Making Sense of the Women's March

Waking up at 3 a.m. is a dubious proposition for most people—it’s early enough in the morning to reasonably pull an all-nighter, unless you feel like hitting the sack before Fox asks if you know where your children are (which, in some of the unholiest places on this planet, some people do. Or so I’ve heard.) And yet, there we were, packed in a car aimed for the Community Baptist Church in Englewood, N.J., where our illustrious journey to the Women’s March on Washington would begin.

Made up of nearly 50 participants, the contingent was originally supposed to travel on a stereotypical coach bus—reclining seats, overhead fans, and a tiny, frowned-upon-if-used bathroom. Due to a scheduling change at the last minute, however, we were sent two small red shuttles with 26 seats each, vehicles hardly fit for a varsity football team’s cross county rivalry, let alone a four-hour peregrination to Washington D.C.

Given the timing of the drive and the late change in our transportation, it wouldn’t have been surprising to pull up and find a bus full of pink-garbed zombies ready to snooze the entire way down I-95. Fortunately, spirits weren’t brought down as we boarded separately. Genuine excitement radiated on the sleepy faces of every soon-to-be marcher, discussing projected crowd size, safety measures, and neatly packed snacks. Even our driver, a lovely woman named Parla, was in unreasonably good cheer at this witching hour. The giddiness of the front bus exuded outward, fogging up the windows and inciting chatter that under just about any other circumstance would be downright irritating three hours before sunrise.

Soon enough, of course, it was. The jubilance of the initial gathering was soon met with a hush before it was replaced by the shuttering hum of our rickety shuttle on the New Jersey Turnpike, coach busses twice our size blazing past on all sides.

The two short busses that carried us were metaphors themselves, catching every bump and dip at a steady, workmanlike pace, leaning around turns and trudging a group full of impassioned (if drowsy) citizens to do the dirty work of democracy. In these silent hours, the enormity of the moment is easily forgotten, lost in the context of the early morning journey to our nation’s capital.

“I’m still concerned, because I think it’s very loosely organized,” Kelbick told me the day before the march. “I think people are not used to protesting the way we used to protest in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s taking a little time to pull it together.”

It all started as an idea planted by a grandmother in Hawaii who, like so many others, felt a wave of helplessness crash over her in the wee hours of Nov. 9. Donald Trump’s election wasn’t declared official until sometime after midnight, but the dread felt by those who had vehemently opposed him, cast his candidacy aside as a joke, shamed his supporters, and raged at his tweets had already set in hours earlier, creeping ever upward as the night wore on.

That grandmother, Teresa Shook, took to Facebook and suggested marching on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration, and the surge of support that followed culminated in the largest protest in American history.

The progression from Shook’s post to nationwide and global demonstration was by no means smooth, of course. After a Facebook event was created for the march and brought together a number of others planned for the day after Inauguration Day, predictable questions of inclusivity and organization arose. Women of color were not represented in its scope and leadership, and the march’s original name, the Million Women March, was bitten from a 1997 protest march promoting social justice and empowerment to women of African descent. Necessary permits weren’t secured, meaning the march couldn’t rendezvous around the Lincoln Memorial, a famous sight of some of the most significant demonstrations the country has ever seen. And even once these concerns were addressed, simple uncertainty remained—what the hell was this thing going to be?

After a little more than an hour of blurred taillights and muted snores, our shuttles pulled into the final rest stop in the state of New Jersey. Hillary Kelbick, a 60-year-old mother of two who coordinated the bus trip, called for the lights and stood up to let us know we’d be stopping for a few minutes to stretch our legs and use the bathroom. (Apparently, so had four other coach busses full of marchers, mostly women, who took the men’s room sign inside the rest stop building as a liberal suggestion. With permission from an attendant, I ended up peeing on the side of the building. Male privilege at its finest.)

I’ve known Kelbick for years and, like anyone who follows her on social media, am keen to her political leanings. She’s as liberal as it gets, having regularly posted articles that bashed Trump in the lead up to the election, inspiring spirited (if ultimately amenable) debates in her comments sections. It was no surprise that the passion and urgency she felt in the aftermath of President Trump’s election led her to organize a bus to D.C., and yet even she expressed some worry over the march’s perceived fickleness.

“I’m still concerned, because I think it’s very loosely organized,” Kelbick told me the day before the march. “I think people are not used to protesting the way we used to protest in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s taking a little time to pull it together.”

Even still, the prospect of the event couldn’t help but draw excitement out of those from a more politically active generation. As we gathered back into our seats on the bus, the majority of which were populated by middle aged women like Kelbick who had seen and participated in political action of the past, it became clearer, somehow, that the inclination toward action had been awoken—even if it took a political boogeyman to do so.

“One of the main knocks against modern progressivism in the United States is that it lacks unity. The Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders serves as a case study displaying not only the absence of cohesive, universal platforms, but the nit-picky and at times acrimonious behavior exuded by supporters on either side.”

Aside from intermittent shut-eye, the rest of the ride was spent contemplating the dangers of Trump’s infantile presidency and the commensurate fears accompanying them. My immediate seatmates were around my age, and all held grave concerns about what the Trump administration meant for the country, from reproductive rights to free speech. The notion that a four-hour bus trip (made longer by an extra stop and traffic along the beltway) was hardly enough time to cover the sprawling anxieties brought on by an incoming president is comical to me, and yet still we couldn’t help ourselves, commiserating and lamenting what the next four years would bring as our shaky shuttle bounced through the mid-Atlantic fog.

Our arrival in Washington was just as exciting for reasons of relief than the march itself, but upon exiting the bus, the air of the city was inescapable. Hundreds of marchers walked past us, pussyhats as far as the eye could see. Some were dressed in full costume, and just about every crowded group carried at least one sign, the creativity and artistry of which were an immediate and consistent highlight of the day. Some called for peace, others for protection, many railed against Trump, and it seemed like damn near every one contained the word pussy in one form or another.

Walking around the Capitol Building down toward Independence Avenue, where the main stage for speeches and performances sat, the crowd grew thick, meandering slowly along with the occasional chant rippling across its surface. Random cheers floated upward in the distance, the joviality of the crowd rendering its ever-slowing speed and increasing density of no concern.

Throughout the march, I spoke with mothers and their daughters from Oregon and Washington, groups of young women from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. Elderly women making their way through the crowds in wheelchairs were among the cheeriest of the mass. Along the mall I gazed at signs and listened to chants, chatting with women of all ages about their fears, their anger, their perturbation, their pause.

“I feel like our country has taken a very bad turn,” said Mary Sheehy of Richmond, Va., who was cooling off in a tent on the National Mall. “So I’m trying to make a difference, make phone calls, participate in any way I can. It’s very encouraging to see everybody out here today.”

My conversation with Sheehy could have well been any of the conversations I had with marchers, brief though they were. Every person I spoke with expressed a palpable frustration and the need to do something about it, to speak out and make their voices heard.

The crowd on the mall was a hodgepodge. Signs of all colors and sizes, groups posing for pictures, people looking around for friends and loved ones. Weary marchers rested along the dirt pathways as others trekked forward, into seas of people so compact one had no control over their intended direction—you simply hoped the crowd was moving in the right one.

On a makeshift stage in front of a parked tractor-trailer about halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, a man with a megaphone spoke out into the crowd. People were climbing onstage to his right, and every so often he’d take his mouth away from the megaphone before turning it back to announce their name. “Ladies and gentlemen, Michelle from Minnesota!” “Lisa from Oregon!” “Carol from Frederick, Md.!” And the Michelles and Lisas and Carols (and Jims from Cleveland) would grab the megaphone and say their piece, that it’s time to be active, that this is about us, not him. Some would start chants, the least catchy of which would die out after one repetition. Others would bring up the issue most troubling to them, be it women’s rights or Citizens’ United or Russian hacking—every person, no matter how upstanding or silly or uninspiring, was allowed to speak their piece.

One of the main knocks against modern progressivism in the United States is that it lacks unity. The Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders serves as a case study displaying not only the absence of cohesive, universal platforms, but the nit-picky and at times acrimonious behavior exuded by supporters on either side. These attitudes were fueled not least in part due to a certain air of superiority that comes with occupying the adjudged moral high ground—Bernie’s supporters were doing right by people everywhere, establishment be damned, while Hillary’s supporters were doing that same right, albeit in a more mature, realistic fashion.

“What the women’s marches represented was not a unified political movement pushing a tenacious agenda, but a stirring of the masses in favor of equal rights and government transparency and freedom of speech, among countless other equally resonant issues.”

Walking along the mall, it was clear that ire was now directed in a single direction, toward the man now (partially) residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his cronies at the top. But observing this maelstrom of individuals with varying reasons for marching, it’s fair to wonder—does a political movement in which so much emphasis is placed on personal power, importance, and voice have any sort of realistic shot at coalescing into a true political force?

It brought me back to something else Kelbick said during our conversation, something I couldn’t shake. “In my understanding, there is no modified platform,” she told me. “There are a lot of people with a lot of missions, and I think what’s bringing everybody together is this strong notion that Mr. Trump is not good for our country.”

Critics of the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches across the United States and the world point to, among other things, the general ignorance of those who participated. Marchers can’t actually identify a singular reason for marching, they have no idea what the endgame is, and they sure as hell don’t possess any reasonable goals beyond getting together in a big crowd and crying about their problems. These assessments are, overwhelmingly, true.

But they also lack the proper context for identifying and defining a political movement yet in its earliest stages. The chasm of opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency is so vast and filled with so many different types of people that it’s no wonder there hasn’t been a unifying principle that every single progressive protestor can point to other than, simply, “that guy’s no good.”

And for now, anyway, that’s enough. What the women’s marches represented was not a unified political movement pushing a tenacious agenda, but a stirring of the masses in favor of equal rights and government transparency and freedom of speech, among countless other equally resonant issues.

The time is rapidly approaching where such a disjointed display of political displeasure will not be enough, when executive and legislative power will bowl over any noticeable weakness; when cracks in such a movement will be exposed, exploited, and lead to further fissure. Those are the moments that will test the basis of this faction, the very impetus that led to these marches, no matter the size of the crowd or how widely its ideology may spread. Last Saturday provided hope that when the time arrives, however, not all of the bus’s passengers will be caught sleeping.

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