One year after the inaugural Women’s March on Washington, activists across the country are getting ready to hit the streets again, including some in Pittsburgh.
On a snowy Wednesday evening, volunteers gathered at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church in Swissvale, Pa. to make protest signs.
Organizer Karen Hochberg worked on one that read, “We The People.”
Deborah Fyock said she planned on writing, “I’m nastier this year," on her poster.
“I’ve made a bunch of them, and they’re glitzing them up for me,” said Hochberg before handing a sign off to be covered in glitter. “The kids are putting the glam on for me.”
Hochberg attended the Women’s March on Washington D.C. last year, but said it will be more meaningful to participate at home this time.
But a 2018 “sister march” in Pittsburgh wasn’t a guarantee. Last year, there was a lot of conflict. The original organizers had never done anything like it before, and when planning took to social media, there were claims that it was an event for white feminists. It resulted in two large demonstrations. The Women’s March downtown, and the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in East Liberty.
Tracy Baton had stepped into the Women’s March at the final hour last year to sort out the train wreck. She’s directing this year’s Women’s March with a mostly new committee, and said some things are different.
“The energy is the part that’s the same,” said Baton. “The energy that welled up from the people that said ‘change has got to happen,’ is the same. But this year, I’m a trained community organizer, we’ve had a year of working together as a team.”
During this past year, Baton said, people in Pittsburgh have stayed engaged in social justice movements. She said they called and wrote to elected officials, participated in protests against deportations, the March for Science and events focusing on how tax and environmental policy are linked to racial justice.
She said people are just more knowledgeable about the issues in the wake of the 2016 election. But when it comes to the Women’s March, there are some matters that are top of mind.
“Women’s bodies must be safe, women’s live must be safe, women of color must be safe, women need the resources to change their lives and take care of their families in peace and joy,” said Baton, “and voting is part of how we make that happen.”
The nationwide theme of this year’s action is Power to the Polls. Baton said the idea is to take all of the existing organizing in western Pennsylvania and channel it into transforming elections through engagement and broad coalitions.
The March has partnered with groups like Indivisible Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh United, Fair Districts PA and Tuesdays with Toomey.
But Tresa Murphy-Green remains skeptical. She’s a co-founder of Black Femme Excellence Co., the group that formally organized as a result of last year’s alternative march which centered black femmes, trans individuals and those with disabilities. The march was also a catalyst for subsequent work gathering donations and engaging with the black, femme and trans communities.
Murphy-Green said they’ve put in a lot of work in the past year, and they’re not having a 2018 march.
She said “intersectional” has become a buzzword since then, and that some great things happened as a result, like difficult conversations, but that she perceives some newer activists as misusing the concept. They jump in and organize so-called intersectional events without fully understanding it, she said.
While Murphy-Green said working towards more voter participation can be an effective way to improve a community, she said she worries that protest attendees won’t actually continue to engage with the issues going forward.
“And that’s what a lot of protests and marches have become,” said Murphy-Green. “Just people coming out, taking their selfie, and leaving.”
But Tracy Baton said it's important not to minimize the impact of marching.
“In these times it is urgent to gather people,” she said. “We cannot protect each other if we don’t know each other. I think that it’s easy to dismiss a march as decorative; it’s not. It builds a community’s heart and soul. We build a culture together of change. That said, more must be done.”
So with this year’s event, they’re trying to do more, even beyond registering people to vote.
“God knows if you take a bus downtown to a march you’d better be registered to vote,” said Baton. “We want to teach every person there how to be a voter registrar, how to have those conversations with their friends, the uncomfortable conversations. There are simple things.”