By CHERYL HAWKES
January 28, 2017
The plan was simple. Leave Baltimore really early (or so we thought) the morning of the Washington Women’s March, drive to an endpoint of the DC Metro and arrive in the city in time for speeches at 10 a.m.
But the DC beltway was bumper to bumper, my American hosts shocked by the traffic. The right hand lane was crammed with buses, many of their passengers sporting telltale pink hats. There were police barricades at our first exit choice – a sign that the Metro station there was at capacity. Further along, police officers barricade another off-ramp, nixing our second Metro boarding choice. We all felt as if we’d slept in.
“This is what democracy looks like!!!”
On a grey Saturday morning, the Women’s March on Washington was already proving a sharp contrast from Inauguration Day, the day I’d arrived at Reagan Airport on an early-morning flight from Toronto. At 8 a.m., I’d wheeled my suitcase past a table of “on sale” Inauguration day souvenirs and memorabilia, then boarded a half-empty train for DC and stopped for a leisurely coffee and a pastry in Union Station. Sitting alone at a table for four that morning, I’d watched small groups of young men with t-shirts that read “Truth Sounds Like Hate to Those Who Hate Truth” (a passage from Proverbs) and “Border Wall Construction Crew” make their way briskly through the station. A smattering of red “Make America Great Again” ball caps was in evidence.
Saturday was a markedly different scene. At Cheverly, Md., our third Metro choice, we parked and made our way to a packed platform, then gasped as an overcrowded train pulled in, a sea of pink hats, signs and people wedged against one another. Like toddlers at daycare, our group of six grabbed each other’s coattails and crammed ourselves in as the doors squeezed shut behind us. The train windows were completely steamed up. People were unzipping their coats and fanning themselves. It was claustrophobic. At several stops, new arrivals were ordered to wait for the next train.
At Capitol South Station, we disembarked. The sign I’d brought from Toronto, “Melania! Join Us!” proved a useful marker, keeping our group from being separated. The station platform and elevators were packed with people heading to the march. It was stunning and exhilarating. We moved slowly towards the exits, rocking side-to-side like a procession of pink-hatted penguins, inching towards the exits and out onto the street.
Toronto friends reported a similar scene at Regan Airport the morning of the march, as out-of-town arrivals moved slowly but good-naturedly through jam-packed airport hallways and waited as several already-packed DC-bound trains left them on the platform. Finally, they climbed aboard – the train crowded with singing, chanting, laughing protesters.
“This is what democracy looks like!” the marchers would chant over and over again.
My decision to travel to Washington for the Women’s March was not, at first, a clear one. I’d contacted friends in DC about staying with them, then embarked on a period of dithering. I was numb with disbelief that Donald Trump was President of the United States, alarmed by his promises, disgusted by his vulgarity towards women, minorities, his own wife, immigrants. I’d posted my share of Facebook news and send-ups, laughed at the absurdity of his pronouncements, but knew deep down this was a distraction, that a deeper form of opposition was necessary and that fundamental issues needed to be addressed. What would a march achieve? Could I get away with arguing simplistically, “Not my circus, not my monkeys?” Was this giving more oxygen to Trump’s twisted sense of self-importance?
This seemed an upside-down way of going about political change – taking to the streets first and embracing activism afterwards. But everything about this situation seemed upside down. And in the end, on so many fronts, it was my circus. We didn’t come this far as democratic societies to go somewhere else. But the world was, indeed, going somewhere else.
I wondered about the potential for violence — tear gas, riot police, provocateurs, possible harassment – none of which materialized. Conversely, I worried if Trump’s whole bully persona wasn’t already working on me, a Canadian, and potentially chilling dissent. Would it deter others from making the trip? Then one of my DC friends messaged. “Are you still coming? We sure hope so.” I dug out my hand warmers and warm socks and booked a flight.
There was something else that propelled me forward – something in the voices of my American friends when we spoke on the phone. Fiery and outraged in discussions during the early weeks of Trump’s official candidacy, they now sounded subdued, shocked and a little frightened. The change was subtle. But sealed my decision. I wanted to lend my support in some small way. My two cents on Facebook became “mes deux pieds” to Washington. As a Canadian, I could not pretend this was none of my business – any more than were the U.S. civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s or the Vietnam War protests. Too much was at stake. We’d held firm to the conceit that Donald Trump was a laughable possibility as president of the United States. Now our own “Trump-Lite”, businessman Kevin O’Leary, the obnoxious, unilingual reality-TV character, was signaling that he had his own political aspirations right here at home.
A day before my departure, another concern arose. A smattering of stories emerged of some Canadians being turned back at the U.S. border. What was the full story? Were people too cheeky? Evasive? There were text message consultations. How should we respond? Visiting friends? Going to the Smithsonian? Protesting your crazy country’s election result? I decided to answer honestly, but packed my sign face down in my suitcase. Just in case.
I was not challenged at the airport. No one asked the purpose of my visit. Later, my Toronto friends sent a photo of their Saturday plane to DC – packed with people on their way to protest. They were joyful, excited and unapologetic.
“This is what democracy looks like!!!” the marchers chanted.
As we poured out of the Metro, any illusions of getting near the stage to listen to speeches by the likes of Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, Michael Moore and others were dispelled. But the main act was here, in the street. We were already wound up, inspired by one another’s presence and we’d watch the rest on YouTube when we got around to it. What mattered most in the moment were our fellow travelers, mostly women, young and old, young mothers with babies, dads with children riding on their shoulders. Men and women alike in various interpretations of the so-called pussy hat. Baby pink, hot pink, purple, orange, magenta, rainbow, black
We walked around the Capitol, down the mall, to 14th Street, where shortly after 1 p.m., the crowd seemed to be moving in a single direction and at a quicker pace. The march had started! And we hopped into the fray.
“Namaste” one huge banner read. And I started to laugh out loud.
“Show me what democracy looks like!!” someone would cry out.
“This is what democracy looks like!!!” the crowd responded, over and over again.
As we rounded the corner at Constitution Avenue, a small group of men sporting camouflage pants “Make America Great Again” hats and pro-Trump t-shirts stood menacingly at the side of the road. The crowd rolled past them, too caught up in the fun.
The homemade signs told the story of the march, touching on the many themes of Trump’s venomous campaign to power with resourcefulness, creativity and humor. His misogynistic comments about women inspired a large proportion of marchers – pussy hats, pussy jokes, Viva La Vulva, Grab THIS! and more. His fear-mongering about the dangers presented by Mexicans and Muslims – Not a convict! Not a rapist! a smiling Mexican man’s sign proclaimed. His personal vanity – You can’t comb over sexism! Orange is not the new black! Small hands, cold heart! – and Trump’s problematic relationship with simple facts —“Donald Trump Will Lie About This.” From Dr. Seuss to Dr. Martin Luther King – the marchers held high their principles and put down the new president. Young and old men sported pink “pussy hats” in solidarity, a woman guided her elderly mother in a wheelchair through the crowd. Two young men in stiletto heels, one hugging a life-sized cutout of Hilary Clinton, vowed to “walk the walk.” A young Muslim woman wore a hijab fashioned out of an American flag. Compared to the largely white crowd circulating in DC the day of the Inauguration, the Women’s March on Washington was the American mosaic, melded into one record-breaking protest. And in the natural jostling that ensues in such a large mobile crowd, this Canadian felt strangely at home. Sorry. Terribly sorry. Excuse me – sorry. We were diverse, funny, committed, angry, respectful.
“This Is What America Looks Like” the crowd chanted.
I’d read the security rules carefully before leaving home. No knapsacks, unless they were clear plastic. No purses bigger than 8” by 6” by 4”. No sticks or anything that could be construed as a weapon. Be prepared to be searched and have offending containers confiscated.
In the end, we were not searched or subjected to screening. I counted no more than a dozen uniformed police officers in all the hours of walking – which suggested there were plainclothes police among us. No riot gear. No provocateurs. At one point, we swept past five police officers on horseback. Three of them sat astride their animals, with clenched fists at shoulder level. I could hardly process the meaning of this – and wondered if my eyes were playing tricks. But no, there they were, seemingly expressing solidarity as they presided over the march.
After more than five hours of walking, the march appeared to be petering out and the six of us headed back to the Metro. I donated my sign to a large collection left lying on the ground at the Metro Center station entrance – a memorial of sorts of the protest.
Estimates put the Washington, DC, Women’s March at between 500,000 and a million people, while sister protests in more than 650 U.S. centres and another 261 internationally drew an additional 3-5 million people.* In the tiny Nova Scotia community of Sandy Cove, population 65, 15 people marched down the highway from the local school to the fire hall in solidarity. In Antarctica, a group of women organized a Penguins for Peace rally that even featured a few uninvited penguins. The world is watching and the world cares about a “leader of the free world” who talks disrespectfully of the disabled, women, immigrants, refugees, international law. And who has his stubby finger on the nuclear button.
The next night, over dinner, two American friends, both former employees of USAID, the American government’s international aid agency, and a handful of friends from Toronto, all journalists, reflected on the march and wondered about next steps.
We agreed that to march in protest against an unprecedented administrative change in American history – even as supportive Canadians – was not enough. That if Trump could win in the U.S., politicians of his ilk could triumph elsewhere. And that amidst the hilarity and satire, the appalling middle-of-the-night tweets and whack-a-mole pronouncements by the new President, it behooved all of us to focus on an issue that was dearest to each of us and to follow through.
America’s disaffected had indeed sent a wrecking ball to Washington – but now what? For all of us, now, there is no turning back.
Copyright Cheryl Hawkes 2017
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* Crowd estimates provided by Jeremy Pressman, University of Connecticut and Erica Chenoweth, University of Denver: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xa0iLqYKz8x9Yc_rfhtmSOJQ2EGgeUVjvV4A8LsIaxY/edit#gid=0
Other works by Cheryl Hawkes on F&O:
Hurricane Carter, Champion of the World. By Cheryl Hawkes
Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who spent 19 years in a United States prison for a triple murder he did not commit, died of prostate cancer on Easter Sunday at his home in Toronto. He was 76. Toronto journalist Cheryl Hawkes remembers the man who, for a few years, was her neighbour: “a man who had given a lot of thought to how we treat one another in this world and to the deadly power of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Fred Phelps: Death of a Dinosaur. By Cheryl Hawkes (Public access)
Fred Phelps, the Christian crusader who led his flock of evangelical nut bars from Topeka, Kansas, on anti-gay crusades, died last month. It is mortifying for many Christians that Phelps defined himself as one, as he stalked the funerals of gays and straights, raging against his own United States government and a democracy that tolerated homosexuality. Phelps and his family at Westboro Baptist Church took full advantage of their constitutional rights while blasting the civil rights of others. His death has given the people he hurt and offended a moral choice.
Cheryl Hawkes is a journalist and writer based in Toronto, Canada. Hawkes has worked for more than 30 years in almost every journalistic medium, writing and reporting for magazines, wire services, web-based publications, and writing, producing and reporting for radio and television.
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