IT’S A LITTLE AFTER NOON on a recent Saturday, and an ominous-looking group of people dressed in black are standing on the sidewalk outside Boston’s South Station: black skirts, black shoes, black tights, black bags, black cloth draped over their faces, and tall, pointy black hats on their heads. They hold black signs scrawled with white chalk that say, “EDUCATION NOT DEPORTATION,” “SUPPORT IMMIGRANTS DEPORT RACISTS,” and “TRUMP IS TRASH.” They are W.I.T.C.H.es.
Passersby stop to take photos with their iPhones. A middle-aged man wearing a white tank top and khakis stops to chat.
“Can you see?” he asks.
“Can you?” one of the cloaked figures answers.
The W.I.T.C.H. movement was founded on Halloween in 1968. A group of second-wave feminists—part of the group New York Radical Women—broke away to expand the reach of their protest. W.I.T.C.H. stood for “Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell,” and its members wanted to represent more than just the fight for women’s rights; they wanted to support the anti-war movement, students’ rights, black liberation, and more. The group would be theatrical, with every member wearing a full witch costume and remaining completely anonymous.
Many members of the original W.I.T.C.H. were practicing witches. They believed the connection between women, witchcraft, and politics was indeed very old. In Margot Adler’s seminal 1979 book on paganism, Drawing Down the Moon, she writes, “Feminist Witches have stated that Witchcraft is not incompatible with politics, and further that the Craft is a religion historically conceived in rebellion and can therefore be true to its nature only when it continues its ancient fight against oppression.”
For their 1969 inaugural event, members of the original group dressed in full witch garb and marched on Wall Street, to protest capitalism and place a hex on the financial district. A few months later, they released white mice at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden to protest the traditional role of women. Other “covens” sprouted up in Chicago and Washington, D.C., before the group disbanded in 1970.
In 2016, the anonymous W.I.T.C.H. movement was resurrected by a group in Portland, Oregon, inspired by the injustice they see in the world around them, and in their own backyards. Now, there are at least 50 new covens operating in cities around the U.S. and Europe.
After rallying at South Station, the group of Boston W.I.T.C.H.es begins walking toward Boston Common, where they will attend a rally in support of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, organized by the Boston May Day Coalition. The Boston coven was founded in January of this year. Members say that they attend at least one event per month, in costume. “We want to have a presence at as much as we can,” said one W.I.T.C.H. As they walk—a line of women shrouded in head-to-toe black on a muggy 80-degree day—people on the streets call out, “We love you!”, “Great work, ladies!”, and “Happy Halloween!”
On the Common, they arrive in front of the State House, and confer for a moment before deciding to place themselves under a tree, up on the grass. Almost immediately, other protesters approach and begin taking photos and selfies with their phones.
“A lot of people assume we’re silent protestors,” one W.I.T.C.H. explains. This is why their signs include @witchboston, their Twitter handle. In a culture so entwined with social media, the W.I.T.C.H.es hope that the information about who they are and what they’re doing can and will be looked up later. (They are also popular on Instagram, with more than 13,000 followers.) Sometimes they hand out tarot cards at events, edited to include a message such as “A vote for the health-care bill will mean DEATH for millions of Americans” on the death card. On their YouTube channel, they posted a video of one of the rituals they performed before a protest: the “binding” of Donald Trump. Currently, it has almost 16,000 views.
Not everyone at the DACA rally understands their message. “It’s a confusing statement,” says Dain Goding, an education administrator who stood in front of the group taking a photograph. “Especially here, on the Common, where they used to hang witches.”
But that doesn’t stop Goding, or anyone else, from paying attention.
“Anonymity is dramatic,” says a W.I.T.C.H. (Anonymity also prevents doxxing—a real threat in this day and age.)
“The witch is a powerful figure when so many people feel like they’re losing control,” another W.I.T.C.H. explains. To be using this imagery right now, in this political climate—one in which the idea of being a witch was used to attack Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign—is “an affront to the current power structure,” she adds.
But the history of witches and witchcraft is not all about fear and power and the Salem witch trials. For the W.I.T.C.H.es, it’s about inclusion and representing everyone who is oppressed or unseen. “We are everywhere. We are your sisters, your neighbors, your teachers, your bartenders, your mechanics, your check-out clerks, your drivers, and your nurses,” reads their online manifesto.
It’s also about shaking up the status quo. “To brand yourself as a witch today is associating yourself with a kind of disruption,” says Alex Mar, author of 2015 book Witches of America.
“From the outside, it’s still seen as frightening, jarring, shocking,” she explains. “I think that’s something that these activists are having fun playing with.”
When the DACA rally finishes up at the State House, the protestors—now numbering in the hundreds—march to Government Center, through downtown Boston. The W.I.T.C.H.es walk in the crowd, joining in the cry, “This is what America looks like!” On the street, onlookers shout at them: “We love you!” and “Put a spell on me!”
I am reminded of a moment earlier in the day, when the man in the tank top outside South Station had approached the group and asked them about what they did, and why they “hide.”
“The protest isn’t about us,” one woman responded. “We represent all oppressed people. It’s about everyone who is suffering.”
The man smiled. “So, it’s about … the whole world?”
Update, 10/3: An earlier version of the story misidentified the Boston W.I.T.C.H. group as all-women. They are not. We regret the error.