A dense crowd of reporters surrounded the women on the damp pavement across the street from the criminal courthouse in lower Manhattan. It was the first day of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial, and some of his most famous accusers had come outside to address the cameras. In the scrum, iPhones were extended upwards to record the women’s statements; boom mics hung overhead. Rosanna Arquette stepped up to the microphone. She has accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting her in a meeting. ‘These abusers make it unsafe for women to go to work every morning, to take a business meeting, to report a crime without retaliation,’ she said. ‘We are here to ensure that the focus of the criminal case is on the perpetrator – the perpetrator’s actions and not his victims.’ She was interrupted by a shout from the back of the crowd: a brief fistfight had broken out, as two cameramen jostled for the same shot of Arquette.

More than a hundred women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct, but he is on trial in New York on five charges, based on the accusations of two women: one, a production assistant, says that Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex in 2006; the another, anonymous, says that he raped her in 2013. Other investigations against the producer are being pursued in Los Angeles and London, and the New York prosecutors interviewed dozens of women who accused Weinstein of sexual abuse, finding plenty of credible stories. But many of the incidents occurred too long ago, or outside New York’s jurisdiction; others had to be discarded when the police were found to have mishandled their investigations. Weinstein’s lawyers are expected to emphasise police misconduct: unusually for a criminal trial, only the defence team, and not the prosecution, is expected to call police officers as witnesses.

Still other accusers refused to file charges or to come forward publicly, fearing the consequences. A centerpiece of Weinstein’s defence strategy has been to try to smear and discredit his accusers. His lawyers plan to produce correspondence from both women, showing they kept in touch with Weinstein after the alleged assaults; their communications include smiley emojis and requests for business meetings. But this makes the accusers typical of sexual assault victims, not unusual: most people who are sexually abused know their attackers, and most maintain relationships with them long after the assaults take place.

For many of those following the case, however, its emotional resonance lies less in the details of the specific accusations than in all that Weinstein has come to symbolise: the impunity of powerful men, the pervasiveness of sexual violence, and the harm they do to women. There is a reason that the revelations about Weinstein published in the New York Times and the New Yorker set off such a flurry of allegations against other men. Every woman knows someone like Weinstein: a man whose power was matched only by his contemptible character, whose actions never seemed to have consequences, whose ability to hurt women underscored their relative powerlessness and unimportance. As well as an examination of the facts of these two particular cases, Weinstein’s trial is a measure of whether official mechanisms can be made to answer to women’s anger and pain.

If Weinstein is acquitted, it will confirm the lesson that the feminist movement has learned, painfully, over and over again, from the election of Donald Trump as president despite the Access Hollywood tape, to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford: that institutions will fail to punish men’s sexual abuse of women whenever they do not outright reward it.

If Weinstein is convicted and sent to prison, victims of sexual abuse will be given a rare and much-needed institutional acknowledgment that what happened to them was wrong. But even then, the injustices he has come to symbolise will not go away.

Outside the courthouse on Monday, a group of maybe a dozen, mostly older women had gathered below the steps to the entrance, holding protest signs. They were representatives of various feminist groups, including the National Organisation for Women, the Silence Breakers and Time’s Up. ‘I stand with survivors,’ one sign said. ‘Codify consent,’ said another. The police ushered the women into a fenced-off area, but they broke out and arranged their signs in front of the cameras. Their presence annoyed some passing commuters. ‘Oh Jesus H. Christ,’ said one white-haired man clutching a briefcase. Another man outright mocked them, reading their signs aloud in a taunting, contemptuous sing-song. Rose McGowan, another Weinstein accuser, was giving a statement in the middle of the scrum. ‘We are free. We are beautiful. We are strong,’ she said. A guffaw of male laughter shot up behind her.

The criminal court building in lower Manhattan is large and imposing, composed of four linked towers in beige granite and limestone. Like other New York City municipal buildings, its façade is etched with the words of the Founding Fathers. Near the way into the court where Weinstein is being tried, there is a quotation from Thomas Jefferson, carved into the stone in three-foot letters: ‘Equal and Exact Justice to All Men of Whatever State or Persuasion.’ Men.