Countering the smears against the Women’s March

January 17, 2019

The threat of anti-Semitism has to be confronted if we are going to build the solidarity we need, but recent charges against the Women’s March organizers aim to do the opposite, writes Jen Roesch.

TWO YEARS after Trump took power, his administration is beset by scandal, the #MeToo moment shows no signs of abating following historic strikes by women workers against sexual harassment, and a predominantly female workforce of teachers in Los Angeles is on the picket lines.

By all measures, the Women’s Marches — the first of which set the tone for protest during the Trump era with the largest single day of protest in U.S. history — should be looking toward their greatest success yet.

Instead, the organizers have come under intense attack, and the marches themselves, scheduled for this weekend, are experiencing a crisis.

In several cities, marches have been canceled. In New York City, there are two separate events on the same day — one called by Women’s March, Inc., and one by Women’s March NYC. This has left most people utterly confused about what the differences and debates are, not to mention where to show up.

At the heart of the controversy are charges of anti-Semitism against the organizers of the Women’s March. In response to this deluge of attacks, particularly on Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, major liberal organizations have withdrawn their support, including the NAACP, National Organization for Women, Southern Poverty Law Center, Emily’s List and the Democratic National Committee.

The Women's March hits the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota
The Women's March hits the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota (Fibonacci Blue | flickr)

Given the resurgence of racist hate in this country, concerns about anti-Semitism must be taken seriously by anyone committed to fighting oppression. But they also must be critically assessed. In this case, the real threat of anti-Semitism is being cynically exploited to smear the leaders of the Women’s Marches.

The attacks on the Women’s Marches have disorganized our resistance and are a setback for the left. It is important to untangle where they came from, what motivated them politically and why they have been able to ground traction.

THE PUBLIC controversy around the Women’s Marches erupted when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a video “exposing” that Tamika Mallory had attended an event with Nation of Islam (NOI) at which Minister Louis Farrakhan had made anti-Semitic and homophobic comments. Critics rushed to demand that Mallory condemn Farrakhan.

Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic views have no place on the left. But we should reject the politics of guilt by association.

Mallory herself has repeatedly stated that she does not share Farrakhan’s views on these questions and that she is opposed to all forms of oppression, including anti-Semitism. The political points of unity for the Women’s Marches oppose anti-Semitism, and Farrakhan and the NOI aren’t directly involved in the movement. Nor would they be — they have a very different, conservative outlook.

Like many African Americans, Mallory has longstanding ties to the NOI as a result of the organization’s work in support of the community. Particularly in a situation in which Black communities have experienced systematic neglect and disinvestment, the NOI has often played a vital role in providing support.

For Mallory, this is deeply personal. She first developed a relationship with the NOI as a teenager when it supported her after the father of her child was murdered. To demand that Black leaders renounce not only the reactionary political views of the NOI, but any remote association with the organization at all, is to deny them the basic right of self-determination.

Mallory has been criticized for making anti-Semitic tweets, but the content of those tweets appear to be criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause, not bigotry.

Reactionary views must always be challenged, and this is no less true when they come from figures on the left. But a real dialogue about the role of the NOI and the association of movement leaders with it must start from a stance of solidarity and a principled commitment to anti-racism.

Instead, the chorus of condemnation has been largely orchestrated by right-wing and Zionist voices, inside and outside the broad left, with the aim of undermining some of the more radical politics of the Women’s March organizers, particularly around the question of Palestine.

Mallory isn’t the only organizer who has come under attack. Theresa Shook, the woman who started the original Facebook page for the first women’s march, has called for all four of the Women’s Marches’ top leaders to step down. She accused them of allowing “hateful, racist rhetoric to become part of their platform” for their supposed refusal to dissociate from the NOI.

But again, the Women’s March is not associated with the NOI. Instead, as Rosalind Petchesky wrote, we are witnessing “a pernicious chain of guilt by association. Tamika is guilty because she didn’t denounce Farrakhan and Linda Sarsour is guilty because she didn’t denounce Tamika and the Women’s March because it didn’t denounce Sarsour.”

THE FACT that the brunt of the criticism has fallen on Sarsour says something about the motivation behind these attacks.

Sarsour is a prominent Palestinian Muslim woman who is an outspoken advocate of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. She has been subject to virulent Islamophobic and racist attacks and has endured death threats from the right. Right-wing Zionists have organized to shut down events where she has been invited to speak, including an event on anti-Semitism hosted by Jewish Voices for Peace, Jacobin and Haymarket Books.

In every case, the charge has been anti-Semitism, which is falsely equated with Sarsour’s commitment to Palestine.

The irony is that any anti-racist or Jewish peace activist in New York City will attest to Sarsour’s longstanding history of solidarity and commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

She has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild desecrated Jewish cemeteries and pay for the burial of the Jewish victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. And remember, the attack on the Tree of Life was motivated not only by anti-Semitism — the synagogue was targeted by a far-right terrorist because of its participation in relief efforts for Arab and Muslim refugees.

For the far right, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism are intertwined. Our opposition to the right must likewise stand in solidarity with all oppressed groups, not pit them against each other.

The bulk of the attacks on the Women’s Marches have been levied by those who would limit their politics and solidarity. The real issue of anti-Semitism is being cynically used to discredit leaders whose inclusive political message is threatening to more conservative elements in the movement.

FOR THIS reason, anyone committed to fighting all forms of oppression should unequivocally reject these political attacks on the Women’s March and its organizers.

But we have to ask why these charges were able to gain traction and why they were able to take such a toll on the organizing.

After all, millions of women have participated in the marches the past two years. Without minimizing the ability of the Zionist right to coordinate its attacks effectively or the power of the “anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism” mythology, it is worth asking why this controversy has caused such confusion and fractured the movement.

One thing that is clear from all of the interviews and reporting about this controversy is that splits in the movement’s leadership predate the charges of anti-Semitism.

When the first Women’s March was called, it was criticized for being too white and not inclusive enough. This is when Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez came on board. All had been involved in local racial justice struggles, and they did work to expand the principles of unity of the original Women’s Marches.

But the marches were a largely spontaneous movement and internet phenomenon. The millions of women who attended the first marches organized themselves and their friends to attend. They weren’t connected to organizing or coalition building where people could debate out their views, their demands and a vision for the nascent movement.

Instead, all of the political decisions about the direction of the movement and its messaging — as well as control of its finances — were decided by a self-appointed board. Inevitably, this led to fights and splits within this leadership.

Without being rooted in a broader movement that can collectively debate the way forward, personality conflicts can become central. Much of the reporting has focused on these splits in somewhat interminable detail, and with a “he said-she said” quality.

But if one steps back from the conflicts described in the media, there are political questions at stake.

One of the critics of the Women’s Marches, Vanessa Wruble, claims that she was pushed out of the leadership and left to create her own organization, March On. Wruble and others have complained that the Women’s March is too radical because it takes up issues of police brutality, immigrant rights and justice for Palestine. March On is instead focused on leveraging the strength of the marches for legislative gains, and it has minimal political demands.

Ironically, however, for all of the radicalism of the Women’s March demands, the strategy of its organizers shares the liberal outlook of its critics. Last year, their theme was “march to the polls.” Organizers hoped to direct the energy and momentum of the demonstrations into voter registration and electing Democrats in the midterms, though the march itself embodied the broader radicalization.

During the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, the Women’s Marches missed an opportunity to call for a genuinely national, organized march on Washington — something that could have tipped the balance against Trump.

Plus, like many other organizations, the march operates as a nonprofit that prioritizes a professional staff and media strategy over grassroots movement organizing.

THIS IS what made the Women’s Marches vulnerable to the kinds of attacks that have been waged on it over the last nine months.

Without democratic, movement spaces in which people can debate politics, educate and learn from one another, and do the difficult work of building solidarity across racial, religious and other lines, supporters of the Women’s Marches have few ways to sort through and evaluate the conflicting media claims.

There is no space for movement activists to raise their genuine concerns or engage in dialogue. The vast majority of people who participated in the marches of the last two years and who have been inspired by the intervening struggles are reduced to passive bystanders.

We should reject the charges of anti-Semitism and stand in solidarity with the Women’s March leaders who have come under a sustained and often racist attack. But we should also see this moment as an urgent wake-up call that cannot rely on a handful of leaders, however dedicated and principled, to determine the content or messaging of our movement — or to wait for their calls to action.

The challenge to translate the sentiment embodied in the Women’s Marches into a sustained movement remains.

There have been promising shoots of organizing and collaboration. The International Women’s Strike
has highlighted the issue of working women in a context in which largely women-led strikes have begun to revive the labor movement. Small but determined groups of activists have built campaigns to defend abortion clinics from right-wing bigots.

When Christine Blasey Ford came forward to charge Kavanaugh with sexual assault during his confirmation process, there was a wave of largely grassroots organizing that involved protests in cities around the country and sit-ins at the Capitol building.

Survivors and activists have organized on a range of fronts, including the recent campaign to win clemency for Cyntoia Brown. Indigenous women have created a campaign for missing and murdered Native women who suffer epidemic levels of sexual violence.

All of these are small but promising beginnings to building an enduring movement. The development of democratic, open organizing spaces and collaboration across organizations will be key to strengthening the gender justice movement.

In New York City, for example, socialist feminist and other gender justice activists have organized an anti-capitalist feminist convergence after the two marches on Saturday in order to create this kind of dialogue and discussion.

But these efforts must also expand beyond the left to draw in all those looking for a way to fight the rampant sexism and gender oppression in our society. And such efforts must multiply.

By rooting the potential of the Women’s Marches in communities, on campuses and in workplaces, and expanding organizing spaces, people will be able to democratically debate the politics that will shape this new movement.

When thousands and tens of thousands become active participants and organizers, our movement won’t be threatened by smear campaigns against its leaders or disoriented by conflicts happening in backrooms.

Further Reading

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