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A picture of the Women's March on Washington with the Capitol in view.

The Women's March on Washington: Civil Disobedience and Beyond


By Feb 07, 2017

Image credits: ABC News

It's only February, and yet 2017 already seems like it has been a tumultuous year. Leading up to January 20th, it seemed as though a fog was hanging over the heads of American citizens. The road to Donald Trump’s inauguration was rocky, and indeed his presidency continues to be so, with nation-wide protests breaking out among young people desperate to have their voices heard.

The Women’s March on Washington was a historic rally, advocating for women's rights in light of the new administration’s promise to de-fund women’s health organizations. Because Trump’s sexual assault accusations have perpetuated the already ludicrous rape culture in today’s society, it stands to reason that many Americans fear for their bodily safety, and the Women’s March was an excellent way to exhibit the people’s resistance to the authoritarian new regime.

Being one of the largest protests in history, it is outstanding that there was not a single arrest among the estimated 500, 000 participants. Though it rightly received some criticism, the Women’s March was an overall success. However, if we look to Inauguration Day, just one day before the march, we see the violence that erupted as a response to the incoming, unpopular president-elect, with over 200 arrests. These statistics pose an interesting question about protest mentality and the divide between peaceful and violent protests.

Why do people protest? Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans (VU University, The Netherlands) put forward a theory of relative deprivation to explain the urge to participate in a public pushback. Relative deprivation theory contends that protests are the consequence of people noticing a disparity between their situation and the standard way of life. For many Americans, this disparity lays in the divide between white, straight males, and everyone else. When a committee of people with little to no regard for the interests of a marginalized group threatens the fundamental human rights of said group, desperation mounts.  

By conceiving of civil disobedience as unpatriotic, public opinion be increasingly nudged to include this form of protesting among other acts of un-American betrayal.    

With desperation mounting, there seems be only one option: civil resistance. Exemplified by the Women’s March, civil resistance is the act of non-violent protesting; a congregation of like-minded people who united in their dislike for the political status quo. On January 21st, people of all genders and from all socio-economic backgrounds marched alongside one another in a demonstration of solidarity and resistance to the rhetoric of the incoming Republican government. The Women’s March was organized and spread through Facebook, garnering the attention of millions of people. Like any event, attempting to organize and mobilize more than 500, 000 people proved to be difficult and the cracks in its organization began to show. The speeches were inaudible for the vast majority of protesters, hours were lost by standing around, and the march began much later than was anticipated. And yet, despite frustrating circumstances, demonstrators marched together peacefully through the streets of Washington. 

Is it surprising that the Women’s March didn’t turn violent? With thousands in attendance, it stands to reason that the situation would escalate. However, one of the cornerstones for a successful non-violent protest is, surprisingly, disorganization. Rallies without a hierarchical structure almost never turn violent. This same structure can be applied to the Inauguration Day protests. The very well organized political group, Disrupt J20, was the driving force behind the change from civil resistance to civil disobedience, an often violent form of protesting focused on disruption rather than calm mediation. By following through with their threat to disrupt inauguration activities, they quickly turned the otherwise complacent protest into an attention-grabbing upheaval.

Having disenfranchised groups refuse to be silenced will make the government and the media uncomfortable, but total resistance is the only effective route to revolution.

Violent protests have been demonized in the United States for decades. However, those who criticize the means of protest often are not oppressed enough— if at all— to have their livelihood threatened by the very political system that promised to serve and protect its citizens. The ways in which the media cover protests misrepresents the protesters and deceives the public. News stations use scare tactics that are designed to manipulate public opinion of the demonstrators, often calling them “militant,” “criminal,” or “anarchists.” By conceiving of civil disobedience as unpatriotic, public opinion be increasingly nudged to include this form of protesting among other acts of un-American betrayal. The media questioning the legitimacy of a revolutionary riot is rooted in contentment with the status quo. Therefore, those who dare to express their resentment of the paradigmatic political system are deemed unpatriotic in the eyes of the media, with government officials often urging rioters to “react in a constructive way and not a destructive way,” as was the case of the Ferguson Riots.  

Peaceful protests garner awareness, visibility, and media support, but civil disobedience, however messy, provokes a change that is long over-due in America.

The Women’s March on Washington will be touted as the movement that sparked change, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech remains the peaceful symbol of the civil rights movement. However, civil rights were not solely attained by marching or by refusing to give up a seat on the bus. These demonstrations of fortitude, although iconic, were not the driving force behind social change, but rather, serve as the media’s prototypical emblem for the virtues of peaceful protesting. Though these displays of defiance empower and inspire many, it is important to remember that while these emblematic acts of civil resistance were happening, there were many more acts of civil disobedience working in tandem in order to achieve substantive social change, whether the New York Race Riots of 1964 or the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The “I Have A Dream” speech is perhaps one of the most famous anti-violence speeches to emerge from the civil rights movement, but to cite Dr. King in his 1968 speech “The Other America,” “a riot is the language of the unheard. What has America failed to hear?” He goes on to assert that the members of “white society are more concerned about tranquility and status quo than about justice and humanity.”

It is unbelievable that society has not been revolutionized in the five decades since Dr. King’s speech. Disenfranchised citizens are cornered with their backs against a wall, and staging walkouts and sit-ins may not incite the much needed change. Instead, mass demonstrations of anger, sadness, and desperation may be needed to incite change. Every movement needs a symbol, and unfortunately the media selects the peaceful protests as that symbol in order to delegitimize other, more violent demonstrations, transforming rioters into destructive thugs. By taking up space, protesters are gaining control of the political climate. And with the rise of social media, organizing and congregating a protest is easier than ever. Having disenfranchised groups refuse to be silenced will make the government and the media uncomfortable, but total resistance may be the only effective route to revolution. Peaceful protests garner awareness, visibility, and media support, but civil disobedience, however messy, can provoke change that is long over-due. Is it time to disrupt the status quo in order to aid all of the marginalized groups of people that have been stepped on, and is it time to revolutionize the power structure, whether through peaceful protest or other means?  

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