On Saturday, during the third-annual Women’s March, thousands of women are expected in Washington, D.C. But while organizers wrote in a permit application that they expect hundreds of thousands — a turnout like previous years — experts say they expect a fraction of that number.
It’s not unusual for social movements to have peaks and valleys. Off-years — like third anniversaries in non-election years — make it challenging to energize a base that has protested since President Trump’s inauguration, said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who studies protests and social movements.
But the Women’s March is up against more than just an off year.
Allegations of anti-Semitism, secretive financial dealings, infighting and disputes over who gets to own and define the Women’s March have dogged organizers for months and led to calls for national co-chairs to resign.
Several high-profile supporters and progressive organizations have declined to participate in the rally this year. Women who previously went out of their way to attend are opting to stay home and support independent groups. Jewish women remain torn about attending at all. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against the event.
Earlier this week, the organization appeared to upset the National Park Service, which handles permitting for protests on federal land.
Women’s March organizers on Wednesday tweeted that the Park Service “wanted us to cancel the march altogether. We told them we were marching with or without their permission, and we secured a permit to march on Pennsylvania Ave, past the Trump Hotel.” The relocation, the group said, was “due to snow.”
Hours later, the Park Service responded with its own statement: “Any assertion that the National Park Service has encouraged any organizer to cancel their First Amendment demonstration is patently false,” spokesman Mike Litterst wrote. “The National Park Service has been clear that our process would protect those fundamental rights by processing applications for First Amendment events that had been submitted prior to” the shutdown.
The D.C. march, which begins at 10 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, will include speakers and performers, followed by a half-mile trek past the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The rally, which originally was planned for the Mall, is scheduled to end at 4 p.m. Streets in the area will be closed to traffic from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
Women’s March leaders on Saturday are expected to unveil a 10-prong political platform the organization has said will steer the group’s focus and give legislators a list of progressive priorities.
The agenda will pinpoint “realistically achievable” priorities, such as raising the federal minimum wage, addressing reproductive rights and violence against women, and passing the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment, officials said.
To some, the plan to issue a legislative agenda crafted by the group speaks to the rift at the center of the women’s movement: What began as a grass-roots collaboration by hundreds of distinct organizations and activists is increasingly defined by one group and its leadership team of four women: Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour.
“There were over 600 marches, and they were all organized separately. We did the Women’s March on Washington. That’s it,” said Vanessa Wruble, who helped organize the 2017 march in Washington and has since started her own organization, March On. “It was always meant to be a movement, and I believe — and March On believes — that the best movements are run bottom-up, not top-down.”
D.C. police expect about 20,000 participants for the rally. As of Wednesday, about 9,600 people on Facebook had expressed interest in attending.
Several unions representing furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors have encouraged members to attend. The Women’s March recently adjusted its programming to feature female federal workers effected by the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22.
Rally, a bus company that crowdsources bus routes to protests and large events, is coordinating rides for about 1,500 protesters from as far away as Iowa.
Washington-area moms who provided free lodging for hundreds of children and their parents who came to last year’s anti-gun-violence March for Our Lives rally restarted their efforts to help protesters going to the Women’s March and Friday’s inaugural Indigenous Peoples Movement rally.
“If you have an issue that you believe is important, and you want to use this march as an opportunity to come and yell at the White House or just stand up and be counted, we want to make sure if you need help to get here, we’ll do that,” said Elizabeth Andrews, who started the housing effort. “On the flip side, we have definitely had some of our hosts ask us why we’re supporting the Women’s March.”
On Saturday morning, a competing march calling itself the March for All Women was announced this week as an alternative to the Women’s March. The March for All Women, which also begins around 10 a.m., will begin at Pershing Park.
“The March For All Women represents the rising tide of women who stand against the divisiveness of the so-called Women’s March movement,” Carrie Lukas, president of Independent Women’s Forum, said in a statement. “We’re here to speak up, because women should not be hijacked for a political agenda.”
In cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, where groups wanted to separate from the national organization, there will be competing marches — each with their own speakers and rallies. Organizers in other cities have opted out altogether.
Several organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, have severed ties with the D.C. event. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, are notably absent from the Women’s March’s list of partners this year after previously supporting the event.
The Democratic National Committee, whose chairman spoke at the Women’s March last year, also isn’t involved in this year’s march.
Presidential hopefuls Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who called the 2017 march “truly the most inspiring moment of my entire life,” also reportedly aren’t attending the D.C. event. Fewer than half of the nearly 550 partners the Women’s March had last year have returned for 2019, according to the Daily Beast.
Many women who have participated in previous Women’s March events said the controversies have barely registered. Several said they hadn’t heard about those issues — or if they had, it didn’t affect their decision on whether to attend.
“I am very saddened by the split,” said Laura Brevitz, 56, of Tamworth, N.H., who attended the 2017 march. “There is growth to be done by everybody, but I am not going to turn my back on the Women’s March.”
Women’s March leaders, for their part, said they’re taking the past year and recent fallout in stride. Bland said it’s part of the growing pains of building an intersectional movement.
“We unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and we don’t want anyone to be confused about that,” Bland said. “We’ve been fighting against the exact type of hate that we have been accused of, and we understand that there is a lot more work to be done before the march, during the march and after the march.”