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CNN World Headlines
March in Washington helps revive spirits of marchers, sets up challenge for the future
By Matthew Abrams
Many readers will have strong opinions about the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend on Jan. 23, 2017, , and I do not expect this column, or anything else presented on a newspaper or screen to change those opinions.
Our media environment is largely divided into bubbles of like-thinking individuals, and we are suspicious of stories which contradict our pre-existing view of the world.
“Fake news” and “alternative facts” are poisonous to our shared understanding of reality.
My own political opinion is largely in agreement with the published principles of the march: https://www.womensmarch.com/principles. I support civil rights and equal opportunities for women, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc.
I write to describe the small piece of the event that I witnessed, and perhaps document it for future generations who may see it as a minor historical curiosity rather than a gut-level test of tribal loyalty and/or human decency.
Try to get all perspectives
Some may think it presumptuous for me, as a man (and a cis, white, straight man at that), to comment on a phenomenon which was led, organized, and carried out by women who struggle against bigotry and barriers that I do not face and do not know.
I would reply that I can only do my best to be aware of my limited life experience, and to apply the privileges and resources I possess to help others. I would encourage you to read descriptions of the march by a variety of women as well, to get their perspectives.
I travelled to DC from the Twin Tiers of upstate New York, a rural area that typically elects Republicans and voted for Trump in 2016. We registered online, paid $50 for tickets, and ended up with five very full busloads of people. We were about 90 percent women to 10 percent men, a roughly even mix of ages from teenagers to retirees, and a range of ethnicities.
Many people wore bright pink “pussyhats” to defy Trump’s boasts of grabbing women’s genitals.
We left at 2 a.m. and arrived in the DC area around 9 a.m., in the midst of a sea of traffic. Several metro stations were overloaded with the sheer number of people arriving for the march, and we were shunted off to a secondary station to unload.
As we travelled by metro train toward the Capitol, the crowds of pink-hatted protestors grew even denser. We came up out of the station around noon to see people filling every street and sidewalk far into the distance.
Somewhere, blocks away, there was a rally with notable speakers, but we were unable to get close enough to hear. I did see the back of John Kerry’s head as he walked by, which was not all that impressive.
Concerned, but saw no violence
Leading up to the trip, I had been deeply concerned that there might be arrests and violence against protestors, either from the police or from hostile neo-Nazi groups supporting Trump. This was the first time I’ve attended a political protest, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
At the actual event, the DC police were extremely polite, helpful, and professional, and there were no arrests. I saw perhaps a dozen counter-protestors, preachers yelling at us to accept Jesus and mend our ways, but there was no violence or overt hostility.
Unable to reach the rally, we plunged into the milling crowds. There was a remarkable variety of signs and banners on display. The most common phrase was “Love trumps Hate,” and the most common symbols were rainbows and uteruses (Merriam-Webster says both uteri and uteruses are acceptable).
We saw pictures of uteruses with angry fists, posed like sports mascots.
There were uteruses with the Gadsden Flag slogan “Don’t tread on me.” A knitted, stuffed uterus was the size of a human torso. A drawn picture of a uterus had the caption “Respect where you came from.”
Trump’s rants answered
It may be that Trump inspired this specific style, with his crude anatomical rants against the female human body. He claimed Fox interviewer Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and said that women who opposed him were pigs, disgusting, etc.
But under the waving flags and puppets was a fierce rebuttal to long-held Republican plans to criminalize abortion, remove access to birth control, and generally give government and religion more control over women’s bodies. I remember one quote that seemed to sum things up: “Grab my p——and you are going to lose your hand.”
Protestors held signs criticizing Trump for his friendly relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, calling Trump a foreign agent and an illegitimate president, elected by voter suppression and dirty tricks.
They mocked his ignorance, his corrupt business practices, his toupee and tiny hands. Others expressed support for the Standing Rock protestors and against corporate pollution of water sources.
Protestors held signs for gay marriage rights, for protection of transgender people against discriminatory laws, and other progressive causes. One group held huge red letters simply spelling out “KINDNESS.”
This scattershot approach reminds me of the Occupy movement, which, while engaging a large number of people, never seemed to coalesce to achieve specific goals.
But perhaps this march serves a different purpose. I spoke with marchers who had been disheartened and depressed by Donald Trump’s electoral college victory. Many had felt isolated and hopeless.
These women, coming from Wisconsin and Oregon and Texas and Maryland and New York, were emotionally revived and inspired by the presence of so many others who agreed with their cause.
The sister marches
I heard from friends and family attending “sister marches” in Tallahassee, Florida, Atlanta and Binghamton, New York. I saw on TV the marches being held in London and across the world. It could be argued that the march was a valuable way to “rally the troops” and provide emotional support, as a necessary prerequisite to moving forward.
The official routes for the DC march were overwhelmed by the sheer number of participants, with every path already crowded with people. The result was a sort of confused muddle, with individuals and groups moving back and forth, and prolonged periods in packed crowds without much motion at all. There were not enough bathrooms. There were not enough trash cans.
I think it worth noting, that despite all this confusion, I saw no fights or arguments, no anger at toes being stepped on or paths being blocked. Everyone seemed to act with a sense that we were all on the same team.
Many DC-area shops and restaurants opened their doors, and did great business at the march, with lines of pink-hatted customers stretching out into the street. I visited Young Chow Asian Fusion and Sushi Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, which did a fantastic job serving food to a huge number of people with skill and grace.
Other establishments remained closed, perhaps fearful of rioters, or perhaps just giving their employees the day off to join the march.
“What Democracy looks like”
There was chanting. Lots of chanting in unison. The most common chant I heard was “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” And at first I was taken aback. After all, isn’t “voting” what democracy looks like? Indeed, it’s key characteristic? But on reflection, the First Amendment gives protection to the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and says nothing about voting.
Indeed, historically the right to vote in most democracies, from ancient Athens to the USA has been heavily regulated, by race and gender and wealth and ancestry. In the 2016 presidential election, the candidate who got the most popular votes, Hillary Clinton, was denied the presidency by the electoral college, which placed Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
Against this background, valuing voting over peaceful assembly seems less mathematically objective, and more like the self-serving position of those sufficiently privileged to be able to decide who votes and how much those votes count.
It could be argued that mass protests, not popular votes, led to the toppling of the monarchy in the French Revolution.
And mass protests in Tahrir Square led to the defeat of President Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, after decades of sham elections had failed to produce a change in leadership. One might note pessimistically that protest movements brought down autocrats but did not achieve a peaceful, pluralistic society in either case.
Feelings of satisfaction, glad we went
By 5 p.m., crowds were starting to disperse, leaving glitter and pamphlets and debris (that lack of trash cans again). Metro trains were crowded on the way back to the bus, with barely enough room to fit. We got back home at two in the morning, tired and sore.
I am glad that I went to the march. I hope that it will give courage to the women and men who Trump and his cronies have sought to terrify into silence. I hope it will give backbone to senators who are called to vote on Trump’s incompetent, bigoted and misogynist Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees.
I hope it will be followed by a more enduring and focused movement to elect legislators in 2018 who will oppose Trump’s unconstitutional campaign promises and his attempts to intimidate the press. I hope that we are able to avoid both a Trumpist dictatorship and a civil war. We must work to make it so.