote. Civil rights for African Americans. Improved labor conditions for farm workers. The legalization of same-sex marriage.
For the past month, many have focused on the cause of guaranteeing the safe immigration of valid visa holders and refugees into the United States. And thanks to the determination of various district and circuit court judges, the American Civil Liberties Union, and hosts of volunteer lawyers and translators, all bolstered by throngs of supporters—not to mention the strength of our Constitution and institutions—we have an example of a successful strategy, even if the fight is far from over. Moving forward, we may find ourselves galvanizing to push the federal government to continue to invest in renewable energies or to allow Planned Parenthood to continue offering women’s health services or to ensure the country doesn’t backtrack on the limitations the former administration placed on the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Whatever the hot button issue is, the struggle is guaranteed to be protracted. Therefore, we must acknowledge that protest fatigue is real, and our causes are too important to risk burnout. If we are going to maintain the stamina and optimism necessary to sustain this struggle, each of us will need to focus on one or two key issues that speak to us personally, and fight doggedly to defend them. We must do so in the streets and in policy circles, in our communities and at the national level. We can be unified in our grand vision while remaining distinct in our individual motivations, knowing that between the lot of us, each issue will be addressed by those most passionate and knowledgeable. Successful social movements of the past teach us that small groups who are persistent, willing, and able to take risks can wield significant influence. Like spokes on a wheel, each cause will prove critical to forming a national landscape that reflects our values as engaged citizens, and to guaranteeing the forward momentum of the movement. Success will mean identifying those around us, connected both by geography and affinity, who are allies. It may also entail taking the stance that an attack on one is an attack on all, because undoubtedly, moments will come that call for collective defense.
Simultaneously, it serves the movement to invest energy into securing progressive wins in the 2018 midterm elections, including through innovative efforts like Swing Left. Yet I would caution against thinking Democratic victories are a panacea. In fact, I fear a subset of those now engaged in the resistance may have felt allayed by a Clinton victory. Though optimism can be difficult to muster, this election has at least prompted an unprecedented level of civic engagement. However, we must defy an us-versus-them framing. This movement is not de facto opposed to or distinct from all Republicans; in fact, it is comprised, in part, by them. The official GOP platform includes such tenets as the “Constitution should be honored, valued, and upheld” and “Leaders should serve people, not special interests” – notions I am confident a lot of us who marched believe strongly. The strength and longevity of this movement will be contingent upon continuously opening it up to new voices, to new people (corporations, even) who might not share all of our perspectives and ideals, but who are willing to fight side by side on specific issues. Again, our diversity can be part of our strength. Let’s not forget, civility is another one of those core American values, and hearts and minds can change through thoughtful introspection and dialogue that values listening as much as speaking.
In this political environment, our motley movement will have to, at times, find satisfaction with simply protecting the status quo. However, this administration is a temporary reality—and one that stands to reveal the true strength of our institutions, the power of checks and balances, and the might of our values.
And let’s remember, this movement started on incredibly strong ground. There was a particular moment during the Women’s March on Washington, somewhere between the rally and the march, when the energy of those around me had reached a threshold; it became suddenly palpable and kinetic. Yet, the thousands of us gathered there in front of the U.S. Capitol, united in our purpose, but diverse in our perspectives, histories, and geographies, were frozen in place. We were ready to march, but there was nowhere to go owing to the hoards of people ahead. I was worried that energy might dissipate, that people would get frustrated or even fearful as they realized their physical constraints. But as I looked into the eyes of those around me, I knew we would wait, patiently but fervently, however long was necessary to exercise our democratic rights, our human rights, to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association, to take part in the government of our country.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, or Stanford University as a whole.