Column: Can you admire Louis Farrakhan and still advance the cause of women? Maybe so. Life is full of contradictions
It’s been a long two years since millions converged on Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March, an idea that grew out of a suggestion Teresa Shook, a Hawaii lawyer and educator, spontaneously made to some friends.
Like many Americans, she was shocked that Donald Trump, who had been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault and who boasted that he could grab any woman he wanted by the genitals, had attained the highest office in the land. This was a man who ragged on immigrants and bragged that he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.
For the record:
7:45 p.m. Jan. 4, 2019This column originally said the Woman’s March national co-chairs include a Jewish woman. The group’s Jewish co-founder stepped down in early 2017.
Maybe in retrospect the idea seems obvious, but it didn’t in November 2016: How about a march the day after Trump’s inauguration to protest his incoming administration? The proposal made its way from Shook’s social circle to Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Hillary Clinton Facebook group, and touched a nerve.
While Trump was spewing lies about the size of his inaugural crowd, people in cities around the world turned out to protest the election of a man they believed had no business in the White House, and who has proved again and again over the last two years that he has only his own best interests, and maybe Vladimir Putin’s, at heart.
The march was a stunning success.
I didn’t know then about the behind-the-scenes machinations among the women who had taken control of the march and were working to harness its momentum to create a national organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
But accusations of anti-Semitism against some of the organizers began to percolate. It seemed that the controversy might even threaten the legitimacy of the nascent organization.
The original Women’s March national co-chairs are a varied group: white, black, Latina, Palestinian.
Last March, according to a detailed account in Tablet, an online magazine that reports on Jewish news and culture, three of the Women’s March founders praised Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan during a conference call with leaders of the group’s state chapters, despite his abysmal record of anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism.
Tablet reported that some women were offended that the group’s leaders did not denounce Farrakhan on the spot. His rhetoric, they felt, could not be reconciled with the inclusive principles of the Women’s March.
Personally, I find Farrakhan’s world view vile. Yet, I think it is possible to be repulsed by his hateful rhetoric about white people, especially Jews, and still appreciate some of the empowerment work that he has done in the black community, including leading the 1995 Million Man March to promote African American family unity.
If that is hypocrisy, there is plenty to go around.
How about all those Trump admirers who overlook his constant and casual expressions of racism, or his more pointedly racist call to execute five young men of color — later exonerated in the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger — whom he described in four full-page newspaper ads as “roving bands of wild criminals”?
Unfortunately, it took far too long for the Women’s March organizers to respond to the anti-Semitism accusations.
They did so haltingly at first, and then, finally, when criticism had reached a crescendo, in a full-throated statement in November, by one of the national co-chairs, Linda Sarsour.
“The Women’s March exists to fight bigotry and discrimination in all their forms — including homophobia and anti-Semitism — and to lift up the voices of women who are too often left out,” Sarsour wrote on the March website. “It’s become clear, amidst this media storm, that our values and our message have — too often — been lost. That loss caused a lot of harm, and a lot of pain. We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. We regret that.”
After reading the Tablet story, I came away feeling that anyone who tries to harness a grass-roots movement like this — a prairie fire sparked by one woman talking to her friends in Hawaii — is probably on a fool’s errand. Why spend energy creating a national infrastructure that replicates the work of so many venerable organizations that are already working toward the same goals?
This may be heresy, but I’m not sure we need another national organization to promote the rights of women.
Maybe we do need an organization to facilitate the logistical challenges of an annual civil rights march that will serve to remind us that the work is not done, that women have yet to achieve true equality.
But the real work, the work of change and yes, revolution, is done on the ground, community by community, voting precinct by voting precinct, long after the marchers have melted back into their own lives.
In January 2017, I flew to Washington to cover the march in a plane jam packed with women and girls flaunting pink pussy hats. Three generations of women in my family converged for the demonstration.
It was one of the most inspiring public events I’d ever attended — on par with the inauguration of President Obama in 2009 — a torrential display of high spirits, patriotism and idealism.
In November, I daresay, we saw the fruits of the original Women’s March on Washington.
And it was a sight to behold.
Record-shattering numbers of women sought and won public office — from the local level to the national level. In record numbers, women voted for candidates whose values align with ours, flipping the House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat, thereby putting a desperately needed check on the malign policies of President Trump.
While organizers of the Women’s March battled over who said what to whom about Jewish people when, and the merits of a noted anti-Semite, American women stood up by the millions and changed the country.
For that, everyone involved in the Women’s March can take a bow.