Nearly two years ago, women stood on stages in Washington, D.C., and around the country surrounded by a sea of others. It was the beginning of a movement that would help pave the way for a new crop of female lawmakers to be elected into office.
The 2018 midterm elections saw those women elected into office in historic margins. But instead of a moment of celebration for the Women’s March, the group now finds itself in turmoil, as a growing number of activists, sister marches, and high-profile early supporters of the march have begun to separate themselves from the main group, which, they say, hasn’t done enough to denounce the hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
On Monday, Teresa Shook, a Hawaii-based retired lawyer and founder of the Women’s March, called for the current leadership to step down in a Facebook post, just two months before the third march is set to take place in Washington, D.C.
“Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez of Women’s March, Inc. have steered the Movement away from its true course. I have waited, hoping they would right the ship. But they have not,” she wrote. “In opposition to our Unity Principles, they have allowed anti-Semitism, anti- LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.”
In a joint statement, Bland, Mallory, Sarsour, and Perez dismissed Shook’s contribution to the movement as at the “very beginning” and said she “irresponsibly” weighed in “to take advantage of our growing pains to try and fracture our network.”
“Our ongoing work speaks for itself,” they wrote. “That’s our focus, not armchair critiques from those who want to take credit for our labor.”
The discord reflects a tried and true story of insurgent groups grappling with the responsibilities that come with rising to power. At the center of it has been Farrakhan—a lightning rod who has been praised in the African American community for his social work but is also widely reviled for his persistent anti-Semitism and hate speech toward the LGBTQ community.
The recent round of public criticism began two weeks ago, when Farrakhan resurfaced in the news following the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in late October. But the root of the controversy was in February when Mallory, the national co-chair for the Women's March, attended a Saviour’s Day event hosted by the Nation of Islam leader. She did so, in part, because of the support the Nation of Islam provided to her family after the death of her son’s father. But during that event, Farrakhan referred to the “Satanic Jew” and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy.”
Several prominent members of Women’s March Inc., including board members Perez, Sarsour, and Bland, initially were defensive of Mallory’s attendance at the event. Days later, in a post on NewsOne, Mallory attempted to explain her association with Farrakhan and her surprise at being asked to answer for some of his views.
But within the Women’s March movement, the explanation proved to be insufficient. Leaders inside Women’s March Inc., as the national march is known, have followed up with statements denouncing the anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism that permeate Farrakhan’s rhetoric. But they have stopped short of denouncing him. They say that’s by design and attribute the disconnect to a fundamental misunderstanding of their unity principles, which stress criticism of policies and positions rather than the person himself.
“We don’t denounce or write off people or communities,” Rachel O’Leary Carmona, the chief operating officer of the Women’s March, told The Daily Beast. “We denounce, and fight, evil and discriminatory ideas and policies. Not articulating that clearly and quickly has really hurt people and we deeply regret that.”
March officials say they are in the process of amending those unity principles in the hopes of creating a “Women’s Agenda” that will be unveiled ahead of the Jan. 19, 2019, march. But critics say leaders are still mismanaging the power they have and putting their own concerns above those of the broader march.
“You can’t just say, ‘I condemn the bullet that flew through the air.’ No, you need to condemn the person who shot the weapon,” said Tee Marie Hanible, a retired gunnery sergeant for the United States Marine Corps who served as the national military and veteran coordinator for the Women’s March. “I’m so confused as to why they can condemn the words but not the person.”
After the Pittsburgh shooting, actress and #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano told The Advocate she would not speak at the next Women’s March rally if it was led by Mallory or Sarsour, due to their past affiliation with Farrakhan and their reluctance to denounce Farrakhan’s frequent hateful rhetoric toward Jews, the LGBTQ community, and women.
“I would say no at this point. Unfortunate that none of them have come forward against him at this point,” Milano said. “Or even given a really good reason why to support them.”
Shortly after, actress Debra Messing tweeted her support for Milano. Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, expressed her concern with the association last week.
“My issue is that as the mom of a gay daughter, I agree with Alyssa and Debra that the [Women’s March] must distance itself from the homophobic, bigoted, and misogynistic things Farakhan has said,” Watts told The Daily Beast, noting that she was speaking for herself and not for Moms Demand Action.
In response to the new round of criticisms, the Women’s March has tried to find a middle ground. The group issued a bizarre statement denouncing Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism.
“Women’s March wouldn’t exist without the leadership of women of color, and we stand with Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory,” it said in the statement, posted Nov. 8 on Facebook. “Women’s March leaders reject anti-Semitism in all its forms.”
“We recognize the danger of hate rhetoric by public figures,” the post continued. “We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.”
But the statement then blamed the division in the movement’s ranks on right-wing critics, arguing that Republicans were trying to stir discord because they ultimately benefited from it.
Stosh Cotler, the CEO of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, a progressive Jewish group, echoed that concern, saying the focus on the divisions within the march were taking away from the “collective threat” of white nationalism in the country.
“We collectively have a much bigger fight on our hands, and it’s going to take all of us together to fight this growing white nationalist movement. And that movement is real, it’s going very mainstream, and [we] are doing each other a disservice and we are adding power to this growing white nationalist movement when we take each other down,” Cotler said. “Particularly when we allow women of color who are in leadership roles to be taken down and to allow there to be a story that it’s Jewish women that are taking them down, that in itself is a problematic frame.”
But those who were once close to the Women’s March say the internal divisions within the national chapter are real and that the Farrakhan issue is a symptom of indifference from those at the top.
“It’s leaving these state chapter organizations with having to fix the fallout and having to answer the questions of ‘Is this what you guys stand for?’” Hanible told The Daily Beast.
Hanible added that the national march has been chronically unreceptive to requests from local chapters, like the one in D.C., which asked for support for a range of other demonstrations, like the March for Black Women in September, and have been frequently met with silence.
“I was the one who was hearing the stories of the #MeToo movement within the military, but when I was bringing ideas to the table, nothing was heard,” she said. “You can’t seek intersectionality and then not support the black women that march with you. I saw that firsthand, the reach-out to national, only to be met with crickets.”
In a Facebook post, former D.C. Women’s March president Mercy Morganfield echoed Hanible’s concerns.
“There are so many issues that go so far beyond the unwillingness of all 4 co-chairs to address the antisemitism and lack of inclusion of women of color,” she wrote. “One of the biggest issues is the money. And when the March for Black Women was held a few months ago—they wouldn’t give that effort a dime—but were quick to jump on the bandwagon pretending to be partners in public. All four co-chairs need to step down and allow a real movement to flourish.”
Angie Beem, the board president of the Women’s March in Spokane, Washington, weighed in as well with a comment on Morganfield’s post, writing that the Spokane chapter had been asking for Mallory and Sarsour to step down for a year.
“Most of us state chapters are furious with them. My VP is Jewish. She refuses to have any contact with national and I support her in that,” Beem wrote. “We will be dissolving our organization after the 2019 event. We are sick of dealing with the fallout of what national does and them not taking responsibility for their actions.”
Beem also alleged that fundraising was a one-way street and that money raised by the national organization never made its way to the affiliates.
“National doesn’t give any of us state chapters anything. No money, no real support, nothing,” she wrote. “We were actually way ahead of them the first year as far as getting our act together. But they were quick to put out donation calls without letting people know that the money you donate to national stays at national, and their local marches get nothing.”
In a reflection of the growing divide within the Women’s March movement, offshoot organizations like March On, the Women’s March Alliance in New York City, and Women’s March Los Angeles have all challenged the Women’s March over their trademark application. And after receiving a number of questions about their association with the Women’s March in light of the recent round of controversies, March On founder Vanessa Wruble issued a press release to make sure its supporters knew where they stood.
“MARCH ON and Women’s March, Inc. are separate organizations, with different leadership, affiliations, and approach to decision-making,” Wruble said in a statement. “MARCH ON ultimately believes the women’s march movement has always been decentralized... As such we are inclusive of all people and believe no universe exists in which it is acceptable to support anti-Semitism, racism or bigotry against LGBT people. MARCH ON condemns bigotry in all forms and welcomes anyone committed to this mission to join us.”
Still, Jamila Land, an organizer with March On whose parents were both active members of the Nation of Islam, warned against letting the dispute hurt the broader Women’s March movement.
“It is without dispute that Minister Farakahan’s views are viewed as anti-Semitic. However, I caution that if leaders are the focus, the movement becomes weaker,” she said. “Whether we are talking about the leadership of the NOI or the Women’s March, there is always room for growth and learning.”