Tara Romano remembers standing on the street during the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, watching people pour into downtown Raleigh to protest the policies of Donald Trump, who had been sworn in as president the day before.
Organizers had not known how many people to expect: a thousand? four thousand? five?
“We would have been happy with that,” said Romano, of Raleigh, one of many people who helped plan that event, which ultimately drew a crowd of more than 17,000. “But then they just kept coming. All these people just kept coming. It was exciting and energizing and – well, we knew something had hit a nerve.”
Nerves had been plucked across the nation – a half-million people turned out for the biggest march that day, in Washington; another 400,000 in New York and hundreds of thousands more at 650 other events in cities and towns across the U.S.
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As they stood there, wearing pink hats, carrying babies and handmade signs, chanting, singing, listening to speeches and reveling in a sense of solidarity, many wondered whether they could convert all that emotion into effective political action.
A year later, as they planned Saturday’s anniversary rally on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, organizers of what they like to call “the resistance” say there has been a surge in left-leaning grassroots activism, with new groups sprouting up across the Triangle and state and existing ones gaining new support. There have been distractions and duplications and some cases of burnout, but leaders say a movement is coalescing that has the potential to match the force of the one that put Trump in office.
“It’s been a crash-course education for a lot of us over the last year,” said Cristel Orrand of StrongerNC, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, all-volunteer grassroots group promoting progressive values. Orrand, 37, of Raleigh, has a master’s degree in political science and years of experience as an activist, but says the past year has shown her that policy decisions made at the local and state levels are as important as what happens in Washington.
That’s one thing we will be doing going forward. Making sure that people understand that all these issues are connected.
Tara Romano of Raleigh
Orrand joined StrongerNC right after the 2016 election, she said, and a month ago was chosen to be its chair.
“We’ve lost some people,” she said, since those heady days at the start when volunteers were running on adrenaline and the momentum of the march. “Some people have gotten burned out. If you’re spending a day a week at the [state legislature], or every day you’re online or sending letters, those are things your family is not used to. It’s an adjustment, not just for the activists but for their families. There are a lot of teenagers going, ‘What happened to my mom?’ ”
Ups and downs
Besides the time and effort involved, volunteers have to learn to cope with the emotional ups and downs of grassroots work.
Lois Roewade, 78, of Winston-Salem, said she has been fighting for women’s rights and social justice since the mid-1960s.
“I worked very hard in the 2016 election campaign,” she said, “and election night was so utterly, shockingly disappointing, that I think a lot of us felt like, ‘It’s over. What can we do?’ ”
Then she went to the Women’s March in Greensboro last January, “and I came out of that march feeling, ‘OK. It’s time to get back in the fight.”
The past year, she said, when she wasn’t sure she had the energy for another trip to Raleigh to protest at Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’ office or to spend another afternoon carrying signs at a rally that passing drivers seemed to ignore, she would turn to others in her local chapter of the National Organization for Women and feed off their enthusiasm.
When they have a touch of the same malaise, she said, some of the newbies feed off of hers.
“We pick each other up,” she said.
‘A country that allows discourse’
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative NC Values Coalition, said she regards the Women’s March movement as primarily a pro-abortion rights effort that grew up in response to decades of grassroots work by anti-abortionists. The latter group, which held a march in Raleigh last weekend, just gets less media attention, Fitzgerald said.
While she disagrees with the political positions of many of those inspired by the Women’s March, Fitzgerald said, “We live in a country that allows discourse and encourages different points of view.
“As a woman and an attorney… it’s encouraging to me to see women being treated with respect and to see their voices matter.”
Those who identify as part of “the resistance” against the Trump administration say they have had moments of elation and disappointment over the past year. Roewade, for instance, said she has been surprised by Trump’s aggressive effort to roll back federal environmental regulations and by the threatening comments between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
She was horrified, she said, to read reports this week that the Pentagon is considering whether major cyber attacks could warrant a nuclear response.
We want people to see us. We’re still here. We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to back down
Lois Roewade of Winston-Salem
Progressives also have been frustrated in their efforts to get North Carolina’s gerrymandered congressional districts redrawn, with a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week that the state would not have to create new maps, meaning voters could go to the polls in the coming year to elect 13 members of Congress from districts that three judges have said were unconstitutional.
But since his election, Trump has been unable to fulfill his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a point of pride for many in the women’s movement who say the law needs to be tweaked but provides lifesaving care for families who otherwise could not afford it. Conservative legislators in North Carolina have not passed additional restrictions on abortion in the past year, activists note, and have not restricted voting rights and were pressed to rescind parts of HB2, the controversial “bathroom bill.”
Women’s March participants and sympathizers also have celebrated the #metoo phenomenon, in which women who have been victims of sexual assault or harassment spoke out about their experiences, many of them for the first time ever. It began with women accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but spread throughout that industry and far beyond, removing the taboo against talking about sexual predation.
On many issues, those who were mobilized by the Women’s March have seen mixed results. On immigration reform, for example, where Trump has been frustrated with Congress’ lack of action, he has circumvented lawmakers and rescinded protections for immigrants who came to the U.S. from Haiti and El Salvador when their countries were hit by earthquakes. His administration has tried to restrict immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries and has tried to rescind DACA, an Obama-era program that gave protection to people brought illegally into the U.S. as children.
When the Muslim travel ban was announced, crowds gathered at Raleigh-Durham International Airport to protest, proving to Romano that not only was the energy from the January Women’s March sustainable, but that many people felt it was important to act against a policy they saw as unfair even when it didn’t affect them directly.
“That’s one thing we will be doing going forward,” Romano said. “Making sure that people understand that all these issues are connected.” Fair pay for women, for instance, means single women heading a household can better afford health care, decent housing and education for their children, she said.
Already, Orrand said, groups born of the energy of the 2017 Women’s March are getting better organized, using integrated calendars to avoid duplication of events like the three rallies scheduled last year by three groups on the same day for the same cause. Several have applied for nonprofit status, and most are figuring out what issues they want to focus on and where they want to defer to another group.
A goal for the next year, Romano and others say, is to diversify the groups, which relied in part on the rallying work in recent years of the N.C. NAACP but have not been successful in recruiting great numbers of African-American or Hispanic members. The groups also don’t have many participants from rural areas.
For Roewade, taking part in a Winston-Salem march on Saturday, another goal of the next year is just to remain vigilant.
“We want people to see us,” she said. “We’re still here. We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to back down.”