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.