How Big was the Women’s March on Washington?

The age of mass protest reignited with the launching of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, when millions of people in over 75 countries and on every continent marched in opposition to The Donald. As an historian who has studied every American mass protest from the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s to the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, what I found to be most shocking was the fact that this may have been the largest national or international protest to ever take place in modern history, and even more amazingly it was not aimed at a horrible war, but against a single U.S. President within 24 hours of taking office. That means more people felt the need to march in the streets against Donald Trump in 2017 than did the millions of people who protested the Vietnam War more than four decades ago. This was the largest national day of protests in U.S. history by comparing it to previous American movements. The Women’s March on Washington, however, did not hold the largest rally in a single place, but instead had the largest amount of people protesting at the same time across the nation and world. This is the emergence of a mass movement, which first peaked its head at Occupy Wall Street and became whole with the ouster of Barack Obama and the emergence of Trumpland. This mass movement is built on a new coalition of Hillary voters, Bernie voters and Independents, which gives it power but naturally produces conflicts.

The Vietnam War brought about massive national days of protest in which millions of people across the country protested in their respective cities. The first sight of this was on October 15, 1969, when millions protested nationwide in the first Vietnam Moratorium.  Fred Halstead wrote in his 843-page book, Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. Against the Vietnam War, that this marked the first time it reached a “full-fledged mass movement.” The Women’s March in 2017 brought out more people into the streets, beating out this first record-breaking rally.  However the two events have a lot in common.  The Vietnam Moratorium emerged from a new coalition that developed in 1969, which included a large base of liberal Democrats (including certain politicians) merging with activists and others previously engaged in the movement.  This was similar to the Women’s March on Washington, which saw the emerging coalition of Hillary Clinton supporters with seasoned activists and others to the left of liberal Democrats.

Both actions brought about an unprecedented amount of people hitting the streets in most cities.  Halstead reported that an astonishing 20,000 protested in Philly; 100,000 in Boston; 50,000 in D.C. from local area only; 25,000 in Ann Arbor, Michigan; 25,000 in Madison, Wisconsin; 20,000 in Minneapolis; 20,000 in Detroit; 11,000 in Austin, Texas; while more than 100,000 protested in New York City.

The Women’s March on Washington also brought out an unprecedented amount of people in most cities.  In Philly (where I never saw a rally larger than 5,000 people since I began protesting there in 2012, excluding the DNC) on January 21, 2017, more than 50,000 people protested in the city of Brotherly Love. Contrast that to the small number of 15,000 Bernie people who protested the Philly DNC in July 2016, who came from across the nation, and you’ll begin to understand how this is the emergence of a mass movement. In Boston at least 90,000 people protested. The Detroit Metro Times reported that 8,000 people alone from Michigan traveled to D.C. for the big day in what the paper called the “start of a new era of resistance.” What’s also impressive is that multiple cities across the country broke records of crowd size, even though many of the 500,000 people who rallied in D.C. traveled there to join the headline event.

Vox reported that 3.3 million Americans protested in over 500 U.S. cities. In the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street set up campsites in more than 1,400 cities, but didn’t have as nearly as many participants as seen on the Women’s March on Washington. Vox also reported more than 100 international marches took place, with an estimate of 267,000 people taking action.

The 500,000 demonstrators in D.C. for the Women’s March was one of the largest D.C. protests, but multiple others beat it out. At least 600,000 marched against the Vietnam War in the second Vietnam Moratorium on November 15, 1969, which was made up of the same wide coalition that organized decentralized protests a month earlier. The single largest Vietnam protest in D.C., however, took place on April 24, 1971, when an estimated 750,000 people protested there. Once again the massive 1971 Washington protest was a wide coalition of liberals and radicals, with the addition of Vietnam veterans returning from the war and joining the antiwar movement. Vox reported that the Million Man March in 1995 gathered an estimated 837,000 people in D.C.

The single largest protest in U.S. history took place in New York City.  On June 12, 1982, a coalition of Democrat politicians, liberals, radicals, and ex-hippies organized the single largest protest of one million people in New York City. This coalition formed in the face of a Reagan Administration expanding nuclear weapons. And Vox reported for the Women’s March that New York City and L.A. surpassed 500,000 people. New York City regularly sees hundreds of thousands protesting, like the estimated 400,000 that marched for climate change in September 2014, or the 400,000 that marched at the NYC RNC in 2004 against the war – both of which also built off wide coalitions. In April 1967 a coalition made up of college students,civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., radical pacifists, liberals, Native Americans and Latinos organized a massive march of 400,000 in NYC to protest the war, which marked the largest protest in the nation up to that time.  However in the radical period between May and August 1963, massive protests emerged for the first time in the 1960s. After the attack on the Children’s March in Birmingham, led by King, massive arrests and protests emerged. Just under 400,000 marched in Detroit when King visited the city on a speaking tour. In August 1963, a wide coalition of newly angered Northern whites, King’s SCLC, radical black youths in SNCC and CORE organized the March on Washington that 250,000 people attended, marking the largest D.C. protest up to that time.

Coalitions of this magnitude are always fragile ideologically, but are united by their passion for a sense of justice. Many clashes between this new coalition for the Women’s March were made visible on January 21, but their international unity also became known.  Coalitions fall apart after years or decades, but their roots always stem toward a new movement somewhere down the line. Conflicts need to be spoken about and resolved because otherwise the anger will explode among our most oppressed groups. These subjects must be brought up by experienced activists or oppressed minorities who have dealt with forms of oppression all their lives in order to educate people new to the activist environment. That education can lead to conflicts in the short-run, but would build the foundation for a well-connected and well-informed coalition. As of now our goal should be to achieve as many victories, stall as many bad deals as possible, and show unity through massive actions for as long as this new coalition exists.

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