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Offline Activism Is the Tricky Part for #YesAllWomen

Over the weekend, an offshoot of the American Revolutionary Communist Party organized a series of #YesAllWomen-based rallies in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and San Francisco. The tweets were better.

by Jules Suzdaltsev
Jun 4 2014, 7:19am

Photos courtesy of the author

As with every mass shooting in the last decade, Elliot Rodger sparked a clash of ideologies. This being a misogyny-fueled massacre, instead of the usual gun debate, it provoked a nationwide Twitter war between anti-patriarchy feminists and a bunch of apologist white guys, with most tweets focusing on the fact that while not all men denegrate women, all women are denegrated by men, and culminating in the latest clicktivist hashtag #YesAllWomen. It's a strong hashtag, and it has staying power, but does it have the potential to inspire people offline?

When a branch of the American Revolutionary Communist Party concerned with banning pornography for the benefit of women, called StopPatriarchy.com, organized a series of #YesAllWomen rallies in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and San Francisco, it meant another attempt at turning global social media awareness into community activism, in the hopes that the effort is broadcast somewhere, anywhere. Best case—recursively on social media; worst case—word of mouth. This cyclical advocacy happens fairly often with little effect; #BringackOurGirls and #Kony2012 come to mind. Ralph Nader was right: "The Internet doesn't do a very good job of motivating action." 

When I arrived at six sharp to San Francisco's 24th Street Mission BART Station, it appeared that besides a handful of organizers, the only other participants were journalists, reporters, and photographers—all decidedly unattached to the rally and standing on the sidelines like spectators. After passing out pre-made signs bearing popular, uncredited #YesAllWomen tweets, one of the younger organizers began to speak over a megaphone. “We live in a world where it’s not safe to be a woman! We talk about respecting women, not because they are somebody’s mother or daughter but because these are human beings! They’re going to reduce women to only being breeders of children!” I recognized most of the statements as tweets I’d seen over the last week.

When she offered the megaphone to the crowd, I hoped something more substantial and personal would materialize. Nobody stepped up. The organizer repeated a few more salient points: “The world doesn’t have to be this way; things are really messed up! One in four college women will be raped while in college! If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, what does?” She pointed at a young blond woman in gold boots holding a big sign reading "PATRIARCHY PREPARE TO DIE" and offered her the megaphone. She, too, declined. For a few seconds all averted their eyes, and an uncomfortable silence descended on the crowd. “Nobody has anything to say?” asked the organizer of the crowd.

Finally, an old woman came up to the center of the circle and, in a heavy Spanish accent, began, “They say he does not like women! They say he is mean! No! David Campos loves women! He supports you! Vote David Campos!” The organizer looked uncomfortable and took back the mic. Gold boots stepped up and said, "If you don't know a woman who has been sexually assaulted, that's because she hasn't told you." Another powerful tweet from the past week.

For the next hour, men and mostly women spoke out against the systemic struggle woman face. Some screamed and wept as they demanded an explanation for a list of grievances perpetrated by men. By 8 PM the crowd had swelled to about 50 people, half media and half activists, and as they began to march down Mission Street, I ducked into a bar to think about why, despite the strong message, organization, and relevance of the protest, this all felt inherently ineffective.  

As a straight, white man living in San Francisco, occasionally I’ll be forced to defend a position that I believe I have no involvement or stake in. Last week, for instance, I was angrily asked if my doctor was a white man. I don’t have a primary physician, nor the luxury of choosing who my HMO assigns to me, so the attempt to paint me personally as a racist and misogynist in order to prove a point triggered my defensivenes, and instead of addressing the topic, I was keen to dismiss the entire argument altogether. 

This week, when men around the world began defending themselves as not being of the same cloth as Elliot Rodgers, I recognized the response. At the rally, one of the few men who spoke put it thusly: “All the regular ‘nice guys’ who say #NotAllMen—they’re the ones who make this possible. They’re more concerned with protecting themselves than helping anybody out.” And that seems to be the root of the problem.

Despite the high intrinsic value of the pro-women movement, the opposition is difficult to pinpoint. There are no counter-protesters at these rallies, and although it is not hard to find people like Elliot Rodger (just look into any sexually frustrated online community centered on dating difficulty to find misguided resentment toward women), these are not the people exclusively responsible for denying women birth control, abortions, and scores of other privileges. #YesAllWomen wants you to realize that the real movers and shakers of patriarchy are the men who deny it, and who have the privilege to do so. 

Surely there were slave owners who had no personal qualms with black people, and who never beat or abused their slaves, and yet slavery could not exist solely on the whims of Confederate-style, proto-Klansmen rednecks, just as patriarchy and misogyny are wholly dependent on the “average nice guy” who is unwilling to admit that he, too, is part of an oppressive problem.

As a man, I was at the rally to listen and hopefully come to some place of useful empathy. The meaning behind the words was there. The rhetoric was strong. The problem is clear to me and my kind, and we're truly eager to examine our own faults and help with the cause, but this rally just made me want to get on my phone to check Twitter. What gives?

In theory, it doesn’t take much to create substantial protests out of trending topics. You’ve already got a few thousand slogans to choose from and a vocal base of potential supporters who might actually show up. But the measure of an effective rally seems more dependent on how widely spread the coverage is afterward. To that end, what does a relatively small and culturally saturated rally like #YesAllWomen accomplish that can’t be said in a vlog or piece of clickbait?

Today’s soapbox against the patriarchy was cathartic for those 15 who attended, but completely ignored by any male apologists who might be reading about it for the first time here. When the endgame of social media protests is to be written about on social media, for whom do they exist? When the endgame is "trending now," stick to online awareness. You'll just end up there anyway. 

Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.