The Decision to March
Before this inaugural weekend, I’d never participated in a demonstration. My activism was limited to what I believed were my most effective tools: words on the page and donations. So what drew me out of my comfort zone to face large crowds, the damp cold, and the unknown was a convergence of many concerns, transformed in one election to a reality, as well as a multitude of signs that pointed to the possibility of a strident, fearful, and unhealthy way of being in our country.
I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. After eight years of the Obamas, I felt secure in my assumption that the majority of voting America held similar values to my own. I was complacent and I was ignorant of the many factors that contributed to his rise in popularity and ultimately to his election. After the election results, I admit I entertained two fantasies: that President-elect Donald Trump would be a different, far better man than the man who campaigned or, if that didn’t prove true, in the end, some sort of illumination would change the outcome. I underestimated the allure of the idea of a leader as entertainment; I underestimated the disease of racism that persists in our country; I underestimated the disenchantment with the political status-quo; and I underestimated the power of an oligarch to charm, to trick, to suffocate and subjugate democracy.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric is often disjointed, lacking in complex thought, divisive, inflammatory, insulting, assaulting, ineffectual, and evasive. His speeches are like much of the high-calorie food that plagues our modern day American diet: empty. And yet, he was elected. We are no longer operating in the arena of benign politics. This new president and the people he’s placed in positions of power are of an ilk this country has not yet encountered, though many of our past policies have been grossly suspect, even criminal. So when I saw the announcement for a women’s march on the Capitol, I felt compelled to take a more visible stand. Not even a full week after the election, I invited two of my friends to come with me. These two incredible women, one a healthcare expert, one a retired educator, both intelligent, level-headed, and passionate advocates were important companions on this journey. I could have gone alone, but I was in it with them and that spirit of unity played out through the whole event.
When we checked into our hotel, I joked with the clerk about females storming the city and he handed me a welcome packet from the organizers of the March. That night as my friends and I ate a meal in the hotel’s restaurant I was comforted by the sight of so many women around us, in the elevator, in the lobby, in the restaurant, all identifiable as marchers by the pink hats they wore on their heads or the looks of determination and strength they wore on their faces. To see so many diverse women in one place knowing we shared a destination and a purpose was encouraging. That evening, I still thought we were going to be three of two hundred thousand.
Two Hundred Thousand becomes a Half a Million
The next morning, we ate a large breakfast knowing we wouldn’t be eating again until much later. The hotel’s dining room was filled with women. I tried to take a picture but I couldn’t fit them all into one frame. Back in our rooms, we planned carefully: cold weather and rain gear, protein bars, one small water each, and phone chargers. The organizers had offered helpful tips such as buying Metrorail passes ahead of time and what would and would not be allowed at the rally and on the March. There were numbers to call if we needed them, though the organizers assured us this would be a peaceful and legal protest and the numbers wouldn’t be necessary.
We headed out by foot to the Metro around 9:00 am. The air was temperate considering it was near the end of January in DC and by the time we were on the train headed to L’Enfant Plaza, I was regretting my layers. Women and men packed our Metro car. When we reached L’Enfant, we were told the platform was too crowded to let us off so we waited. Until then, the largest crowd I’d experienced was Madrid during Easter Procession. Through the train’s dark windows, I could see a thick wall of people. When they opened the doors a few minutes later and we entered the massive flow moving toward the exit and the light, I realized this March was going to be far larger than I imagined.
It was a little after nine when we found our positions at the rally, far away from the stage but still within viewing distance and close to the portable bathrooms. The rally opened with a moving speech from America Ferrara. My friends and I stood with the sea of marchers which appeared to be growing exponentially and listened to the speeches, poems, and songs offered through well-placed speakers and monitors. At one point, the three of us decided to move toward the edge of the crowd, a crowd so dense that to move through it was akin to swimming through mud. It took patience. It took strategic thinking. For me, it took a bit of mind over matter. We must have walked toward the edge of the crowd for twenty minutes before we realized we weren’t ever really going to reach the edge. The size of the crowd was uncomfortable, but not frightening. The people around us were calm but resolute. We could hardly move, but all were respectful, kind, and understanding.
At one point during the rally we got word that there were too many people for the March to happen. The route was cut off and the crowd too immense. Cell service was spotty and often nonexistent, so it was difficult to verify anything or communicate with anyone. My friends and I were disappointed but the large turnout was also a positive. A few minutes later, one of the speakers debunked that story and reminded us it was our constitutional right and the March was still on.
Too Many for One Sign
I didn’t carry a sign. I considered it, but I couldn’t figure out how to distill all of my concerns about this new president and his new administration into words that would fit on one piece of paper. My presence there at the March was my sign. I’m grateful to the people who did bring them, though. The creative, pithy messages were as diverse as the people carrying them and the totality of them brought meaning, solidarity and levity to the March. One of my favorites poked fun in a relatively non-snarky way: “I know signs. I make the best signs. Everyone agrees.”
We started down Constitutional Avenue toward Pennsylvania. There were women, men and children of all ages, races, religions, sexual identities walking with us. People lined the avenue on both sides and hung from trees decorated with colorful banners. As we walked, people chanted. “This is what democracy looks like,” and “We will not go away; welcome to your first day,” just a couple of examples. Two women guided a petite, elderly African-American woman by her arms as she walked. I asked for a picture and she offered me the gift of her clear-eyed, beautiful smile.
When we reached one of the end points, the White House visible in the distance, we stopped for pictures and let the gravity of the day sink in. People decorated the fences around the White House lawn with their discarded signs. Afterward, as we walked to the Metro past the Trump International Hotel, we saw the myriad of signs lining the bottom of the building, a poignant “welcome” to the new president.
Why did I march? I marched for the voiceless, the powerless and the marginalized. I marched for women’s rights and human rights. I marched for a woman’s right to embrace her sexuality without reproach or assault. I marched for the right for all Americans to be treated with dignity no matter their race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, immigration status, or beliefs. I marched because I see value in diversity, both in society and in thought. I marched because I believe in science, the arts, and protecting the environment. I marched because I believe all of our children are entitled to free and appropriate education, healthcare, and clean water. I marched for my sons and for their future children. I marched because it is my patriotic duty to protest when I see the slippery slope to an unjust society. I will do it again, sometimes quietly, sometimes visibly, but I am awake, I am watching and I have a voice.
Katrina Denza’s work can be found in several issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, as well as in The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, New Delta Review, and wigleaf, among others. Currently, she’s an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine and she manages the Writers-in-Residence program at Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, where she also serves on the Board of Directors. In 2011, she was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.