This Saturday, one of the largest globally synchronised protests in history will take place across more than 600 locations worldwide. Here’s how it bloomed and spread around the world.
On 8 of November 2016, as the U.S. election results rolled in red state after red state, disappointed and frustrated people across the globe sat down at their computers and searched for solace. They were looking for outlets for their anger – protests or rallies where they could go to show their disapproval of the new administration; they were seeking out likeminded people, motivated to organise against a rising tide of racist and sexist rhetoric.
New York based chef Breanne Butler was one of these people. When she logged onto Facebook the night after the election, she saw a post by a friend of a friend named Bob Bland about organising a march on Washington D.C. for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration on 21 January. Breanne messaged Bob: “How can I help?” Bob messaged her back instantly: We need you to make Facebook pages for a march in every state of America.
“When I got involved there were just a couple thousand people confirmed to attend,” says Breanne over the phone, “but by that weekend the number was up to six figures. Then it just kept rising. I thought it was going to break Facebook.” More and more people began volunteering, too, Breanne says: “We didn’t have time to stop and ask questions or do background checks on people, it was like: ‘Are you breathing? Great. Wanna volunteer?’ It was just regular people stepping up to the plate.”
The march, which by this point had evolved from the “Million Woman March” (a name already taken by a previous race-related march in 1995) to “Women’s March on Washington”, soon found itself with sister events far beyond U.S. borders. Within 24 hours of getting involved, Breanne says she was answering emails from strangers reaching out to organise a Women’s March on London, a Women’s March on Toronto, and similar events in Geneva and Oslo.
In Rome, a U.S. foreign national called Elizabeth Farren had come across the Washington March in “post election despair”, and reached out to a woman she’d met at the Democrats Abroad election night party in the hope of organising a rally for U.S. expats in Italy. In Melbourne, an American teacher named Melissa Goffin considered buying flights home to the U.S. for the Washington March, but finding them too expensive decided to set up a march of her own in Australia.
In Kenya, an expat, employee of Human Rights Watch and mother of two named Neela Ghoshal joined a group called ‘Progressive Americans in Kenya’, for American women who were angry about the election result and didn’t want to “sit siloed in Nairobi”. They set up a rally too. And in Stockholm, a woman named Lotta Kuylenstierna read about the Women’s March on Washington and went right ahead and made a Facebook page of her own. She had already called the police for a permit when she contacted the U.S. organisers.
With all of these events emerging, Breanne was given the title Global Coordinator and State Organiser on a core team of women for what was fast becoming a global movement. She took a sabbatical from her day job to manage the work load. For her, that was a no brainer: getting involved was a way to actively do something about the social inequalities she’d experienced first hand, namely sexism in the restaurant industry.
When Breanne and I talked on Tuesday this week, she was already in D.C. attending organising meetings for the march this Saturday. She explained why she felt its message has such a global appeal. “The number of marches goes to show how all women are feeling,” she told me excitedly. “We’re having our own issues here in America, and the march stemmed from those, but cities around the world have theirs – gender-based violence in South America, for example, or submissive gender roles in Japan.”
On the Washington march’s website, there’s a manifesto outlining its purpose. “Women’s rights are human rights” it reads, welcoming anyone to come along. The list of causes outlined are broad. “We’ve given it the banner ‘health, economics, representation and safety’”, Breanne explains. “It’s a policy that encompasses everything from access to clean water to rape culture to equal pay, and even climate change.” She pauses for breath. “I guess whatever your political viewpoint is, if we’re under water in 50 years it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
The Women’s March has been criticised as too-encompassing, particularly after its spokespeople have been quick to state that it’s not about specifically targeting Donald Trump but a much broader opportunity to stand against inequality. Its openness is doubtlessly why it’s taken such speed; when eight billionaires own the same amount of wealth as 3.6 billion people, the number of displaced refugees was last year estimated to have surpassed 65 million, and polar ice caps are melting faster than ever, you can see why a global movement like this one might need to kill a few birds with one stone.
Even in Sweden, one of the more progressive countries on Saturday’s bill, Lotta can identify her own reasons to take to the streets in solidarity with women in America. “We don’t have the same issues as the U.S.; we don’t have to fight for abortions, and we’re further along with equal pay and female representatives in the government over here,” she explains. “But we support women in other places on the planet, and really, this is about the rise of the right, and I think we’re seeing that everywhere.”
In Nairobi, Neela views the march as a demonstration that women can be organised and vocal. “Although it’s not in direct opposition to Trump’s election, I think women were astonished someone who spoke that way about women was given power”, she explains. “I also think that, given America’s influence on foreign policy, women in places directly affected like Africa need to make themselves heard.”
“We have local demands related to women’s rights in Kenya – I won’t fool myself that one march organised initially by an American can make a huge difference, but it will start to mobilise people.”
One place where the march seems to have particular resonance is in the UK. Around the same time as Breanne found Bob online, London artist Emma McNally posted on the Women’s March on Washington page asking if anyone knew of something similar planned in Britain. Eight UK women responded to her, and they organised an urgent meeting. “From the word go, it was clear that we were a motley crew,” remembers Emma. “We’re all very regular people with a tremendous concern about struggle and discrimination across poverty, sexuality, disability, gender and race.”
Emma says that while Trump’s election was a “tipping point” for her and these women to collectively organise a march, the forces at play in his victory were something that she’d noticed gathering pace in the UK. “The first thing Hillary [Clinton] said after she lost was that America was more deeply divided than she thought. Well, the same goes for this country after Brexit. Rather than focus on Trump we wanted to go for the issue of division, we wanted to march against social inequality more generally.”
None of the women in Emma’s motley crew come from activist backgrounds; not one of them have been part of organising a protest before. Arranging security, stewarding and police for the Trafalgar Square gathering has been like feeling around in the dark, says Emma, explaining that they had to crowdfund to pay for screens and a stage for Saturday’s speeches. Neela, Elizabeth and Melissa share similar sentiments – the election inspired them to take a risk, and now they’re working things out as they go.
The U.S. organising team have been overwhelmingly helpful when it comes to organisation, Emma tells me, even if they do seem “overwhelmed” themselves. Elizabeth in Rome calls their sister march protocol “an incredibly well-oiled machine.” First they send you Google Docs with guidelines and graphics for posters, then they add you to one of the many Women’s Marches Slack messaging groups (which Breanne assures me have their fair share of lols), as well as asking you to dial into various Skype meetings.
“We have the meetings late, at 9.30 Central European time,” says Lotta, “so people in New Zealand can get out of bed to be on it.” Doesn’t everyone talk over each other? “You press a number and they unmute you so you can ask a question,” she explains. “There are all kinds of accents. It’s pretty fun.”
The agenda consists of topics like how to deal with the media, how to up attendance with social media, and how to get a permit for the event. “A couple of people on the U.S. team were involved in Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns,” says Lotta, “so they know what they’re talking about.”
As Saturday’s event fast approaches, it looks set to be the largest global protest since the anti-Iraq War protests back in 2003. There are now marches planned in more than 600 locations worldwide, in around 60 countries. The likes of Gloria Steinem, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore have endorsed the March on Washington, which now has a quarter of a million people down to attend, although Breanne says they are expecting to see a lot more people on the streets, registering their rage.
Emma, from London, takes the popularity of the events as a cue that social media hasn’t eclipsed direct action, but rather facilitates it. “The internet is a double edged sword,” she says, “people feel darkened and powerless looking at newsfeeds in their own spaces, but it’s also way of disseminating information. Facebook and Twitter are used for spreading the language of hate and division, but they’ve also been great for spreading the word about this march.”
“Now we want everyone to get offline and come out in the street and be heartened by others.”
If these marches create a platform for radical thinking, they’re also about different groups coming together and learning from one another. “There have been a lot of challenging conversations,” says Emma of the London group’s experience, particularly around racism. The U.S. team found the same; when they were initially criticised for having an all white team, Bob Bland and her co-partners appealed to brilliant women of colour like Black Lives Matter activist Carmen Perez and gun control advocate Tamika D Mallory.
Solidarity and forging new connections has been a learning curve for Neela in Kenya and Lotta in Sweden, too. Neela explains that her team of mostly American women reached out to Kenyan civil society groups, feminist activists and NGOs when they realised that local women were also interested in participating. “That shouldn’t have been a surprise but it was,” she says in hindsight. Lotta meanwhile, has invited Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Sweden’s version of Planned Parenthood, RFSU, to the march in Stockholm.
I emailed Elizabeth in Rome to ask what she hopes her rally achieves, given that, at 800 people, it’s one of the smaller events taking place this weekend. “We hope it sends a message out, loud and clear, that people who believe in women’s rights, human rights, and progressive values will not stay quiet if those rights are threatened,” she wrote back. “This is just the beginning, and the network that this march has set into play will be valuable in the fight to come.”
She’s right; this probably is just the beginning. At Saturday’s marches, women, men and children from all backgrounds will come together on the street – or in Kenya’s case, in a forest – and share their hopes and dreams for, well, a more equal planet. They will, as Emma would put it, go some way to close this divide. “We’ve created a network that’s far bigger than we’d ever dreamed,” says Breanne, towards the end of our phone call. “We’re already looking at International Women’s Day,” she tells me. “The 21st is just a call to action.”