Politics & Government

Half a million marchers showed up in Washington, so now what?

So what happens next?

Speakers at the women’s marches throughout the United States on Saturday implored the protesters to keep their resistance alive. Some of the marchers wondered aloud if they would; others already had plans to start groups back home.

Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she wanted the protests to bring legislative action but she wasn’t sure they would.

“I certainly hope that it does, but I think what it will do is get the attention of the policy-makers to take a second look,” said Adams, who attended a march in Charlotte on Saturday. “It’s just hard to tell. If we can get our (Republican) colleagues in Congress to really listen . . . when you talk about equal pay, equal work, health care, it’s not a partisan issue.”

An estimated 500,000 marched in Washington, more than double the original estimate, and they heard speaker after speaker call for action.

“Let’s make today a beginning. Let’s buckle in because it’s going to be a bumpy ride, and then let’s go back to Ohio and New York and Florida and California and let’s get to work,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told marchers. She said the protest should inspire activism, which would influence policy.

“Even if you are not sitting in the White House, even if you are not a member of the United States Congress, even if you don’t run a big corporate super PAC, you have the power,” she said.

Originally meant to be a march for women’s issues, including reproductive rights, equal pay and paid family leave, by Saturday it seemed to span dozens of causes, from climate change to immigration, all under the umbrella of general frustration with the election of President Donald Trump.

“This outpouring today is extraordinary and inspiring,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted on Saturday. “But if all this energy isn’t channeled into sustained (political) action, it will mean little.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., marched in a women’s march in St. Louis on Saturday wearing a necklace with her mother’s name on it.

“Today was very reminiscent to me of the organic movement we saw with the tea party, which culminated in election wins in 2010,” she said. “Time will tell if this passion continues, but I’m betting it does.”

Organizations that focus on women in leadership, which have seen an increase in interest since the election, hoped to capture protester energy.

EMILY’s List, the largest women’s organization in Democratic politics, is holding a large-scale candidate training for 500 women interested in running for office the day after the march. A nonprofit agency that teaches women how to run for office, VoteRunLead, says it has seen a surge of interest in recent months, with more than 2,300 women signing up for its training seminars since the election. The group is holding advocacy training the day after the march, focusing on helping participants build networks.

Organizers said the days following the march would be crucial to ensure participants stayed engaged.

In South Carolina, local activists have scheduled monthly meetings in five cities, which they call “March On,” to keep women engaged and focus on specific action, according to lead organizer Hayne Beattie-Gray.

Demonstrations have proved important in grass-roots movements. Republicans gained in influence and effectiveness in 1978 and 1980, which followed anti-abortion protests after the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. More recently, the tea party movement, which helped Republicans regain the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, was bolstered by raucous protests for conservative causes around the country.

“The cumulative impact of the D.C. march plus those in more than 600 other locations may be to demonstrate some real potential costs to pushing back current laws very far,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor and congressional expert at the University of Kansas.

What made Saturday’s women’s march distinct was its focus on maintaining the gains that have been made for women’s rights – like abortion, contraception and equal pay – more than pushing for a specific policy, he said.

“There are always more new targets, but in the U.S. system, defense is often easier to play than offense,” Loomis said. “Many older women are truly angry, fearing that the gains they have worked for and seen may be in jeopardy.”

Some of the older protesters on Saturday were skeptical of the enthusiasm and exuberance of the largely millennial crowd.

Bonnie Politz, 66, of Washington, D.C., said that while she was heartened to see so many younger people, they needed to turn the protest to the ballot box.

“A lot of people don’t see the importance of voting, and this is what we end up with,” she said.

Margie Thomson, 42, said the march had pushed her to become a U.S. citizen. She moved to Virginia from Canada in 2000, and had never thought she wanted to be naturalized. After the 2016 election, she said, she was even less motivated.

“Why would I want to become an American? That would make Trump my president,” she said. “I don’t want to tie myself to that guy in any way. But seeing all of this – I decided I want to have a voice, a vote, today. I’m going to actually work to change things.”

AJ Gonzales, 20, a student at the University of Florida, said he and two friends who’d come to the march were starting a weekly discussion group to go over news and policy issues.

“We realized we don’t really understand a lot of what’s happening, and how can we fix these things or vote on them if we have no idea about some of this stuff,” he said. “Like tax reform; what does that even mean? How can we finally fix our crappy health care system if we don’t know the details of how it works?”

The election proved that some causes have only been promoted in an echo chamber, said Loretta Jay, executive director of B Stigma-Free, a nonprofit focused on reducing the stigma on being different.

“So now after the march we want to keep the conversation going and bring together new audiences, not just preach to the choir,” she said. Her group has reached out to people they never have before, such as homeschooling organizations, she said.

Many marchers said the sheer numbers on Saturday achieved a goal. Volume is difficult for Trump to ignore. They were ecstatic that the crowd was too large to formally march to the White House.

“We have to show that we will resist,” said Al Mascitti, 61, who came to the capital from Hockessin, Delaware. “They can deny us, but they can’t deny this many people in the streets. That’s why I’m out here. This makes me undeniable.”

Sean Cockerham, Lesley Clark, David Lightman, Rob Hotakainen, Stuart Leavenworth, Lindsay Wise and Bill Douglas contributed to this report.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen