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Opinion | Jon Garelick

Women’s March on Washington — a beautiful mess

Protesters walk during the Women's March on Washington on Saturday.
Protesters walk during the Women's March on Washington on Saturday.Mario Tama/Getty images

Almost from the moment the idea was suggested — on Facebook, by a retired lawyer named Rebecca Shook in Hawaii — the Women’s March on Washington came under attack: It was seen as a platform for privileged white women, rather than people of color, Muslims, and every other group excluded from, or explicitly threatened by, Donald Trump’s America. What’s more, who was organizing this thing? (Apparently, no one.) It would be a tremendous amount of valuable activist energy squandered, atomized, absorbed like vapor into the sky over the Washington Mall, never to be heard from again.

Well, Saturday’s event in Washington was a mess, all right — but what a mess! MARC and Metro trains into the city were clogged from the early hours, and estimates grew from the 200,000 marchers initially expected to more than 500,000. What’s more, the march had metastasized into similar events all over the world (as many as 673 other locations, according to womensmarch.com). An estimated 175,000 people gathered in Boston.

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How big a mess was Washington? There were very few organizers to direct the march, and it stalled for long sections of the day, with occasional redirections. Probably only a small fraction of the enormous crowd heard the star lineup of speakers on the stage set up on Independence Avenue — from Gloria Steinem and Michael Moore to Scarlett Johansson and Ashley Judd. And the causes ranged from reproductive rights to immigration, climate change, to Black Lives Matter, espoused by single-issue advocacy groups as well as a strong contingent of trade and teacher unions.

It hardly mattered. The atmosphere was upbeat, even giddy, as the overcast, nearly raw day stretched into the late afternoon. And it was difficult to find any complaints about inclusivity. Scanning the crowd, you’d easily find it more diverse than a typical Riverside Green Line train, if not quite as broad-ranging as a New York City A train.

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A healthy contingent of LGBTQ activists from Boston chatted happily on the mall. Fen Katz, a 29-year-old wine store manager whose preferred pronoun was “singular they,” didn’t want to minimize the feelings of those who felt rejected, but described inclusivity as “a mission that’s never accomplished. There’s always more that you can do.” That said, Katz was happy with the event.

Katz’s fiancée, Justine Portmann, 27, who works with differently abled artists in the Brookline-based advocacy group Gateway Arts, was impressed with access for those with disabilities as well as the sensitivity of the crowd, who were happy to “part the Red Sea” for marchers in wheelchairs. She also applauded the organization’s outreach to people with autism.

One attendee in a wheelchair was Luby Ismail, 53, who lives with multiple sclerosis. An American-born Muslim with Egyptian parents who now lives in Silver Spring, Md., she’s founder of the nonprofit Connecting Cultures, and counsels law enforcement groups on how to engage with Arabs and Muslims, work she’s been doing for the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service since the presidency of George W. Bush. She said that though CRS is a division mandated by law, her own work depends on the whim of whoever becomes the new attorney general. Ismail, and her husband, documentary filmmaker Alex Kronemer, 55, pointed to research by Pew and Gallup showing that terrorist attacks don’t raise non-Muslim fears of the Islamic community nearly as much as political campaigns. “I’ve never felt as apart in this country as I have in the last year,” said Ismail.

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As for the mess, no one I talked to was particularly put out by it. One married lesbian couple from Delaware taking the morning MARC train into the city had been encouraged to bring their young daughter (turning 3 on Jan. 26) because “any march that has lactation stations is kid-friendly.” That, and the Facebook group Stroller Brigade, with 700 members.

Meanwhile, two Johns Hopkins undergraduates, both originally from Brooklyn, were happy with the lack of regimentation. But then, at 19, they were old hands. Giovanna Molina remembered being carried by her union-member father to a demonstration in a backpack. And Simone Robbennolt had been brought to events by her mother, who works for the ACLU. Robbennolt was used to strict guidance by ACLU organizers, and both women talked about the difference in seeing such a variety of colorful, even raunchy hand-made signs rather than the mass-produced placards of NOW and Planned Parenthood. Both had been Hillary Clinton voters, and on the train back to campus Robbennolt was carrying her own pink sign with the phrase Clinton popularized: “Women’s rights are human rights.”

So yes, it was a mess, in an overgrown, Occupy kind of way. A mess like democracy itself. And it was good. Now the real work begins.


Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.

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