Florida women who marched against Trump try to figure out what comes next

Jody Finver, in the foreground, of Coconut Grove takes pictures during an organizing meeting of anti-Trump activists last Sunday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
Jody Finver, in the foreground, of Coconut Grove takes pictures during an organizing meeting of anti-Trump activists last Sunday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Three weeks after they wore pink knitted hats, waved homemade protest signs and marched in Washington and in Miami, the women determined to keep confronting President Donald Trump filed into the pews of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove — if not to pray, then at least to commune.

“If you feel comfortable closing your eyes, please do so: We’re in a safe space,” Natalia Vásquez urged as she led an opening moment of meditation that felt a lot like the start of a yoga class. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I here? What is important to me right now? And how can I become involved in loving action?’”

They breathed and applauded and cheered together. And then came the hard work: trying to figure out how to turn their anti-Trump fervor into a long-term political movement — one more akin to the tea party, which quickly dominated U.S. elections, than to Occupy Wall Street, which didn’t.

The women’s marches held on Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, drew such extraordinary crowds that organizers across the country have spent the past few weeks dealing with the consequences of their unexpected success. Protesters wanted to know what more they could do — now and over the next four years.

No one had planned that far in advance.

Since then, the Florida women who say they managed to send 27,000 people to the Washington march — including 200 unable to pay for the trip whose expenses were covered by some $40,000 in donations — created Women’s March Florida, a non-profit that aims to keep organizing local, state and federal issue-based campaigns.

“Florida is the head that turns the neck of the nation,” said Emma Collum, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and the group’s director. “What we do very much affects the fate of the country.”

Anti-Trump activism began, largely thanks to social media, with the massive protests, rather than with the far less glamorous work of organizing for years before a major event, said Marian Mollin, an associate history professor at Virginia Tech University who studies social movements.

“The 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom of the civil rights movement, or the big suffrage march in 1913, or the Moratorium March during the Vietnam war in 1969 — all of those came out of existing movements that had been kind of building,” she said. “What makes this particular moment unprecedented is that there was no movement beforehand.”

The challenge for organizers is to reverse-engineer a movement out of a protest, growing the sparks that ignited on Jan. 21 so that they don’t burn out. There are signs that the anti-Trump sentiment isn’t going away: Mollin cited the spontaneous protests that engulfed airports after Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. A national “Day Without A Woman” strike is being planned for March 8, International Women’s Day.

“Historically, it’s the fight for the long haul that really makes a difference,” Mollin said. “The jury’s still out on what’s going on now.”

A group called Indivisible, formed by a pair of former Democratic congressional staffers in Texas, has explicitly advocated to adopt the tea-party strategy of 2009, which centered on putting political pressure on lawmakers by showing up at their public events, trying to meet with them and targeting their offices with phone calls. A Miami chapter sat down last Saturday with local aides to Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. More established progressive groups, like labor unions, plan training sessions for new activists.

Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who attended the women’s march meeting, said at some point the effort will have to turn to grooming a new generation to run for public office — something Emily’s List (at the national level) and Ruth’s List (in Florida) have been focused on for years.

“That’s such a critical part of all of this: If you want policies to change, you’ve got to have people in power to change them,” said Sorenson, who until last year ran a training program for newly elected officials at the University of Miami. “I just turned 62, and I’ve been doing this work since I was about 25, and I feel like all my life’s work is in danger right now. I think younger women are beginning to understand that they have to start paying attention —that all the rights that we’ve taken for granted are not so solid. That they can be undone.”

Women’s March Florida says it has 20 chapters around the state that have been holding “sister huddles” like the one at St. Stephen’s, which last Sunday attracted some 300 people (complete with the quintessential large-Miami-gathering problem: not enough parking) on a sunny afternoon to meet in person.

Some of the attendees were men, but most were women — older, whiter and more affluent than the usual crowd at progressive Miami political gatherings. The lack of diversity did not go unnoticed by longtime activists who had hoped their nascent movement would look more like the city itself.

“I was surprised it was such an older group,” said Gail Paris, a 69-year-old lifelong activist who lives in Brickell and is the membership director for the Downtown Democrats club. “But it’s encouraging that all these people showed up.”

For political veterans like Paris, the meeting — which involved breakout sessions where attendees were asked to share their biggest fears, biggest hopes and what brought them to the meeting in the first place — didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. Yet it was a necessary first step, said one of Paris’ friends, 52-year-old Eileen Higgins.

“It might not be the most productive meeting, but at least there’s no magic markers involved,” said Higgins, who lives downtown and is involved in a number of civic organizations. “It’s really inspiring to me. Sitting around in a pit of despair is a waste of time.”

Organizers asked attendees to split into one of 11 groups, related to a specific issue, such as education or immigration, or a specific organizing skill, like using social media. With so many policy interests — ranging from healthcare to abortion rights to gun control to LGBT rights to the environment — Lakey Love, the group’s policy director, acknowledged that the organization’s priorities would vary from region to region and perhaps over time.

“We will grow and change,” Love told the women, who donned buttons that said “Resist” and “Persist.”

Collum credited women involved in the organization with successfully pushing to outlaw “conversion therapy” for LGBT youth in Key West and putting together a march to Mar-a-Lago when Trump was there earlier this month.

Women’s March Florida has established ties with several labor unions (the AFL-CIO and SEIU) and women’s organizations (Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women), and expects to work with them on at least some issues. It’s unclear how closely tied the different groups will be; unions and established nonprofits have organized their usual small demonstrations and actions, mostly directed at members of Congress, since Trump took office, without necessarily coordinating with the new women’s groups.

The cumulative effect has been an overwhelming amount of requests for outreach that some experienced organizers privately fear may be too much for fledgling activists.

“We need to figure out a much more clear message, and we need to keep people focused,” said Stephanie Myers, who organized the Jan. 21 rally at downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park. “I don’t think we’ve come up with the perfect solution yet.”