Baltimore Women's March Steering Committee and women activists prepare for the upcoming Women's March in Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Susan Anderson had chartered a bus, accepted checks from fellow riders and readied her protest signs for the third annual women’s march in Washington, this year on Jan. 19.
But then she heard the reports. An organizer of the first march, held the day after President Trump’s inauguration and still the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, had left the group, saying fellow leaders of the event made anti-Semitic remarks and publicly supported Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader notorious for espousing anti-Jewish and anti-LGBT sentiments.
Anderson, who lives in Roland Park, canceled the bus and returned the checks. She would stay in Baltimore this year.
“I don’t want to be associated with — and many other people don’t want to be associated with — any group that thinks that it’s OK to talk that way,” said Anderson, a retired nurse and longtime progressive activist. “Not in a leadership position of a group of women who do not believe in intolerance of other races [or] genders.”
Anderson will march instead in Baltimore, which along with hundreds of other cities has always had its own march coinciding with Washington’s. After an 11 a.m. rally at City Hall, the marchers will loop around nearby streets before returning to War Memorial Plaza for a dance party, spoken word performances and information tables. There will also be a march in Annapolis, and on Jan. 20 in Westminster.
“It’s an opportunity for women and the men who love them to stand together in the community and recognize the power we have,” said Charly Carter, among the leaders of Baltimore’s march.
“It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments we have made. The 2017 march led to unprecedented numbers of women running for office or running campaigns,” she said. “It’s put women’s issues, which I would define broadly, at the forefront of the conversation.”
Local marches might have even more appeal as a result of the dispute at the national level. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, for example, has said it can’t encourage participation in the Washington event because of what it calls some of the leaders’ anti-Semitism, and instead suggested traveling to Annapolis, Baltimore or other cities in the region.
For some, this year’s marches are a time to remember the first one and what it unleashed. It was a day in which more than 4 million in the United States and hundreds of thousands more around the world jammed streets across the country and inspired further political activism. Many of the marchers sported pink pussycat hats in reference to Trump’s earlier comments about grabbing women by their private parts.
Supporters in particular point to November’s midterm elections that sent a record number of women to Congress and state legislatures, including Maryland’s General Assembly.
Penn Station in Baltimore felt like Penn Station in New York Saturday morning as thousands of people on their way to the Women's March in Washington waited in lines that snaked from the tracks to the streets.
Hurwitz said speakers have been asked to include “tangible next steps” that people can take after the march. And those speakers will represent a range of racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation, she said, because the movement needs to “amplify” more marginalized communities.
The call for more racial, class and other diversity has been a chronic one for feminism, which has been criticized for leadership and priorities that often come from a white and privileged milieu. It was such tension that spawned the dispute that split the national leadership of the march.
As national leaders, including Vanessa Wruble, who is Jewish, were organizing in late 2016, they were concerned at the lack of diversity in their ranks and eventually were connected to activists Tamika Mallory, who is African-American, and Carmen Perez, who is Mexican-American. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American, also subsequently joined the group.
Wruble has said Mallory and Perez told her Jews needed to address their role in racism, and that they had been leaders of the American slave trade — something Farrakhan has written about, and that historians have widely denounced as simply untrue. Mallory and Perez have denied saying anything about the slave trade. Mallory, Perez and Sarsour have variously worked with or supported Farrakhan, whose Nation of Islam is known for helping impoverished communities and incarcerated people, but say they reject anti-Semitism. In November, Sarsour issued a statement on the Women’s March website saying “every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members. We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”
The dispute led Wruble to leave and create March On, which works with local organizations on initiatives including “March on the Polls,” that focused on the midterm elections. Hurwitz, a Navy veteran who ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland Senate, is on the group’s interim national board.
Mallory, Perez and Sarsour remain in leadership positions with the original Women’s March, which organizes the event in Washington, as well as other advocacy efforts.
Many women said they came to Baltimore’s rally to build on the momentum of last year’s historic Women’s March on Washington, when hundreds of thousands of people converged on the nation’s capital to condemn Trump’s fledgling presidency.
If you don’t know about the dispute, the groups’ websites may come off as indistinguishable from each other, with both sporting stirring images of previous marches, an embrace of diversity and empowerment and interactive maps to find local marches.
“I imagine we all generally believe in the same thing,” Wruble said in a telephone interview. “I think in any movement, there are going to be growing pains. To expect a movement this size not to have rifts would be absurd.”
Mallory, Perez and Sarsour did not return requests for comment for this article. Rachel O’Leary Carmona, who became the Women’s March chief operating officer in February, said the organization “welcomes different groups.”
But the controversy has led some local organizers to cancel their marches or renounce previous ties to the original group. The steering committee of Baltimore’s event made a point recently to note it is not affiliated with any national march, although its event is listed on both the Women’s March and March On websites.
Maryland organizers say they are largely unaffected by the split on the national level, although they are pained to see a movement based on a unified front frayed by divisiveness.
Baltimore’s organizers say diversity has never been a problem with their group; Carter observed that the participants “literally represent the rainbow.”
“We started out being very inclusive,” Carter said, “intentionally so.”
Carter and other march leaders are members of Baltimore Women United, which formed in the wake of Trump’s election and has organized events such as one in Patterson Park in June to protest the family separations at the Mexican border. Their “March on the Polls” this fall focused on getting women of color to early voting sites.
Thousands of people spilled into the street outside Johns Hopkins University Saturday, chanting "Yes we can," singing and waving signs with messages such as "Civility and Respect" to show solidarity with the Women's March in Washington and with hundreds of marches around the country
Zainab Chaudry, another organizer, said the Jan. 19 march was initially planned to go down North Avenue for a reason: to highlight one of the Baltimore communities “that has been practically rendered invisible despite being among the most directly impacted by some of the issues many of us are organizing to raise awareness of — including equity, racial justice, and access to opportunities and better schools.”
But the route, which would have started at the National Great Blacks in Wax museum, was moved to the City Hall area after police raised logistical concerns, she said.
In Carroll County, which according to the U.S. census is about 92 percent white, organizers say racial diversity is a challenge. “But we are doing everything we can to welcome and invite any and all diversity,” said Kelley Gordon, an organizer of the march in Westminster.
But unlike organizers in Eureka, Calif., who canceled their march over concerns that it would appear too white, Westminster’s will go on — on Sunday, Jan. 20, to avoid disrupting Main Street businesses and to accommodate those who might want to go to a larger march the day before, she said.
The troubles elsewhere have opened her eyes to her own privilege, Gordon said, and she said any undertaking as ambitious as the women’s march is going to stumble at times.
“It’s going to be messy,” said Gordon, a librarian and grandmother. “We all need to give each other a bit of grace, and benefit of doubt. I feel we can keep striving to do better. We can’t let it derail us.”
Hurwitz is among several march organizers who have said they believe outside forces have fanned flames of the dispute to harm it.
“A lot of the posts about the rift are not legitimate,” she said. “There is a rift, but it’s overblown.”
The original women’s march was among the topics targeted by a Russian disinformation campaign that sought to “inflame passions” in the U.S. with social media posts about a range of hot-button issues, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In October, federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint against a Russian national, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, that charged her with conspiring over the past couple of years to interfere with the U.S. political system.
“Members of the Conspiracy used social media and other internet platforms to inflame passions on a wide variety of topics,” the complaint said, “including immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March, and the NFL national anthem debate.”
The split among the original organizers began even before the first march, according to news accounts.
Even without any external conspiracy, the feminist movement as a whole has a long history of failing to acknowledge how sexism intersects with other forms of discrimination — based on race and class, for example — and how the more marginalized have different needs and concerns, said Ruth Enid Zambrana, a women’s studies professor at the University of Maryland College Park.
“The contemporary tensions really reflect a long trajectory of women’s rights benefiting predominantly white upper class women,” said Zambrana, who also directs the school’s Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity.
“We need to fight this together, but our issues are different,” she said. “How do we begin to come together as a sisterhood? … It’s a sad moment because we can’t move past history.”
Still, like many participants, Zambrana has fond memories of the first march, and the thrilling sense of hope it instilled.
Wruble, who lives in Brooklyn, agrees. “Nothing will ever touch that day,” she said. “Woman are very attached to that day as the day they decided to stand up.”
She said she likely won’t be taking to the streets herself Jan. 19, but “stuck behind a computer screen, helping other marches.” She believes the trouble among individual leaders won’t harm the various organizations’ efforts.
“I think in many movements, there are growing pains. To expect a movement this size not to have rifts would be absurd,” Wruble said. “When rifts become public, it’s an opportunity to actually grow and heal and make the movement stronger.”