MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we just noted, the first women's march on Washington was a year ago today. And it may be hard to remember now given everything that's happened since, but that March is believed to be one of the largest, if not the largest demonstration, ever in the capital - not to mention the simultaneous marches in the country and around the world.
Over the weekend, we connected with three women who participated, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war activist group Code Pink, which has been organizing demonstrations for almost two decades now, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of the pro-life group New Wave Feminists. They both joined me in Washington, D.C., because they attended the women's march this year as well.
I also spoke with Raquel Willis, who is a national organizer with the Transgender Law Center. Raquel spoke to us from KQED in San Francisco. And unlike Medea Benjamin and Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, Raquel says she decided not to march in this year's demonstrations. And I started by asking each of them whether they thought the women's marches were successful.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, on one level, you could say not much success. If you look at what's happened during the year, there is a certain meanness that has come over this country. It's the division. It's the increased racism, the anti-Islam, the sense of refugees - we don't want them here - or immigrants - we don't want them here - among a certain portion of the population. So on that level, you could say we haven't progressed very much.
MARTIN: Destiny, how do you assess the impact of the big marches?
DESTINY HERNDON-DE LA ROSA: I would agree that progress takes time, but I think we're already seeing huge strides. I mean, these marches activated a lot of women. And yes, some of it came as a reaction to an administration that we felt very threatened by. But I went to the Women's Convention in Detroit back in October. And even just the grassroots efforts of teaching people how to plan a protest, how to fundraise for their organization, you know, you took a lot of people who had strong opinions and, you know, might be sharing that with their friends, and you turn them into activists and leaders who are now going to, you know, hopefully be able to create this revolution.
MARTIN: Raquel, what do you think? How do you assess the impact of those marches?
RAQUEL WILLIS: I think that it's very difficult to say, especially thinking about this week for me in particular. It's actually been more important for me to put my energy into a national convening of black trans women who are organizing around anti-violence work instead of going to the marches because that energy needs to be placed there with my people. And that's something that I don't see happening on a larger scale.
I will say one positive thing that I think has happened is that there has been a shift in our collective consciousness. So if you think about maybe a year ago, a year and a half ago, when people would talk about things like white supremacy or misogyny or rape culture or sexual assault, you would kind of get looked like you had a problem or like you were some kind of radical. But now, we know that those are things that are so pervasive, and everyday people are having these conversations at the dinner table.
MARTIN: But I want to go back, Destiny, with you on this whole question of inclusion that Raquel raised. I mean, from a different perspective, you identify as a feminist, but you also identify as pro-life. And last year, you marched in the women's march on Washington and the annual march on life. There are obviously women who feel that those are incompatible. We talked with former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina last year, and she said she was in town for the inauguration. She said she didn't go to the women's march because she didn't feel, as a pro-life woman, that she would be welcome there as part of it. You obviously don't feel that way. I wanted to ask you, you know, where do you see the common cause?
HERNDON-DE LA ROSA: Yeah. Luckily as a feminist, I don't really wait to be included or invited to things. I just show up because I want my voice heard. So - and the great news was, yes, we were removed as a sponsor because they didn't see us as a fit, but we still went anyway. And when we actually got out there, we had kind of hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. And we had woman after woman walk up to us and say, I disagree with you on the abortion issue, but I'm glad you're here. I mean, that is the beauty of intersectional feminism.
And so when you get to know me and know more about my story that, you know, I came from an unplanned pregnancy, from a mother who got pregnant college at 19 years old, and the only reason she was able to choose life for me is because of a support system that so many women don't have. You know, we talk a lot about access to abortion and that being, you know, one of the choices, but we don't really look at the other choices. Whether it's the exorbitant expense for adoption or how are we supporting women well who do choose life if they're single or young or students or any of these other things? And so we really want to shift that focus to there's so much common ground that pro-choice and pro-life feminists can absolutely agree on when it comes to finding those resources for women to help them with the other choices.
MARTIN: One of the other things that has happened this year is that there have been a number of jurisdictions, not necessarily in response to Code Pink and the women's marches, but street activists in general are trying to make it more difficult for groups to demonstrate in the streets when they are disruptive. In fact, a number of jurisdictions have taken steps - or states - state legislatures have taken steps to impose hefty fines on people when they believe that these demonstrations have been disruptive. Your colleague, Desiree Fairooz, was arrested actually for laughing during the congressional confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. The charges were eventually dropped, but I wanted to ask you about that. Has that affected your activism in any way?
BENJAMIN: Well, for example, just even in front of the White House, we can't physically get in front of the White House anymore. They put these barriers so that you have to go away from the street to Pennsylvania Avenue that's right in front of the White House and be in Lafayette Park. So I think that's terrible.
MARTIN: But I'm asking you about that because it started during the campaign, where demonstrators were punched, and that is a reality where there have been periods in which street demonstrations have more or less tolerated and periods in which they really aren't. And this seems to be another period in which there seems to be less tolerance for it, and the administration has made no secret of the fact that it does not approve of these kinds of things. I just wondered, is it affecting the way you and your fellow organizers think about the kinds of things you're willing to do?
BENJAMIN: Well, it's harder for some people - certainly for undocumented people, and that's why we have to give tremendous kudos to those in the undocumented movement who are coming out to protest and are chanting things like undocumented and unafraid. But many people who are undocumented are now afraid to come out to protests. And I think people of color find it harder to come out because they have been so targeted by the police. So I think a lot of our protests are smaller than they have been in the past. And yet, you see safer venues, like the protest for the women's march, where people do come out in larger numbers. And the great thing, I think, about the women's march this year is it's the women's marches. So they've been all over the country, and I think that actually gives a lot of strength to the movement.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, this is one of those common polling questions that, you know, everybody asks, but I still feel myself wanting to ask, do you feel generally optimistic or pessimistic about the direction that the country is going to - I don't know. Destiny, what about you?
HERNDON-DE LA ROSA: I feel very optimistic because I do think we're tired of politics. We want to make change, so you are seeing a lot more grassroots effort. And it's not just, I'm going to vote a couple times a year. It's I'm going to go give my time and talents to an organization I believe in that helps people and works towards the common good. And honestly, at the end of the day, that's where all of our power is.
MARTIN: Raquel, what about you? Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the direction the country is going in?
WILLIS: I would say, today, I am optimistic. I definitely think it shifts depending on what's happening in the news. But moving forward, I am optimistic. I've been working with other black trans women who are activists and organizers over the last few days, and we've been strategizing and figuring out how to get our power together. So I think also - part of it is also looking at the leadership that is at some of these organizations that are doing this liberation work. Do we see women of color in leadership positions? Do we see black women? Do we see disabled women, transgender women? Are they getting the support that they need in that leadership? And so I think if people can make those commitments as we move forward, then I will continue to be optimistic.
MARTIN: Medea, final thought?
BENJAMIN: I think as an activist, you kind of have to be optimistic because it's what gets you out of bed every morning and gets you out organizing and convincing other people to get involved. I think we're in a strange place in this country with Donald Trump in the White House, and I think the global community is looking at us and saying, what happened to the United States? I think we want to rejoin that community. I think most people want to be a nicer nation, want to have somebody that's a nicer face for us in the White House. So I think this is a bad moment in our history and we're going to get over it.
MARTIN: That's Medea Benjamin. She's co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa is a founder of the group New Wave Feminists. They were both kind of to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. And from KQED in San Francisco, Raquel Willis, national organizer with the Transgender Law Center. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
WILLIS: Thank you.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, Michel.
HERNDON-DE LA ROSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.