This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Trip to the Women’s March on Washington

In The Daily Dumpster Blog, Uncategorized by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

As a journalist, I mostly avoid speaking my mind on issues that can entwine with politics. But after the election last fall, I decided that I needed to be a human being first.

Most reporters, myself included, feel called to journalism as a career in public service. We want to provide citizens with the facts they need to make good decisions. I intend to continue that effort every day. But I am not going to excuse myself from humanity in order to be objective. Objectivity happens not because reporters pretend we have no opinions, but because we are aware that we do. We strive to be balanced to offset our own biases, which is also why we quote people with multiple perspectives. The trouble is, we often boil those perspectives down to just two: two opponents, either/or. The horse race model.

But really, Americans and even individuals are more complex than that. I am a reporter AND a woman. And that is a big part of why I decided to try to go to the Women’s march in Washington the week after Pres. Donald Trump’s election victory. I was not planning to protest that victory, but the general cultural assault on women I saw happening during the campaign. I also wanted to express my support for other marginalized groups such as immigrants and African Americans.

A (literally) long-lost friend saw my post on Facebook about planning to go, and offered for me to stay at her apartment in Washington, where I didn’t even know she lived. We grew up in North Carolina and met at camp in middle school, but I had not seen her in half my life. I was also lucky my new friend Stacey embarked on this adventure with me. We left Friday morning armed with Maker’s Donuts, a playlist of odes to (and by) powerful women, and some great red baseball caps she’d bought from the What a Joke comedy festival on Thursday night. Instead of “Make America Great Again,” our hats said, “What a Joke” and “Nasty Woman.” We waved to vans full of women in pink hats and listened to “It’s a Man’s World,” “Cell Block Tango,” and “Mean.”

We ended up parking at Reagan National Airport and riding the metro with a bunch of women who had flown in for the march. One person said that when a stewardess asked who was headed to the march, the entire plane full of people raised their hands.

Friday night we walked around downtown Washington, finding the streets empty except for a few luxuriously-dressed revelers shivering on the sidewalk as they left inauguration parties. Despite the empty bleachers at the inauguration parade, Friday afternoon had been lively. Anarchists had set fire to a limousine and attacked a Starbucks near Julie’s apartment, closing her street. A group supporting federal legalization of marijuana had given away thousands of free joints. (It’s legal to use marijuana — but not to sell it – in the capitol.) Police sirens blared repeatedly after dark.

The next morning Julie’s husband joined us as we left at 9 a.m. to walk the few blocks to the National Mall, where the blade of the Washington Monument was lost in fog. We weren’t supposed to be there.

Instigated by a Hawaiian grandmother the day after Trump’s election victory, the march was so grassroots that women were booking tour buses for it before anyone had sought permits from the National Park Service. It turned out the inauguration committee had the mall booked – even even after Trump’s swearing-in on Friday.  It could choose to turn over portions of the space, such as the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to other groups on Saturday. But either it didn’t, or it waited so late to decide that the National Park Service, which manages Washington D.C. parks and monuments, decided to make other arrangements.

Those clearly proved inadequate to the crowds. We wondered if Trump regretted his decision to dismiss the Army general responsible for the D.C. National Guard on Friday. March organizers predicted 200,000 attendees, and didn’t update that estimate as the day grew nearer. The rally was supposed to start at 10 a.m., but by 9:30 there were people all over the Mall, and we could only get as close as a few blocks away to the stage on Independence Avenue. (Even hours later, when we could just barely see a jumbo-tron screen, we couldn’t hear any of the speeches or performances.)

We looked at Metro updates on our phones: Photos of crowds blocks long waiting to get into stations, and people handing out water and granola to those pressed inside. Stations started to close because so many people were entering that riders couldn’t exit. Metro employees handed out bus schedules.

After 30 minutes or so, even with cell repeaters placed along the Mall, everyone lost cell service as the system became overwhelmed with people trying to find each other or tweet selfies.

It was a sea of pussy hats. People climbed trees and stoplights. I carried a couple of signs I’d made at home about equal pay and paid maternity leave, partly because I wanted to emphasize that I want more than to “not go back to the 1950s.” I think we’re in trouble if our goal for the future is simply not to backtrack to normalizing sexual assault and denigrating women.

The array of messages was staggering, and did not confine itself to traditional “women’s issues” like abortion rights or equal pay: Concerns about sexual assault, education or energy department heads, free speech, just treatment for African Americans and immigrants, the preservation of Obamacare, and many, many more.

My friends and I pointed out all the great slogans: “Bad hombre raised by a nasty woman,” “Hug a journalist,” “Orange lies matter.” There were a lot more signs than I would have predicted about the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and countless ones with the general theme of “Hands off” coupled with a picture of a black cat (reminders of Trump’s past boasts about assaulting women). Animals were well represented, with grizzly bears sprinkled in to mock Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, who said in a hearing last week that she approved of guns in schools because they might be needed to predict students against grizzly bears.

I liked the historical signs, like beautiful painted cutouts of American women Shirley Chisholm, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others displayed historical quotes ranging from the simple (“I dissent,’ from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) to the surprisingly-timely (“If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier,” from Jeanette Rankin, who became America’s first Congresswoman in 1916).

Julie, who is an education policy analyst, almost wept with and gratitude as she realized the size of the crowd. Ninety-one percent of Washington, D.C. residents voted for Hillary Clinton, and everyone I met from Washington had been filled with dread for the past few months. The march was like a balm. She thanked everyone we met who traveled from “red states”: Protestors from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Arizona. Stacey and I got lots of complements on our hats.

I heard a twangy voice behind me say, “I can’t wait to go home and get me a pussy hat.” I turned around to see a woman with a sign saying, “Proud Louisiana liberals. (Send Help!)” The woman said she is a Democrat and her husband a Republican, “so we cancel each other out – but we have three daughters, so I won!” She was accompanied by one of them, a civil rights attorney who will be arguing a voting rights case before the Supreme Court later this year. The case was filed on behalf of North Carolina college students challenging new voter ID requirements that left young, out-of-state voters at risk of being disenfranchised.

As the rally portion was supposed to end around 1 p.m., we tried to edge toward Independence Avenue, not knowing it was already full for most of the intended march route. Occasionally an ambulance had to part the sea of bodies, mashing us so tightly together we couldn’t even move our arms. But the crowd stayed calm, and those who could manage to bring their hands together clapped for a handful of policemen as they made space for the ambulance.

The rally went on and on, probably because organizers were trying to figure out what to do: There was no room for movement.

A lone policeman yelled from behind us that we should turn back to the Mall to march. It was so good to get moving. The energy returned, with people chanting “Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!” There were also creative chants inspired in the moment that swept through different parts of the crowd. Among those near me were “Hands too small to build a wall” and “We need a leader, not a creepy Tweeter!”

When the street ended in a cross-road, marchers parted and continued going in both directions. Washington’s perfectly aligned streets allowed us to see far into the distance, down roads that were not supposed to be closed but were nevertheless filled with people almost as far as we could see. We continued, past the Washington Monument, past the Treasury, chanting “We will not go away. Welcome to your first day!” Occasionally a scream would start half a mile off and ripple through the march like a sonic wave.

After a few more blocks we encountered a black female police officer on the corner, one of the few officers we’d seen while marching. She was hanging from a lamp post, telling marchers that they could go straight if they were done, or left toward the White House. She confided (loudly) that it was actually less crowded toward the White House, and grinned. We turned left.

We passed a group of 10-year-old girls yelling with huge enthusiasm: “Tell me what a feminist looks like! THIS is what a feminist looks like!” There were LOTS of men, plus babies, kids on shoulders, girls in hijabs. It was amazing to be part of something so big.

But the next morning, Julie was already worrying about whether any of this would translate into lasting action once people returned home.

I don’t know. We saw around 50 returning marchers at every rest stop and gas station where we paused in Virginia on the way back to Tennessee, including at least a dozen from Knoxville, many still wearing their pussy hats and high-fiving strangers. They hadn’t deflated.

Organizers of Knoxville sister marches are already working on follow-up moves. Caroline Mann, an organizer of the Market Square event Saturday says she disputes media estimates of 2,000 and thinks there were 5,000 people there.

Mann and organizers of the UT march and the local Women’s March on Washington contingent plan to meet this weekend to discuss folding their groups together and planning future action. She has email addresses of the 2,500 people who RSVP’d that they were coming to the march, so she can spread the word about how they can ramain active.

At least one of the dozen or so local Indivisible chapters will also be involved, she says. These action groups based on the model outlined in the book “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” Among its recommended strategies is “Resistance Tuesdays,” with people visiting the offices of their Congressmen and Senators to argue for a progressive agenda every Tuesday. A small group will start tomorrow with a visit to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office to present letters and argue against the DeVos confirmation, Mann says.

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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