An event organized to bring women together is proving to be much more divisive than intended.
The annual women’s march in Eureka has been canceled after organizers decided the planning committee was too white.
The move has prompted newfound criticism of the global gatherings that were launched two years ago in protest of the inauguration of President Trump. Many have said the marches are not diverse enough and have accused the organization of being anti-Semitic and homophobic.
The Eureka group, which is not an official Women’s March chapter, said that instead of the planned Jan. 19 march, it will focus on organizing an event for March 9, in conjunction with International Women’s Day. The move will allow more time to reach out to women of color and those who identify as gender nonconforming, organizers said in a Facebook post last week.
“The local organizers are continuing to meet and discuss how to broaden representation in the organizing committee to create an event that represents and supports peoples who live here in Humboldt,” an organizer said in the post. “Up to this point, the participants have been overwhelmingly white, lacking representation from several perspectives in our community.”
The decision made by a handful of women in the small town of Eureka — which Census data show is 71% non-Hispanic white — drew mixed reactions, both locally and across the country. Supporters were thrilled the group was taking steps toward increasing its diversity and inclusion. Others, however, said the move was a criticism of people of color for not joining in and that by postponing the march, organizers were placing the burden on participants to make the local women’s march appear less white.
“I have deep concerns that people of color are being used as a crutch for the organizing committee failing to do the work it takes to encourage diversity,” Caterina Kein wrote on Facebook. “Please do not blame ‘us’ for your failures.”
The backlash prompted Women’s March Eureka to release a second statement on Monday noting the decision to cancel the event was based on the lack of diversity among the group’s leadership, not among the march’s attendees.
“We also think it’s important that in this conversation about Humboldt’s ‘overwhelmingly white’ demographics and the leadership of the women’s march to acknowledge how those demographics came to be: genocide of indigenous peoples,” said Kelsey Reedy, a Women’s March Eureka organizer.
In an interview with KHSU-FM radio, Reedy said the original organizers were all white women and that only two recent additions have increased the diversity of the small group.
“It wasn’t just we felt there wasn’t enough representation. There literally was no representation,” she said.
The organizers acknowledged that past attempts at being inclusive have been shallow.
“We could have done a lot more,” Reedy said. “We did not push ourselves to really create a space that was welcoming for everyone to be involved. We did reach out to several groups led by people of color, but only having a few people in the group that even had those connections means it was pretty limited.”
The larger Women’s March organization has faced other problems, including accusations of being anti-Semitic. Leaders of the national group came under fire last year after co-chair Tamika Mallory attended a February event with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, in which he said, “The powerful Jews are my enemy.”
Between March and November, the larger group issued three statements in response to criticism that Women’s March leaders are anti-Semitic and homophobic, but it has repeatedly expressed support for its leaders, including Mallory.
“It’s become clear, amidst this media storm, that our values and our message have — too often — been lost,” the national group said. “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.”
In Eureka, 38-year-old Robyn Moreno said she has boycotted the last two marches because organizers have done little to help people of color in Humboldt County.
The county has grappled with racial tensions after a 19-year-old Humboldt State University student, Josiah Lawson, was fatally stabbed outside an Arcata house party in April 2017. Lawson’s family members and supporters have fiercely criticized local law enforcement, saying authorities have stalled the investigation and failed to do enough to capture Lawson’s killer.
In a county that’s 74% non-Hispanic white, the investigation into Lawson’s slaying is just one event that has roiled the towns of Eureka and Arcata. The community also successfully rallied to remove a statue of President William McKinley, who oversaw federal policies that undercut Native American tribal authority and reduced reservation lands.
“I am angered when I see thousands coming together to protect their rights but don’t make any effort to listen to people of color when they are telling them that the march is exclusive and not representative of people of color or the LGBTQ community,” said Moreno, who has been an active supporter of the Justice for Josiah movement and efforts to remove the McKinley statue. “Nor do they show up any other day of the year to fight for the rampant racism within our community.”
Given the county’s past, Moreno said she’s proud of the local women’s march organizers for canceling the upcoming event and working toward being more inclusive.
But many members of the Eureka group are unhappy with the change of plans, and some have even said they’d organize their own march.
“This group has excellent intentions and I sincerely hope that they can accomplish the goals they have set, the issues they are passionate about absolutely need to be addressed, they are meaningful and significant,” Terri Selfridge wrote on Facebook. “But they do NOT have the right to speak for the 1,000s that have marched and would march again in support of the WOMEN’S MARCH.”
The small Northern California group is not one of the state’s several chapters in the National Women’s March organization that act as year-round nonprofits but is a “loose coalition” of women who organize a yearly event in coordination with official chapters, said Emiliana Guereca, executive director of the Women’s March Los Angeles chapter.
“It’s unfortunate they canceled, and the reason they canceled is even more egregious,” she said. “Our leadership should look like what our community looks like.”