When Protest Fails

Popular demonstrations can bring change and topple governments. They can also spark retaliation from those in power.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The signs were so clever.

“We shall overcomb.”

“Viva la vulva.”


Someone even made a papier-mâché vagina dentata.

The people were so cheerful and happy to be with one another, forgetting the cold and enjoying what often seemed less like a protest and more like a block party. There were families there, with grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. They were ecstatic and in disbelief at the number of people. The Washington Post reported that the organizers put the attendance at up to half a million. They had hoped for less than half that.

It was surreal how similar this all felt, and my Russian friends on social media confirmed it: “Totally Bolotnaya,” one of them wrote. Bolotnaya is the square in the center of Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, where on December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success. It was cold and gray that day, too, and the feeling of being in that joyous crowd was unforgettable, which is why I remembered it so vividly today. It is the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humor and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.

Women marching today wore pink “pussy hats” and carried signs that said “This pussy grabs back,” echoing the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which now-President Trump said of women that he could “grab them by the pussy” because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” The Russian protesters would also reappropriate their leader’s insults. When Putin finally commented on the protesters and the white ribbons they wore on their lapels, he said he thought they had been condoms. So at the next march, protesters blew up condoms and floated them like balloons over the crowd. When I saw a man marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday with a sign that said “There are more of us,” I remembered the bright-yellow cover of an opposition magazine that Muscovites used as posters for their rally of dissent: “There are more of us than it seems.”

There were, sure, and there seemed to be a lot more people marching against Trump than came out for his inauguration the day before, but it seemed like the equivalent of winning the popular vote by about 3 million and losing the Electoral College. Sure, there were a lot of them and one of him, but he’s the one in the White House, signing executive orders while they were outside under a dour sky.

If riots are the voice of the unheard, then protests are, too. It’s a notion that’s both romantic and accurate: People on the street have a voice, and it is often unheard even then. And sometimes it’s heard in exactly the wrong way. Those protests in Moscow grew in size as the winter changed into spring and spring became summer. Putin was able to lie about the crowd sizes reported in the media, like Trump, and was still able to easily win a third term in the Kremlin. The opposition, the unheard with their witty posters in the streets, began to fracture and bicker, like the organizers of today’s event, and there was no clear leader or agenda. After a May protest was violently dispersed by police, who plucked them from metros and cafes, the opposition was despondent: They felt they had come out rallied—once, twice, five times—and had achieved nothing.

That wasn’t really true. They had changed Putin, just not in the way they had hoped to. He went from being a non-ideological, pragmatic kleptocrat to a revanchist, nationalist neo-tsar. He passed laws making it harder to protest, to express dissent online, to inhabit one’s sexuality. And after similar protests sprung up in Kiev and helped overthrow the Ukrainian government two years later, he invaded the country, in part to show his citizens that they should stay unheard. And when his agents, masked as rioters, protested in the country’s east, they didn’t bring witty posters and sandwiches; they seized government buildings and the television towers, much like Bolshevik revolutionaries had made a beeline for the telegraph posts in 1917.

Protests are a tricky thing, and America isn’t Russia. Protests can bring change, like Black Lives Matter did, and they can topple governments, as they did in Egypt. But in the case of the former, the protests became a movement that reached off the streets and into the presidential race, in part because there was a White House and Justice Department willing to take their concerns seriously. In the case of the latter, there was a political movement—the Muslim Brotherhood—that had been preparing for the moment for decades. Even those cases have proved fleeting: The Muslim Brotherhood took its own authoritarian turn after gaining power in democratic elections, and along with the Tahrir Square movement has since been crushed by the revanche of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Black Lives Matter, vilified by the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, will now potentially face a Justice Department headed by an Alabaman who has been accused of going after black civil rights activists. Both may end up back where they started: on the streets and unheard.

Talking to the protesters in Washington today, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the weakness of the Moscow protests five years ago: a vague, unstructured cause; too much diversity of purpose; no real political path forward; and the real potential for the meaning of the day to melt into self-congratulatory complacency. A Los Angeles woman showing me photos of the march afterward wondered, “Where was everyone before? We didn’t do enough.” Rallying and making funny signs is easy; winning real power in American politics is not.

“I’m here because I support equal rights for everyone,” said June, a middle-aged African-American woman from D.C.

“We’re here to support women’s rights,” said a woman from Pennsylvania, and her friends—from Virginia and California—added to the list: the environment, education, social justice, criminal-justice reform. The list went on, each new addition diluting all the causes that came before.

And like in Moscow, people on the Mall reluctantly acknowledged that they were late. “We didn’t see the real danger,” another woman from California told me. “It didn’t seem like reality until now, and now we’re pinching ourselves.”

But unlike in Moscow, I spoke to people here who knew that this rally by itself would change nothing; that only politics could. “I don’t think it’s going to make a difference,” said an older woman from Pennsylvania. “It might, but only in two years. It’s more for the people here to feel like they’re part of something.” Her sights were set on the congressional elections of 2018, on more concrete political action. Unlike the Moscow protesters, these women had access to a strong and vibrant civil society, a century-old women’s rights movement, and legislative elections that aren’t rigged by the executive. Women riding back from the rally on the Metro chattered about the midterms and the presidential election of 2020.

And these women had one other thing the Moscow protesters didn’t: allies. It was hard to count, but at least a third of the crowd I saw seemed to be men. Some tried to start chants and held signs that said “Smash the Patriarchy.” Others simply marched with the women in their lives. The same way that LGBT activists couldn’t have achieved political victory without straight allies, it’s hard to see how women achieve their political ends without bringing men on board. “I believe real progress is made when people who are not part of the group also fight for their rights,” said a young man named Gbenga. He had a sign that said “Even men are better when women make choices.” It was a nice sign, but it’s no substitute for seizing the telegraph post.