The Women's March Was an Unreal Experience
When I bought my bus ticket for the Women's March on Washington, I expected it to be more of the same. It would be fun, uplifting, and energizing to spend the day elbow to elbow with people who find meaningful the same things I do. It would certainly be the most adventurous march I've attended but only because, this time, I would be coming from eleven hours away, from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, rather than less than an hour outside of DC.
It wasn't more of the same. This was an experience like no other I've ever had before. For one, there's the scale of it. I haven't been able to find official figures yet, but this article puts Metro ridership on the day of the march at 597,000. And many of us--despite holding pre-purchased Metro passes--chose to walk. It was only a half-hour walk from RFK Stadium, where 1,800 buses left their passengers, to the Capitol where the pre-march rally was held.
Our journey began at 6:45 Friday evening when we set out from Newport to Burlington, where we would board our RallyBus for DC. It was a night of anticipation and nerves, fitful sleep punctuated by rest stops where I'd look out into the pitch dark and wonder where we were. At one point, dozing became actual sleep, and when I woke up, we were at the Clara Barton rest stop at the bottom of the Jersey Turnpike. The bus pulled in and right out again, going instead a few miles down the road to the Delaware Welcome Center: The rest stop was overflowing with buses heading to the march. There was no place to park.
Getting off the bus in Delaware is when it first occurred to this was going to be unlike any experience I'd ever had before. The parking lot and the rest area overflowed with buses and mostly women, many wearing pussy hats. After a long drive along the dark highways of Vermont and New York, the sudden exodus into light and commotion was slightly surreal. I stood blinking at the rows of buses, the lines of people: I've been to the rest stops along I-95 more times than I can count. Now, it was the middle of the night. I'd never seen them look like this.
Back on the bus and down the familiar highway. I lived here most of my life. I watched exits swish past that were part of my everyday existence for many years. I slept through the tunnel, apparently. I woke to gray, misty morning light and the landmarks that told me we were approaching DC. A Metro Orange Line train sailed along an overpass across the highway. And then we were at RFK Stadium. A murmur of excitement thrilled through our bus. I never thought I'd be actually happy to see that musty old stadium (I never thought I'd be so happy to be going to DC, truth be told), but here I was.
We were one of the first buses to arrive, so we got prime real estate right in the front row with the stadium looming overhead. A few minutes in the parking lot to take stock and retrieve our signs from under the bus, to pose for a few pictures--a lot of care was taken with those signs and a few of them ended up making media roundups of the best signs on the march(here and here and here)--and then we were off.
Upon leaving stadium grounds, we passed in front of the National Guard Armory. The first person we saw was a young African American guardswoman, who stood at one of the intersections in uniform, smiling and welcoming us.
I am from this area. Part of why I left is because I had found that the growing congestion and cost of living--which of course goes hand-in-hand with ever intensifying and stressful workloads to maintain a middle-class life--was beginning to make the region feel soulless. People don't smile at strangers in central Maryland and DC. They don't welcome. Basic courtesy, empathy, and civility too often lack. Other people are obstacles that keep you from getting home to enjoy the scraps of time you have for yourself before rising unreasonably early again the next morning to begin again. Other people are the ones getting the things you wish you had. They are inconveniences to reaching dreams large and small. So many times, I felt this way myself. It is part of why I left: The anger I felt sometimes verged on hatred, and that was not me, and I feared what I might become if I didn't stop it.
But this guardswoman, she turned on its head everything I believed I knew about people in the area--as someone who had been one of them for most of her life--and about people in the uniforms of authority. I kept her image, her smile, in my mind throughout the day.
We passed through a residential neighborhood, and people stood in their doorways to cheer us on. Many people had yard signs with quotes from MLK, reminding us of the power of love and peace. I will confess that I teared up more than once. There were so many people walking in the streets. In that moment, it seemed like the culmination of a movement of humanity that spanned the nation and convened in this place: a movement to speak up on behalf of love, inclusivity, and peace and to resist with all our might the alternative.
We had an invitation to join Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcelle for coffee and light fare before the march at Mott House. Finding Mott House required a little wandering around. I reminded people that, according to popular lore, Washington, DC, was designed to be confusing to potential foreign invaders, so it is okay to get lost. Whether that is true or not: DC is fecking confusing. We eventually found our way. The house and lawn were packed. We decided not to go in but mingled on the lawn. The senator came through, and I got a great photo of our group with him.
[Mott House and pussy hats.]
As we walked toward the Capitol, we saw signs of the preparation the city had undergone in anticipation of our arrival. More than 200 people had been arrested in protests following the prior day's inauguration ceremony. The National Guard sat in armored vehicles alongside the road as we walked. We saw ranks of DC Police in riot gear lined up and ready to board a bus. Presumably for ... us? for counterprotesters? I remember one of our group posting to Facebook that she had to go into the march assuming the police were there for our protection. Faith as a last ditch against fear.
It was a little unsettling. I know people who are crippled by fear of violence in public places. I once worked with a woman who would rarely attend any event where crowds would be present because she was terrified of mass shootings. I usually scoff at this kind of fear. I don't want to give hateful people that kind of power over my life and happiness. I often say that I am more likely to die in a car crash going to an event than to be killed by violence at the event itself. But more than once this week, I thought about the Boston Marathon bombing. I thought about what a tempting target we presented and how offensive our message was to so many groups of people who would take us back. I thought about the hateful rhetoric and the inciting of violence that have become acceptable because of Donald Trump and what that meant for us, people who are perceived by many of his supporters as taking something from them. I thought about what I would do if events went south and I got caught in something I never intended to be part of. Bobby made me take a bandanna in case teargas was used. I wondered what these rows of officers thought about us and the day ahead of them. I wondered how a mask and a uniform would separate our humanity from their own.
We made it to the Capitol. For many, this was their first time in DC and what a photogenic moment it presented! It was still early and the crowds were relatively small compared to what they'd become.
By now, our journey had gone on for more than twelve hours. People had to pee. We were told that the bus bathroom was for emergencies only. We were many hours from our rest stop in Delaware. There was a bank of about ten port-a-potties and a line extending for the better part of a block to use them. The front of the Capitol was fenced off, and behind the fence, we could see the stage we'd watched on TV the day before--now empty: the crimson curtains, the trash and festoons discarded on the ground after a tepid Inauguration ... and hundreds of port-a-potties.
[Waiting to pee.]
In one place, the port-a-potties butted right up against the fence. Women had begun climbing the fence to use them. A DC police officer came over and made them climb back over.
He was just doing his job, of course. That's how the minor indignities and life-shattering travesties committed under the guise of authority work. But the contrast between the lines waiting for the smattering of bathrooms and the trash-strewn inaugural emptiness and ranks of unused potties behind the fence was stark in that moment. I thought of the smiling guardswoman and wondered what the day held in store, which kind of world this would be.
We found a bank of port-a-potties in front of the Capitol with long-but-not-as-long of lines. I didn't have to go; I rarely pee at public events and can hold it quite a long time, like a pee!camel. So I held everyone's signs while they queued.
[Our group queued for the loo with the Capitol still wearing the aftermath of the Inauguration in the background.]
[Loo queue. I loved this girl and her sign. One of our group members brought her eleven-year-old daughter to the march. What an inspiration these young women are, what a reminder of why we march. Our world faces such challenges in the decades to come. They are not insurmountable, but we need everyone to be able to fully realize and exercise their potential in order to overcome those challenges.]
On the Mall, we began to gather where the speakers and performers were to be. The crowds were already overwhelming, even this early in the day.
[And the crowd gets thicker ...]
We waded into the crowd and gave reaching the stage a try. We could see scraps of a screen through the trees, and every now and then, the crowd would roar with approval at something that had been said or done on the stage. We never even saw the stage! We edged closer and closer and eventually just stopped. We were pressed elbow-to-elbow with other marchers. Eventually, we decided to try to cross the crowd to find a space near the back where we could comfortably stand together. There were fifteen of us, and maneuvering fifteen people across a crowd of this size while keeping everyone together is no small feat.
It's impossible for me to communicate the intensity of that initial gathering. I've never experienced anything like it before. You'd start walking to reach a place where the crowd was thinner, then realize that the entire area was jam-packed like this.
[This little boy's sign reads: "We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. -Dumbledore."]
I brought up the rear. My bright orange hat made me easy to see, and I am always least anxious when I can see the whole group is together and that no one has been lost. Several times, I would be separated from the group. One, then two, then five people would come between us. Then I wouldn't be able to see Ruth-Ann's matching orange hat and frustration would set in. It was that old feeling of my life here, when people become obstacles when, in their obliviousness, they kept me from where I wanted or needed to be.
Then I thought about what I was feeling and I tried something. I said to one of the people who stood between me and my group, "Can I squeeze past you? My group is up there, and I'd like to stay with them." And people not only moved but did so graciously, sacrificing their own advancement a half-step so that I could stay with my friends.
I've had this kind of moment on a march before. I remember marching with two friends of mine for marriage equality. At the time, I was so angry. I was so angry at what had been done, by the bigotry of others, to my family and to people I loved. A lot of that anger was directed toward Christianity. As hate breeds hate, my anger very often didn't discriminate. I said things then that shame me now. I was just angry at Christians. But walking through the streets of DC with my friends who had been denied their full civil rights for so long, we passed an Episcopal church, and the clergy came out on the porch in full regalia to wave rainbow flags and cheer us on. That was a powerful moment for me. I realized how wrong I had been. How unjust, in my quest for justice and my assumed righteous anger, I had been.
There were fifteen of us in our group from the Northeast Kingdom. For many, it was their first march; for some, it was their first time in DC. We went through the entire day without losing a single person. Part of that was our care and concern for each other: If we found a person was missing, we'd hold our signs high and yell "Caw-caw!" until the person was found. But part of that too was the kindness of others, who moved when we asked, who gave up their spaces so we could stay together, who moved so we could pass. At one point, I heard a man yell, "Let all the Vermonters get through!" and our entire group was allowed to pass through a crowd.
Once the march itself began, there were so many people that they overflowed from the march route and into the surrounding streets. One of our group suggested that the name Women's Wander would have been more appropriate! Our group held to the route, then wandered into a park where we could see the White House and give it the finger, then wandered back onto the route. Although the event was termed the Women's March on Washington, the chants and signs spanned issues from welcoming immigrants and refugees to LGBTQ+ issues to Black Lives Matter to combating racism, xenophonia, and Islamophobia. The prevailing sense was one of inclusivity. No one walks alone. Threats to your safety and humanity are threats to my safety and humanity.
[Marching past the First Amendment on the side of the Newseum. Fitting.]
I feel like so often our modern world creates the illusion of competition and separateness so that everything from getting a raise at work to getting a close parking spot becomes an opportunity to pit yourself against the person nearest to you. I join philosophers across history in asking if this is "human nature" or is it something else at work?
One of the reasons I embrace feminism as a core of my beliefs is that I believe that welcoming women and a feminine approach to solving the world's problems will reduce this mindless, throat-cutting competition that distracts and besieges us and has been the province of history largely made by men. The march showed me what that other approach might look like. A million people crammed into a small space and the civility, the kindness were apparent and even overwhelming. It was the moment when I realized that if I stopped viewing the people around me as obstacles and potential competitors for space and asked for their help, then they would usually give it. (Actually, they always did.)
It seems a very feminine approach to me to believe that we are succeeding as a society when as many people as possible are succeeding, rather than measuring success by what we've personally amassed onto ourselves and how much better and more deserving we think we are than others.
One of the latest right-wing talking points is to accuse Obama of "divisiveness." Given that I'd wager that at least 95% of marchers yesterday were Obama supporters (or would have been if they'd been able to vote), I'm not sure, coming out of the march, how one can see Obama as divisive. If anything, it was the precise opposite of divisive. It welcomed everyone, and the issues represented extended well beyond those affecting only women, despite being ostensibly a "women's march." What seems to be mistaken for "divisiveness" is an unwillingness to accept maligning a group of people as scapegoats for the ever-growing consolidation of wealth and privilege onto the already overprivileged. As a person living in an overwhelmingly white and poor part of the country, I have so much sympathy for people sidelined in the frantic grab for ever-greater profits by the rich and corporations, but it's hard to stand beside people whose first response is to point at immigrants or the poor as the reason for their own misfortune rather than those who actually took from them. If that makes me divisive, then so be it, that I refuse to stand for ideas that are at their core divisive. And I do hope that we reach a point where these people will look at the people they hate so much and realize that we have more in common than we don't, and they will also join our movement for equal opportunity for all.
Around 6 o'clock, we prepared to depart from DC, footsore and exhausted. The day had held the kinds of stresses one associates with large crowds--and by all measures, crowds well exceeded the most generous estimates I'd seen of potential attendance: long lines, pressing crowds, the constant stress of watching out for each other and staying together, not enough access to food, physical exhaustion, and even pain. As an introvert, I was emotionally wiped out as well. But when I looked back, none of those things mattered as much as the sense of inclusivity and kindness that I'd experienced throughout the day.
After miles of walking and poor choice of socks, my wonky foot was really hurting. I decided to take the half-hour walk back to the bus slowly, and Emily walked with me. Back through that residential neighborhood, people played music from speakers in their windows. A pastor stood in the street and offered departing marchers the opportunity to use the bathrooms in his church before getting back on their buses home. A woman and her little boy handed out cups of water. A pair of young women stood on the corner and thanked us for coming.
This was DC? Heartless, cutthroat DC where I once dreaded having to go because of the nastiness and rudeness of its people?
DC police were staged at every crossing, directing traffic so that we could cross safely on our way back to our buses. With the inauguration and march back-to-back it was obvious that they were more exhausted than we were. Yet we spoke to them and they smiled; we all talked and laughed as traffic passed. We wished each other a good night and passed from each other's lives.
Is a kinder, more just world possible? For a day, it was. For a day, people spoke up for their values and seemingly committed themselves to acting on those values as well. For a day, we opened our hearts to everyone; we committed and accepted kindnesses small and large. We spoke up for each other. But we also looked up and acknowledged and spoke to each other. We assumed the best in people rather than seeing others as obstacles, as objects.
We go home now and have to take the momentum from the march into further action. We ask ourselves what is possible. It was a day for me to see an ideal become reality. So now we ask ourselves, "For a day? Or ...?"
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!