I count myself among millions of women (and men) who marched in protest last Saturday, the day after our 45th president was inaugurated. What a fantastic, tremendous, momentous experience. Chicago was enjoying an almost 60 degree day, with the bright sun both warming us and lightening the mood and spirits of us marchers.
It seems cliche to say there was an electricity in the air, but damn, there was an electricity in the air. Happy anticipation was palpable as the crowd gathered and grew and grew and grew and grew. I stepped on the train believing I was going to enter a crowd of 50K. I stepped off the train, where we were packed like joyful sardines, and overheard the crowd estimate had been raised to 70K. Soon, I heard were voices around me saying, “There’s 100K of us!” Helicopters circled overhead as we came to Michigan Avenue. Only later would it be confirmed that the crowds surpassed 250K.
It was a sea of people. Motivated, hopped up, angry, passionate, energized people. My beloved Michigan Avenue was closed, full of humans as far as my aging eyes could see. They held signs about public education and women’s reproductive rights, and black lives mattering, and LGBTQ rights, and climate change, and immigration, and religious freedom, and access to health care, and kindness, and love, and hope. So many signs about hope.
I was with my tribe. It felt good.
Twice during the event, my sister and I positioned ourselves in places where we could watch the marchers around us. I wanted to take some photos, but I also wanted to have some time to experience the scope of what was happening. When you march, you sort of move in a pack. It is a powerful statement and experience, but it limits your ability to see the bigger picture. Stepping back and observing what was going on around us is a choice that I am grateful we made. This is what I saw:
- The crowd was primarily white women with healthy doses of white men, African American women (just a few African American men), Latinas and Latinos, Muslims, Arabs, and Asians.
- There were families there aplenty. Many with infants and young children, some with aging parents, some with three generations represented. So many strollers, so many walkers, so many wheelchairs. Hats off to all who required wheels on their march. I also saw a few sibling groups — older brothers and sisters (folks in their 50s and 60s) marching together.
- Lots of ages were represented. I saw babies, young children. tweens, teens, Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers galore, and a smattering of the Silent Generation, who it turns out, are not always so silent. Age diversity was a true strength of the march.
- People marched for wildly different reasons, identified by the signs that they carried.
- A few folks walked carrying flags. There were American flags, rainbow flags, UN flags, transgender flags, pan-African flags, and Palestinian flags were among those I saw. At one point, I was moved to say thank you to an older man carrying an American flag, as there is nothing more American than gathering to register protest. He stopped, asked me to hold his bag, and fished out two American flag bows for me and my sister. A kind gesture.
- Joy was palpable. Early on, three generations of Muslim women (granddaughter in her early 20s, her mom, her grandmother) walked past me as I was snapping some photos. The mom smiled and waved at me, then she and her daughter briefly stopped and smiled for my camera. That moment was full of peace and happiness, acceptance and awareness.
- Hope was potent. At one point during the march, chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” all around us, a young Arab man, probably early 20s, turned to me and said, “I have not felt this kind of hope in months.” We smiled, I agreed with him, it was everywhere. In that small moment, anything seemed possible.
- People talked to one another. We came with our own folks, but there was a great feeling of community and reaching out. Post-march, after things were officially over, but before the police cleared the streets, a rousing concert took place smack dab in the middle of Dearborn Street. Spontatenous dancing and singing occurred. Art unites because of its humanity.
Saturday’s march was a beautiful, singular experience I will never forget. I am so proud to have been a part of it. I am honored to live in a country that (at least for now) allows me to exercise my right to gather and protest. I stand by my belief that it was a worthwhile way of demonstrating my concerns about what direction the US, and the larger world, seems to be moving — one of increasing fear, intolerance, nationalism, and isolation.
And then Sunday happened.
Initially, the criticisms came from the outside. “Vagina screechers,” was the term a local school board member used to describe marchers. There were lots and lots and lots of disparaging comments made about the weight or level of attraction of marchers. As women under this administration, this is something we all need to get used to. No matter the quality of intellect we have or the depth of our compassion, a woman will always be judged on her looks. We are acceptable if we act in the manner we are told to act. We are acceptable if we stay in our lane. We are acceptable if we submit. And it does not require a man to exert these limitations. Fellow women are very happy to suggest other women are unacceptable.
Soon enough, though, the criticisms came from within. Those who were present, those who marched side by side, started jabbing at one another. Handcrafted pink hats are elitist symbols of a hyper-sexualized binary gender interpretation of what womanhood means. White women who thanked the police accused of being racist. Those same white women crying foul without pausing to listen and engage and absorb. Women of color were not visible enough. Using vulgar language or symbols denigrates our collective message. If we don’t have a single unified message, the march was futile. What was the point anyway?!
I’m not gonna lie, the day after the Women’s March sucked on the social media landscape.
But here’s the thing, as my sister (whose old lefty street cred is impeccable) reminded me, democracy is messy. Creating a movement is messy. Nothing is linear. Total agreement will never be achieved.
This is what I believe: Participating in a protest that demonstrated such vast numbers and scope was an empowering experience. For a few brief, shining moments, I was surrounded by people who both looked and did not look like me and we shared a bond of hope. We are at the beginning of a marathon, not a 50 yard dash. White feminism is flawed and needs to be more inclusive. Black lives matter. It is far easier for police to contain and manage a crowd of 250K folks that look like their mom and sisters and grandmothers and daughters than a crowd of 1K that do not.
I am okay with some messiness. Those who are not may not be up for what is needed to sustain their involvement. And all of that is okay. As I try to do with most things in my day-to-day life, I will consciously work to act with compassion, empathy, respect, and an open mind. I have my limits, to be sure, and I fail all the time, but I am reporting for duty, fired up and ready to go.