Getting the Women’s March on Washington on the Road

After the election, a hastily made Facebook event attracted the passion of thousands. Now, seasoned organizers are trying to turn it into something real.

Carolyn Mungin, from Washington, D.C., joins participants of the Million Women March as they sing the Black National Anthem, in Philadelphia October 25.

Participants of the Million Woman March sing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 25, 1997.

Reuters Photographer/Reuter

The day after Donald Trump won the election, Teresa Shook, a grandmother in Hawaii, decided to take her anger and pain to the streets of Washington, D.C. She asked a few dozen friends if they’d join her in a protest of the president-elect’s inauguration in January. From that initial invitation, word of a loose plan to march on Washington in a grand showing of women’s power spread through a network of networks, including Pantsuit Nation, a 3.7 million–member secret Facebook group of Hillary Clinton supporters.

But, as might have been expected after the stunning upset of a candidate widely viewed as a fascist sexual predator over what might have been America’s first female president, a lot of women had the same idea. They weren’t professional organizers, but they knew how to make Facebook events. Eventually, a handful of different actions (one was to be called the Million Pussy March) collapsed into one: Originally dubbed the Million Woman March, it’s now the Women’s March on Washington, it’s scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration, and, as of this writing, 116,856 people from all over the country have said on Facebook that they are “going.” What they’re “going” to—and when, and where—nobody knows. Not even the people in charge.

Lest you think those RSVPs are the weak sort that a Facebook event can sometimes draw, know that plenty of these attendees are very much committed. A representative of Kimpton Hotels, a hospitality group with 14 properties in the D.C. area, told WTOP that the hotel group “saw a surge of demand” for inauguration weekend from people coming into town for the march once it was announced. Women began discussing local marches and trips to D.C. on affiliated Facebook pages—one for every state but Wyoming, plus a few other countries and cities outside the U.S. On the Alaska page, where a local organizer is promoting a group discount from Alaska Airlines, one woman announced that she’s fundraising for plane tickets to D.C. from Juneau with her mother and mother-in-law. “Tickets booked for myself and my 75-year-old mother!!” wrote a Louisiana resident on her state’s page on Sunday. Activists in Kansas are well into the planning stages of a charter bus or fleet from Lawrence; one woman has offered, as an alternative, to drive up to four people from Kansas to D.C. in her car, with an overnight stay in Louisville to break up the drive.

But the event all these women are shelling out hundreds of dollars to attend is, to put it gently, still in its early planning stages. Given conflicting information from fragmented local leadership and a Washington Post report that the march’s organizers hadn’t requested a permit from the National Park Service as of Nov. 14, some prospective attendees are concerned it won’t happen at all. “I understand you have not yet secured permits for this,” one woman posted on the Facebook event. “It’s pretty essential that you disclose that if it’s still the case. That would put marchers in danger of arrest and given people all over the country are planning to come I think that’s important transparency.”

Robert Morris, an officer with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, told Slate that the department has been getting phone calls from people across the country asking if the march has a permit yet. “They want to book their flights, but they don’t want to book their flights unless it’s going to happen,” he said.

Right now, it looks like some form of the march and rally will happen, though probably not as first advertised. Without any experience planning large-scale events and without anticipating the potential scope of what they were starting, the original creators promised a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march to the White House. The memorial and Lafayette Park—the area in front of the White House where protesters usually gather—are both under NPS jurisdiction, and the agency requires permits for major gatherings. Permits are usually processed and granted in the order they’re received.

Before the Women’s March on Washington ever even submitted a permit application to hold an event at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, Jan. 21, NPS registered seven permit applications from five organizations for the same sites at the same time. All these organizations are ahead of the Women’s March on Washington in line for a permit. First in the queue is the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which will likely still be holding inaugural activities or cleaning up after the inauguration, held the day before. Mike Litterst, a public affairs officer at the National Park Service, characterizes the other permit applications for that space and time as “four other First Amendment activities.”

Carmen Perez, one of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, confirmed in a phone call that the march coordinators are “now looking at nearby places, because it will not occur [at the Lincoln Memorial].” “We will continue to work with the applicants and make every effort [to] give them the opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights, if not at the requested time and location, then at a time and/or location that is nearby,” Litterst told Slate in an email. Perez said Janaye Ingram of the National Action Network, who’s now handling logistics for the march, is having an in-person meeting with NPS officials Thanksgiving week to sort things out.

The post-rally march, on the other hand, falls under D.C. police jurisdiction. Morris says the department is aware of the march plans, but hasn’t gotten an official notification yet, because event organizers usually wait to get an NPS permit before planning a march route. In D.C., any group can march through the streets without a permit as long as marchers stay in one lane of traffic. But that’s a suboptimal plan for a major march for several reasons, not least of which are the risks posed by moving traffic and the unpredictable actions of individual police officers confronted with an unexpected protest. But permits for parades and marches come easy in this city. “D.C. will give [permits] to just about anybody,” Morris said. “That’s why people come to the nation’s capital, to air their grievances.” With just two weeks’ advance notice, Morris claims, the Women’s March on Washington should be able to get the road closures and police support it needs.

If and when the march does come together, it will be due to the expertise of three veteran organizers—Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory—who stepped in to steer the vessel when it became clear that the Facebook-event creators were in far over their heads. The first sign that a small group of white women with little relevant experience was ill-equipped to plan a major protest came with widespread criticism of the original name, the Million Woman March. When I got a Facebook invite to the event just two days after the election, the page was already flooded with comments demanding the organizers change the name to avoid appropriating the name and history of a massive 1997 march for black women in Philadelphia. (There will be a 20th-anniversary celebration of that march next year, and the event’s Twitter account is still actively protesting the Women’s March on Washington.) Activist Brittany Oliver and others pushed the organizers to make their committee and goals more representative of all American women, especially women of color, transgender women, immigrant women, and Muslim women, who stand to suffer the most under the racism and Islamophobia that Trump’s candidacy has unleashed.

By the time Perez came aboard with fellow co-chairs Sarsour and Mallory a few days after the election, the white creators were already moving to rename the march in response to pushback. The new name is a nod to the March on Washington, the 1963 gathering where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” address. This, of course, was another black-led action demanding human rights for all but focused on racial justice. Today, people are still pushing in the comments on the Women’s March on Washington’s Facebook page for a name that doesn’t take its power from a historic event in black history. Perez says she and the other newer co-chairs, who are Muslim and black Americans, are “adding the value of our historical analysis” to “honor those who have come before,” hoping to head off concerns of appropriation.

But with its viral spread and no affiliation with any political agenda or movement, the march is attracting both participants and objections of all stripes. “Not all white women are privileged and I really don’t appreciate being scolded that I should ‘understand my privilege,’ ” one prospective attendee wrote in response to a statement from the co-chairs on the march’s “origins and inclusion.” “How dare you assume to judge??? This statement needs to be corrected—and an apology should be issued. How can we be expected to stand with people who make such distasteful assumptions?!?!” Another woman was more concerned with the march’s logistical holdups than identity politics: “Forget all this nonsense. Do you have a permit, security and bathrooms?”

Even for someone with decades of event-planning and political-organizing experience, producing a rally that seems likely to draw tens of thousands of people in less than three months seems an impossible task. Perez, Sarsour, and Mallory, who are helming the march along with one of the original creators of the event, are seasoned activists; together, they produced a 2015 walk from New York to D.C. to protest police brutality and racial profiling. But Perez, the executive director of a juvenile-justice nonprofit, said she agreed to help lead the Women’s March on Washington with the knowledge that it would be an enormous undertaking. “When I said yes, understanding that I also run a national organization, I had said to myself, and maybe whispered to Tamika and Linda, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’ ” Perez said.

That might have been the question running through the minds of the original creators of the Women’s March on Washington, a group of well-intentioned white women who sought solidarity and an outlet for activism without the requisite understanding of intersectional feminism and park police permits. They could not have been prepared for how their event would metastasize on a social network brimming over with post-election grief. Leslie McGorman, national political director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Slate that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy struck many nonactivists as a turning point for women’s issues. “Even before the election, but certainly emboldened by the election, people were coming together who’d never done advocacy before,” she said. “Certainly, the loss has emboldened them to take that action.” NARAL isn’t involved in the march, but some other established organizations are contemplating whether to join in this massive gathering of women of all levels of political awareness and unawareness, or sit it out to avoid signing on to a blanket-feminism event whose message they can’t shape. McGorman says as the march develops, NARAL may “see how best we can plug into the larger event.” According to Perez, about 80 organizations, including nonprofits and unions, have signed on as partners, and America Ferrera is talking about getting involved.

In some ways, the Women’s March on Washington’s garbled message, logistical missteps, and blunders on basic issues of intersectionality comprise a cautionary tale to the people who could have been prepared to harness the hunger for action that was sure to arise in the case of a Trump victory. Big-league reproductive-rights and gender-justice organizations—which would have been infinitely better-suited to organize a colossal women’s march than a random smattering of Facebook-event creators—should have had a visible and well-promoted plan for the worst-case scenario. They should have anticipated that women devastated by a Trump win would want some immediate blueprint, however nebulous, for protest.

Without any clear direction from major players in the field, a group of motivated women with no grasp of communications strategy or how busy the Lincoln Memorial might be on inauguration weekend stumbled into the vacuum. These white women basically wished a march on Washington out of the air—and thanks in large part to the sweat and know-how of the women of color who’ve helped them right the ship, some version of that wish looks likely to come true. Perez told me it’s easy to get overwhelmed when an event attracts more than 116,000 RSVPs before a solid plan is in place. “Then your initial next reaction is ‘let’s get organized,’ ” she said. “We’re doing the work. We’re doing the best that we can.”