“The Waking Among the Woke”
So the story,” the activist Linda Sarsour began, “is an old lady from Hawaii, a retired lawyer, posted, ‘I think we need to march on Washington.’ ”
It was the evening of November 8, 2016, and Donald Trump was emerging as the president-elect of the United States. Millions were in the first hours of a shock that would last for days. Among the anguished was Teresa Shook, the retired lawyer in Hawaii, who suggested the idea of a march on Washington, to protest the incoming president and all he represented, and went to bed. Sarsour, who lives on the other side of the country, in Brooklyn, continued the story of how she came to be associated with Shook’s proposal for a march: “She wakes up viral. She’s a little old lady; she probably gets six likes usually. All of a sudden she wakes up, it’s like . . .” Shook had gotten ten thousand RSVPs. In parallel, a woman named Bob Bland, a fashion designer, had posted a similar idea. “Somebody connected the two,” Sarsour told me, “and said, ‘Why are two white ladies doing two separate things? Why don’t you make this together?’ And so they did. And the event was called Million Women’s March originally.”
It was shortly thereafter that Sarsour saw the post about the now-merged event and, with some incredulity, the name. Her reflex was, “I’m not going.”
Sarsour might have seemed like a natural customer for the march. As a progressive activist who works on immigrant rights, criminal justice, racial justice, corporate power, labor policy, and other issues, she has spent much of her life marching. As a Palestinian American, a feminist, and a Muslim, she had a special loathing of Trump, who had spent his campaign degrading people like her. If the worst visions of his presidency were to come to pass, she knew the diverse, heavily immigrant communities she organized in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn would be among the first to hear knocks and watch loved ones whisked into unmarked vans.
But Sarsour, like many on the activist left, didn’t necessarily view her enemy’s enemy as her friend. She didn’t assume that any formation of women organizing a march to resist Trump were her people, aligned with her values and goals, just because of their common fear. She had been around long enough to know that when the undocumented immigrants, women of color, poor people, and other marginalized groups she represented entered into coalition with other groups, especially those with more power, they could be silenced and shut out, told to focus on what the more powerful groups deemed important and to defer their own most pressing concerns. History overflows with cautionary tales. Black women agitated for women’s suffrage, only to see white women secure the vote for themselves with the Nineteenth Amendment and leave Black women out. Sarsour’s fellow progressives routinely answered the plea to vote for moderate Democrats (“blue no matter who!”), only to see their concerns sidelined after the inaugural.
When Sarsour looked at the post for the proposed march, her instinct spoke to her plainly: stay away. The first tell was the name, the Million Women’s March, which all but appropriated a protest with a similar name by legions of Black women in Philadelphia two decades earlier. That suggested to Sarsour that this upcoming march didn’t merely happen to be convened by “two white ladies,” as she put it, but was anchored in a kind of white women’s feminism that Sarsour had learned to recognize and guard against: a kind of feminism that was big on issues like reproductive rights and equal pay but could be considerably quieter about the needs of women in the marginalized communities Sarsour organized—for workers’ rights relative to corporations, for protection against the immigration authorities and the police, for economic redistribution, for environmental justice.
Sarsour might have been loath to join what she viewed as a white feminists’ march under any circumstances, but Trump’s election had intensified the feeling. Like many, she was infuriated by the recent disclosure that 53 percent of white women had voted for Trump—in spite of the sexual assault allegations, in spite of the Access Hollywood tape, in spite of his sexist bullying. (The number came from exit polls, and it was later said by some analysts to have been just under half rather than slightly over. But 53 was everywhere at that moment and a source of anger.) “White women sold out their fellow women, their country, and themselves last night,” the writer L. V. Anderson declared. And that 53 number strengthened Sarsour’s inclination to keep away from the march, even if its organizers were from the other 47 percent. “You’re catching me forty-eight to seventy-two hours after this election,” she told me. “I’m not really fond of the women who voted for Donald Trump right now. I’m not feeling like I have any trust, particularly in white women.”
The 53 percent statistic reinforced Sarsour’s skepticism of the kind of coalition building that comes at a severe cost. What was the point of allying with white women—who suffered from sexism but couldn’t help but benefit from white domination—and abiding the sidelining of one’s particular needs, if some of those white women were inevitably going to sell you out at the first available chance? “I said, ‘Do I have the heart for it, really?’ Because I don’t organize white people,” Sarsour said. “Before the Women’s March, this was the community that I organized with: North African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and, beyond that, the immigrant rights movement, predominantly Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and then, beyond that, Black people. I never organized white people.”
Among the great projects of Sarsour’s life was the dismantling of white supremacy. But she shared with many in her activist circles a fatalism about individual white people changing as part of that broader transformation. It was almost to be assumed that white people would ultimately side with their own. You didn’t fight supremacy by appealing to white hearts and minds. You fought it by organizing your own communities of color, amassing real political power, and changing the rules and structures that upheld systems of white domination. “My mission,” Sarsour told me one day, sitting in her small office at the Arab American Association of New York in Sunset Park, “is I want to build power among people of color, knowing that we are eventually going to be the majority and we’ve got to start building our power. I don’t want to just be the majority without power; I got to be the majority with power.” That guided the work she did bringing together communities in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge that didn’t have much interaction but had common concerns. It informed her pleading with voters of color to be more than reliable Democratic voters, to demand a Democratic Party that pushed for real, structural change and answered their unique needs. And when Sarsour did this work, when she sought to build power for her people, what she often found herself up against was white people refusing to change the oppressive systems that kept them in power.
So Sarsour was wary of the march. But that didn’t stop her from doing a bit of constructive prodding. Looking at the event page one day, she noticed that the white women of whom she had been so skeptical had actually inserted some helpful language about standing with Black women, with indigenous women, with immigrant women. That was progress! Except for one glaring problem, in her estimation. “All the stuff, but no one said Muslim women,” Sarsour told me. “I’m not going to lie to you. I was kind of like, ‘Really? Were you not paying attention to this election?’ ” Trump’s campaign had used his Muslim ban as jet fuel, and now the white women convening this march appeared to forget all about that. Sarsour was mad. And while to many on the progressive left, she is an icon of a fearless, unyielding brand of activism for the most marginalized people, she has the ability to be delicate when she chooses. “I wrote a very nice comment,” she told me. “I said something like, ‘I really appreciate this endeavor. I hope that you would include Muslim American women as well.’ Something very diplomatic. And so my comment goes viral.”
Her timing was good. The white ladies, the original pair and others who had signed on, came to realize they had a whiteness problem. One of them, Vanessa Wruble, told Vogue that she had written to the others: “You need to make sure this is led or centered around women of color, or it will be a bunch of white women marching on Washington.” It was not clear from the outside whether this concern was motivated more by principle or by the fear of bad public relations. But in any event, the women reached out to Michael Skolnik, a white consultant to organizations, who was once described by The New York Times as “the man you go to if you are on the left and want to leverage the power of celebrity and the reach of digital media to soften the ground for social change.” He suggested some women of color who could combine with their efforts. One of them was Tamika Mallory, a Black civil rights activist and a friend of Sarsour’s. Around the time when she volunteered to help collaborate on the march, she called Sarsour.
“I see you, girl, on that page,” Sarsour remembers her friend saying of Sarsour’s Facebook comment. “Relax, we’re about to go in there and fix some stuff.”
“Go where?” asked Sarsour.
“Don’t worry, I got this,” Mallory told her.
For some reason Sarsour couldn’t fathom, Mallory believed that a march anchored in white feminism, a march Sarsour wasn’t even interested in attending, could be improved by “going in there.” Not without reason, this kind of “going in” to struggle with white people to make them less invested in their own power and privileges and more committed to the demands of marginalized groups—such work was regarded by many, especially in the circles Sarsour and Mallory operated in, as a fool’s errand. It wasn’t even clear to Sarsour what the goal was. Diversify the march’s leadership? Take it over? Help the white women see their blind spots and embrace a broader array of concerns? Whatever it was, Sarsour told Mallory she had no interest: “I didn’t think that I was made to go in there and just organize with these women who, like the Black women were telling us, all of a sudden are mad about things we’ve been mad about for a long time.”
A few hours later, Mallory called back. “She’s like, ‘We’re going to the Women’s March,’ ” Sarsour recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ And then she gave me the whole ‘If it’s not us, who’s it going to be?’ ” Sarsour recalled: “Tamika made a point and said, ‘Look, this march is going to happen with or without women of color. And they’re going to have a march, and it’s going to probably be fabulous. And the question becomes for us, if they’re going to do this march and it’s going to be a great march, do we want our voices in it? Do we want people who look like us in it? Do we want people talking about criminal justice reform? Do we want immigrant rights folks? Do we want the Muslims? I mean, hello, this guy won a whole election on the backs of the illegal immigrants and the terrorists. That pretty much was the whole story.’ ” The march was a platform, Mallory was suggesting, a chance to center issues they cared about, often portrayed as marginal.
Sarsour was convinced: “I was like, okay, fine.” She agreed to join Mallory.
Mallory’s bet, and now Sarsour’s, was just that, a bet that a lot of their fellow activists and movement allies might not have made. But in this case, Mallory’s and now Sarsour’s instinct was, if it’s not us, who’s it going to be? It might be difficult to deal with these white women and seek to enlarge the sphere of their concerns and assume the burden of persuading them of what they could not or would not see, but it was also, Sarsour realized, a remarkable opportunity to raise the visibility of her agenda and recruit a broader array of allies for it. Even if it was unpleasant work, Sarsour said, sometimes you have to “go in there.”
In making her decision about the march, from her initial rejection to that eventual “going in,” Sarsour was navigating a dilemma often confronted by activists on the left. Those who seek the transformation of society, of its deep structures and power equations, often need a critical mass of the public to be mobilized in order to achieve meaningful change. But if you represent marginalized minority communities, those groups on their own may not add up to a mobilization broad enough to deliver the results you seek. Sometimes a broader coalition can get you gains that would elude you otherwise.
Sarsour’s initial attitude to the march was informed by her experience of what can happen in such coalitions. There is pressure to compromise, pressure that falls disproportionately on the least powerful members of the group. The more strident critiques of power and systems tend to be pushed to the side, dismissed as extreme and unhelpful, while moderate, milquetoast, platitudinous ideas that will change little rush to the fore. All too often, the norm in such coalitions is to focus on the common enemy and press pause on any “infighting,” even if the “infighting” in question refers to the less powerful members telling more powerful ones that they do not feel represented by the coalition they have entered. It was possible to feel, as Sarsour initially had, that the benefits of a broader mass mobilization were not justified by the costs of having your issues melt into the sea.
But there was an opposite risk, too. Activists like Sarsour could stay pure, keep out of those corrupting coalitions, and end up righteously alone. You could refuse to trust those white women and their brand of feminism, and then, as Mallory had said, they would have their fabulous march, and their brand of feminism would only grow stronger, and you would miss out on a chance to “go in there” and force a change. If, on the other hand, you were willing to make a distinction between those truly bent on keeping you down (MAGA diehards) and those who shared some of your commitments while diverging with you on other things (liberal white women), you might be able to form an alliance with these latter folk, these imperfect allies. And that might give you something closer to a mass movement. So it was possible to feel, as Sarsour ultimately did, that the opportunity to build a vast citizen army against Trump—and even, perhaps, against the deeper afflictions of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism that made Trump possible—justified the risks of coalition.
The Trump era, then only beginning, would raise the stakes of this dilemma for many activists and organizers. It made a unified, expansive, winning left more urgent than ever, the fate of the Republic seeming to depend on whether that unwieldly group of groups could hold. But for those in marginalized groups, the rise of Trump and his turning of the country’s ugly subtext into text also made it as important as ever to speak plainly and clearly and not be erased and not dissolve their particular needs into the melting pot of fighting one bad guy. With white supremacy and patriarchy and the discontents of capitalism now front and center in the conversation, how could those groups be expected to put aside their feelings on these matters for the sake of keeping the coalitional peace? For activists in Sarsour’s position, it had never felt more important to stand one’s ground and, equally, to reach out broadly.
But now Sarsour had decided to go in there, and as she embraced this new challenge, her attitude to this long-standing trade-off was a desire to break it. Could she make her communities part of this mass mobilization without bartering away their voice? Could she and the white women she was wary of work together toward a common cause while being honest with each other about their differences and, rather than dismissing them as “infighting,” truly take them on? Could she organize white women into a more capacious understanding of justice and oppression without being co-opted? Could she model the kind of progressive politics she longed to see more of—at once unbending and expanding?
As she chewed on these questions, Sarsour received advice from fellow activists and mentors. To many, this project she was taking on was folly. “I’m not going to lie to you,” she told me. “There were people picking up the phone like, ‘Are you out of your mind? What are you doing to yourself? Why would you believe that white women are actually in this for you? Or are mad for you? They are mad for themselves. Because everything that they are mad about, we’ve been mad about for a long time.’ And they were right.” She recalled, “We were heavily criticized by Black women in particular.” Many calls came from “the church ladies and the elders,” as Sarsour put it, who were channeling the ideas of thinkers like Audre Lorde, who cautioned years ago against this idea of going in to help white women see the light. “Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women—in the face of tremendous resistance—as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival,” Lorde said. “This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
Even so, Sarsour stuck to her bet. There were many reasons to write off. She chose instead the path of persuasion.
“I went to the Women’s March because I thought that I could be the one to do the work that others are saying they do not want to do,” she told me.
Then again, she added, the Women’s March, for her, “is a failure story.”
The story of the march has been told elsewhere and more fully. I took an interest in Sarsour’s experience of the undertaking because she was a lightning rod who had made an improbable choice to give some people a chance.
The question of the march’s name would provide an early opportunity for struggle—about the rich history of Black organizing that preceded the organizers and the white women’s treatment of that history. “Even the term ‘Women’s March on Washington’ didn’t just come from the sky. It was a very intentional process that we were putting white women through,” Sarsour told me, speaking of her efforts to change the name of the march from the Million Women’s March in order to teach white women about how not to appropriate the history of Black-led marches.
There had, after all, been that Million Woman March in Philadelphia in 1997, which rallied hundreds of thousands of people around a theme of what it means to be an African American woman. That march had built on the Million Man March two years earlier in Washington, called by the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and it, too, had mobilized legions of Black citizens. “There should be no reason for us to be starting a Million Women’s March without understanding where that came from,” Sarsour told me. She, like many of her allies, wanted to change the name.
“It wasn’t like they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we knew it was a Black women’s march; we’re just going to name it this.’ It’s just the lack of knowledge and relationships, just having no idea. So then they were like, ‘Okay, well, let’s call it the Women’s March on Washington.’ And of course Tamika was like, ‘Everybody back up; there was a March on Washington.’ ”
She was speaking, of course, of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “We have to understand that there’s a lot of responsibility,” Sarsour recalled saying. She told me later, “All this is new to white women because white women—just white people generally—think that they can just do whatever they want. And there’s no consulting; there’s no talking to people of color about what they think. So we were putting them through a lot of exercises.”
In the matter of the march name, it was decided to call Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter. If she gave her blessing to remix the name of the original 1963 march, then they could.
“We put Dr. Bernice King on a conference call to make a proposal to her,” Sarsour recalled, “and said, ‘As you know, this is what the march was called, and we wanted to change the march in respect to those women in Philadelphia, and we want to call this the Women’s March on Washington. We want to make sure that you know that we understand the great responsibility that comes with doing a march fifty-something years after the march your father led, and we want to make sure it’s full of integrity and dignity and intersectionality and that people are seen and heard.’ ”
King thanked the women for recognizing that responsibility and gave her blessing.
“The deeper philosophy among people of color—and I won’t say every person of color, but the majority of people of color, particularly those that are activists and organizers—is that we understand our history,” Sarsour told me. “We are very connected to movement history, and we believe that what we do is a continuation of something that came before us. I don’t think white people have that same philosophy.”
So in the simple matter of naming were lessons that could be taught or could, in the name of coalitional peace, be withheld, and here they were explicitly being taught: don’t think you are first to anything; pay attention to what preceded you; trust that you are standing on someone else’s ground until proven otherwise; don’t Columbus. What Sarsour and others wanted the white women organizers to understand was that the behaviors exhibited in their hasty naming process were distinct from but not unconnected to behaviors exhibited in far greater concentration by figures they despised like Donald Trump. A way of moving through the world that erased others as a matter of course was to be resisted, even when it came from members of the sisterhood of the #Resistance.
The naming episode seemed to validate Sarsour’s bet. Yes, it was not her duty to change these white women. Yes, she shouldn’t have to persuade them not to erase the work of women of color and instead center those women. But she did make that effort: the work of coalition building required it. She had, in those early days, found a way of joining a broader alliance through teaching. “We went through it,” Sarsour told me, “and it was really powerful.”
The name change was a prelude to broader changes, including on the question of scope. In its original conception, the march focused on those issues associated with white feminism. As a writer in Vogue (herself white) explained, “Where past waves of feminism, led principally by white women, have focused predominantly on a few familiar concerns—equal pay, reproductive rights—this movement, led by a majority of women of color, aspires to be truly intersectional.” The essay then explained what that meant in practice: “Women are not a monolith, solely defined by gender; we are diverse, we represent half of this country, and any social justice movement—for the rights of immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, for law enforcement accountability, for gun control, for environmental justice—should count as a ‘women’s issue.’ ”
For Sarsour, this schism was reflected in the fact that many of the white women organizers were die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters. To Sarsour’s taste, they could be blind to the ways in which Clinton, while indeed a woman and a feminist, championed a philosophy and policies that had been damaging to many communities, all of which contained women. Her hawkishness had not been good for women in Iraq. Her long-ago remarks about “kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy” and her advocacy of tough-on-crime policies had had devastating effects on the Black and brown populations Sarsour worked with, including women. Clinton’s neoliberal economic philosophy had been a principal cause of an age of yawning inequity, which had made millions of women’s lives more precarious.
Sarsour wasn’t interested in a women’s march that focused only on the issues that influential white feminists thought to be priorities and tabled everything else. Criminal justice and corporate power were women’s issues, too, as were union busting and empire and war and wealth inequity. But when everyone met to draft unity principles for the march, some of the organizers didn’t see it that way. “They were excited,” Sarsour said. “They were like, okay, reproductive rights, women’s right to choose, women should get paid the same as men. We started a whole march about women who wanted to do reproductive rights and equal pay, which of course are issues we care about, too. And then it kind of ends there, and you’re just like, ‘Come on, folks.’ ” She added, “When you go to a Black woman in Ferguson and you ask her what her priority issue is, she’s probably not going to say reproductive rights. She’ll probably say, ‘I just want my Black son Eduardo to come home to me.’ And so we were trying to explain it.”
Sarsour and her allies were trying to do what many of her activist friends and so many radical Black writers had cautioned against attempting: trying to reap the benefits of “going in there” with the white women—the platform, the chance of a wider mass mobilization—while trying to educate them and at times call them out, and to do each of these things without undermining the other. They were trying to see if they could push for fundamental change not by working around white women standing in their way but by actively seeking to persuade some of them to change how they saw things.
Sarsour and the other women of color organizers made use of the difficulty of the task to take on more responsibility for the march. They explained to the others that they were risking angering women in their own communities by allying with these partners. They understood the anger; they had made their choice anyway. Now there was a possibility of compromise in the coalition that worried them and would confirm the worst fears in their communities. They cited that worry in arguing for more power on the organizing team. “We came and we said, ‘Listen, we are women of color who are going against some of the wishes of people in our community who are like, “Don’t go.” And we want to be leaders here, and we want to have roles that are important roles, and we want to be able to have decision-making power,’ ” Sarsour told me.
At the time, the intervention worked wonders. An initiative that a few white women launched had now blossomed into a formal march with a proper organization, and when it named its four national co-chairs, three were women of color: Sarsour, Mallory, and Carmen Perez, a fellow civil rights activist. (Bob Bland was the fourth.)
Sarsour continued to walk a fine line. One tension involved fundraising. There were weeks to go before the march on January 21. They were up against a dangerous new presidency, and there was an all-hands-on-deck feeling among different groups wanting to come together to fight the threat. Sarsour was willing to ally with some organizers she was skeptical of, but she wouldn’t ally with just anyone. So when the question arose of whether to accept corporate sponsors, Sarsour was adamantly opposed. Many of the other organizers were incredulous about her opposition. “They were really mad, and they were like, ‘We’re not going to be able to do this.’ And I was like, ‘We’re not taking corporate money.’ I was just not going to do that.” Companies like Coca-Cola and Walmart, she told me, might be very happy to associate their name with a women’s march, but were they interested in changing their ways when it came to paying women more or selling them sugary drinks that gave them diabetes? The others relented, and the march ended up raising millions from small donations and philosophically aligned nonprofits like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
Sarsour had agonized about whether to ally with other organizers despite the risks, and she had gone in there nonetheless, and then she used the risk she took in doing so to get a hand on the reins of decision making, and now, from within, she played gatekeeper herself, unwilling to let in those who were actively committed to structures and systems that did women harm—in contrast, she felt, to her new white women organizer colleagues, whom she tended to regard as well meaning but still waking up to the systems of oppression that bound and benefited them at the same time.
One day, the organizers had a small blowup over merch. As Sarsour tells it, a white woman on the team whose job was to procure merchandise messed up, and now the organization was going to have to spend thousands of dollars extra to get the merchandise on time. It was another of these issues that would have meant little to some in the coalition and a lot to others. “Women of color, because we organize with so little resources, it was a heart attack for us,” Sarsour told me. “The minute I heard $5,700, I was like, ‘Are you crazy? Like, what? You know what I could do with $5,700? You know how much that goes for a grassroots organization?’ ” The dispute soon became one about the procurement person’s reaction to the criticism.
“The woman was there and all of a sudden burst out into tears, and she was like, ‘I feel marginalized. I feel like I’m being treated like a second-class citizen,’ ” Sarsour recalled. “So all the women of color were like, ‘Mm-mm; like, shut up; like, what? Marginalized? Second-class? Like, what are you talking about?’ ”
Sarsour and Mallory and some of their allies exchanged glances. This was what Sarsour had worried about, what her friends had warned her about. Was anyone learning anything from anyone about absolutely anything? Was her gamble being ridiculed by events? Sarsour decided she would handle this one. “I gave them that look like, I got this.” She thought maybe she could put her social-work skills to use. She recalls saying, “Listen, I’m sorry that you feel this way. But this is also a learning opportunity for all of us. There are some words that you are using that you need to understand implications of. You could feel disrespected, you could feel unheard, there’s a lot of things you could be feeling in this moment. They would all be valid. But to sit in a room with indigenous women, Black women and Muslim women, queer women, and to say that you feel marginalized and to say that you feel like a second-class citizen is something you really need to reflect on. Because you actually have no idea what it feels like to be marginalized in the society. You have no idea what it feels like to be a second- and third-class citizen in this country. If you were to walk out into the streets of New York City right now, you would be safe in most spaces that you walk into. You will be served at every restaurant that you walk into. You would go to any social service agency, and you will be treated with dignity and respect. We can’t say that’s guaranteed for everyone.”
Even as she called out during moments like this, Sarsour told me she began to see that many of the white women had taken their own risks to be there in that broad coalition. “Some of them really were very honest,” she told me. “They were like, look, I came because my husband voted for Trump. I came because my parents are Republicans from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I came because whatever. I mean, people really came almost feeling rebellious against people in their families who put us in the situation.” In coming into this coalition with imperfect allies, Sarsour, Mallory, and other women of color had to navigate relationships back in their communities with people who might not understand their choices. Sarsour now felt that many of the white women had their own versions of that tension.
The coalition’s awkward juggle of accommodation and truth telling and challenging and teaching carried the women through the day of the march and produced an outpouring of remarkable events around the world, with several million marching—including, in the United States, at least 1 percent of the entire population.
When Sarsour climbed onstage for the first time, she was bowled over, and perhaps in that moment she could tell herself that the price of reaching for that wider mobilization was worth it. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” she told me. “I couldn’t see the last person, and it was ten o’clock in the morning. When I first got there, I didn’t go up on the stage, but I was like at the bottom, and it was six o’clock in the morning. And I’m like, ‘What the hell are these people doing here? This thing doesn’t start till ten o’clock.’ So they could have been there since three o’clock in the morning.” In spite of it all, the organizers had answered a hunger.
In the days and months after the march, though, the coming together that made it possible wouldn’t hold. Not long after the march, Sarsour and some of the other women of color were infuriated to learn that some other organizers had gone behind their backs to establish a permanent post-march organization without telling them. This was what those friends had been warning Sarsour about, that the white women would use the political cover of representation she had provided, the rainbow patina, and, when convenient, would forsake her work. When Sarsour and others tried to hold these women accountable, they defaulted into the familiar defense that those complaining about their behavior were being “divisive.” In 2018, Teresa Shook, the woman in Hawaii who had written one of the original posts that led to the march’s creation, wrote another Facebook post saying the four co-chairs—three of them women of color, including Sarsour—had “steered the Movement away from its true course. I have waited, hoping they would right the ship. But they have not.”
Among the incidents named as responsible for these rifts was Mallory’s presence, in 2018, at a Saviours’ Day event in Chicago, organized by the Nation of Islam. There, Louis Farrakhan, the bow-tied, charismatic, bigoted leader of the group, referred to Jewish people as “the mother and father of apartheid.” He reprised old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews having “control over those agencies of government.” As Adam Serwer recounts in The Atlantic, he even “surmised that Jews have chemically induced homosexuality in black men through marijuana.”
The Anti-Defamation League, CNN’s Jake Tapper, and others picked up on the story, and specifically on Mallory’s presence at the event. If you were a co-chair of a progressive organization devoted to the intersectional pursuit of justice, how could you sit through such an event? How could you fail to condemn it? Mallory publicly explained that she had connected with the Nation of Islam because of the ground-level work it does in Black communities. Her son’s father had been murdered. “In that most difficult period of my life, it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me and I have always held them close to my heart for that reason,” she wrote in a statement. Eventually, the Women’s March put out a statement saying that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.” But neither the organization nor Mallory went so far as to condemn him, and for many people that was unpardonable.
“Therein lies the key conflict for Mallory, and her colleagues at the Women’s March, going forward,” Serwer wrote.
The Nation of Islam may be essential to antiviolence work in poor Black neighborhoods. It may be an invaluable source of help for formerly incarcerated Black people whose country has written them off as irredeemable. It may offer a path to vent anger at a system that continues to brutalize, plunder, and incarcerate human beings because they are Black. And it may also be impossible to continue working with the Nation and at the same time lead a diverse, national, progressive coalition that includes many of the people Farrakhan and the Nation point to as the source of all evil in the world.
Coalitions were important, and coalitions were hard. Sometimes they required holding the line, refusing to bend. Sometimes they required pleading for nuance, trying to reach this way and reach that way without being torn asunder.
I felt like the Women’s March for me,” Sarsour said, “particularly in my relationship to white people—that was the line that I crossed. When I was organizing on criminal justice reform, on immigrant rights, that was good. You was good, you were organizing people of color, you were with your people, you were thumbs-up. The minute that I started going from just being able to organize people of color and I went to organize white people, too—whew.”
Yet those feelings she had ran up against evidence she saw with her own eyes that many of the white women who got involved with the march really were altered by the experience, by the organizing process, by the changes Sarsour and others fought for. Persuasion had worked. “I’ve had absolutely hopeful experiences,” she told me. “The question is, how scalable is it? For example, I had experiences with white women at the Women’s March, many of whom I’ve met across the country, who are absolutely transformed. I mean women who are using a different lexicon. I’ve even watched their trajectories on Facebook. I will look up their posts from back around the 2016 election, and then you look at their posts now, and it’s night and day.” Some women who had once shown a narrow interest in the slogans of the #Resistance, who had not been political before, had gone on a deepening journey and were now neck-deep in the latest voting-rights bill, in the effort to shore up DACA, in issues of taxation.
So the march left Sarsour both wary and hopeful about the possibility of individual white people changing as part of, and as a step toward, the deeper-rooted, system-level change she sought. She remained committed to her theory of change: the building up of the power of her own community as a means of ushering in progress. Yet a part of Sarsour continued to reach for those moments when it felt possible not to overwhelm the forces opposed to the future she sought but rather to invite them into it.
Not long after the march, Sarsour went to speak at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Before she did, her hosts at the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies program warned her that they were expecting some college Republicans to be in the audience. “It’s in this auditorium, and they come in. It was so cute,” Sarsour recalled. “They were like little nineteen-year-old white boys wearing shirts that said ‘Pence-Trump.’ And they sat in one row all together.” She gave her talk. No disruption. Then she was standing outdoors after the talk, chatting with students, taking selfies, when one of the young men wandered over. “It was like the sea parted and everyone was like, ‘Oh,’ because they’re wearing these shirts,” Sarsour said.
Sarsour extended her hand. They shook. “I was like, ‘I’m very happy that you came today.’ He was like, ‘I’m Jonathan.’ And I said to him, ‘What’s up? I heard word on the street was you were coming to protest me. What happened?’ And it was really profound. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Listen, I started listening to you, and I made a decision to give you a chance.’
“That’s it,” she said. “That’s all he said. And I thought it was one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. That’s all I want from people. I tell people all the time, ‘I just want you to give me a chance. Let me share with you who I am, where I come from. And I will guarantee you there will be disagreements. But the question for you is not whether you disagree with me. It’s whether you think that I’m a threat to your humanity. And that’s the question I want you to answer.’ ”
On another occasion, on another campus, at a discussion of the question of Israel and Palestine, a student stood up and made a case in defense of Zionism, and she countered him forcefully, and then as it grew clear that they were not getting anywhere, she remembers telling the student, “I’m not asking you to give up anything about yourself. I just want you to know that you have to figure out how to exist with my story.”
Sometimes Sarsour worried that many of her allies in the progressive movement had grown too comfortable writing off people they needed, and could win over, for their cause to succeed. For reasons she understood all too well, they refused to make the kind of choice she had with the march. “Even the question in every election about whether we want to go get those white voters in these different states and whatnot,” Sarsour said. “There will be some people who will tell you, ‘No, we don’t need those white people. We’ve just got to expand our electorate, and we’ve just got to get more people of color, more young people to the polls, more women to the polls, and then that’s how we’re going to win.’ Other people will tell you, ‘Yes, we do need those people, but I’m not the one that’s going to go get those people. You go get those people. I’m going to build power in my own community. I’m going to focus on the African American vote and Latino vote and whatnot.’ I’m in the boat of we definitely need those people in swing states for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Sitting in her office, Sarsour told me a story that still haunted her. Most of her work isn’t national limelight work but rather ground-level organizing in the highly mixed communities of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, helping community members escape abusers, find employment, navigate the police, and build bridges of solidarity. One of the things Sarsour seeks to do as an organizer is bring together populations that are fundamentally on the same side but don’t know each other well and don’t have a bedrock of trust. A lot of these people are just everyday people living in the community, and Sarsour worries about whether activists like her are winning those people over or instead keeping them at bay.
Not long ago, Sarsour arranged a meeting in the community for some immigrant women, mostly Middle Eastern, to meet with a Black mother who had lost her son to police violence. It was a classic coalition-building effort. The immigrant women had their concerns about life in the neighborhood, and perhaps police violence was among them or perhaps it wasn’t, but she sensed that it wasn’t at the top of their list. For the Black woman who had lost her son, it very much was, whereas concerns about immigration policy might have been less of a focus. If you could put people from these different communities together, perhaps you could give them empathy for each other’s struggles and put them into alliance with each other. So the Black mother and these immigrant women all met in a space. Very quickly, things grew awkward.
The organizers whom Sarsour had partnered with—they had arranged for the Black mother to speak, and Sarsour had brought in the immigrant women—began asking the immigrant women their preferred gender pronouns. Now, unlike some right-wing person who would criticize this moment, Sarsour is a big believer in asking people’s pronouns. It is an important feature of life in a diverse movement. But there and then, in that room, with women who had come to America within the last few years in many cases, who didn’t speak English well in many cases, who had never heard of the concept of pronouns in many cases, the request by the organizers erected a barrier. “They felt really out of place,” Sarsour said, “and then they were looking at me like, ‘What do we do?’ ”
Sarsour turned to the organizers. “I said, ‘I appreciate what we’re doing here, and everyone’s pronouns should be respected. But these women who are here, English is not their first language, and this is a very new concept for them. So I would ask for forgiveness, and I would ask if that would be something that maybe we’ll do next time when we’re together as we get these women through this process.’ ” She was confirming the legitimacy of the request while pleading for mercy on behalf of the women she had brought in.
“The thing about our movement is that we’re too woke,” Sarsour told me, “which is why we don’t have mass mobilization in the way that we should.” In choosing the word “woke,” she was using a term that once had real meaning in a Black radical tradition—“Today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change,” Dr. King once said—and had since been co-opted by the political right as a catchall label for the more pluralist, egalitarian future that many white people feared. I took Sarsour to be claiming the word consciously, to name her fear that some elements of the movement go beyond recognizing difference to fetishizing it and beyond clarity to purity. Sarsour’s concern wasn’t that the future her allies wanted was wrong. She was making a case against a superhighway to progress with too few on-ramps. She was conflicted about the matter, because she deeply believed in where the superhighway was going, believed in these efforts to make the society more inclusive. She just worried sometimes that the way of going about it created barriers to entry for a movement that, in fact, needed growth if her communities were to be safe and to flourish.
“When we’re like, ‘The heteropatriarchy . . . ’ If my immigrant mom in Sunset Park doesn’t know what that is, that’s not going to move her. Or we talk about cisgender people. I get it. I get what you’re saying, and I understand that it’s an important concept that we need to get through, particularly to make sure that people who are trans and people who are gender nonconforming and others feel whole in space. And they deserve to feel whole. But I also believe in this idea of mass mobilization and meeting people where they’re at. And a lot of people in our community are not there yet. And a lot of white people are not there yet.”
Sarsour’s concern with these barriers was pragmatic—that they turned away potential customers of the future she wanted to live in. “A lot of people sometimes don’t even come to our spaces because they don’t feel equipped,” she said.
But it is one thing when it is immigrant women who don’t speak English, I suggested. Most people would probably give that a sympathetic hearing. But if we were talking about a fifty-year-old white guy in Michigan, I wondered if the same principle would apply—that he would have to be given a ramp, some way in, even though he possessed greater privilege. Here, Sarsour surprised me.
“Oh, yeah, I do believe that,” she said. “This idea that we expect people to be good and right about things is just not realistic. And that’s why I always struggle with whether I should be the one reaching out, or who are the other people that could be on this journey with us to get people there. But you have to meet everybody where they’re at. Twenty years ago, you had to meet me where I was at.”
She was speaking of her upbringing in a conservative Muslim American family and community. “In my community, the positions on things like homosexuality—if it wasn’t for me venturing out into the world, meeting people, building relationships with people, and really questioning so many things that were around me, if you would’ve met me twenty years ago, only God knows what my positions were on things.”
For all her frustration with the white women, she identified with them, too—or could identify with them if she dug deep and remembered to. She had a way in to empathy for them if she wanted it.
I asked if she felt an analogy between her own political evolution and what millions of white Americans are struggling with in a changing country.
“Oh, absolutely. Because, you know, I grew up in this community, and at that point it was a very insulated community. I went to school with a lot of people of color, but there were a lot of Muslims here, and I lived in a Palestinian community. I went to events about Palestine with my people. I went to Arabic school on the weekends. A lot of my friends that we would go to each other’s houses were people from my community. And these were people born and raised outside the country. These were people that didn’t have exposure to certain issues and certain things. And so I was growing up learning whatever my parents were teaching me at the time.
“For example, I went through my own anti-Blackness at a very young age because my father owned a store in Crown Heights. After school, we would go to my dad’s store, and after doing our homework—my dad had a little living room in the back of the store—we would go out into the neighborhood to play. And the kids that we played with were Black kids. There were no other kids to play with. And so, for me, I was able to get through that at an early age where I was able to see, ‘Oh, those kids I’m playing with in the streets—fun, great.’ But other kids in my community didn’t have that. I came from Sunset Park. There were few Black people in Sunset Park. Most of the people in my community were Puerto Rican, Guatemalans, Hondurans; there was a couple of dark-skinned Dominicans in my neighborhood. But overall there was no African Americans in my community. So other kids that didn’t have the privilege I had of being able to have a father who owned a store in a different neighborhood, they probably grew up with a different type of experience around Black people. And until people venture out and go to high school or even college, until they get to meet people they didn’t otherwise have relationships with—for me, transformation comes from relationships. And so sometimes it may not be that the white person has to have a relationship with me, but they have to have a relationship with someone.”
These stories gave a greater understanding of why Sarsour had been willing to try with the Women’s March. Seen from one angle, she represented the future that terrified and discomfited many. But seen from another, she, too, had once needed to evolve. She, too, had to learn new values, new terms, purge the prejudices of custom by forging relationships.
She told me a story about her mother. Her mother had become interested in the campaign of a local elected official named Carlos Menchaca. Sarsour had known him for years and knew that he was gay, but she didn’t want to say anything to her mother, whom she feared might have a problem with that. It wasn’t her place to get involved, she felt.
When Menchaca announced he was running for New York City Council, something clicked for Sarsour’s mother. She threw herself into door knocking, signature gathering, phone banking. “My mom’s a little immigrant from Palestine,” Sarsour said. “She never door knocked in her life. She never was involved in politics. I mean, she would go vote, but she would vote for whomever I told her to vote for. But because she had a personal relationship with Carlos, she got heavily involved.” All this despite her mother having retrograde views on homosexuality that reflected her upbringing.
Menchaca won his race in a stunning upset of an incumbent. Not long afterward, he stopped by Sarsour’s mother’s home, and they took a selfie together. “My mom’s beyond,” Sarsour told me. “My mom thinks she just won this election.” Sarsour said to herself, I’ve got to tell this lady. But she found herself scared to let her mother know Menchaca is gay. And she felt hypocritical for feeling scared to tell her. “I forgot that I’m a progressive, that I believe in these things,” she said. “Why am I scared to tell my mom?”
Finally, she went for it. “I want to tell you something about Carlos,” she remembered saying.
Her mother stopped talking. It felt like a lifetime to Sarsour, but it was probably ten seconds. Sarsour began to gird herself for what was about to happen. “Then my mom just looks at me, and she’s like, ‘He’s wonderful. He won the election.’ And she just went back to talking about what she was talking about.”
Sarsour didn’t know that her mother had evolved on the issue, she told me, that she had ended up in “a whole other place.” She had grown in the shade. She had allowed her mind to be changed, as millions had in recent years on the question of homosexuality. A few days later, Sarsour went over to her mother’s home, wanting to talk about the evolution she had missed. “We’re dining room people,” Sarsour told me. “We just sit at the dining room table and eat nuts, drink tea, and that’s like a congregating place for two hours.” So they sat and did these things, and Sarsour told her mother about her work on LGBTQ issues in their own community and about the problem of hate crimes. Without any prompting or tutelage, her mother found the language to connect the struggle of a Palestinian immigrant who was once homophobic to the struggle of a Latino politician who is gay. “My mom says, ‘Look, this is a country where we all get to live here.’ ” In that sentence of revelation was the dream Sarsour kept chasing—that instead of the movement for progress turning people away, it drew them in, and educated them, and people began to notice the ways in which their distinct struggles could flow together.
Perhaps it worked in this case because Sarsour had given her mother space to grow. “I’m not saying that it’s about accommodation,” she said. “It’s really this concept of meet people where they’re at and bring them along. A lot of people in the movement don’t want to do the work.”
As she admitted, sometimes that included her. Without Mallory’s prodding, she wouldn’t have messed with the Women’s March. Your mother, on the other hand, is your mother. It was hard to imagine Sarsour, or many people of her political orientation, so patiently talking through the homophobia of a white guy she didn’t know. But sometimes when in those situations, on a lark, something in her would tell her to try where she didn’t have to, to go in there for the future’s sake.
Copyright © 2022 by Anand Giridharadas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.