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The Women’s March proves that 21st century protest is still about bodies, not tweets

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The revolution does not need an app

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Photo by Miriam Nielsen / The Verge

The Women’s March on Washington this weekend, which drew an estimated crowd of 470,000, was mirrored across the country and around the world by 673 sister marches — about 3.3 million bodies in the US and hundreds of thousands more abroad.

Women, men, and children moved mostly together through the streets of their respective cities, even in DC where the crowd was so large it took up the entire permitted marching route before it took a step. The people there improvised somehow on the spot, with severely limited cell service and no clear directives from the sound system set up on the National Mall. They spontaneously splintered into groups that took over Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue, and Independence Avenue, as well as cross streets, bottlenecking but eventually reforming into a second massive rally in front of the White House. At times it felt like moving toward any pocket of air — less a march and more a dispersal to cover ground and get some elbow room.

Headed to DC on Friday, I was asked by my editor to pay attention to the ways that people were communicating and dealing with logistical issues on the spot. Would the Women’s March app be used to ping people with changes in plan, or would the massive crowds inspire an official recommendation of using peer-to-peer communications like FireChat? Would organizers encourage participants to use encrypted messaging services to protect themselves? Would there be clashes with police or anti-protest groups that warranted live video streams? In reality the only mass communication I witnessed was organizers asking participants to text a no-reply number to obtain an official tally for the march — seemingly unaware that 500,000 people sending a text in synchronization in a small space is probably impossible, and that many people had been warned not to help create records of their location and ID on protest day. For all the reasoned and confident organization the Women’s March team did before the event, they were unprepared to direct the crowd that eventually materialized before them on Saturday morning, and they didn’t use any of the tools we imagined.

That’s not a knock on the organizers or a denial of the broader role of social media. Inspired by the organization tactics popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement and echoed by the recently and briefly potent Pantsuit Nation group, the Women’s March organizers did their initial rallying mostly on Facebook. The first suggestion of the march was made the day after the election by Teresa Shook, a retired grandmother in Hawaii, in a post in Pantsuit Nation. By November 11th, her suggestion had been taken up by 10,000 women, then championed by activist Bob Bland and the organizers of the annual Women in the World summit. The massive response on Facebook attracted the attention of tested activist organizers who were able to craft the march’s mission statement to be inclusive and incisive. There were momentary controversies over the march’s chosen name and whether or not it would be a truly intersectional expression of modern feminism, and as Jia Tolentino pointed out in The New Yorker, “It is unfortunate that Facebook is both the best place to reach people and the worst place to conduct political discussion. Imagine any major protest in the twentieth century promoted via Facebook; there would have been no shortage of ‘infighting’ enshrined on social media for everyone to see.” This in-fighting may someday prove to be a valuable historical text, and in spite of it, or maybe because of it, millions of people showed up to march. Once they did so, the tools that brought them together ceased to be useful.

Photo by Rosemary Warren / The Verge

The official app for the Women’s March, which hosted an Instagram-inspired feed of photos and plenty of pre-march information, served basically no function from an organizing perspective in real time because it required cell service or Wi-Fi to load updates. At one point, a rally speaker acknowledged that the crowd “may have seen” a news article saying the march was no longer happening because there were too many people. But there was no way to get Twitter to load in the thick of things, so most of us had not. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were useful only on the outskirts of the protest and afterwards, to digest dispatches that had been sent whenever a signal could be ferreted out. These tools were powerful only in the moments after, as a way to make the protest last into the first eerily quiet Sunday of the Trump administration and into the weeks and months that will follow — when these images will be so important to return to.

The 21st century may have a new kind of protest outfitted with new tools for planning and documentation, but on the ground, protest looks just like it did when it took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago and passed the Civil Rights Act. The revolution does not need an app; it needs human beings whose presence cannot be denied or danced around. The crowds in cities like DC, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, were intimidating in their size but not surprising in their existence. The bigger story is the fact that marches occurred in all 50 states — red states and red cities, red towns and red college campuses. My sister marched in North Carolina, two days after calling me in a fury because her psychology professor derided Planned Parenthood to a class full of young people who were ostensibly eager to hear it. These are places with representatives who would have you believe that their constituencies have nothing in common with the nation’s liberal cities or centrist states. The people who marched there are people you may never have heard from until now. And while viral tweets of protest or arguments encountered only on Facebook can be written off as the pastime of a self-indulgent generation of “coastal liberal elites,” there is no gymnastics of the mind that can make the argument that these marchers were a “coastal,” or “elitist,” or even just a Democratic response to the inauguration of Donald Trump. There is, the bodies in these photos argue, no bubble. In his tweeted prediction that Americans would “come together as never before” during his administration, Trump may actually have spoken a profound and surprising truth, albeit not the one that he intended.

In an interview on Fox Business on Saturday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz suggested that Democratic donor George Soros may have paid protesters to come out on Inauguration Day. While that comment can rankle you, imagining how someone so dumb became an elected official in your democracy, it can’t sway anyone with eyes. Physical bodies in space cannot be denied the way online phenomena still can, and the intent of a person with a sign that says “I am afraid for my family” cannot be obfuscated by spin. Decent people, or even just cautiously rational people, were everywhere. That fact has been recorded incontrovertibly by the photographs that will one day be printed in our history textbooks. Donald Trump’s tweets may be there beside them, but they won’t look anywhere near so impressive. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook may get a mention, but we, the people, will be the most powerful image.