Around the same time the central march in Washington, DC started coming together, people all over the country started planning their own local events, so-called satellite marches. As of now, more than 600 are scheduled all over the world, including in Memphis, Tennessee.
An activist named Nour Hantouli, part of the Memphis Feminist Collective, got involved early—along with a dozen people who had long worked in Memphis on movements like Black Lives Matter. Memphis has a storied history in political activism; it’s the place where Ida B. Wells documented and protested lynching in the US. Local activists wanted to teach the organizing scientists about their work’s logistics and philosophy.
In late March, one of the activists, Sydney Bryant, did an interview with The Scientist. “There have been scientists from different areas in Memphis that really want to help, but they don’t know anything about activism,” she said. “So we are trying to teach them . . . in a way that will benefit us both.”
It didn’t go over well. Several scientists wrote in to The Scientist expressing their indignation. “It is unfortunate,” one wrote, “that the interviewee is not someone who actually represents the scientific community of Memphis or the spirit with which the March for Science Memphis was originally conceived.” At the same time, the organizers were having internal difficulties with the leadership of their group, with the scientists wanting to assume all leadership positions, Hantouli says.
The tension in Memphis parallels debates in the larger scientific community over the March for Science, and the relationship between science and politics. After many revisions of its mission statement, the national March for Science now explicitly describes itself as a political movement—and more than that, that it’s officially about diversity in science. But some scientists in Memphis, along with many others nationwide, want to keep the movement’s focus on improving public understanding of science and underlining the importance of funding for research. They wanted to avoid associations with a political movement—and even more emphatically, partisan politics.
On one side are scientists who value their work for its purity, its separation from politics—illusory though that may seem under an administration that seeks to downsize the EPA, cut the NIH budget, and deny climate change. On the other side are scientists who’ve felt the impact of the field’s politics for years. People of color, women, the disabled, immigrants, gay people—they’re all clamoring for scientists to confront science’s biases and improve instead of celebrating its successes on the Washington Mall.
In Memphis, things fell apart. On Saturday, the city will host two official events: a march organized primarily by activists and a rally led primarily by scientists.
But hey, maybe this is actually science!
I honestly feel bad for the people on the Placebo March who thought they were at the Science March but double blind testing is important
— Siobhan Thompson (@vornietom) April 22, 2017