On Jan. 20, roughly 10,000 people holding signs and chanting took to the streets of downtown Cincinnati, joining protests across the country on the one-year anniversary of marches protesting the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
But a key group abstaining from the event highlighted a fundamental difference among activists looking to build movements for women’s rights. In sitting out the march after organizers rebuffed the group's request to change its name and holding their own event later, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati challenged a central tenet of the event: That social change will come at the ballot box.
Last year’s women’s marches protested well-documented statements by Trump that demeaned women, as well as the recorded claims by Trump in which he discussed touching women in ways that constitute sexual assault. Those marches also protested any number of policy decisions by conservative lawmakers that curtailed access to abortion and other health services.
This year, Women’s March events across the country, called “Hear Our Vote,” were themed around electoral action. That included Cincinnati’s event, which featured a diverse array of speakers from various organizations working on health care, efforts to raise the minimum wage, racial injustices, immigration reform, housing and a number of other issues.
The marches took place ahead of the 2018 Congressional elections, when the Democratic Party looks to take back the House of Representatives and Senate from Republican control. They also take place in the aftermath of Alabama’s Senate election last year in which Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore. Jones was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama in decades. Moore was accused of exploitive sexual relationships with underage women.
Cincinnati’s event was laser-focused on that particular fight.
“This year the theme will be ‘Hear Our Vote’ with a focus on voter registration and taking back the polls in 2018,” the Cincinnati event’s Facebook page stated.
That emphasis ended up being a deal breaker for BLMC, which is independent from other Black Lives Matter groups across the country. Many of those groups elected to participate in voting-themed marches. BLMC did not.
BLMC organizers say the group doesn’t believe the ballot is a way to truly empower people, citing issues facing many people of color that go beyond voting.
Organizers with the group approached Cincinnati Women’s March leaders and asked if they would consider changing the name of the march to “Hear Our Voice,” which would be sufficiently broad to be inclusive to BLMC’s mission. Women’s March organizers declined to do that.
“Everyone in the United States does not have a vote — whether because of immigration status, age, prior criminal convictions, access to official identification, transportation issues — but everyone does have a voice,” BLMC said in a Jan. 7 statement about abstaining from the event. “Even if all women could vote, the electoral system does not let anyone vote their way to liberation from oppression.”
The statement caused controversy. Some who planned to attend the Women’s March accused BLMC of being “divisive,” while others agreed with the group, citing long-standing racial tensions around the Women’s March movement locally and nationally.
"I made the decision not to speak or participate in today's Women's March in Cincinnati after much deliberation," Rashida Manuel, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati who earlier had indicated she would attend the march, wrote on social media. "I learned that several Black women had declined to participate after experiencing blatant racism from some of the organizers. United We Stand made the decision not to partner with outside organizations or people not affiliated with their group to plan the march and to only invite people to speak."
BLMC later put out a second clarifying statement saying it was not trying to speak for all people of color and has no personal qualms with march organizer Billie Mays or United We Stand, the activist organization that planned the event.
“Never, ever have we pushed aside the concerns of women of color or anyone,” Mays said in a Facebook thread about BLMC’s announcement. “This really does hurt my heart. I realize we can’t all agree but we can be respectful of the work that is being done in so many ways by so many groups. I respect them all even if we can’t agree on it all.”
Leaders from more than 20 groups including Women Helping Women, the Greater Cincinnati Association of Nurses, and many others spoke about their work in the context of a widely accepting and diverse movement at the local Women’s March.
“Let’s be clear,” Women Helping Women President and CEO Kristin Shrimplin said. “Inequity generates a culture of violence. When racism, xenophobia, classism and other forms of oppression intersect with sexism, gender-based violence against marginalized populations increases significantly. We see it every day at our agency. Over the past year, the spike in services to immigrants, LGBTQ survivors has been huge. Enough is enough.”
Those speakers sometimes, but not always, pivoted to the importance of voting during their remarks. At least a few incorporated the phrase “Black Lives Matter” or plugged BLMC’s event later in the day.
That event drew about 400 people, who crammed into nearly every available space in the Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine. There, they heard from speakers who say voting alone won’t solve the injustices many women face.
“A five-minute checkmark is not going to cut it,” BLMC organizer Mona Jenkins said at the event. “Most of the changes that happen for us come from movements, not from the ballot box.”
Jenkins cited the labor movement, Harriet Tubman’s efforts to lead the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights movement and the 100-year organizing effort to win women’s suffrage in the United States as examples of pushes outside the electoral process that led to big changes.
Jenkins and other BLMC organizers say they’re not trying to dissuade anyone from voting, but are urging people to be realistic about what it does and doesn’t accomplish. Organizers also say they’re not keen on endorsing or helping a particular political party.
“We are willing to bend on certain things,” Jenkins said. “You want to vote, go vote. You want to march, march. But there are some things we’re not going to bend on. It was not about women today. Women were being used as a front for voting for the Democratic Party. That’s very hurtful.”
Representatives from the American Indian Movement, Cincinnati’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and other groups spoke at BLMC’s event, enumerating the ways in which they believe justice for women must go beyond the changes voting can bring.
“When I was asked to be a speaker at the Women’s March, I wasn’t told it was about voting,” said Corine Fairbanks, a long-time organizer with the American Indian Movement. “When I found that out, I was like, hmm, I’m not really feeling comfortable about that. Voting has never really done anything good for indigenous people. We’re only about 1 percent of the United States. The things we find important are usually voted against or they’re developed on or they’re taken away.”
Indigenous people were not officially and uniformly given citizenship rights, including suffrage, until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. That act, however, had loopholes that weren’t closed until the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. Even today, indigenous people face barriers to voting, including sparse access to polling places on reservations.
“When you talk to a native person about voting, there’s often skepticism that it’s not going to be a good deal,” Fairbanks said.
Ed Vaughn, a member of activist group Cincinnati Revolutionary Students who focuses on trans issues, also said relying on voting leaves out large swaths of issues facing women, especially trans women of color. Vaughn mentioned the often-ignored murders of trans women as being one issue that goes beyond the ballot box.
“We’re focusing on taking back the polls as if the polls are the only way to engage ourselves in political action and knowing the facts that there are threats within our lives that can’t be contained to the ballot box,” Vaughn said. “The fact that we have Richard Spencer, well known white nationalist, coming to the University of Cincinnati campus sometime this semester. We don’t vote on whether or not we want white nationalists on our campus. Those aren’t things that are going to go away in 2018 or 2020.”