The second anniversary of the Women’s March had many hallmarks of the first—women and men in pink pussycat hats holding signs mocking or decrying President Donald Trump, declaring the importance of reproductive rights and a host of other largely progressive causes as they marched in downtown Washington, D.C..
And while attendance at the event was considerably lower than in previous years, the area in and around Freedom Plaza was packed with enthusiastic people from across the country, eager to show support for the movement.
On stage, however, it was different.
There were no prominent female politicians. Several sponsors that had once rushed to be a part of the event bailed, turned off by controversy over allegations of anti-Semitism directed at some of the leaders of the Women’s March, as well as a refusal to denounce the Nation of Islam leader and notorious hatemonger Louis Farrakhan.
Several speakers mentioned the importance of unity, of the movement sticking together in the face of disagreement and adversity.
For their part, embattled leaders of the Women’s March used their remarks to address allegations of anti-Semitism and make it clear they weren’t going anywhere.
“Over the last year, my sisters in Women’s March and I have faced accusations that have hurt my soul, charges of anti-Semitism and neglecting our LGBTQI family,” co-chair Carmen Perez said. “I want to be unequivocal in affirming that Women’s March and I and my sisters condemn anti-Semitism and homophobia and transphobia in all forms.”
“There is no defense of bigotry... there is no excuse for hate, but if this movement is to grow and prosper there must be, in times of conflict, an opportunity of truth and reconciliation,” she said, before telling Jewish women, “There is a place at the table for you.”
Tamika Mallory, the co-president of Women’s March Inc., who has been under fire because of her ties to Farrakhan, assured listeners she had not been deterred by the controversy.
“To my Jewish sisters, do not let anyone tell you who I am, I see all of you,” she said, before launching into a full-throated defense of herself. “No matter what they say, no matter what they write, I will not bend. My back is up straight, I will not bow, I will not break. I am who I am for over 20 years and no media outlet and no one else will tell you, I’m telling you, I love all people and no one will define for me who I am. Only I can do that.”
“Sisters and brothers, there are no perfect leaders, we are all flawed human beings we should not be throwing stones from glass houses,” said co-chair Linda Sarsour. “The media can talk about whatever controversy they want, but the real controversy is in the White House.”
Women in the crowd, however, were less focused on the top of the organization, telling The Daily Beast the movement was bigger than them.
Laura Stall, a graduate student and retail store manager from Montgomery County, Maryland, said she came to the march to learn from women outside of her community.
“Feminism needs to be more intersectional, there’s white women, but there’s also white women and Mexican women and Muslim women, women who are still more marginalized than the white women are,” she said. “I like to come because I like to come to learn for voices who aren’t mine, voices from women of color.”
Bridget Marzette and her family traveled from Michigan to attend the march to show their support for women’s rights, and to stand up to the administration, particularly its treatment of immigrants.
“You can’t pick people and demonize them like that, it’s just wrong,” said Marzette, a social worker from Lansing, Michigan. “We are all human, we are all made my God, we are all different shades but we are all the same.”
Cindy Marzette said the controversy was a “distraction” from the main message of the march.
“Thank God everybody still came together and we still walk together,” Cindy Marzette, a banker from Flint, Michigan, said. “There are always going to be differences, but that’s not the point of this.”
“This thing is bigger than that,” Bridget Marzette agreed.
The gathering ends a tough week for the Women’s March.
After months of accusations of anti-Semitism and a failure to denounce Farrakhan, sponsors including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Emily’s List, the Human Rights Campaign and NARAL had quietly cut ties with the group.
Then came Tuesday’s disastrous interview with Mallory on The View, which spurred the Democratic National Committee to remove its name from the list of partners.
During that interview, Mallory was asked by co-host Sunny Hostin why she once referred to Farrakhan as the GOAT, or “Greatest Of All Time.”
“I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric," Mallory said. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.”
Co-host Meghan McCain then asked a more direct question.
“Do you condemn Farrakhan’s remarks about Jewish people?” she asked.
“We didn't make those remarks,” Mallory responded. “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements.”
“Do you condemn them?” McCain asked again.
“I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory said. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize... I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”
“You won’t condemn it,” McCain said.
Prominent lawmakers distanced themselves from the march, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz who, in a blistering op-ed in USA Today on Friday, pointed to the allegations of anti-Semitism, and association with Farrakhan as the reason for the split.
“I cannot walk shoulder to shoulder with leaders who lock arms with outspoken peddlers of hate,” she wrote, noting that instead she would walk with a local group that had severed ties with the national organization.
Sarsour responded on Facebook Friday, telling Wasserman Schultz to “take several seats.”
“I am trying to save my petty till after tomorrow,” she wrote. “But someone tell Debbie Wasserman Schultz to take several seats. Like folks were waiting around being like what’s DWS gonna do.”
One prominent Democrat who chose to stick with the group was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who announced she was forming a presidential exploratory committee this week.
In her speech in Iowa on Saturday, which moved inside the Des Moines Capitol because of weather, she made reference to the rift.
“We must reject the division and lift each other up, lift up each other’s voices, so all of us can be heard,” she said, according to a video posted by Iowa Starting Line. “We know there is no room for anti-Semitism anywhere in our movement. We know this.”
By midweek the controversy had taken its toll: Just over 6,400 people had indicated on the group’s Facebook page that they were going to attend the march in DC. Organizers announced a location change, explaining that due to the government shutdown, the National Park Service was not going to plow the sites on the National Mall and Constitution Gardens where they had planned to gather.
“They wanted us to cancel the march altogether,” the email said. “We told them we were marching with or without their permission, and we secured a permit to march on Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Trump International Hotel.”
In a statement to WTOP, the National Park Service rejected that explanation.
“Any assertion that the National Park Service has encouraged any organizer to cancel their First Amendment demonstration is patently false,” the statement said, adding it was moved at the request of organizers.
The new permit, obtained by WUSA9, showed the group had requested a space for 10,000 people.