Although protester counts from the Women’s March on Washington are still being processed, it is already evident that the event was one of the largest mass demonstrations in history. According to the official website of the Women’s March, nearly half a million protesters were in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21. Beyond the nation’s capital, demonstrations were held in every state and 81 countries worldwide. The impressive size and reach of the Women’s March are undeniable, but the intent and durability of the movement can still be questioned.
In the aftermath of the march, a debate on white feminism has surfaced in the social media world. One photograph in particular went viral in the days following the March. It shows a black woman carrying a sign that reads “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” In the background are three white women in “pussy hats,” on their smartphones.
This image highlights the irony of a predominately white, female protest. Some contend that white women showed up too little, too late to the social justice party, and that they brought their white privilege along with them.
This privilege is exemplified in one respect by the relative peacefulness of the Women’s March, compared with demonstrations made up of minority populations. In Paris, for example, the march lasted several hours and stretched for about three miles, all without a single injury or clash with law enforcement. It had a positive and almost celebratory energy.
Knowing how often the French working class exercises its right to public protest, the immediate reaction was to attribute the peaceful nature of the march to the habituation of French law enforcement to facilitate protest, rather than become the adversary. Paris, however, turned out to be no exception. Not a single arrest was made at the Women’s March on Washington. Marches across the United States were equally calm and tension-free.
Some celebrated this statistic while others pointed out the white privilege that lay behind it. Millions of predominantly white women took to the streets without any conflict with law enforcement. At Black Lives Matter protests, clashes with police and arrests are regular occurrences even when protests are equally peaceful.
Yes, the Women’s March maintained peace, but could this be because there is an inherently smaller risk of physical and legal danger for white protesters?
The Women’s March was a huge success in terms of what the organizers set out to achieve: high turnout and a formidable display of resistance. But the viral photo and the “zero-arrest” factor highlight the very privilege that can sometimes be fatal to social resistance movements. It remains to be seen whether the Women’s March was a short-lived trend or the beginning of a sustainable social movement. The answer could very well depend on the extent to which this privilege is threatened by the new Trump administration.