“Can I smoke weed here?”
That was the most controversial behavior I witnessed (or rather, overheard) at LA’s Women’s March of an estimated 750,000 people. A young woman contemplating smoking pot, a drug that California voted overwhelmingly to make legal for recreational use, and her friend quickly shutting it down.
There was more than one baby within ten feet of where we stood. There were families all around us. An entrepreneurial young woman was selling hotdogs to a huge line of hungry marchers. In LA, as with the rest of the country, the march was aggressively friendly, safe and peaceful. There were no arrests at LA’s march and the police I witnessed were relaxed. Other than being made uncomfortable by the size and density of the crowd, I never felt danger. There was a disciplined determination to be unthreatening, to say: “We are the middle, we are the mainstream.” It was telling us that, unlike Trump, who is constantly stoking fear, this is where safety is. The feeling I had was containment and anger softened with humor and warmth. This protest had rounded edges. This was a march without risk.
Even the signs weren’t that mad. Propelled by memes and Trump’s famous thin skin, the signs were often vulgar and funny. We’ve all seen by now the pictures of signs about comb-overs, small hands and pussies. I saw no flag burning or even violent rhetoric in LA. The signs that weren’t funny tended to be inclusive, about the people or causes they were there to support, such as transgender rights, the environment and immigrants, or opposition to Trump’s hateful speech. Even the conversations had a touch of the crude and the humorous. One woman walked by eating a hotdog, saying “It feels good to bite off a wiener.”
PG-13 language aside, I was at moments dismissive of this feel, this family friendly vibe. Is this soft, safe movement strong enough to propel change? As women, we are raised to be nice, polite and unassuming. We are taught that keeping children safe and nurturing are our jobs. I, for one, am mad. I don’t want to ask nicely and I am concerned that this disciplined friendly approach is disempowering. Once again women are being asked to smile, to ask nicely, to cover our anger with humor.
But if this had been an angry crowd, would there have been this many people? When I got to the train station a little past eight am on Saturday morning, the crowd was already gathered. After spending well over an hour filling our TAP cards and making our way toward the platform we gave up after seeing the size of the crowd and the trains entering the station but leaving again without accepting any new passengers because they were already full. We ended up going back home and getting an Uber (with surge pricing) from there. In all it took us three hours and not a little money just to get to the march due to the massive crowds. While there was a stunning 750,000 people at the march in LA, there was also an impromptu march in North Hollywood full of people who gave up on or couldn’t afford to get downtown. As massive as this protest was, the demand was larger.
In the end, this soft “feminine” and nonthreatening protest was in fact its genius.
The civility, safety and warmth was the inclusivity. No one need feel intimidated and all are welcome.
Political scientist Erica Chenoweth tells us that social movements succeed when 3.5% of the population resists. She also writes:
The success of mass movements is largely driven by their size. Because of this, an increase in the number and diversity of participants may be an indicator of a movement’s latent potential to succeed. This is particularly true if people who are not ordinarily “activists” begin to participate and if various classes, ethnicities, ages, genders, geographies, and other social distinctions are represented.
Perhaps this civility is how we get to that 3.5%.