Why the co-founder of the Women’s March wants Linda Sarsour to step down

Teresa Shook attends The 2017 Common Good Forum at University Club in New York City, May 12, 2017. (Donald Bowers/Getty Images for The Common Good)

(JTA) — Teresa Shook says she likes to work “behind the scenes.” But this week, the woman who co-founded the Women’s March thrust herself front and center by calling its leadership to step down.

Shook, a grandmother from the remote Hawaiian town of Hana, posted the Facebook event that became the January 2017 Women’s March mass protest.

But after controversy resurfaced about ties between Tamika Mallory, a Women’s March co-chair, and Louis Farrakhan, the virulent anti-Semite who leads the Nation of Islam, Shook called on the progressive movement’s leadership to step down. Another co-chair of the Women’s March is Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American liberal activist who has become a divisive figure in the Jewish community due to her anti-Israel activism.

Shook wrote Monday on Facebook that Mallory and Sarsour, along with their co-chairs Carmen Perez and Bob Bland, “have allowed anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.”

“They’ve lost the trust of the community,” Shook, a retired attorney, told JTA on Wednesday. “You can’t keep saying you’re going to do something and not do it. There’s no trust left, and people don’t feel safe to speak their minds without being attacked.”

Since 2017, Shook has receded from the leadership of the movement, staying involved locally in Hawaii. She plans to attend the 2019 Women’s March in January but does not expect to speak from the podium.

Shook said she has stayed in intermittent touch with Bland, but did not reach out privately to the co-chairs before posting her message.

“I have had enough communication with them on other matters,” Shook told JTA. “Basically, the statement is, ‘We’re working on it, we’ll change it and make it better,’ and the action doesn’t change. I didn’t feel the need to talk to them. I felt I had hit a dead end.”

Controversy over Mallory and Farrakhan first flared in March, and Shook said she has been worried about anti-Semitism in the movement for a while. But she said she did not want to fracture the movement. She decided to speak out after actress Alyssa Milano said she would not speak at the march due to concerns over anti-Semitism.

“They’ve done great work, but we have to be inclusive and we have to get rid of the hate speech,” Shook told JTA. “I wanted to believe that it wasn’t going to be an issue. … Then the cracks started to show.”

Sarsour has responded with a mix of apologetic and defiant messages. On Monday, she dismissed Shook’s criticism and demeaned her role in the movement.

“You put thousands and thousands of hours in fundraising, organizing, envisioning, building and strategizing for a movement that inspires the entire world and you are still at it 2 years later — and the person who makes the demands and wants credit is the one who made the Facebook event,” Sarsour wrote.

But the next day, Sarsour posted an apology to the Women’s March’s Jewish members for not taking concerns of anti-Semitism more seriously.

“We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-semitism. We regret that,” the statementissued Tuesday afternoon said. “Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members. We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”

As of Wednesday morning Hawaii time, Shook had not read the apology.