For the past two weeks, progressive activists and Jewish advocacy groups have been relitigating the character of Louis Farrakhan. The National of Islam minister gave his annual Saviours’ Day speech on Feb. 25, during which he made several characteristic remarks about the “Satanic Jew” responsible for Hollywood’s “filth and degenerate behavior” that is “turning men into women and women into men.”
Usually, Farrakhan’s speeches don’t spend weeks in the headlines. He’s been making anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-feminist statements for his entire career, and his most recent proclamations are unremarkable for a notorious hate group leader. To some of his fans, Farrakhan’s violent rhetoric—“Hitler was a very great man”; “the wicked Jews…are promoting lesbianism, homosexuality”—is a major part of his appeal. But this year, Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day audience included a newly prominent leader of the post-Trump resistance movement: Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory.
CNN’s Jake Tapper was one of the first to point out that Mallory was at Farrakhan’s speech. In the days that followed, both Jewish media outlets and mainstream ones wondered whether and when the Women’s March would condemn the anti-Semitic leader to the satisfaction of its followers. BuzzFeed claimed the Women’s March had created an “anti-Semitism crisis.”
The charge of anti-Semitism is nothing new to the Women’s March leadership team, which includes prominent Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who has been accused by Tablet of espousing a “politics of hate.” And the group’s connection to Farrakhan shouldn’t come as a total surprise. The organization’s namesake event, held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, counts among its influential predecessors the Million Man March that Farrakhan spearheaded in 1995. For many people raised in civil-rights organizing circles, as Mallory was, Farrakhan is a very flawed, but nevertheless very present leader.
Perhaps for this reason, neither Mallory nor fellow march co-founder Carmen Perez have tried to hide their affiliation with him. Both have posted photos of themselves getting cozy with Farrakhan. Last year, Mallory called him “the GOAT” (greatest of all time). The year before, Perez posted an up-close video she filmed while watching Farrakhan “speaking truth to power” at his 2016 Saviours’ Day address. According to Mallory, she has been going to the Nation of Islam event for more than three decades: “I first went with my parents when I was just a little girl, and would begin attending on my own after my son’s father was murdered nearly 17 years ago. In that most difficult period of my life, it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me.”
None of this should be construed as an excuse for Mallory’s continued support of a man who called for the “wicked state of Israel” to be “cleansed with blood” for allowing Jerusalem to host a gay pride parade. Worse still, when asked by Women’s March supporters to denounce Farrakhan’s Feb. 25 statements, she demurred. For more than a week, she and the Women’s March didn’t mention his name at all in their tweets and public statements. Mallory’s only tweets on the matter offered a general condemnation of anti-Semitism and homophobia, attacks on her critics (“My love for people is deep. Whatever else they say about me is a LIE.”), and a seeming justification of Farrakhan’s methods: “The black community is very complex. We have been & continue to suffer thru incomparable circumstances. This means other ppl may not understand how we organize and all that it takes to deal with our pain.”
This defensive stance is an insult to the many other black organizers Mallory has championed in her years of activism, who don’t make their cases or deal with intergenerational trauma by renouncing the humanity of Jewish, queer, and transgender people. (The Women’s March itself chastised Rose McGowan, who had previously spoken at the group’s convention, for making anti-transgender remarks, telling her that “The pain we feel does not excuse the pain we cause others.”) A liberation ideology that rests on the demonization of other marginalized groups should be, and is, unacceptable to most contemporary activist movements. This is not about respectability politics, the nitpicking at tone and tactic people often employ to discredit black activism, as Mallory seemed to suggest in her tweet. This is about basic human rights and freedoms. Without an intersectional understanding of those, including the acknowledgement of black people who are Jewish and/or LGBTQ, no struggle for justice can hope to succeed.
The sad thing is, Mallory knows this. Her knowledge is reflected in the deeply progressive, far-reaching platform of the Women’s March. The organization’s big-tent agenda, which counts criminal justice reform, labor rights, and transgender health access as feminist issues, is exactly what has made it a powerhouse activist training ground for more than a year, helping thousands of women claim a broader array of social justice issues as their own. By refusing to denounce Farrakhan, Mallory and the Women’s March are betraying the values of the promising movement they’ve helped create.
Finally, nine days after Farrakhan’s speech, the Women’s March tweeted a statement noting that Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ remarks were “not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.” There was no assessment of the man himself. It had taken the organization more than a week to respond to the controversy because, the statement said, they “are trying to intentionally break the cycles that pit our communities against each other.”
On Wednesday, Mallory published a longer essay on News One. “I attend meetings with police and legislators—the very folks so much of my protest has been directed towards,” she wrote. “I’ve worked in prisons as well as with present and former gang members. It is impossible for me to agree with every statement or share every viewpoint of the many people who I have worked with or will work with in the future.” Her piece echoed remarks Perez made to Refinery29 on the subject of Farrakhan earlier this year. “People need to understand the significant contributions that these individuals have made to Black and Brown people. There are no perfect leaders,” she said.
None of the people who’ve been energized by the Women’s March expect leaders like Mallory, or the leaders she admires, to be perfect. They do, however, expect a baseline of commitment to equality, respect for human dignity, and humility in the face of valid criticism. The question is, how much dehumanizing garbage should activists have to accept from the likes of Farrakhan before cutting him out of their class of admired elders? Most people can accept that their activist peers are all in various stages of unlearning their internal biases, whether those biases are anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, or transphobia. But there has to be a reasonable expectation that people make good-faith attempts to listen to and learn from communities they’ve harmed, and there will always be a bright-line past which an organizer no longer qualifies for tempered admiration. Farrakhan crosses it just about every time he opens his mouth. Mallory’s fave isn’t just problematic—he’s the antithesis of the principles that supposedly animate her work.
Mallory’s unwillingness to see Farrakhan for what he is will surely cost the entire Women’s March organization its credibility among many Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and those who see themselves as allies to those communities. By embracing one of the world’s most famous anti-Semites, she is giving ammunition to the right-wingers and leaders of Jewish advocacy groups who call Sarsour an anti-Semitic, “Sharia-loving” agent of terror for her Muslim practice and pro-Palestine activism. “You can’t be a feminist in the United States and stand up for the rights of the American woman and then say that you don’t want to stand up for the rights of Palestinian women in Palestine,” Sarsour told the Nation last year. If the Women’s March’s leaders are truly committed to this kind of intersectional justice framework, they must ask themselves whether a civil rights advocate who demeans women, Jews, and queer people can really be hailed as a civil rights advocate at all.