Silence makes it easier to read the signs!
Is a call for silence silencing the already-silenced?

On Facebook this Sunday, a debate heated up among potential participants of the Womxn's March on Seattle, a sister demonstration in solidarity with the Million Women March on Washington D.C. scheduled for Saturday.

Event organizers for the Seattle march are asking those who plan to attend to march in silence along the 3.5 mile route from Judkins Park to a spot approximately one half mile before the Seattle Center. Several commenters have taken to the Womxn's March Facebook page to express their concern. They view this request for silence as an act of silencing.

"So the only way to make our voices heard is by NOT using them?? I'm mad as hell. I want to feel powerful and have my voice heard," writes Kristin Koshida. "I am really disappointed about this."

Facebook user Lauren Moody writes: “Feels more like we are being told to hold our tongues. I believe this is a misguided choice on the part of organizers.”

Shonnessy Gilmore says that she will "abide by the rules of the march," but that she has "lost [her] enthusiasm."

PeeWee DeLeon posted a jar of weeping Mayonnaise.

White tears.
White tears. Really goopy white tears. Screenshot from Facebook.

Others took issue with the rhetoric some of the commenters employed. Jackie Mangiantini seemed particularly bummed: "I am planning to attend the march on Saturday," she writes, "but I have to say I have recently found myself discouraged by the divisiveness and arguments over the plan for the March to be silent."

Today, organizers posted that they've had to shut down comments on the Womxn's March Facebook page in response to "the overwhelming volume of posts coming in to the event page, and our need to focus on launching the march this week." Instead of managing everyone's comments and responding directly to e-mails, they'll post "one FAQ post a day answering questions that came in that day."

Womxn's March Spokesperson Joy Gerhard told me that the decision to march silently was made by the organizing committee, which contains about 15-20 members. She says Charmaine Slye,the event's Mistress of Ceremonies and longtime Seattle activist, suggested using the tactic of silence.

"Goosebumps went around the room when she said we should march in silence—nobody rejected it," Gerhard said.

Slye says that room was diverse: "It was a mix of people—old, young, Black, white, Asian, Spanish-speaking."

And the march won't be entirely "silent." At Judkins Park, about half an hour before the march, there will be a reading of a poem. Then five speakers will talk for approximately four minutes a piece about their activism and how the participants can get involved.

"The idea isn't that we show up and march and go home," Gerhard says, "but to get plugged into these organizations that are already doing this work, have been doing it for years, and have been doing it effectively."

Along the route, every six to eight blocks or so, there will be a soapbox speaker. There are about sixteen of these speakers, total, and they're all community members who have volunteered their time to speak. The march glides past them, staying within earshot of each for about two minutes.

About one half mile before the protesters reach the Seattle Center, signs will instruct marchers to make as much noise as they'd like. They can chant, sing, or say whatever. Once they arrive on the grounds, everyone writes down their plan of action for the coming years and enjoys live music.

The Womxn's March website devotes a whole page to the reasons organizers are requesting silence, but here's the main philosophical thrust:

We are a varied and diverse group. Each of us marches with our unique intention, personal fears, and deeply felt anger. If we all speak at once, observers will only hear noise; they will not hear the message. They will hear only angst; they will not hear the issues. In silence, we cannot be dismissed as an angry mob, hysterical and illogical. In silence, we will focus our message. Silence compels attention.

Organizers expect 50,000-75,000 people to attend the Seattle protest, and while many voices (in terms of perspective) are important, they worry the literal voices will get lost in the crowd.

Gerhard referenced the power of silent marches throughout history, including the NAACP's 1917 'Silent Protest Parade,' Gandhi's Salt March, and several marches during the U.S. civil right's movement.

"In terms of having this message go global, the voices are going to be lost when the march becomes images," Gerhard says. "But the visual of everyone marching silently is what's going to resonate."

For Gerhard, the silence adds weight to the messages written on the signs. "There's a unity in silence, a gravity to it" she says.

But what about the idea that silence is compliance? "I hear that. I understand, because women throughout history have been silenced," Gerhard says. "But I think there's a huge difference between being silent and choosing to be silent."

She hastens to add: "This is a request! No one is going to tell anyone to be silent. There is no policing of peoples' voices. It's a request. And they can say, 'No.'"

Slye hopes they don't say, 'No.'

For Slye, that silence she hopes to keep on Saturday holds a deep, historical significance. Referencing the civil rights marches she saw on television and the ones she participated in later in life, she says, "the mass of black bodies walking in silence terrified people" in a way that shouting didn't often do.

"We know people are angry," she says. "But for this march, we want them to take that anger and turn it into action. Not shouting, but volunteering."

"Don't get me wrong" she continues. "I've had my time of marching and chanting." But for those who feel the need to speak on Saturday, Slye would refer them to several other direct actions going on that day: "There are marches in Olympia, Bellingham, Spokane. Those places especially need to hear diverse voices. They can use that angst."

"What would be the harm in this solidarity?" Slye asks. "If we cannot come together on this one idea for three miles. If we cannot do this—I mean, this is not that difficult."