Sometimes a single protest can change the whole mood of a movement. There have been more than twenty thousand demonstrations all around the United States since Trump took office, far more than at any prior time in American history. Record numbers of people have marched and rallied—anywhere from ten to fifteen million have taken to the streets over the past year and half to express their disgust and anger with the racism, misogyny, corruption, and cruelty of this rogue Administration.
But until June 28, when six hundred heartsick and fed-up women took over the vast atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, chanting “Where are the children?” and “Abolish ICE,” there hadn’t been a single truly mass civil disobedience action in the Trump era. There have been a number of direct actions under Trump, but they’ve mostly been modest in size and organized by what you might call the usual suspects: veteran activists with long protest experience. The #WomenDisobey action on Capitol Hill against Trump’s immigration policies marked a major departure from this pattern and a crucial shift in the resolve and tactics of the anti-Trump resistance. It was, by a factor of three, the largest women’s civil disobedience action in US history, and it was by far the largest direct action of any kind since Trump took office.
The protest was thrown together in just ten days by organizers from the Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy, and they were joined by some of the country’s most seasoned direct action organizers. (Full disclosure: I served as a tactical coordinator on the day of the action.) It came at the end of a brutal week filled with grim Supreme Court rulings on the travel ban, labor rights, and reproductive freedom, and the devastating news of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s impending retirement.
Where social media was filled with dire and despairing declarations from people feeling pummeled by the string of bad news, the #WomenDisobey action represented a very different kind of response: fierce, visionary, and uncompromising. Hundreds of women packed a civil disobedience training the night before the action at All Souls Church, in a gathering so full of heart and hope it sent chills down the spine. Samantha Miller of the DC Action Lab asked the assembled women a series of questions about their activist history: Who had been active since the 1970s? The 1980s? The 1990s? A dozen or more women stood up in each case, to huge cheers—veteran activists played an important role in the action. But it was when Miller asked who had become active since the 2016 election that the room went wild, for that represented something like half of the assembled crowd. Most women in the room, moreover, had never been arrested at a protest before. They represented the wave of the newly politicized under Trump, and they were ready—more than ready—to throw down in a new way.
The protest took place on a brutally hot Washington, DC day, beginning with a series of early-morning trainings for late arrivals. Some fifteen hundred people (men were invited to play support roles) marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Trump Hotel, and slowly and silently encircled the Department of Justice. After a sit-in there and some speeches, the crowd moved on to Capitol Hill for the main action. Women poured into the Senate office building and, at the appointed signal, began to chant, “We care!” over and over again. Other teams of women unfurled banners from the balconies above, calling for an end to family detention and separation and the abolition of ICE. They pulled out hundreds of the silver thermal blankets that have become a symbol of the Trump Administration’s cruel indifference toward migrant children in detention. The rustling sound of the mylar in the cavernous space made an unsettling and haunting counterpoint to the women’s chants and songs. It was one of those moments when a protest feels like not just an outpouring of feeling but a gathering of spirit, like a kind of church.
There were many things that set the action apart from previous women-led direct actions in American history, but the most significant was its racial composition. When 210 women were arrested at the Seneca Army Depot in October 1983—previously the largest women’s civil disobedience action—you would have been hard pressed to find a woman of color in the crowd. A majority of the arrestees on June 28 were white women, but women of color anchored much of the coordinating and leadership work, and the action was emphatically framed in intersectional feminist terms, foregrounding the voices and perspectives of those most grievously affected by Trump’s policies.
Direct action works as a catalyst: it sets things in motion, in ways you can’t predict. Before the Capitol police had even finished gathering up the space blankets and processing the hundreds of arrestees, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who came down from her office to greet the protesters while the action was underway, issued a statement calling for the abolition of ICE.
The most dramatic motion, though, may be at the grassroots. Women have formed a strong majority of those resisting Trump from the minute he was sworn into office, and the horror of his family separation policy is pushing them to take even bolder actions than they have already. Parents of small children, mostly moms, are organizing a flurry of “playdate protests” at ICE offices around the United States. Three such actions took place on the same day as the #WomenDisobey protest, and numerous others are planned for coming days.1 Where some Americans are feeling paralyzed by the authoritarian nightmare unfolding before us, women are rising up. In a frightening and uncertain time in American history, that is grounds for hope.