On a hazy January morning, we started to walk with the crowds towards the National Mall, not knowing the exact destination just simply moving with the current. The dome of the United States Capitol peeked out above a line of rectangular bureaucratic buildings. The faces of these buildings were stone and unadorned. They stood stoic and quiet, impenetrable. The crowd was still loose enough to allow gaps between the women and girls and dots of men who carried signs and upbeat voices.
We made it to a cross street, and I watched the people ahead of me as they made the turn, their eyes focused down the street, some lifted phones over their heads to take photos, others just stared, but they all kept moving. As we entered the wide expanse of the intersection, I saw what they saw. We were at the top of a hill staring down Independence Avenue. At the bottom the crowds were so dense and bright there was no indication of street or sidewalk, of where buildings stopped and the tiny dots of all those people and their declarations began.
We turned and walked down the hill, small conversations and observations with the people walking with us, there was laughter and shout outs looking for a member of our group not easily visible, “Where is she?”
“Oh, there she is.”
There were chants from the crowd, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and the crowd responds, “Stand up! Fight back!”
“What do we do?”
“Stand up! Fight back!”
Above all the empowerment and solidarity there was also a cloud of everyone’s collective anxiety. Because we were not going to a festival. This was not fucking Bonnaroo. We were marching into a crowd larger than I had ever seen. We did not know how this day would unfold, where we would end up, how we would get home. We did not know if the crowds would be peaceful and generous. We did not know what force majeure awaited us. We also did not know if there was something insidious waiting in the future of the day. Nobody checked our clear backpacks. Nobody looked under my bulky jacket.
“When I say sisters, you say rise!”
We kept walking. My anxiety presents itself as jitters, stemming from the epicenter of my nerves and branching out. An overall sense that I might just simply pass out. I have had this experience before, when the stimulus overwhelms my capability to react. It is as if every vessel expands just a fraction and there is not enough room in my body for all my energy. My experience at this march was overwhelmingly positive and at times even fun, but I was nervous. I have two kids at home. As a mother, my life is not my own. I don’t have the luxury to be reckless. They are not my raison d’etre, but I belong to them. I breathe deep and keep walking.
“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”
“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”
I glance around and look for the familiar coats and jackets and pink hats of my marching crew. Everyone is wearing pink pussy hats, but I know which ones are mine. If I lose sight of my sisters, then I scan for our “Women’s Strike” signs. Black with white lettering. Unapologetic. The mood of the crowd is not somber. We talk and point out signs that make us proud or make us laugh.
Keep your god out of my bod.
Tiny hands, big asshole.
Everyone moves forward calmly but willfully. Officials in green vests stand in intersections and suggest we make turns, doing signs with their arms as if directing traffic, but instead of cars it is a mass of people—women, men, children, and strollers. Bumps into shoulders are quickly met with a call of “Sorry” and a response of “It’s ok” because we are women and we are taught to make no ripples. But on this day in January we form a tidal wave. By the hundreds of thousands, we put a dent in the center of the National Mall, making a mark on history. Our collective footprint like a space boot on the moon.
The women’s march was considered successful because of the incredible number of protesters in Washington D.C. and because of the solidarity shown around the country and even internationally. From what I could see the march was more than just white women. There was representation from women of color, maybe even more than I had expected, even though there still exists the valid concern of why white women are now finally marching out from behind our picket fences. Where the hell have we been?
This march was also peaceful. There were no arrests. No tear gas. No rubber bullets. There was barely even a police presence at all. I saw less than a dozen police, mostly standing against cinder block buildings, one knee propped up like a casual flamingo. The only interaction I had with the police was when I waved down a uniformed officer to get help for a woman who had tripped on a curb and landed on her face and suffered a cut above her right eyebrow. However, this protest was not successful because it was peaceful. Those two factors must remain mutually exclusive.
This protest was attended by women, men, and families just like me, who are kept just comfortable enough to be unwilling to storm the White House. We had the numbers, and maybe it is because a group of women would not usually destroy such a beautiful home. We had enough of a presence that we could have commandeered the White House, emptied it of all the precious antiques, and then burned it to the ground. But we didn’t. We wore our pink hats, told our bladders, “Not Today!” and took peaceful control of the National Mall. Then we left and went back to our spaces of comfort, hugged our children, and now many of us are continuing to organize in our local communities.
The march was important and successful. The night after the march, I was renewed and felt a sense of optimism about the people of this country and our precious democracy. However, the march was also benign. If we consider this march in relationship to the two Americas presented by Martin Luther King, Jr. then this march was attended by those living in the America where “People have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” We the people of this America are unwilling to throw bricks because that could substantially disrupt our glass houses. We are accustomed to silent conformity.
Also, we have been so conditioned to the idea that rioting is non-productive and only further divides groups. How many times have I heard the phrase “those people” sprout and erupt around times of rioting and violent protest? We use rioting as a scapegoat for othering. King is celebrated by the white community and we get a day off from work to celebrate him because of his promotion of nonviolence. Ask any school kid in America and that adjective will be the one that is most closely associated with his legacy. I am still waiting for my kids to come home from school with their detailed reports on Malcolm X.
Looking more closely at King’s “Other America” speech, he talks about the use of nonviolence as a more effective measure than rioting because “A riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” and he continues to state that he cannot condemn riots without also condemning the conditions that promote them because “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was arrested 30 times for protesting against segregation. Nonviolent is not the same as nondisruptive.
As a white woman who walked into this march maybe feeling the anxiety for the first time of a possible fear of police presence, I realize that I have no excuse for not standing up before now. Maybe I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with all the marginalized voices throwing bricks into business windows. Even better, there is (as King taught us) a space between a protest with no arrests and an outright violent demonstration. We are going to have to be more disruptive to fight against a bully of this magnitude. We cannot just walk the streets and expect to be heard. My name is now likely on some type of list. A big black checkmark beside my H. And the thing is that I don’t even know if I have the courage to come out from behind the protection of my glass house. I am still questioning how much I am willing to sacrifice. As I sit here being heard, I am a parcel of hypocrisy.
My unwillingness to let go of my space of comfort is exactly what the Trump administration, headed by Grand Wizard Steve Bannon, is counting on. They are expecting that middle class white people will abandon the disenfranchised when it comes time for real protest, that the huge crowds of people will soon just be a few groups living in tents and playing hacky sack while the rest of us are at home watching CNN and tucking our children into warm beds. That is what Trump and his band of villains are using to place all their bets. Giant stacks of chips made from compressed pieces of our freedom and betting on apathy. Our gazes down as we have passed by our history of inequality and violence fueled by discrimination of anything that is not white, wealthy, and patriarchal are what got us here. Fear and division put extremism in the White House. We are going to have to use courage and solidarity to get us out. We have the numbers. We have the education. The awareness. Morality. Empathy. History. This administration thinks we are bluffing. We need to firmly demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining the rights of all the people and not just a select few.
When democracy is under attack, what do we do?
Stand up! Fight back!