“A thousand people in the street. Singing songs and carrying signs. Mostly saying ‘hooray for our side,’ ” penned Stephen Stills, then part of the band Buffalo Springfield, 51 years ago. While on his way to a concert, Stills stumbled upon a rally. Hundreds of kids were protesting the 10 p.m. curfew and the closure of a favorite nightclub, which was later demolished. The moment inspired the iconic song “For What It’s Worth.”
That verse ran through my head last Saturday. Some 50,000 women were rallying for the Women’s March at Denver’s Civic Center park, joining more than a million people around the country at similar marches. Across town, Colorado Right to Life held a March for Abolition echoing the much larger 45th annual March for Life held in Washington, D.C., and the Celebrate Life rally in Denver the prior week. What do these rallies have in common? They encourage the faithful but don’t necessarily persuade the unconverted.
To a one, friends who attended the Women’s March and the pro-life rallies in Denver and D.C. felt energized. “It made me feel calmer to march with tens of thousands of others who refuse to normalize the crazy s—show,” an activist who attended the Women’s March told me. “Marches can keep people from giving up or feeling isolated and hopeless about the bigger picture,” said Paula Reed, a friend on the left. Similarly, Karen Tallentire, a pal who attended the March for Abolition, commented, “I don’t think marches do much but I do pro-life marches anyway out of frustration, as in, what else can I do?”
There’s nothing wrong with taking comfort in numbers or saying “hooray for our side,” but what do rallies say to people on the outside? The messages of the Marches for Life were unambiguous — support a child’s right to live, end abortion. Besides a dislike for President Donald Trump and a desire for women’s empowerment, the message of the Women’s March was unclear to me. There were signs advocating for equal pay, DACA, environmental protections, a response to climate change, and abortion, and signs advocating against euthanasia, abortion, sexual harassment, racism, and the death penalty. My favorite sign read: “Is this the line for Hamilton tickets?”
As a Trump critic, I contemplated going to the Women’s March but wasn’t sure what my presence would communicate. Would people hear my concerns about the Oval Office or would that message be lost in a sea of other messages?
More importantly, would those who need to hear these concerns be receptive? A friend who works on Capitol Hill observed, “I assure you their pussyhats did nothing but set women back and cause a lot of laugher among many Hill folks. Can you imagine a march of men wearing penis hats? Marches do very little to sway the opinion of those currently in a position to change policy.”
Political theater can backfire. People annoyed by traffic and road blockages aren’t in a persuadable frame of mind. References to female anatomy or pictures of slain babies are more likely to turn people away than to encourage them to contemplate the issues or have empathy for women and children.
Marches have their place in encouraging the faithful, but marches do not a movement make. They may galvanize supporters to greater action or they may be a substitute for substantive action. To bring about change, it is necessary to persuade the unconvinced. Persuasion requires civil conversations about the impacts of public policy and leadership, dialogue about how to make business culture more egalitarian, humanizing stories about DACA kids pursuing the American dream, and ultrasound images of babies sucking their thumbs.
Persuasion is an arduous journey, not a march.
Krista Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer