Thousands join Women's March across US as controversy dampens turnout

Oliver Milman in New York
Thousands of people participate in the third annual Women’s March at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC on Saturday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The first Women’s March, held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, was the largest single-day protest in US history, drawing millions to the streets to reject Trump in a colourful riot of placards, fury and pink “pussy hats”.

The third iteration, however, is a diminished and beleaguered event that has struggled to shake off accusations of antisemitism. Tens of thousands, rather than millions, were expected to take part in the Women’s March on Saturday, with the controversial statements of organisers blamed for pushing down numbers.

Rallies were taking place in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, with the main event in Washington featuring a march from near the White House to the Trump International Hotel. An agenda published by march organisers called for action to address violence against women, racial injustice and immigrant rights.

But the marches were set to be a shadow of 2017, when about 500,000 people gathered in Washington and millions more across the country.

The march has stirred controversy due to links between some organisers and Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has compared Jewish people to termites and called them “the mother and father of apartheid”.

Tamika Mallory, a Women’s March co-chair, was criticized after she posted a photo on Instagram of herself and Farrakhan, calling him “the GOAT” which stands for “greatest of all time”. Mallory has since said she does not agree with all of Farrakhan’s statements but refused to condemn him.

“I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory told ABC’s The View. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.”

Critics point to what they see as a pattern of discriminatory behaviour. In December, Vanessa Wruble, an original Women’s March organiser, claimed Mallory and Carmen Perez, a co-president, made antisemitic comments in a meeting. Wruble told the New York Times Mallory and Perez said there was a “dark side” to Jewish history and that Jews were primary instigators of the oppression of African Americans.

Teresa Shook, who founded the march, has called for the co-chairs to resign because they have “allowed antisemitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs”.

The controversy has seen prominent supporters peel away, threatening to blunt what was intended to be a forceful rebuke of Trump. The president is presiding over a government shutdown that is now the longest in history while under increasing pressure from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat representative in Congress, wrote in scathing terms about the Women’s March in a USA Today op-ed on Friday.

“While I still firmly believe in its values and mission, I cannot associate with the national march’s leaders and principles, which refuse to completely repudiate antisemitism and all forms of bigotry,” Wasserman Schultz wrote.

Baby Trump balloons float over thousands of people as they participate in the Women’s March at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

“I cannot walk shoulder to shoulder with leaders who lock arms with outspoken peddlers of hate.”

The Democratic National Committee has withdrawn its sponsorship of the marches, with many expected 2020 presidential contenders not taking part. An exception is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, who spoke at the 2017 event and will attend a march in Iowa.

Rival events are being held in New York and Philadelphia, due to rifts within the movement, with organizers deciding not to hold a march at all in Chicago. Plans to march in Eureka, California, were reported cancelled after supporters decided the protest would be “overwhelmingly white”. On Saturday a spokeswoman for the march told the Guardian by email it had been reinstated by new leadership and would begin at noon.

A major march was expected in Los Angeles, with celebrities including the actor Jane Fonda set to attend. Elsewhere, the actors America Ferrera and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and bestselling author Asha Badele, were continuing to show their support.

Organizers accept this year’s march will be much smaller than 2017 – about 300 buses were arranged to bring protesters to Washington, compared with 3,000 – but are attempting to brush aside the antisemitic controversy.

Bob Bland, another co-chair, said the march “unequivocally condemns antisemitism” and sought to keep the focus on the event’s broader message.

“These are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” she said of women inspired by the movement to get into politics.

“We always wanted to see these women become the face of our leadership and the face of the nation, and I think that’s what we saw in the midterm elections, where we saw a historical outpouring of thousands of women running for office.”