Sagashus Levingston didn’t vote for Donald Trump, nor does she think he will be a good president. But in a way, she thinks his ascent to the nation’s highest office could be “the best thing” that could have happened for the country.
“Communities need a common enemy if people are going to band together the way they should,” she says. “I am less afraid knowing that people are mobilizing to address all the issues.”
Energy and solidarity was evident on Saturday at the Women’s March on Madison, which brought as many as 100,000 people through State Street to the Capitol Square. The rally was part of a worldwide movement in response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump. More than 2 million activists in all 50 states and at least 16 foreign countries gathered in opposition to the new administration and to support marginalized communities that many say are at risk in this new era of far-right leadership.
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For many progressives, the post-election activism has created a spark of energy and optimism during dark political times. But the demonstrations have also triggered a contentious debate about race, with many African-American activists calling for more effort to bring diversity and inclusion into the movement and more emphasis on the distinct needs of black women.
Levingston, an artist, activist and doctoral candidate at UW-Madison, knew she that she might face criticism from other black feminists for agreeing to speak at the Women’s March on Madison. Much of the conversation about race and the “whitewashing” of feminism has been at the national level, but it’s a concern among local activists as well. The week before the march, Levingston got an email from a person who wanted to know how Levingston could take part in the Women’s March on Madison “when it’s an affront to black women.”
“There’s a simple answer,” Levingston tells Isthmus. “I’m a hybrid. I have always lived in two worlds.”
Levingston is referring to intersectionality, or the idea that overlapping social categories like race, class and gender all factor into a person’s identity, experience and privilege. The term was coined nearly three decades ago, but it’s become a feminist buzzword in recent years, and it was the subject of Levingston’s speech on Saturday afternoon.
“I knew that it wouldn’t benefit me and it wouldn’t benefit other women for me to show up just talking about black women’s agendas,” she says. “But what would benefit was to speak for all women present. People are more likely to hear your agenda when you have made it clear that you are there for them, too.”
Others at the event are concerned about the nascent movement being inclusive. Lexi Tarter, a student at the University of Minnesota, felt some “trepidation” about attending Saturday’s Madison march, which was to be her first major political demonstration. Overcoming her claustrophobia was hard enough, but she had seen the “contradictory” dialogue surrounding the movement on Facebook. “I wanted to make sure this was inclusive,” says Tarter, 23, holding a sign with pro-women slogans, written in Spanish.
While the crowd was mostly white, those who marched on Saturday championed a wide variety of progressive causes — there were chants of “Black Lives Matter,” rainbow flags representing the LGBT community, signs promoting public education, health care, immigrants, indigenous rights, and water sovereignty. Many marchers wore knitted, pink, cat-eared “pussy hats” — a response to Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments that have become a symbol of the movement.
“A friend of mine who’s in the Tea Party actually made me this [pussy] hat,” says Jessica Lopez, a 34-year-old from Milwaukee who came to Madison for the rally. “She was happy to help me out, despite our political differences. I think our leaders could learn a thing or two from us.”
The marchers signs were creative, with many riffing on recent headlines — Trump’s alleged penchant for “golden showers,” his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his comments about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Lynn Judnic, of Kewaskum, carried a banner listing a number of carefully chosen words to describe the new president, including one of her own invention: “pigotry.”
“That’s what I think of his morals and values,” says Jurnic, 65, who came to the rally with her daughter and granddaughter.
Many demonstrators spoke of feeling frustrated and despondent — and even depressed — after Trump won the election. Kyla Harper, a 30-year-old information technology worker, says there have been days when she can’t even look at the news. A transgender woman, she fears the influence of Vice President Mike Pence, who is known for his hardline anti-LGBT policies. “I’ve been feeling hopeless and helpless,” she says. “But being here and just seeing the sheer number of people coming together, I feel more positive. I feel like we have a chance.”
Male allies made a strong showing on Saturday as well. They pushed strollers, wore pussy hats and chanted “her body her choice!” Zeke Vainer and Austin Burrows, both students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., were marching in honor of their mothers. Vainer’s mom runs an agency that helps survivors of domestic violence. Trump is reportedly considering cuts to the federal Violence Against Women grant program — a decision that Vainer says would be “incredibly damaging” to the work his mom does. Burrows’ mom works for an organization that promotes women in government. “We thought we’d come and show support for the cause,” he says, adding: “My mom is pretty inspiring.”
It took the massive crowd hours to move entirely from Library Mall to the Capitol Square. There was no sign of any counter-demonstration from Trump supporters, though one marcher reported seeing a group of men chanting the president’s name before disappearing inside a smoke shop on State Street.
On the State Street side of the Capitol, progressive speakers and musicians addressed the crowd. Grisel Tapia Claudio, of Voces de La Frontera, spoke of the Trump administration’s potential impact on Latina women. “He’s said he’ll eliminate deferred action for childhood arrivals, which allowed almost 800,000 young people to continue their education, support their families and contribute to the economy by working legally,” she says. “If he sends our young people back to the shadows, the effect on millions of families will be devastating.”
Katie Vieira, an English professor at UW-Madison, brought her 8-year-old daughter to the rally. She remembers being pregnant and listening to former President Barack Obama’s speeches. His message made Vieira feel like she was “bringing a child into a world that was fundamentally better” than the one she was born into, she says. “With Trump, we’re going backwards.”
Vieira says the energy channeled into Saturday’s demonstrations is a good start. But she urges people to keep the momentum going forward with calls to their legislators and continued activism over the next four years.
“I was asleep,” she says. “And now I’m awake.”