Some thoughts on yesterday’s march:
It was gigantic. I’m not great at estimating crowds, but I’m confident saying there were significantly more folks there than the last rally I attended in DC, the anti-war one in January which drew several hundred thousand people. The organizers reported distributing over a million of the “count me in” stickers given to marchers when we signed forms identifying ourselves, which is a number I’m inclined to trust and a method which, based on personal experience, is much more likely to under-count than to over-count people. That, and just look at those photos. A truly enormous crowd (were I to use an even less scientific measure, the number of people I know whom I unexpectedly ran into at the march, I would reach a similar conclusion).
What impressed me most about this march, as I alluded to earlier, was the self-conscious manner in which it broke out of the mold of white, upper/middle-class feminist/ pro-choice activism which has too often marked the movement. The choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term was contextualized in terms of the various and urgent structures which regulate women’s fertility and impact their lives and those of their born children. Speakers and placards unapologetically tied the right to choose with the rights to a progressive welfare system, progressive immigration reform, and global sexual education. Too often, as some have observed, it’s left to the anti-choice movement to discuss the realities of urban poverty. Yesterday, the right to choose was proudly claimed as part of a comprehensive struggle for the liberation of women. Women of color, poor women, and disabled women were not only present but central on the podium and in the crowds. Cheri Hankala, of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, spoke right after Hillary Clinton.
About the big-name Democrats: There were a lot of them. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Poxer, Terry McAuliffe, Carol Mosely-Braun and Howard Dean all marched or spoke. It was somewhat heartening to see them there, insofar as it makes it more difficult for the party, or its candidate (several of whose relatives apparently were there) to Sister-Souljah the Pro-Choice movement over the next several months or once in office. And it demonstrates, God willing, a recognition that this is a constituency which will be vital to rebuilding the Democratic party.
There was, of course, a good deal of dissonance at times between the speakers, and between the narrowness of some of the more famous speakers’ messages and the agenda of the march. Hillary Clinton, proud booster as First Lady and now as Senator of a welfare reform which punishes women for having children, deteriorates their access to healthcare and childcare, and make it that much more difficult to find education and living wage work, appeared all too happy to divorce freedom of choice from liberation from poverty. Yesterday, not for the first time, Clinton seemed to get a free pass from much of the left on account of the venom directed at her from the right. I would have liked to see someone like Cheri Hankela call Clinton on the impact of her policies on women’s freedom to direct their lives. But, much like John Lewis’ planned critique of John Kennedy at the March on Washington, it didn’t happen.
There were lots of families there. There were large delegations from very “red” cities and states which in the conventional wisdom would have sent no one to a pro-choice march. I spoke to women on their first march and to others who had been to the capitol for the same cause a dozen years before. There were Doctors and medical students, some in appropriate dress, declaring their preparation to perform an operation for which others have been murdered. We Jews were very, very well-represented, particularly the Reform movement, which endorsed the March.
What most surprised me about the counter-protesters was their scarcity. They stood in a designated space along the sidewalk, maybe one every several feet, for a few blocks. Mostly they held signs holding pictures of aborted fetuses and comparing abortion to slavery and/or the Holocaust. I observed no physical confrontations between us and them.
I came away from yesterday’s march with something that many of us worked for but never saw completely coalesce in the same way within the anti-war movement (whose circumstances, of course, made such much more difficult) last year: a sense of hope and alternative positive vision. The March’s organizers, speakers, and participants effectively conveyed not only the tremendous threat posed by the Bush administration but also an incipient sense of the process of forging progressive alternatives. It was a small piece of a conversation about what it would mean to build a society which fully respected and fostered the autonomy of women and children and men over their bodies and their lives, and in so doing made possible the full flourishing of the human spirit.