On Saturday, January 21st, my 15-year-old daughter and I rode a bus from Wilmington, DE, to Washington, DC, with 33 other women (and two men), mostly from our local community, to take part in the Women’s March on Washington.
Why did we set off from Wilmington and not from home? I’m not really sure. I’d responded to a friend’s offer of tickets, and Wilmington suited me, since my mother lives there. Katy and I drove to her house on Friday evening to have dinner and spend the night. Mom had knitted 5 pink pussy hats for us to distribute to the group. The next morning, she got up at 4:45 to make us breakfast and drive us to our bus. That’s solidarity!
When we boarded the bus, it was dark, but, as we drove along the highway, it soon became clear that I-95 was filled with buses, all heading south to the capital. I knitted one last pussy hat and chatted with my neighbor, exchanging our parents’ immigrant stories. They’d lived through WW II and its aftermath in Europe, witnessed incredible progress in their lifetimes, only to see their adopted country in the hands of a lying, narcissistic demagogue.
I should perhaps say that I am not an experienced protester. In October 1983, while an exchange student in Mainz, I attended the massive rally in Bonn against the deployment of American Pershing II missiles on West German soil. In June 1989, I witnessed the student protests in Tiananmen Square, leaving Beijing for Hong Kong (with CNN videotape in my luggage) just a couple of days before the military crackdown. In both cases, I regarded myself as a sympathetic observer – not a participant. In all my years in Germany, I was conscious of my status as a “guest”, and stayed out of politics.
Riding the bus to DC, I read a blog post by former Obama staffer Jen Psaki on my phone. She made the point that the Women’s March should not be an end in itself, but the start of sustained engagement. “The march shouldn’t be a moment to rest and celebrate. It should be a warm up.” I had already figured that out. I was hoping to draw energy and inspiration from a crowd of like-minded women. I also saw it as an important moment to speak out against Trump’s offensive behavior, his lies, to shout “the Emperor has no clothes!”
My daughter sat with other girls from her school. We managed to outfit each with a pink hat by the time we arrived at RFK Stadium, on the eastern edge of Washington. The stadium parking lot was a sea of buses. As we got out of the bus, Katy said, “Can I walk with my friends?” I said yes, gave her a metro pass and a map of the city, and that was the last I saw of her for many hours.
It was a 2 1/2-mile walk to the rallying point near the Museum of the American Indian, on the National Mall. I walked with 5 other women, including my running buddy Michele and her sister-in-law, who had traveled all the way from Georgia. In the stream of people moving from the stadium toward the city center, it became more and more difficult to stick together. March organizers asked us to stay on the sidewalks, but it soon became hopeless. There were just too many people.
Our route to the Capitol and the National Mall took us through a neighborhood of rowhouses, many of which had black and white lawn signs out front with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. People cheered us on from their stoops. On the front steps of a large church, African-American ladies in their Sunday finery waved encouragement. Katy told me later one guy had yelled, “There was no one here yesterday!” [for Trump’s inauguration].
Within sight of the Capitol, we paused for pictures. Our next priority was finding a toilet. There were plenty of port-a-potties on the west slope of Capitol Hill, but most were behind a fence. They’d been set up for the inauguration – not the march.
The brand name gave us a chuckle, and I thought, what better way to sabotage a women’s demo than by cutting off access to the toilets? A Russian conspiracy, perhaps?
Coming around the side of the Capitol, we got our first sense of the size of the crowd. Yuge! Passing the Botanic Garden, we found port-a-potties on the Mall and joined a long line. Michele and I, as veteran marathon runners, were unfazed. This was as good a place as any for people-watching and talking to other marchers.
I managed to make cellphone contact with my daughter. She wasn’t far away, but finding each other was out of the question in the mass of people. One of my march buddies was impressed by my relaxed attitude. “Well,” I said, “she’s with her friends, and at least one of those friends’ moms is a lot more protective than I am – and she’s a fifth-grade teacher to boot.” Katy was surely in better hands than she would have been with me!
After an hour or so waiting to use the toilets, my companions and I waded into the fray on Independence Avenue, just east of the official march route. There were demonstrators – mostly women – from all over the country and all ethnic backgrounds. Slogans on signs varied from the general (“There’s more to protest than I can fit on my sign.”) to the specific (Black Lives Matter, climate change is real, health care, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, equal pay for women and reproductive rights). Pink pussy hats were everywhere. Each was unique because they’d been knitted, crocheted, or sewn by hand. It was thrilling, but it was also almost impossible to move in the crowd. Indeed, the march itself – in the sense of walking from point A to point B – had been cancelled because of the overwhelming number of demonstrators.
We made our way across Independence Avenue, thinking to go around the block, around the crowd, to get a little further west, where we’d be able to see and hear speakers on the rally stage. On C Street, parallel to Independence, a much less dense crowd was marching, and we joined in, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” “Hey hey! Ho ho! Donald Trump has got to go!” and “We don’t want your tiny hands/anywhere near our underpants.” We caught a glimpse of Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards, greeting supporters from an improvised platform as her bodyguards looked on. Then we returned to Independence Avenue behind the Air & Space Museum, in time to see Madonna take the stage.
Madonna’s delivery was rousing, but her content was angry and somewhat vague. When she started dropping the f-bomb, it seemed out of place. This march was really pretty friendly – persistent, insistent, but polite. “Make America kind again” was a more frequent slogan than calls for revolution.
With considerable effort, my buddies and I managed to move (I can’t call it marching) along Independence Avenue from one end of the National Air & Space Museum to the other. It was time to start thinking about meeting up with friends and making our way back to the bus. We headed north, across the Mall, walking over the white(ish) plastic surface that had been put down to protect the grass and that so infuriated our President by being visible on aerial photos of the sub-yuge inauguration crowd. The march had spilled over into side streets, heading north from the Mall to the central business district and the White House.
The sun was going down now. We’d been awake since at least 4:45, on our feet from about 9:30 that morning, and we were tired. We’d agreed to meet others from our bus at Metro Center station, but there was no question of taking the subway back to the stadium. The pink-hatted crowd on the pavement, waiting to get into the station, was massive and barely moving.
We resigned ourselves to walking the 3+ miles back to the stadium parking lot. Downtown hotels, restaurants and bars were overflowing, pink hats and protest signs in their windows. I wondered what the economic impact of such a march must be. As we got out of the city center, the crowd grew thinner and quieter. Opposite the church where we’d been greeted in style that morning, an African-American man in a tailored suit offered that, if we needed a rest or a bathroom, he would help us across the street and a church member would direct us inside. Make America kind again, indeed.
Approaching the stadium, we got a different view of the sea of buses, their lights now twinkling in the dark. We’d remembered enough details to be able to find ours quickly. Sure enough, my daughter was already there, well-fed and content with her day of protest. I was happy she’d been interested and able to participate. The ride back to Wilmington was quiet. Most were exhausted and tried to sleep a little. My mother picked us up, we visited briefly, gathered our things and headed home.
In the days since our exhilarating visit to DC, the Trump White House has been settling into a pattern of lies, tantrums and provocative action. The reality-show-to-end-all-reality-shows came to Philadelphia yesterday and was met by thousands of demonstrators. Just as President Trump seemed about to utter a fact about the city’s crime record, he reversed course in mid-sentence and told a whopper about surging murder rates. And so Philly Mayor Jim Kenney became the latest in what will surely be a long line of mayors and governors to set the record straight and pledge resistance.
I’ve come to believe that the most important message of the Women’s March is this: We recognize that our rights, our democracy, and our decency are fragile. We see that they are under attack, and we will fight to defend them. That we have different approaches and priorities should not be construed as disunity and is not a weakness. We just need to keep at it, bigly.