As Women's March, Inc. continues to battle accusations of anti-Semitism, some offshoot groups — those affiliated with March On — have been sucked into the conflict despite having gone their own way months ago.
“We’ve lost people who are extremely concerned about anti-Semitism and some of the rhetoric [from Women’s March Inc]. We’re pro-equality. We’re a positive group. But people don’t realize we’re not affiliated with them,” says Katherine Siemionko, who organized the Women’s March on New York City and is the director of a non-profit called The Women’s March Alliance, a March On affiliate.
“We haven’t really had to deal with any of it in Oklahoma. No one has asked about it, but we’re also not affiliated with Women’s March Inc.,” adds Lindsey Kanaly, who leads a March On group in Oklahoma City. “It’s not that we don’t care. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing here in Oklahoma, and show that our work doesn’t support any type of anti-Semitism or bigotry.”
The comments come after a bruising week for the national Women’s March and its four high-profile co-chairs, during which critics charged they weren’t being outspoken enough against anti-Semitism. Moreover, its leaders have declined to distance themselves with religious leader Louis Farrakhan, who the Anti-Defamation League has called “the most popular anti-Semite in America,” and who is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremists. (His organization, Nation of Islam, is a designated hate group, according to the SPLC.) This has led to problems for some members of March On, which has a lower profile, as they scramble to explain to their supporters their lack of control over what Women’s March Inc. is doing.
"No universe exists in which it is acceptable to support an anti-Semite. March On condemns bigotry in all its forms — we are not associated in any way with Farrakhan and reject his anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ views. Our work is to fight against social and racial injustice everywhere, no matter its source,” Vanessa Wruble, one of the architects of the Women’s March on Washington who left the original group to found March On, said in a statement provided to Refinery29 this week. “The women's march movement has always been decentralized. It is organized and led by many amazing, diverse women in towns and cities across the United States.”
March On was officially founded in October of 2017 with the intent to focus solely on grassroots political organizing around the midterm elections, while Women’s March has been more focused on organizing around social justice issues through protest, rallies, and their large social media reach. Though the two groups’ projects sometimes overlap, they don’t regularly communicate or coordinate.
But this message doesn’t seem to be getting across. Many supporters don’t realize the lack of a working relationship between the two organizations, or how leaderless the movement really is as the media has continued to focus on the four co-chairs of the March as figureheads.
This follows a week of controversy after CNN’s Jake Tapper highlighted Tamika Mallory’s attendance at Minister Louis Farrakhan’s speech in February. When outrage spread, Mallory and several of Women’s March board members dug in their heels in support of Farrakhan and each other.
Several Women’s March leaders tried to clarify their individual views over the past few days in response to the criticism, signaling emotions are high internally. “It seems I am not being clear. I am and always have been against all forms of racism. I am committed to ending anti-black racism, antisemitism, homophobia & transphobia. This is why I helped create an intersectional movement to bring groups together,” Mallory wrote. She also made reference to feeling attacked and how that can lead to defensiveness at times, though she didn't apologize directly for her earlier comments. (Today, she wrote an op-ed in NewsOne, expressing more of the same.)
Carmen Perez retweeted Mallory’s thread with the note, “Our lifetime commitment to liberation and our work speaks for itself.” She also retweeted Rabbi Barat Ellman (who is also Women’s March Communications deputy Sophie Ellman-Golan’s mom) who wrote, in part: “This Farrakhan thing may help clarify why leftist Jews & Blacks so often come into conflict even when trying 2 work for collective liberation. As Jews, we are justifiably, super sensitive 2 anti-Semitic tropes & quick to demand our allies denounce them...I don’t understand the attachment to Minister Farrakhan. Therefore I want to start by listening: how does he empower? What does he provide? Maybe if I do that first, my black sisters and brothers will be more willing to hear my issues with him.”
Bob Bland posted a 12-tweet thread on Sunday, denouncing Farrakhan’s past remarks and reiterating her support for Mallory. “@Twitter is the absolute worst platform for nuanced conversation, like the ones that @womensmarch are committed to having with Black + Jewish organizers around this painfully important subject. They must be in person, by people with a real commitment to listening to one another,” Bland wrote, in part.
Sophie Ellman-Golan issued several pointed tweets highlighting issues of anti-Semitism on the left. “To my queer, trans, and Jewish siblings: I love you. I see you. I am so sorry. We deserve more than this,” she tweeted on March 5.
More than a week after Mallory attended the Savior’s Day speech, the Women’s March issued an official statement yesterday in response to the controversy:
“Women’s March is committed to fighting all forms of oppression as outlined in our Unity Principles. We will not tolerate anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia and we condemn these expressions of hatred in all forms,” the statement reads in part. “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles, which were created by women of color leaders and are grounded in Kingian Nonviolence. Women’s March is holding conversations with queer, trans, Jewish and Black members of both our team and larger movement to create space for understanding and healing.”
The full statement was posted to Twitter.
The reaction to the statement has been mixed. While some are viewing the conflict as an opportunity for a larger discussion about the ways Black and Jewish communities have been pitted against one another in the past, others have called the statement simply “hypocritical" and said it’s too little, too late for them to recover their support.
Meanwhile, local Women’s March affiliated state chapters, some of which were facing backlash from their own communities, did not return requests for comment or pointed to the national chapter’s statement on their social media channels. “We are distressed by conflict in the movement but hope that it can be a place of growth,” wrote Women’s March Pittsburgh on their Facebook page. “National Women's March has joined Pittsburgh in declaring that hate has no home here. We look to unity and we seek to build bridges that can transcend the pattern of marginalized communities pitted against each other. We also are firm and clear in our understanding that growth as a community must be grounded in fighting all forms of oppression.”
Past partners of Women’s March Inc., including Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Emily’s List, GLAAD, NRDC Action Fund, did not return repeated requests for comment. Some Democratic operatives expressed frustration at the ongoing controversy and lack of response. “I’m glad they responded, but I think they should have prepared for that before hand. You knew who he was when you were there,” said one Democratic strategist and activist who asked that we not include her name. “The problem we’re having is progressives expect everyone to be everything for them right now and that’s not realistic. But that doesn’t mean you don’t challenge the leaders you value or look up to. You should always challenge anti-Semitism in any space.”