Participatory history lesson — taking part in the Women’s March in Washington, DC

Yes I did!

I never imagined that when I joined the Peace Corps I would be taking part in history — unless maybe there was a military coup or war in Armenia, which was not out of the question.

But when I was sent to Washington, D.C. in early January for some mental health R&R, Armenia seemed peaceful and stable compared to the political storm brewing in our nation’s capital. A feeling of dread and disbelief, a palpable pall seemed to hang in the air as I walked the streets of quaint Georgetown. How could America have just elected the most unqualified candidate to ever run for president? Following on the heels of eight years of a president beloved by many, it seemed particularly cruel.

With plenty of time to “relax” between medical appointments, I found myself glued to the TV, flipping between CNN, MSNBC and FOX (just for balance). As the inauguration day approached I felt helpless. What could I do to put up some kind of resistance to this darkness overtaking our nation?

But of course I wasn’t the only one feeling this angst, and I watched with growing interest as the Women’s March movement took hold. The day after the inauguration a worldwide show of resistance to the man and his “principles” was planned. Being a journalist I was used to watching from the sidelines, always an observer, never a participant. It was practically the theme of my life. But not this time. I was determined to join the thousands of women coming to D.C. for the momentous day. Heck, I was just a short metro ride away!

I was determined to get an official T-shirt, which took two trips to the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and six hours total standing in line in the cold. But the mood was festive, a camaraderie of “nasty women,” and shared disgust. A local pizzeria passed out free slices to those in the long, long line, drivers honked in solidarity, and we all cheered when two UPS vans pulled up and started unloading box after box marked “T-shirts.”

Solidarity-infused patience helped people endure the long wait to get into the Women’s March merch store.

Finally, T-shirt in hand, I headed down to watch the inaugural parade; sort of like rubbernecking a horrible crash involving flaming tanker trucks and school buses on the interstate. After squeezing through security — no backpacks, bottles, sharp objects, guns — I lined up on the barricade at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House. I was surprise that with the ceremony already started the crowd seemed very thin, only two or three people deep. There were more security on the street side of the barricade than there were watchers. Snipers lined the roofs of the buildings looming over the street, scopes trained downward.

Inaugural parade route.

A block away protesters burned a limousine and tangled with police, but it was quiet on the secured side. I was surrounded by people in red “Make America Great Again” ball caps. So these were his people. They might as well have been Martians. How could we love the same country and feel so differently about its leadership? A group across the street tried to rally the crowd, which largely remained silent. One young woman yelled out, “What are you here for if you don’t want to make noise?” How much time have you got?

A few small marching groups passed, but I’ve seen more excitement at a small town Fourth of July parade. Or a funeral procession. Finally the motorcycle police with sidecars came roaring by, followed by a fleet of black limousines traveling at fairly high speed, American flags flapping on the front fenders. In the back of one, a young boy pressed his bewildered face against the darkened window, and a fat hand could be seen giving a thumbs up.

“There he is!” someone shouted, and that was it.

In contrast to the tense mood at the inauguration parade, the Women’s March participants were fired up and rebellious. And the mood started long before marchers even got to the route along the side of the National Mall.  A friend from the hotel and I started out at about 9:30, thinking we would have plenty of time to get there before the actual parade started at 1 p.m. But when we got to the nearest metro station, it was mobbed with women in pink “pussy” hats, carrying signs and trying to cram on already packed trains. “Let’s go upstream,” we agreed.

So we hopped a train heading away from the capital, hoping to get on where the crowds were thinner. On the train were some protesters already heading home, including two senior women holding a very feisty sign: “Keep your laws off my (pussy).” They said they had been protesting since the 1950s.

Two veteran pro-choice protesters.

We got farther and farther out of town, with trains still packed, before finally deciding we would just have to shove our way onto a train heading back into town. Metro added extra trains, but it was still seriously overtaxed.

After nearly two hours, we finally got to the designated getting off point — where we were met by police directing people on a long and circuitous route just to get to the march. The organizers had been issued a permit for 250,000 participants, a number that swelled to nearly double.  We were finally shoehorned into a spot about halfway up the designated route on Independence Avenue, far from the speakers. And there we stood for another two hours under leaden skies, amusing ourselves by reading all the protest signs and joining the chants that rippled through the crowd. “We Shall Over-comb,” “Trumpty Dumpty,” and “Men in Tights for Women’s Rights,” vied with the more serious, “Love Trumps Hate,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “I Will Not Go Quietly Back to 1950.” Favorite sign though: “Melania, Blink Twice if You Need Help.”

Waiting for the march to begin.

Now remember, at this point it was day one of the Trump presidency and he had yet to unleash his horror of executive orders and express his full psychotic fury with the press. Most signs were directed at things he had done on the campaign, particularly the notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. It even gave participants the symbol of the march – hand knit pink hats with “pussy” ears. The mood was festive, like a huge family reunion. It was a chance to come together not just to show opposition, but to give and get consolation and hope.

Mother and daughter wait patiently for the march to start.

A middle-aged daughter protectively sheltered her mother, seated on a walker. Two women tried to calm their restive toddlers in strollers. As one toddler began crying a stranger reached down, put her hand on the child’s knee and began softly singing, “You are my sunshine…”

People climbed trees and sign posts to get a better view, and lead the crowd in anti-Trump chants. One person fainted.

Ironically, with participants choking the entire designated route, there was nowhere to march. Something had to give, and it did. Marchers had been told they were not allowed to spill out onto the mall itself, sticking instead to the paved streets, but eventually the size of the crowd overruled that plan. With people spreading out onto the mall, the pink-hatted, sign waving serpent began to move, with chants of “To the White House!”

Marchers surged toward an unoccupied White House.

We marched at a crawl along Independence Avenue and toward the Washington Monument. We snaked right, onto 14th Street SW, across the mall, headed indeed toward the White House. Security was not letting the marchers get anywhere near it, so the parade goers peacefully spread out and scattered at The Ellipse, a park in full view of the White House. Marchers left their signs along a flimsy picket fence, reading like a signboard of all the frustration, fear and cautionary tales for the new president.

As we walked along the side of the White House the crowd ahead of us began to boo loudly and wave middle fingers — the presidential motorcade was returning to the White House.

Marchers pass the Washington Monument.

Jan. 20 will go down in history as the start of the worst presidency in our history, but Jan. 21 will be right alongside it, marked as the day people around the world came together to fight for all that is decent and just. I’m glad I was there as a participant, and witness to history.

 

All photos by and copyright Marcie Miller. Please do not use without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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