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Lynda Woolard: Why I Stopped Marching

There have been so many marches that I forget some of them until I look back through my iPhotos. From one of the early marches, I have a picture of an attendee holding a sign that read: “We can do this every weekend.” 

Can we?

I understand the impact of people taking to the streets, and our current political landscape surely demands a response. In my opinion, there is a danger in being silent, as well as an urgent need to show the strength of our numbers, so I have dutifully joined other protesters at marches and rallies many times this year.

That said, when the Women’s March was being organized in response to the surreality of Trump’s impending inauguration, I scoffed, “Where were these people in October? That’s when we needed a grand show of women supporting women!” Over the previous year, I had watched attempts to quiet or downplay women’s enthusiasm for our Democratic nominee, which if you had the occasion to be in a room or private Facebook group with these folks, was significant. I was confounded that the press ignored that story. It wouldn’t have been difficult for a journalist to infiltrate these groups. It just did not appear that it was the money narrative (and this demographic still goes largely ignored by the media). It was equally frustrating that as I strolled around wearing Hillary swag, women would flag me down everywhere from the Family Dollar to high dollar fundraisers, and whisper “I’m with her, too.” I was mystified that so many women felt the need to hide their support in this barrier breaking moment. I wanted them to be bolder and more outspoken, but I was also keenly aware of the severity of the attacks directed at anyone who admitted they were excited by the thought of her presidency.

The truth is, regardless of her stature in the Democratic party, her decades of experience, and her worldwide name recognition, by virtue of being a woman, Hillary was the underdog—despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. I was brought on to Hillary for America as the State Director in the final months, and when volunteers expressed trepidation about making persuasion calls to swing voters, I would tell them, “Steel up! We are trying to do something that has never been done before: elect the first woman President of the United States. We have to cut the head off the snake.” I wish I had expressed that to a lot more people, or rather I wish someone with more influence than me had said that out loud every day. 

Ready or not, January 2017 arrived, and I had to accept the world we found ourselves in, acknowledge the importance of speaking out together, and embrace the amazing swell of energy around the Women’s March. Specifically because of the tendency of Democrats to be so guarded in their declarations over the last election cycle, this felt like a necessary course correction. 

I chose to stay in New Orleans, where the Gulf Coast turned out enough people to produce the largest march the city has ever seen. Police estimated our numbers as somewhere in the 10- to 15,000 range. In cities across the country, hundreds of thousands filled the streets, with half a million in Washington, D.C. alone. Worldwide, the estimated number of marchers on that single day was 3 million people.

Since then, I have had the option to attend a march or a rally almost every week. I have marched more in the past 6 months than I have in the rest of my years on the planet. There have been so many marches that I forget some of them until I look back through my iPhotos. From one of the early marches, I have a picture of an attendee holding a sign that read: “We can do this every weekend.” 

Can we?

While marches are seen as one of the sexier political activities, replete with empowering chants, funny costumes and clever signs, it’s also heavy lifting in organizing terms. Big marches require money for permits, police, sound equipment, and more, so there’s a fundraising element to it that’s difficult to sustain and potentially drains support from other efforts. In order to get a large enough crowd to make an impact, you have to start promoting it well in advance. You need a good hook with which people want to associate themselves. If you are to be really successful in getting your message to the largest possible audience, including your targeted politicians, you need media buy-in. Equally important, you want to make sure the press is getting the story as you want it told. Identifying and training leaders to jump in and work reporters is important, and having a plan for counter-protesters helps keep your message in the media, rather than shifting the focus to a “both sides” story, or worse, a narrative about a clash that all but buries your point. It’s a lot to manage, with many factors that are well beyond your control.

A big march can certainly announce a group’s presence with authority, but it’s difficult to keep such a movement from losing steam. People will return to their daily lives, thinking, “I’ll hit next week’s march.” And as the numbers of attendees dwindle, the actions lose their effect. If the story isn’t changing significantly, the press becomes less interested.

This doesn’t signal a resignation to give up on the resistance. It’s merely an acknowledgement that, in our vast advocacy tool kit, the march has limitations. There have to be next steps that go beyond a march. And at some point, attention has to be paid to longer-term planning, years and decades down the road.

Further, there are smaller, more consistent actions that can have far greater influence. A march or protest with only 20 people can give the appearance that our issue doesn’t garner significant interest. However, a press conference with 20 people behind a lineup of great speakers is a meaty visual and, if planned well, can get you substantive news coverage. Similarly, speak outs are a great protest/press conference hybrid that allow organizers to incorporate some of the drama of a rally, with a controlled presentation by experts. It’s easier and cheaper to organize, and doesn’t require the same number of participants to appear well-attended. In Louisiana, we have the additional device of the second line, which we can mold to make a statement and garner some attention for our issue.

Letters to the editors of newspapers remain a powerful tool for reaching the voting public, as well as politicians. Succinct and cogent letters can be used to rebut bad information in articles and op-eds. Particularly in an environment where outlets are more prone to cater to a conservative audience, a progressive point of view in print can let members of your community know they are not alone. Calls to radio shows are useful in promoting an upcoming action, and in making sure your narrative is highlighted after you’ve completed an event. Likewise, concerted social media actions, where you coordinate people to push out your talking points in a pre-determined time span, can get an idea noticed with little to no cost.

There is also a much more direct way of communicating with our elected officials. In addition to the calling, emailing, and faxing at which we’ve all become proficient, we can develop relationships with them and their staff. While much of the focus is on our federal officials right now, our state and municipal level officials, having fewer constituents, are relatively accessible, and work on the issues that more often affect us on a day-to-day basis. Well before the legislative session starts is a good time to reach out to state legislators and ask to meet with them. Introduce yourself if you’ve never met. Invite them to your events and parties. Let them know one to three issues that are your top priorities. 

If you’re being unsuccessful in getting through to a politician, you can utilize some of the tactics of a rally, and stage a protest at their office or outside one of their events. Again, this kind of action doesn’t require the same numbers that a march does to be effective. And when press isn’t available to broadcast your events, share them yourself as a citizen journalist via live video on social media. Most of our politicians and journalists are on Twitter, so tagging them, using a hashtag that they follow, or forwarding them your video are all effective ways to amplify your story.

While it’s important to hold our elected officials accountable, you should also thank public servants who are advancing your issues. Make sure they feel supported, particularly when they are being attacked for taking bold stances. Developing a relationship with local and state officials who support the policies you favor is beneficial in the long term, as these are the people who are likely our bench for future federal elections. It might be a little easier to get a meeting with a US Senator or Congressperson if they’re someone you’ve already been partnering with for years.

Guess what will get you an even bigger seat at the table of an elected official? Making calls and knocking doors for their campaigns. As a bonus, there is no better way to learn what is going on with the voters than visiting their neighborhoods via phone bank or canvass. It’s also a perfect training ground for learning how to run your own campaign, if you want to shift your advocacy into hyperdrive.

Immediately after the 2016 elections, women not only set about planning the Women’s March, but they also stepped up to run for office. The early numbers that came in were 4000 sign-ups, and in the months since, that number has easily tripled. While there is no heavier organizing lift than a campaign, the payoff of a win is pure gold. Even if you don’t win in your first run, you’ve still had an opportunity to get your ideas out to a larger audience, and to build a network of allies.

If campaigns aren’t in your wheel house, you can still work to register voters, turn out voters during elections, volunteer for voter protection if you have legal skills, and work to expand the vote through legislative pushes. These efforts can be done with small groups of volunteers, but require year-round attention. If we are thinking about 2018, we need to launch these initiatives right now. There are groups out there working on many of these issues, but if you cannot find one in your area, you may just be the change you’ve been waiting for.

2016 is gone. It’s an election they’ll slice and dice in political and history books for many years to come. I’m more interested in the movement we are building now, and how we mobilize people to make sure our voices are heard and our values are represented. The best result from the marches isn’t the statements they’ve made to politicians, it’s that we have connected, and we know how many of us there are out here. When we feel timid, powerless, or in the minority, we can remember how many people have now openly expressed that they are on our side. 

I’m not going to avoid every march that pops up. However, I am going to be significantly more judicious in when and where I join in. Given the massive amount of work that lies ahead for progressives, Democrats, and members of the resistance, I would rather put my energy towards something that will deliver measurable results with long-range goals. I always say people don’t organize organically, and most of the time, that’s true. If you have not already done so, find a group to work with, or start your own. Organize with joy, with persistence, and with the big picture in mind. 

Look, we still have to cut the head off that snake. Steel up! We’ve got big work to do.

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