New York — During my lifetime I have gone on a number of marches, and attended countless demonstrations and rallies. But I have always been more at ease with writing and teaching than marching, especially when the marches engaged in chants for causes (e.g., “Bring the War Home,” and “Free Huey”) I didn’t support. Or invited speakers who were narrowly sectarian and slogan-ridden in ways that felt wrongheaded and alienating. And though I feel that the many anti-Vietnam war demos and the 1963 March on Washington clearly had a powerful effect on government actions, I remain skeptical about the impact of many of the other marches and rallies I have participated in.
Still, that wariness does not prevent me from making another political gesture — important to me personally, if its meaning may not be clear in the larger scheme of things.
On Saturday, January 21, I am off with my wife to attend the New York version of the massive Washington Women’s March, to protest Donald Trump’s election. For me it’s not a protest against the legitimacy of the election (though all the facts about Russia’s ominous role remain unknown) but against a compulsive liar of a president-elect who feels morally odious — bumptious, obsessively egocentric, impulsive, and instinctive rather than reflective — and a threat to the country’s basic liberties.
He’s a president who has largely failed to address concerns about the many conflicts-of-interest posed by his business dealings, and has run a campaign that was implicitly and explicitly misogynist, racist, and anti-immigrant. He has also picked a set of generally unqualified and reactionary cabinet members, who, in the main, give the feeling they were perversely appointed to antagonize Democrats, and the voters who voted against him taking office.
However, being a masochist, I still can’t turn away from listening and reading Trump’s angry, slightly dystopian inaugural address on the 20th. Some of its essence can be found in these lines: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer…. I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.” That notion lay at the core of his campaign speeches — advocating an outraged faux populism where he would express the voice of “the people” (who were almost always white) and, at least rhetorically, take away power from the elite.
The address also spoke of transforming education and stopping “the carnage” in American cities, without explaining how. The implication being that once he was in power inner city violence would miraculously disappear (channeling Duterte — the Philippines’ strongman) as, of course, will all our ills — the real ones and those inflated for demagogic effect. And there was an affirmation of nationalism, which had an un-American undertone that implied a suppression of dissent in the name of unity and the patriotism of the people: “We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny.”
It was an address aimed only to win the hearts of his core supporters, and deepen the revulsion and fear of much of the rest of us. It gave us even more of an impetus to join the marchers in Midtown on Saturday.
However, since I’m not being able to stand in one place for any length of time, we merely walked two blocks with thousands of peaceful marchers at the end of the March route to 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. Not the kind of commitment I would have liked to make, but it was the best I could do. It gave us a chance to observe the enormous number of people of all ages — many women, but men as well, and all races and ethnic groups that were marching.
There were women and girls wearing knitted pink pussy hats, and older women walking with canes and walkers, a rabbi wearing a prayer shawl, Senator Schumer, the archetype of the establishment pol, greeting constituents (good that he showed up), and many carrying signs that were much more incisive and imaginative than the ones we carried during the Vietnam War protests: “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”; “Make America Trump-less Again”; “Only a Twit would Tweet such Twaddle”; “My pussy, my choice, my body, my voice;”; “Putin’s President is the Biggest Loser”; and “Strong Women, Strong World.”
There were few traces of dogmatism and sectarianism on this March — nothing for me to feel wary of. When the church bells chimed and the crowd burst into cheers and chants, and clerks applauded from store windows, it all felt stirring and hopeful. It was reinforced later when I discovered marches took place in 20 countries and U.S. cities from Boston to Oakland. Still, the question lingers as one protestor said: “What do we do tomorrow?” It’s an open question, and the hard job of defining an alternative set of policies, and organizing in local communities and for the next election will have to be sustained. Still, for one day I felt a sense of oneness and a political high.