They want to be the Tea Party, but they’re worried they’ll be Occupy Wall Street.
Millions of people—hundreds of thousands in Washington alone—flooded cities across the country on Saturday, completely overwhelming expectations and planned routes for the Women’s March. With the stands behind them at the Capitol still in place from President Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, they covered the Mall well beyond the crowd that showed for him.
Now they have to figure out what to do next to channel the raw energy of the marches into political action. And what is it that they’re about: Women’s equality? Reproductive Rights? Race? Climate change? Stopping Trump from putting someone they don’t want on the Supreme Court? Making him release his taxes? All of the above? Signs (and costumes) for all of that and more were all over the place on Saturday.
“What we have to do is make sure it becomes an activist, everyday movement that keeps politicians accountable. The key is to turn it into work that leads to elections,” said former Secretary of State John Kerry, making a brief surprise walk through the Washington rally, his dog in tow, on his first day since leaving the State Department. “A lot of people are going to be working on that.”
Among the liberal advocacy groups using the march as a platform to mobilize new supporters were Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Sierra Club. Organizers drew applause for promising to release a list of targeted political actions that attendees could take during Trump’s first 100 days in office, but aside from repeated requests that people in the crowd share their phone numbers with organizers by texting “women,” there was no clearly coordinated effort on site in Washington to collect email addresses or other information to build out a network of activists.
The marches tapped into intense opposition to Trump, who embraced a divisive campaign that gave license to hate and attacks, then picked fights through his transition and called people who didn’t back him “enemies,” and capped it Friday with an inaugural address heavy on provocative language and light on outreach.
Saturday afternoon, he kept at it, using a visit to the CIA headquarters mostly to talk about how great his victory was, and how the “dishonest media” didn’t accurately report the size of a crowd for his inauguration that he estimated at 1-1.5 million, but was closer by official estimates to 200-250,000.
What the people who still can’t process that Trump is president want is to be a movement that can do what Trump did in his presidential campaign, crowds turned into action and votes, beyond what anyone thought possible. What they’ve got for now is a sense of passionate aimlessness, leftover tensions from 2016 and a search for a sense of direction.
“This outpouring today is extraordinary and inspiring. But if all this energy isn’t channeled into sustained pol action, it will mean little,” tweeted David Axelrod, the chief strategist behind Barack Obama’s winning campaigns.
As for what to do next, “it’s too early to tell,” said Sarah Jaffe, a 28-year-old who works in book publishing and came to Washington for the march there. “Immediate outrage and sustained outrage are two different things. I’m gearing up to be mad as hell for a long time.”
Jaffe, who was carrying a blue “Facts Not Fascism” sign, said that her next stop will be going to her state legislature in Albany to help lobby for more Planned Parenthood funding. Beyond that, she’s “taking it day by day. It’s going to be a long four years.”
“Other than lobbying and making phone calls, I don’t know. One person feels so small,” said Kristi Orr, 40, who came from nearby in Maryland with nine friends, and along the way made a multi-colored sign reading “Super Callous Fascist Extra Braggadocious.”
Orr said she tried to get involved with some online groups, but none of them panned out. She’s looking for more ways to get involved, but for now, is just donating money.
Vivi Mata, 56, came from Los Angeles with a sign that read just “Traitor.” She said she stopped her job selling antiques starting on Nov. 9, and has committed herself fully to the resistance—“it needs to be every day, in every way, not just marches.” What that’s entailed for her, she said, is getting active on Twitter.
A devoted Hillary Clinton supporter, she said she was involved with Occupy Wall Street in its early days, but they disappointed her, and she still hasn’t forgiven the Bernie Sanders supporters. Those are the people that seem to be doing much of the organizing, and she said that’s kept her from getting involved beyond keeping up a network of other Clinton supporters.
“My worry is, I’m hearing that it’s all Berners,” Mata said. “I’m not going to help them. They’re not my tribe.”
She wasn’t the only one nursing the old divisions. Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, an initial Sanders backer, made a sharp plea for a more organized opposition.
“The old guard of the Democratic Party has got to go,” Moore told a crowd that included many Democratic members of Congress. He urged marchers to call their elected representatives “every single day” to speak up against Trump’s policies, and expressed support for Rep. Keith Ellison, one of six candidates to be the new Democratic National Committee chair.
Actress and immigrant-rights activist America Ferrera, who campaigned for Clinton, warned marchers not to “fall into the trap of separating ourselves by our causes and our labels,” lest progressives’ unity be at risk.
People have been coming up with their own tactics. Katie Gell, originally from Omaha, but currently living in Queens, says she’s taken it upon herself to call the two Republican senators from Nebraska and “closing down their phone lines.” She’s signed a few petitions. She’s connected with people at work and elsewhere whom she’s now seen since the election feel the same disappointment with Trump’s win.
Several unions, including the Service Employees International Union, organized buses of supporters from around the northeast to come to Washington. A group called We Rise handed out flyers for a “teach-in” at a church in northwest D.C. The American Civil Liberties Union set up shop near the rally and gave out pamphlets and other promotional materials like signs and sashes before running out, said Kendrick Holley, the community engagement manager of its D.C. office.
Asked how organizers should turn the enthusiasm around the march into future action, Holley said it’s key for protesters to stay engaged, and he said the ACLU encouraged people who came by to donate or become members—and that they’ve seen a surge of interest since Trump won the election.
Andrew Bogrand, is one of the people who expressed that interest.
“The big concern is that this will be all that happens,” said the 30-year-old who works at a non-governmental organization in Washington.
He said he’s thinking about trying to volunteer for local candidates, but also how to get involved with the redistricting reform effort that Obama and his former attorney general, Eric Holder, are leading for Democrats.
Amber Walsh, 41, who came to Washington from Connecticut for the march, said she plans to be more active locally, says she’s contacted her representatives more in the past two months than she has in the past 10 years.
“I really hope that this is not a one-day event but really that this becomes a movement, and I love that it’s something that grew very organically,” Walsh said.
Laurie Steinke, 59, who came from Charleston, S.C. said that Trump’s election has brought out more active Democrats than any of them ever assumed were around. She has 140 people signed up for the Drinking Liberally chapter she’s started—she didn’t know what the group was before November—and she and small groups she’s been talking to have started focusing on making a bigger splash in local politics.
Locally, “a lot of Republicans have been running unopposed,” Steinke said. “We’ve all decided that’s unacceptable, and we’re not going to let that happen anymore.”
Madeline Conway and Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.