“I’m going to end this speech before I freeze to death,” laughed Rep. Ilhan Omar, on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, Saturday, Jan. 19. Despite single-digit temperatures, an estimated crowd of 4,000 marched in the third annual Women’s March Minnesota from Western Sculpture Park to the Capitol, where they gathered to hear from students, activists and lawmakers.
The very first Women’s March took place on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. With more than five million people marching worldwide, it was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. According to organizers, the goal was to send a bold message to the new administration on their first day in office and to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues.
The main protest takes place in Washington, D.C., with many other marches taking place worldwide, and has continued every January. In Minnesota, an estimated 110,000 people marched in 2017, making it the largest demonstration in Minnesota history.
The 2018 version of the Women’s March Minnesota was an indoor rally at the St. Paul Union Depot with speakers, entertainers and a politician meet-and-greet which limited attendance to 2,500. Nationally and locally, the focus shifted to registering voters, connecting people to female political candidates and urging attendees to get politically involved.
“Two weeks ago, I was sworn into Congress with the most diverse and female freshman class,” Omar said as the crowd erupted in cheers, “because I wanted to make sure that my two beautiful daughters grow up in an America that is welcoming and caring for all of its citizens. I want to show them true representation of this country’s diversity and to be able to offer a counternarrative to the hate coming from the current administration.”
Omar, an Edison High School graduate, was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016 as a member of the Democratic Party, making her the first Somali -American elected to legislative office in the United States. In 2018, she became the first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress. Along with Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, she is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, and the first to wear a hijab. Omar is also the first woman of color to serve as a U.S. Representative from Minnesota.
Omar went on to discuss her hopes of one day having a Congress that is fully representative of America’s diversity, “And I hope that there are other women standing in the crowd today, or growing up in refugee camps like I did, who will one day walk the halls of Congress like I do now.”
One focus of this year’s march was on intersectionality: identifying how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. “We must always speak about the intersectionality of all of our issues,” said Omar, “that when we speak about equity we’re talking about economic justice, we are talking about environmental justice, we are talking about LGBTQIA rights justice, we are talking about the protection of transgender folks, (and) we are talking about immigrant rights.”
According to a release from Women’s March Minnesota, the group marched in 2019 for equality, equity and justice for all Minnesota women, gender non-identifying folks and allies. “This march is a platform to elevate and raise the voices of women and gender non-identifying folks who are doing the work of making Minnesota a place where all are welcome, safe, respected, heard and understood,” the release said. “This includes those who are black, indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, Latinx, people of color, disabled, and who identify as LGBTQIA.”
The nearly 20 speakers at this year’s march represented this statement for diversity and included an attorney fighting for immigrant rights at the border, a transgender activist, an organizer working to overhaul African-American child protection, a student fighting gun violence, and many other powerful and diverse voices.
In 2018 the national organizers of the Women’s March faced allegations of anti-Semitism because of their association with minister, nationalist, and leader of the religious group Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, who’s made comments against the Jewish and LGBTQIA communities. Since then, the Women’s March issued a statement saying they recognize the danger of hate rhetoric by public figures. “We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.”
Locally, Women’s March Minnesota Board Chair Jammi Hansen Blair said in an interview with WCCO Radio, that the local march is separate from the national organization. “We are an independent, stand-alone nonprofit in Minnesota that concerns ourself with what is best for Minnesota.” And they released their own statement denouncing Farrakhan’s statements. “The remarks of Louis Farrakhan are in no way condoned or validated by Women’s March Minnesota. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish and our LGBTQIA allies and continue to uphold the Women’s March Unity Principles.”
Women’s March Minnesota gave the following purpose statement before Saturday’s event. “As a women’s organization dedicated to intersectional feminism, and protecting the rights of Minnesota women, we work to raise the voices of the strong, dedicated groups doing important social justice, human rights and equality work in Minnesota to combat the symptoms of the patriarchy and white supremacy. Our mission is to harness the power of women and their communities to create transformative social change.”
Omar, who has spoken at all three Minnesota Women’s Marches, told the crowd to celebrate their “beautiful rainbow of community.” “We must always stand together as allies against hate and bigotry. And continue to fight for inclusion and unity, so that we can have a beautiful society,” said Omar. “Thank you so much for being here, thank you for braving the cold weather, and thank you for continuing to fight. Love you all, see you at the next one.”
Below: 4,000 people joined the Jan. 19 Women’s March at the State Capitol. Thousands gather and hold up their signs of resistance while listening to various students, activists and lawmakers speak on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol. Rep. Ilhan Omar addresses the crowd with words of hope and encouragement. Hundreds of artistic and creative signs could be seen throughout the crowd. (Photos by Liz Jensen)