I was, perhaps, an unexpected attendee at the Women’s March this past Saturday. I’m politically engaged, but protest makes me nervous. With a long history of fear of police and official authority, I’m the person who turns off the road when I see a cop car up ahead, even though intellectually I know there’s nothing to fear. So why would I have put myself in the fray in one of the largest protests our nation has ever seen?
People in my life added to the doubt. “I heard it’s going to be dodgy,” a concerned friend told me the week before I set off. I thought it might feel slightly less confronting to attend the local New York City march, one from which I could walk home if absolutely necessary (a long but not impossible walk across the George Washington Bridge, which I’ve taken before).
But something about the DC march called to me. Events were unfolding there, and that was the place to take a stand. I loaded up my car with family, snacks and warm blankets – all my favorite road trip things – and hit the highway on the way to our nation’s capital with the gloomy inauguration speech reverberating in my brain.
The first thing to confront me were the logistics: everything took longer than expected. The drive that normally spans four hours was closer to seven. The morning of the march, the metro ride of a few stops turned into a cauldron of humanity in which we stewed for nearly two hours. Emerging into the street just south of the National Mall did nothing to ease the pressure. As far as the eye could behold, there were people, signs, more people, and still more, inching forward, chanting, waving signs of every hue.
And yet. And yet. The crowd took on a wonderful, colorful, rich immediacy. All along streets that have, until now, meant a sober walk from a Smithsonian museum to the Washington Monument in an attempt to teach my kids their nation’s staid history on weekend visits, instead I was confronted by life, by democracy writhing and living and trying to work itself out right in front of me, messy and loud. Some signs spoke about women’s rights. Some claimed that “water is life,” or pointed out some travesty or shortcoming of the incoming president. The march has been called out for its lack of focus, but, in the thick of it, that was one of its strengths. We marched not with one purpose, but for the understanding that the time for marching had come. We didn’t have to agree on everything, just on the fact that we were ready for action. Pussy hats mingled with men holding signs of support and babies in slings on their chests. It was inspiring.
I’ve been surprised to read the lukewarm response from some people on social media (notably those who weren’t at a march). This morning, a high school acquaintance became my last “unfriend” of this election cycle (one hopes) after posting a misleading article suggesting that the march was violent, instead of the miraculously peaceful gathering of half a million souls (in D.C. alone). (For a piece that more thoroughly addresses this, check out a link at the end of this to a post my brother wrote about it). I can understand disagreement, but dismissal and maligning? That’s harder. We may not agree on the issues, but to express our opinions is one of the most fundamentally American things we can do. And a message amplified by such sheer numbers should at least cause reflection.
I discovered protesting late in life. As a formerly undocumented immigrant, my instinct to keep my eyes down and toe the line is strong. My first protest was about eight years ago, when I took part in a picket line of about 20 people in front of a restaurant that had failed to pay its immigrant workers and was stonewalling them as they tried to collect the wages owed them. The whole short time I was there, I was cold and clammy, my heart racing, imagining the cops were about to come and arrest us all. This past weekend, I felt no such fear. Had I evolved? Maybe not as much as I hope I have. There was the proverbial strength in numbers, this powerful feeling that they may do something to some of us, but that our sheer, overwhelming numbers magnified our voices.
That’s why I marched. Because the events and statements of the past year and a half have been alarming and isolating and made me feel weak and alone. Because I know I can’t stand for them quietly, no matter what my impulse of self-preservation. Because history, even just our own, personal, family history, will ask us what we did and where we were as these events were unfolding. Because our collective power is greater than our private rage. Because I gained strength from my fellow marchers, and because my drop in their vast sea added to their strength. Because it’s good to know that others share my sense of decency and the injury to it.
Why did I march? To know that I am not alone. To let others know that they are not alone. And to tell the world that we’re here, we’re galvanized, and we’re going to oppose injustice with every fiber of our collective will.
Read more: “4 Things You Should Know About Protests.” Click here.