Without a path from protest to power, the Women’s March will end up like Occupy
Social activists have succumbed to one of the most enduring myths of contemporary American protest. It’s time to consider what happens the day after
By Micah White
Jan 19 2017
Shortly after Donald Trump’s shock election victory, I received an urgent call from one of the co-creators of the Women’s March on Washington. She was concerned at a moment you might expect her to be ecstatic. Hundreds of thousands of women in 17 countries had already signed on in solidarity, and the numbers kept growing. Yet despite the tremendous momentum, she confessed a nagging skepticism about the effectiveness of the protest.
“I’m not that interested in the march itself but in what comes afterwards,” Fontaine Pearson confided to me. I admire her candor because I know it takes courage to voice such a concern. It is her difficult question – what comes the day after? – that every supporter of the Women’s March should be earnestly figuring out today.
Without a clear path from march to power, the protest is destined to be an ineffective feelgood spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats.
It is exciting when a protest meme leaps from social networks to the streets, capturing the imagination of millions, prompting this very website to proclaim that the forthcoming protest could be among the biggest in American history and Vogueto commission glitzy photos of the core organizers dressed up like Eileen Fisher models. But it is all too easy to succumb to the false hope that a big splash is a transformative tsunami.
Don’t be fooled. It is not. I’ve been there, as the co-creator of a raucous pro-democracy meme that inspired months of Occupy protests in 82 countries. And I can tell you that raising awareness and getting media attention is never enough. Frankly, neither brings the people closer to sovereign power.
For all those who want the Women’s March to be the start of an enduring revolutionary movement, here is my advice on how to increase the odds.
Know your history: let’s go back to 1789
On 5 October 1789, during the earliest days of what would become the French Revolution, a mob of women materialized on the streets of Paris. Some historians say it was spontaneous, others that it was planned. Regardless, we know that the furious women, desperately hungry from bread shortages in the city, descended on the Hôtel de Ville, the seat of municipal government, and demanded to speak to the mayor. The national guard refused them entry but also refused to fire on them and so the women burst through the police line, ransacked city hall and raided the armory.
Now armed with swords and cannons, the crowd of protesters grew to more than 7,000 female insurrectionaries. Suddenly a far more revolutionary goal was adopted: a Women’s March on Versailles, where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette where hosting a series of lavish banquets for royalist soldiers.
It the first protest march of women in modern history, and it was also the most effective. When the revolutionary women arrived at Versailles, they broke into the palace, murdered two guardsmen and attempted to enter the queen’s bedchamber before ultimately forcing King Louis XVI and his entourage to march with the crowd – now 60,000 strong – back to Paris.
The Women’s March on Versailles was a literal and forceful assertion of the people’s sovereignty over the king. It was a defining moment in the revolutionary history of democracy. As the historian William Doyle explains: “Louis XVI never returned to Versailles … All open attempts on the king’s part to resist the reform of France now came to an end.” The National Assembly was led to Paris shortly after and legislative decision-making power was eventually fully captured by the people. Democratic revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI by guillotine less than four years later.
The day after the women marched on Versailles was the definitive point of no return for the French Revolution. And let’s not forget that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was also initially sparked, as Leon Trotsky recalls in his definitive history, by a defiant women’s protest.
The lesson here is that protesting grandmothers, daughters and mothers have the unique power to do what male protesters cannot – such as break through a line of national guard bayonets without being fired upon. And for this reason, women will always play a foundational role in the great revolutions to come, but only when they take matters into their own hands, act unexpectedly and viscerally, and focus their collective energy on the only target that matters: concretely establishing the power of the people over their governments.