When I attended the Women’s March in Washington D.C. last year, I was expecting it to focus on anti-Trump sentiment, rather than broader political issues that have existed since long before Trump. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, judging from event speakers and protesters’ signs, the nearly 5 million people who marched worldwide on Jan. 21, 2017, had many non-Trump-related reasons for being there.
So I was disappointed to feel that this year, at the Women’s March in New York City, some of that diversity of opinion had dissipated. In many ways, the protest had a clear focus on Trump, from posters with detailed drawings of Trump’s head as an anus, to the most common protest chant of the day, “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!”
As someone who was marching for immigrants’ rights, I was excited to see pro-immigrant signs (even though many of their messages focused on Trump’s “shithole” comments, rather than broader immigration issues). But as someone marching for queer and trans justice, I was disappointed to see only two signs that explicitly referenced trans rights. As someone marching for racial justice, I was disappointed to see no white women holding signs that related to race. And as someone marching against U.S. imperialism, I was disappointed to hear people in the crowd objecting to a group protesting the incarceration of 16-year-old Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi.
But perhaps there are reasons I shouldn’t be so concerned. According to research by sociologist Dana Fisher, though more protesters this year than last year came out because they opposed Trump, more people also said they were there to support racial equality, LGBTQ justice, and immigrant’s rights.
Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, has been studying large-scale protests since 1999. Over the past year, her team has collected data at the Women’s March, the March for Science, the People’s Climate March, and the March for Racial Justice. This weekend, her team conducted surveys of 205 people at the Women’s March in D.C.
“Most of the time when you go out into a women’s march, you don’t say ‘Why are you here?’ Because the assumption is, duh, I’m here for women,” Fisher said. “But what ended up happening is my colleagues suggested we add in the question, ‘Why are you here?’ We got the most amazing answers.”
Whereas just 29 percent of people surveyed at the 2017 Women’s March said they were there to oppose Trump, 72 of marchers said the same this year. But opposition to Trump isn’t the only motivating factor that has grown stronger: 61 percent of people said they were marching to support women’s rights last year, while this year, it was 92 percent. The number of people marching for racial justice went from 35 to 76 percent; for LGBTQ rights, it went from 35 to 67 percent. And for immigration, the numbers jumped from 22 to 78 percent.
“What’s most important to notice here is that every number has skyrocketed,” Fisher said. “They were even marching for labor, and labor has not been successful at turning people out.”
Fisher pointed to the fact that at the 2017 Women’s March, only 12 percent of attendees said they were marching for labor issues. This year, 46 percent of people said they were marching for labor.
The reasons people provided for marching aren’t the only things that indicate this year’s Women’s March represented a broad range of political motivations. Whereas 90 percent of those surveyed in 2017 said they had voted for Hillary Clinton, only 85 percent of attendees said the same this year.
“We have had third-party candidate supporters and even Trump supporters,” Fisher said. “The resistance is bringing in people who are not just left-leaning, not just mainstream Democrats who are Clinton supporters. It’s going broader, which means it’s growing, which means everybody should be very scared — or very excited, it depends on who you are.”
Another encouraging finding from Fisher’s research is that people at the Women’s March aren’t just coming out for one day a year. 79 percent of people at this year’s Women’s March attended one last year, but many of them also attended other large-scale marches throughout 2017, and participated in other forms of political action.
In 2017, 33 percent of Women’s March attendees said they had never been to a protest before. This year, that number fell to 18 percent. And 28 percent of people said they had participated in direct action or civil disobedience over the past year, as opposed to 23 percent last year. In addition, 61 percent of people at this year’s Women’s March said they had contacted their elected officials in the past year. In the general population, that number falls around 22 percent.
One theory behind what’s kept people so engaged is that the focus of the Women’s March this year was much more local as opposed to national. The national Women’s March organizers held a rally in Las Vegas this year, rather than a march, so all marches were organized on a state or local level.
“Clearly these smaller, local groups are playing a much more active role right now,” Fisher said. She pointed to the fact that many people who said they’ve been contacting their representatives and doing other political work beyond the marches are likely doing so with local groups. That activity could keep people feeling connected and politically engaged, making them more likely to attend future protests.
“These are repeat protestors. What we usually expect is that people protest and then they move on,” Fisher said. “The biggest thing we can get from this is they’re not moving on, but they’re being connected with local actors that are calling them out to continue protesting and do a lot of other things.”
Fisher said that according to her colleagues who count protest turnout numbers, at least 1.6 million people marched across the U.S. this weekend, and when the count is finalized it will likely be at least two million. Though these numbers are lower than last year’s march, they’re still quite high.
“The ways that [Trump is] communicating with the public and his use of social media has been inspiring a ton of moral outrage,” Fisher said. “I think these numbers show that people are outraged, and they’re not just outraged about one issue.”
Hopefully, these numbers also indicate that the enormous amount of people attending the Women’s March are receptive to other forms of political activity. They’re engaging in local politics, becoming more committed to issues of racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice, and turning out for other types of protests. If this trend continues, then not just Trump, but all politicians who support racist, sexist, and otherwise hateful policies, should be very worried about the future.