Perching atop her father’s shoulders in the middle of the National Mall, the little girl gasps. “It goes on as far as I can see!” She pauses for a moment, before noting, more sternly: “These girls don’t like Donald Trump.”
Her father laughs. “No, they don’t.”
Radiating outward from the girl and her father, in every direction, are people, shoulder to shoulder in the nagging clammy cold of a Saturday in January. From the sky, the undulating mass of humanity must have looked impressive, filling and spilling from the lawn that just 24 hours ago enjoyed tepid foot traffic for Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
That’s the sort of fact that’s fun to note in theory. In theory, it should be funny if a man whose appetite for admiration has its own gravitational field suddenly finds himself the focus of protests around the world. Donald Trump loves women. Women do not love him. Tale as old as Pepe Le Pew.
One of the first women I see holds a sign that reads, ominously, “So it begins.”
In practice and on the ground, being at the Women’s March on Washington feels a little like being an ant in an anthill that just got kicked over. By 7:45 am, the area nearest the stage is swamped. By 10 am, it’s so packed near Independence and 3rd that it’s impossible to get close enough to the stage to see it.
“Where are we going?!” a frustrated millennial asks her boyfriend.
“The same direction as the crowd, toward the stage,” said her boyfriend.
“Everybody is going everywhere and nobody knows what they’re doing,” she responds.
The Metro was a nightmare this morning. One group of women who traveled to the march from Maryland says that her train was so full that at the New Carrollton stop, they wouldn’t let any more people on. On some stops, thousands of people waited for trains at once. One family that took the train in from Virginia says buses dropped protesters off at the beginning of the line so they wouldn’t have to deal with overcrowding at more central stations.
The crowd, which is estimated to have reached over half a million, hoisted signs, others donned pink knit caps, cuddly signifiers of political dissent. Some wore costumes. Some were men.
It’s a huge gathering by any standard, encouraging for activists and people who might be feeling dark after yesterday’s swearing in. But it’s not a great place for a person with even the slightest claustrophobic inclinations. Personal space is at a premium, and there’s no rhyme or reason to how the masses move. Groups of protesters that traveled together form human chains as they snake through an obstacle course of people who remain stationary, holding their signs up, turning slowly as rotisserie chicken, hoping to be photographed. By 11, it’s impossible to get close enough to a speaker to hear who is talking and what they’re talking about. Fences still standing from the inauguration yesterday lead entire flocks of human bodies into dead ends. Every gap in the fence is a bottleneck. The crowd grows denser closer to the Capitol, as though people are lining up for a phantom inauguration.
I realize I can’t see the edges, I can’t see any exits. I have to remind myself to breathe. I try not to think about what could happen if an agitator with a sick streak hurled a stink bomb, or a tear gas canister, or even a baseball pop-fly into the middle of the crowd. How deadly chaos and panic at that scale could be. How quickly I’d be crushed.
The crowd, aware of its own size, emits giddy screams that ripple and grow. Its awareness is evocative of a baby opening and closing its fists, suddenly cognizant of its power to move its own extremities. The screams occur for no discernable reason. Sometimes they emanate from the stage, separated from the Mall by a line of museums. Sometimes, they start in a remote corner of the Mall, or over by Air & Space, or from the lines near the porta potties. I feel like I’m at cheerleading camp, or that an early Jezebel comment section has come alive, and taken mushrooms, and multiplied a millionfold.
Where was this during the campaign? Why is this happening now, arguably too late for real change? Is “making a statement” the same as making a change? Was Hillary Clinton really that uninspiring? Did all these people vote? Trying to work one’s way through tens of thousands of people and to a gap hole in a chain link fence is a much bigger pain in the ass than voting.
“There’s no point in going up there,” says one woman. “You can’t hear anything.” The stage which very few people can see or hear or access is allegedly studded with stars. It is star-studded. Later, I’ll learn that Madonna was here. So was Cher. So was Janelle Monae. So was Alicia Keyes.
Attendees knit their brows as they scowl down at their phones. Cell service is overwhelmed by the crowds. My battery is nearly half drained within minutes.
A Black Lives Matter chant starts, builds, and dies down. A tiny biracial girl with curly hair asks her caretaker, a white woman, what the people are yelling. “They’re yelling Black Lives Matter,” says the woman.
“Just black lives?” the little girl asks.
“No,” says the woman. “All lives.”
Young people burst into an old union song I once heard my grandfather sing. They all know all the words. How do they know all the words? Did their grandfathers sing it to them?
“We want a leader, not a freaky tweeter!” shouts a tall bearded man who looks like he has taken several improv classes. People laugh appreciatively.
Women’s March attendees find each other delightful. They are enamored with their own cleverness. “Reject the Trumpery,” says one sign. “I can see Russia from this house!” says another, above a drawing of the White House. Lots of Pussy talk. One papier-mâché vagina dentata. “Females are strong as hell!” “Sad!” “Bitches get shit done!” Many in attendance self-identify as nasty. There’s not an errant your/you’re or misspelled sign in sight. Coastal elites!
The sky sits cold and dishwater grey above the sea of pink caps. Where will all these people go when it’s all over? The edges of the gathering seem to extend past the horizon, there’s no place to get up high enough to get a good view of the scope of the thing without battling a knot in the crowd. Multigenerational groups of protesters distance themselves from the flesh cauldron back near the Washington Monument. I speak to a 17-year-old girl from Virginia who is there with her parents. The girl is nervous when she tells me about how important the march is to her, pausing frequently to check in, speaking too quickly. She believes in solidarity and supporting all women, all people, all ages and races and genders. Her parents beam.
Hillary Clinton isn’t here, but she may as well be. A lot of the people at the rally before the march are still With Her. Hillary Clinton’s visage appears on a fair amount of signs. An elderly couple totes enormous posters featuring a giant Hillary head. One sign reads, simply, “2.8 Million Votes.” Another: “She Won.”
A 66-year-old woman still sporting multiple Hillary buttons and a gold Star of David necklace is very concerned about how the Trump administration might handle women’s rights. She volunteers to me that she’s had two abortions. One legal, one illegal. The illegal one happened when she was 18 years old, in 1968. Her boyfriend arranged for her to fly down to Washington. The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion set her up with a doctor who could help her out. “You had to walk out of the doctor’s office standing straight up,” she says, mimicking the posture. “Or he’d get busted.”
“Do you want to know how it was when abortion was illegal?” asks her friend, a 75-year-old woman. She describes a doctor in Northbrook, Illinois that would give women a series of 12 shots. After the 12th shot, you would miscarry. I ask her what was in the shots. She didn’t know. “Back then,” she adds, “you had to get your husband’s permission to get your tubes tied.”
It’s not clear when the marching is supposed to start, or in what direction it’s supposed to go, who is leading, who is following, and who is calling the shots. Adamant streams of people move in opposite directions as though setting off to march. By shortly after noon, the area by and behind the Air & Space museum is so crowded that organizers are sending people back toward Pennsylvania Ave, on the other side of the Mall. The march starts, it seems, but then we see, heading toward us from the opposite direction, another crowd just as large as the crowd we thought we were in.
“Oh my, it’s beautiful! Look at that!” a middle-aged woman with white hair says to nobody.
“What is this march even about?” a twentysomething man asks his female companion.
“It’s about rights!” she hisses. He seems chastised, but I’m not sure he should be. It’s not clear what the march is about, beyond expressing solidarity, women flexing their collective muscle. Women joining together, with some of their man-friends, to embarrass Donald Trump by showing him up on the day after his inauguration. But beyond that, it’s hard to say how unified this crowd is, ideology-wise. Many women who are marching made plans to march before the organizing committee put out its agenda, which makes the whole thing seem pretty bait-and-switchy. That north of half a million women showed up in DC, around the same number showed up in New York City, that other cities saw crowds in the tens and hundreds of thousands, does not mean that every attendee would reliably contact their congressman about every item on the Women’s March agenda.
A woman with a “Melania! Join us!” sign glides by, too quickly for me to photograph.
The march is disorganized. It’s too big for the amount of crowd control that’s been put in place, and it’s unclear what, at any given time, anybody is supposed to be doing. But the crowd is adamantly kind and responsible. There’s no brick throwing. There’s not even any cursing or arguing. The shouting is joyful. After the march from the Mall to the White House is canceled because the gathering is so large that it would fill the entire route with wall-to-wall bodies, women march anyway, in small, disorganized satellite marches. It seems like the march is going in every direction at once, and no direction. Police gently attempt to corral the peaceful crowd. At any moment, it could have taken a nosedive, but it didn’t.
Bart, a 45-year-old man in a bright pink Planned Parenthood tee shirt who works in public health, is stymied by what’s next. “I don’t know the way forward,” he says. “Part of me doesn’t want (the Trump administration) to be able to enact anything on their agenda.”
He sighs. “But maybe we should get the worst version of their agenda. Maybe that’s what they voted for.”
A quartet of Trump supporters in fleece vests and baseball caps trudge down the sidewalk. “Look at this shit,” says one. “You lost.”
His friend shrugs. “As long as they’re peaceful,” he said, “I don’t give a fuck what they do.”
He’s right; he doesn’t have to care. I am immediately depressed. Cell phone towers have been overwhelmed, and I haven’t been able to check the news for hours. My bones are cold. I walk home and turn on the television in time to see a split screen of Madonna dancing about feminism and a massive crowd shot from above, in Boston. The screen flickers. Now it’s a crowd in Chicago. Seconds later, New York City is onscreen. Austin, Texas. Mexico City. There must be millions of people marching today.
Where were we in November? Where will we be tomorrow?