'Many People Are Trying to Divide Us': Thousands Attend Third Annual Women's March

Linda Sarsour at Washington march: 'We will protect our constitutional right to boycott, divest and sanctions in this country' ■ In New York, woman grabs the mic and yells 'The Women's March hates Jews'

Demonstrators at the Women's March in Washington D.C.,January 19, 2019.
AFP

Women marched in hundreds of U.S. cities and overseas on Saturday to mark the second anniversary of demonstrations that drew millions of protesters to the streets the day after Republican President Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017.

In some cities, like New York and Washington, there was more than one march or demonstration due to criticism that some Women's March leaders are anti-Semitic – a charge those leaders have sought to dispel in recent interviews and statements. 

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The marches also have been criticized as being unwelcoming to conservative women, who may oppose Trump's presidency but also have right-wing views on issues such as abortion rights. The "March for Life" by anti-abortion campaigners was in Washington on Friday, attended by Vice President Mike Pence. Yet this year's march also saw a smaller number of pro-life counterdemonstrators.

Leaders of Women's March and March On say there is a role for everyone. Women's March leader Linda Sarsour said at the beginning of her speech she was there as “a proud Palestinian-American woman” and that “there are no perfect leaders.” She alluded to critical media coverage over the Women’s March and anti-Semitism by saying “the media can talk about any controversy they want, but the real controversy is in the White House.”

Sarsour spoke about the achievements of the Democratic Party in the 2018 midterm elections, and after mentioning all the “first time” precedents in political representation that happened during the election, said her “favorite one” was “the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

Sarsour also said that "We will protect our constitutional right to boycott, divest and sanctions in this country," alluding to debates that erupted in Congress earlier this month centered on two bills against boycotts of Israel and its settlements.

At the Foley Square rally in New York, a woman got up on stage and seized the microphone yelling, "The Women's March hates Jews!" The woman, later identified as far-right activist Laura Loomer, was promptly removed from the stage.

In Pittsburgh, Sara Stock Mayo, a local activist and leader in the Jewish community, took the stage singing the opening bars of the Hebrew song, “Gesher Tzar Ma’od” (“The whole world is a narrow bridge”). 

Demonstrators gather at the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 19, 2019.
Amir Tibon

“This year’s Women’s March Pittsburgh is about building bridges. ... The reality is that most of us stay on our side of the bridge,” she said.

Stock Mayo defended her decision to attend, saying, “I truly believe this movement itself is more important; we cannot lose the momentum that has already begun.”

Women's March, a national nonprofit organization that evolved from the initial Washington march, again hosted its main event in D.C., with hundreds of "sister" marches in other cities.

March On, a separate grassroots coalition that also grew from the original march, coordinated hundreds of marches in cities such as Boston, Houston, Baltimore and Denver.

"We are all part of the same movement, regardless of any divisiveness or any drama that goes on," March On's Natalie Sanchez said.

The march in Washington began at 11 A.M. local time and moved along Pennsylvania Avenue, passing near the Trump International Hotel on its way to Freedom Plaza, just blocks away from the White House.

There were significantly fewer participants than in the two previous Women’s March events, in 2017 and 2018. While in the previous two marches Pennsylvania Avenue was flooded with demonstrators and the crowd also spilled into nearby streets, this year the entire demonstrations fit into Freedom Plaza – and there was even room left for a small counterdemonstration of anti-abortion activists.

Police officers separated the counterprotesters and march participants. Although sporadic shouting matches broke out, most of the Women's March participants ignored them. 

In what seemed like an attempt to respond to the accusations of anti-Semitism among the March’s leadership, three of the speakers who got up on the main stage were Jewish women involved in organizing this year’s march.

Demonstrators hold signs at the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 19, 2019.
Amir Tibon

Abby Stein, a transgender Jewish woman and ordained rabbi, stated that “some in the media are trying to divide us. We can’t let that happen.” She said the struggle against anti-Semitism and other struggles against bigotry “are all one struggle.” 

Another Jewish speaker was Yavilah McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, “a nonprofit organization advocating for Jews of Color.” She opened her speech by blessing the crowd with the words “Shabbat Shalom,” and then defended the March’s leadership against anti-Semitism accusations.

“We are all in this together,” she said. April Baskin, a third Jewish speaker and member of the march’s steering committee, spoke about the history of her own family and of growing up with a Jewish mother and African-American father. “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” she said, to strong applause from the crowd. 

The Women’s March Alliance, which has organized the New York City event since January 2017, had attempted to distance itself from the anti-Semitism-roiled D.C. leadership in recent weeks. But the name of the protest itself made the efforts difficult.

In a recent interview with Haaretz, Katherine Siemionko, who heads Women’s March Alliance, admitted to having lost “thousands of followers.”

This was clearly felt on the Upper West Side on Saturday, where turnout was visibly lower than in 2018. Adding to the unfavorable numbers, the official Women’s March organization had also decided to hold its own competing demonstration in downtown Manhattan, splitting the crowd.

Protesters who made their way down the west side of Central Park carried a mixture of feminist and anti-Trump messages. “Elect a clown, expect a circus,” one of them said. “Feminism is the radical notion that ‘women’ are people,’” stated another.

For Israel-born Esti Grifel, this was her third time attending the Women’s March; she had been in Washington for the inaugural event.

“It was the best experience. I continue to come because I don’t feel like much has changed,” Grifel told Haaretz while walking down Central Park West, proudly wearing a tall pink and furry hat she had made for the occasion.

 “I want justice for all and I’m not just talking about women, I’m talking about all weakened groups,” she said.

Counter-protesters supporting President Trump at the march on the Upper West Side, New York City, January 19, 2019.
Danielle Ziri

When it comes to the recent anti-Semitism controversy, Grifel said she didn’t think twice about participating in the Women’s March this year.

“It didn’t stop me because I don’t belong to any group. I am here on my own; I have my own ideas, my own ideals, my own thoughts. The fact that I’m from Israel or I am Jewish doesn’t mean I’m belonging to a group. It’s not the goal today.”

But among the marchers, some had come to the Upper West Side purposefully instead of attending the downtown march directly affiliated with the controversial D.C. leadership.

“It says something that there are two Women’s Marches today,” Julie Raines, who had come to the Upper West Side demonstration with her husband, told Haaretz. “It’s sad that that would even have to happen. I certainly don’t support anti-Semitism at all, and I wanted to go to this march because I knew this was the march that wasn’t the controversial one.”

The division, according to her, reflects a larger issue in the Democratic Party. “We can’t seem to get behind the issues together, and I think that there are outside forces trying to cause division – and it’s working sometimes,” she said.

Raines, who has participated in all three Women’s Marches, said she had never taken part in political demonstrations beforehand.

“I vote, I’m a vegetarian, but I had never marched before,” she said. “It’s because of Trump, of all the things going wrong in our country: It’s hard to watch the news every day, but being able to come out and march helps a lot because it makes you realize there are a lot of other people who feel the same way.”

As marchers turned the corner of 72nd Street, toward the official route on Central Park West, they encountered Dion Cini and his friends waving a giant flag with the inscription “Trump 2020,” next to which was a smaller Israeli flag. “Shame on you!” one man yelled in Cini’s direction.

“This is the third time I'm here with the flag, to support our president,” Cini told Haaretz. “I actually stand for something. These guys stand for everything and anything. I actually always stand for one thing: Trump 2020, nothing else.

“I do this every day – it just so happens that today is the women’s parade. But it’s also the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency today.  So I'm actually here celebrating something positive,” he added.

Cini said he is used to the negative reactions and that they won’t deter him from expressing himself in such environments.

“I support anything that is a positive initiative for women’s rights. But when every other sign says ‘I hate Trump,’ every other sign says 'I want this for free, I need that for free, give me this, give me that,' I don’t support it.” As for the Israeli flag, Cini told Haaretz that support for Israel was one of the messages he came here to transmit.

Leaders of both groups said they would use this year's marches to push policy related to raising the minimum wage, access to reproductive and health care, and voting rights, among other issues. They were aiming to mobilize women to vote ahead of the 2020 election, when Trump is expected to be the Republican presidential nominee. 

"There is definitely huge, huge focus on the 2020 elections," said Sanchez, an organizer of the 2017 Boston Women's March and who is also with March Forward Massachusetts, which organized Saturday's march there. 

Sarah Sportman, a 40-year-old archaeologist from Connecticut, said she came to Washington to protest Trump's presidency and march for protecting the environment and immigration rights. 

"I just don't like the direction our country is going in and I think that we can do a lot better," she said. 

Activists said the marches were also a chance to celebrate the gains made in the 2018 midterm elections, which saw more women elected to the U.S. Congress than ever before. 

The newly elected women – nearly all Democrats – include the first Muslim women and first Native American women in Congress, as well as the first black women to represent their states in New England. Many cited Trump's presidency among the reasons they decided to run for office.

Becky, an activist from Florida, told Haaretz why she made the trip to Washington to attend this year’s march: “I was involved in the women’s movement in the 1960s. Ever since that period, I think our country has made a lot of progress. But the last two years, for the first time in my life, have felt like going backward. We are losing the values we fought for.” 

She said she did not attend last year’s march, but felt it was important to be in Washington this year. “We need to send a message that this movement is not done. Yes, we took back the House [of Representatives] in November. But we can’t just sit back and relax now. We have so much more to do.” She expressed hope that “people have been awakened by this presidency. I see more people joining political action in the area where I live than ever before.”

Marc, a student living in the D.C area, told Haaretz, “I’m not a very politically active person, but this is the second time I’ve come to the Women’s March.”

For him, the march isn’t only about Trump and his presidency but about broader issues. “There are deep problems in how this country treats women and minorities that go way beyond Trump,” he said. “Trump is making things worse, but we need to talk about those problems, not just about him. That’s what brought me to participate in the march today.”

Danielle Ziri is Haaretz's correspondant in New York.

Reuters contributed to this report