Lessons from the Women’s March in Washington

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By Wednesday, Feb 1 We the People  9 Comments
Susanna Opper
At the East Falls Church Washington Metro stop, the author and her three Berkshire companions are on their way to the Women's March, the day after the inauguration, January 21, 2017. From left, Anne Undeland, Maizy Scarpa, Joanna Ezinga, and the author, Susanna Opper.

Stunned

In the days after the November election, like most people I know, I was stunned. I went on about my life as if things were normal, but reality pierced my consciousness, often in the small hours of the morning. I quoted Scarlett O’Hara, “I will think about that tomorrow.” There were the holidays, and we simply spoke of other things.

I shaped my plan then. I would divide my life into three — not necessarily equal — parts. The first I now call Sanctuary. These are the times when I don’t speak or think about what is happening to my country. Perhaps I’m sitting by the fire, or skiing or chatting with friends. Maybe I’m working or dreaming.

The second is staying informed. I’ve always been a little sloppy about this — lacking the patience for the tedium of the news and not being able to sit still in front of TV. I’m still working this part out. PBS has been my first choice so far, but maybe BBC or even Al Jazeera. Even though I’m not there yet, I’m committed to staying informed beyond the somewhat random information provided by my friends on Facebook.

The third is action. So, on Inauguration Day, I headed for Washington, D.C., my hometown, with three other Berkshire women.

 

lead

 

Where do I even start?

We spoke of other things during the long drive to our destination — Arlington, Virginia, just across the bridge from D.C. But from time to time, we discussed our placards. Independently, we had each brought poster board and marking pens, but none of us had found the words to put on them. When we arrived, we were still blank. After dinner, we brought out our materials and traded ideas. I knew I wanted to say something at a high level – something that would transcend all the issues. Then our hostess — who is the wife of a long-time career foreign-service officer — offered “Democracy is not a spectator sport” as the slogan for my poster. I’d heard the quote before. It resonated.

Go the wrong way

Anticipating large crowds, we planned to leave on foot at 8 a.m. for the Virginia Square Metro station, a little over a mile from where we were staying. A light mist was falling, and we were silent. I was slightly apprehensive. We had talked about the possibility of an agent provocateur, someone who would appear to be part of the crowd, but would instead cause trouble. We had not spoken of terrorism. And we did remind ourselves that we were from a quiet place and were unused to traffic and mobs.

A block from the Metro we began to see our compatriots — people with posters and pink hats. Many of them were leaving the station, which caused me some concern. But I decided they were boarding busses for easier transit to town. But as we went down the escalator and saw the throngs on the platform, I thought there might be another reason. There was a train stuck in the station — the door having been compromised by people pushing onto the train. Minutes passed and nothing moved except the escalator, bringing more passengers. Finally, without fanfare, the train pulled away. Some minutes later, another arrived, but it was full and no one boarded. Another and another. We had to do something.

We saw a few people going to the other side of the platform and concluded they were going farther away from D.C. in the hopes of catching an empty train back. “Let’s do it,” one of us said. Locals recommended the East Falls Church stop, where we disembarked and caught a train back toward the March. We even got seats.

 

too tight

Too tight

The speeches had begun by the time we made our way to Independence Avenue. Someone said there were jumbotrons on the other side of the street, so we headed there, pushing through crowds until we worked our way to Independence and 7th St., only to find that we could see, but not hear. And to realize that we were so tightly packed in that we literally could not move. Yet there was a sense of togetherness. Standing there in that tightly packed crowd, we were making history and were joined with hundreds of “sister” Marches around the world. (I later learned there were 673 of them.)

Then there was a medical emergency. Another young woman feared she would faint. Just behind me was a woman in a wheelchair, who seemed unperturbed that she was buried in a sea of people. The march wasn’t due to start for two hours, and I slowly began to realize that I needed to move. “You can’t,” I was told. “There’s nowhere to go.” But I saw a sign that said Evacuation Route, and I was determined to get there. Slowly, like a snake, our party pushed through the crowd, by now having picked up several others who saw movement and slid in behind us.

Among the more colorful of demonstrators, these men represent the role their gender played at the March. We estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the marchers were men, but we experienced them as supporting women. The energy was very much female.

Among the more colorful of demonstrators, these men represent the role their gender played at the March. We estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the marchers were men, but we experienced them as supporting women. The energy was very much female.

Never, never, never give up

Free at last, we relaxed into the luxury of movement, walking away from the action, but able to finally appreciate the creativity and courage of the people who were there. A man asked if he could take our photo. He was from Ohio and at the March for his wife, who couldn’t make the journey. We read the signs and watched the parade of people from the luxurious comfort of a bench.

Then one of us needed to find a porta-john. We were told in advance there were plenty, but instead we found a long line to what looked like just a few. When we realized there were actually two lines, we surrendered our place to join a supposedly shorter line. “There are 40 porta-john’s on the other side of that building,” we were told by a passerby. We headed out, uncertain of the accuracy of the information or the exact location of this abundance. After pushing, like spawning salmon, through huge crowds headed in the other direction, we arrived on the Mall where we did indeed find large quantities of porta-john’s left over from the Inauguration.

Make your own parade route

We joined the Marchers on Constitution Avenue. The March wasn’t supposed to be there, but with so many people, spontaneity was the rule. At last we were marching. There was plenty of space and lots of signs to read.

In front of the Smithsonian Institution.

In front of the Smithsonian Institution.

 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Washington Monument in the background.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Washington Monument in the background.

We joined the official March at 14th and Constitution Ave. and stayed with it for several blocks. Then we filed onto the Ellipse, within sight of the White House. The open grass and extra space seemed both freeing and somehow apocalyptic. Then, as we got closer to the new President’s residence, we encountered barricades and the first real police presence of the day. And then it was over. Just like that.

Go Underground

Because Anne, who is a theater artist, was scheduled to give a talk at 6 PM, we stayed in D.C. The venue, The Dupont Underground, is a cultural organization committed to developing a multi-disciplinary platform for creative expression. They had invited a series of women artists to speak after the March, for reflection and strategy.

Anne Undeland speaking at Dupont Underground.

Anne Undeland speaking at Dupont Underground.

As I descended the stairs to the space, childhood memories flooded back. When I was growing up in Washington, trolleys were our main means of transport. Mostly above ground, there was one line that ran under Dupont Circle. That space, abandoned for many years, has been transformed into a cultural venue. Though a bit dank, it served well as a place to reflect about the day and to listen to artists discuss their work.

Overall, it was an amazing day. The sense of common purpose and collective grit was strong. Sitting on the wooden bench in the Underground, it was clear that only by channeling the excitement of the day and staying active would this enormous effort have any meaning at all.

Action

Democracy is not a spectator sport. Each and every one of us needs to get and stay involved, no matter what our political leanings. There’s pretty universal agreement that if the momentum of the Women’s Marches is to have an impact, it will be at the local level. Here are a few resources.

IndivisibleGuide.com. A group of former staffers on Capitol Hill “want to demystify the heck out of Congress and build a vibrant community of angelic troublemakers.” The site provides resources for individuals to take action in Congress and work through local groups.

Four Freedoms Coalition. A diverse, non-partisan, Berkshires-based coalition united for freedom of speech and religion, freedom from fear and want, and against bigotry and prejudice.

Women’s March on Washington. The March website has 10 actions for 100 days. You can sign up to receive updates.


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Beth Carlson says:

    great article Susan. I believe the Macedonia Church is also organizing around Indivisible, but I don’t have information for that. But there is also this event from the GTP, for people to meet and work with others who are doing the indivisible actions.

    https://www.facebook.com/events/401325653552574/

  2. Laura Grunfeld says:

    Thank you Susanna! I love this report. I didn’t realize you were there and can’t imagine how we missed each other. 🙂 My brother, niece, and I were there as well. We got up earlier that Saturday morning and made it to DC from Arlington on an uncrowded train a little before 7AM. We had time to visit the Vietnam Memorial and speak with a veteran who was there to mourn his buddy who died next to him in a rice paddy 51 years ago to the day. Then we walked back up the mall, past the Washington Monument and tried to get to a place where we could hear and see the speakers. We got a spot in front of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum entrance. At first there was elbowroom, then we were packed in like sardines. There was no getting out for three or four hours. Finally the crowd began to thin and we marched. I didn’t pay attention to what streets we were on. We could see other marchers on adjacent streets. People were just everywhere. I photographed so many creative signs. Lots of plays on “Make America ___ Again,” (“kind,” “love,” “smart,” and other variations), “Your silence will not protect you,” “Sex criminals can’t live in government housing,” “Tiny hands HUUGE a**hole,” “Girls just wanna have fundamental rights,” and I loved the understated “We are VERY disappointed.” It was a peaceful event with zero arrests. I spoke with a few friendly and helpful National Guard officers but police presence in general was quite sparse. As the light dimmed we decided to head back. The train was crowded but after waiting a bit we got on and back to Arlington. We were tired but with three of us able to drive we took turns sleeping and driving and occasionally pulled over for a nap. We made it back to the Berkshires just as the sun was rising. We brought back some sense of accomplishment, unity, and purpose. We must all remain alert and active.

  3. Nancy Richardson says:

    Thanks Susanna. Wonderful article. I feel as if I was there too. Which I was in spirit.

  4. Tamara says:

    Thank-you Ladies. It is sad we Have someone in Office who thinks he is still on a “Reality “T.V. show…….

  5. Eileen Lawlor says:

    No matter which March we attended: DC; NYC; or as one friend of mine did Maui…there was a ‘knowing’ that we were all in this together and we would ultimately prevail.

  6. Kristen van Ginhoven says:

    LOVED this article! The three action points forward are right on. Having been part of the organizing team for the Pittsfield Sister March- one of the 673 she refers to- it felt amazing to be part of the historic day. It was really lovely to read such a detailed account of someone who was in DC. Thank you so much for writing this. Onwards together for equal opportunity for all.

  7. Cheryl Owens Fox says:

    Good article, Susan! I was there with a bus load of folks from Alabama, and you captured the essence of the March. I was probably close to you, too, as I was near the African art museum! The whole day had such a positive feeling. It gave me energy to keep on resisting as I see injustice happening.

  8. Mary Ann Van Osdol says:

    Terrific article. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks.
    Mary Ann

  9. Jack Swegel says:

    Thanks Susanna for great pix and narrative. My daughter marched in Boston with a sync that said: “Strong women scare weak men”. I was very proud of her and of all the women, and men, I saw marching all over the World. Now we have a new slogan: Nevertheless she persisted “. We must all persist and not let this groundswell of energy dissipate.

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