Last year at this time, a giant women’s march was in the planning stages. It turned out to be among the largest in U.S. history, according to the Washington Post. Between 4 million and 5 million people turned out in over 650 marches across the U.S. on Jan. 21, 2017, ranging from 200 in Abilene, Texas, to five who bravely marched in their hospital cancer ward, to between half a million and a million each in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and New York. In spite of Trump administration sputtering, the D.C. women’s march alone dwarfed the size of the official inauguration.
The pink-hatted marchers conveyed an unmistakable message of fury at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But they did so much more: They rebuilt spirits crushed by the 2016 election and energized the resistance. Many came home from the march realizing that they could no longer outsource their activism to political parties or centralized advocacy groups. They realized they needed to bring their activism home, and organizations like Indivisible and MoveOn blossomed.
Fast forward one disastrous year, and another women’s march is in the works, this one to be centered in Las Vegas.
Marches, and elections, are important. But as we mobilize, we also need to create new, powerful local infrastructure, or strengthen groups that are already on the ground. Sustained local power means we can stand up year-round for people who are targeted, resist policies that will harm our communities, reimagine the world we want together with others in our communities, and then make that reimagined world a reality.
Marches are powerful organizing tools, especially when people are angry. And today there are many reasons to be angry:
- The newly adopted tax bill will cost billions that will go straight into the pockets of the ultra-rich while hitting low-income and middle-class people and children especially hard—and the elderly too, if Paul Ryan succeeds in pushing through cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
- The #MeToo moment has focused the nation’s attention as never before on sexual harassment and reminded everyone that a man who bragged about sexual assault remains in the White House.
- Evidence of Russian influence over our election, media, and politics is bad enough, but the possible entanglement of Trump enterprises, family, and perhaps the president himself makes this a dangerous moment in American history.
- The dreams of DACA youth have been crushed.
- A white supremacist movement is reemerging with the support of the president.
- The Paris climate deal has been abandoned.
- The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments have been eviscerated by the Trump administration.
- Protections for net neutrality, health, and the environment, and even respect for “evidence-based” science, have been targeted by the current administration.
So march we must!
But mobilizing marches around the country will have much more impact if we also build sustained, local movements. The work of resisting Trumpism and the rogue Republican state will last for years, and building a different sort of world—beyond corporate power and beyond white supremacy and patriarchy—will take years and generations. Big mobilizations are important, but just one tactic. We can only win if we build sustainable networks and increase organization, from the bottom up.
The midterm elections: distraction or the whole point?
The organizers of the women’s march are looking ahead to the midterm elections, as they should be. With Trump’s historically low approval ratings, this could be the year when the new breed of Republican extremists loses big. Progressive candidates did extremely well at the polls in 2017; according to The Nation, there are now 100 elected officials who took office supported by Our Revolution, the political movement that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
All the work that goes into mobilizing young and old voters, people of color, women, and others to go to the polls will have much more impact, though, if it also builds sustained, local power.
Every four years, the big national parties raise millions of dollars, buy ads, and sweep into communities with outside organizers. But rarely does all this spending and mobilizing build the long-term power base that supports real change. Instead, two or four years later, they start all over again with their big lists, corporate money, and top-down mobilization.
It’s time for a different approach. Instead of organizing for a one-off event—like a march or an election—we need to organize sustained, locally rooted, empowered, and connected groups.
Members of these independent, locally rooted groups may choose to leap into the midterm elections—there are good reasons to do so! But the groups that build local infrastructure at the same time can do so much more. They can build a pipeline to recruit and encourage truly progressive candidates of all races and backgrounds, men, women, LGBTQ. They can distinguish between those with an authentic concern for the common good and opportunists. They can hold their representatives accountable.
And local groups can build power beyond elections. Because we have a lot of work to do to reinvent our broken systems and reweave the fabric of our communities. Local groups are our best hope for undoing the damage and building anew.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.