Our daughter is an immigrant, a native of China and, obviously, female. So she’s part of at least three groups of people maligned, antagonized or degraded in one way or another by her new president during his campaign and even since his election victory. So when my wife got enthusiastic about going — as a family — to the Women’s March on Washington, I didn’t hesitate.
My enthusiasm surprised me, because while I’m a passionate student of and one-time journalist in politics and policy, and likely because of that fact, I’ve never been the marching/protesting type. The single-minded stridency of the marcher or slogan shouter clashes with my mind’s operating system.
I was raised by my reasonably conservative law professor father to respect arguments not according to who makes them but according to their grounding in research and reason. My study of politics, economics and philosophy led me to what I’m told is the American center. I’m socially liberal (because I value personal liberty) and economically dead center because I fear debt and endorse market economics. I acknowledge the dangers of overreaching government but believe in a social safety net and regulations as necessary to protect the public good.
Neither “side” in our politics has an absolute monopoly on good policy. If you are a Democrat or Republican who can’t think of one worthy idea from the other party’s history, I don’t trust you as a thinker. Compromise is essential to democracy, and when bills make both extremes upset, I am inclined to think they’re on to something. I detest partisanship and deeply lament its rise over the past 30 years.
This carefully calibrated philosophy was not, of course, the central message of the WMOW. At bedrock, the gathering was about re-asserting and celebrating the dignity and equality of women in the face of literally vulgar disrespect from Trump. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” was a common refrain on signs and speeches. Beyond that, it was a vast Rorschach test of a demonstration — a catch-all of progressive causes and a call for resistance to the xenophobia, dishonesty and authoritarianism displayed so repeatedly and flagrantly by the man who’d been sworn in on these hallowed public grounds the day before.
The values I wanted to defend and talk to my daughter about as we headed to Washington included: American pluralism, the First Amendment, accountable power, compassion for refugees and immigrants, voting rights, ethical leadership and fact-based dialogue. The assaults on these values and the epidemic of formerly conservative politicians flipping into deeply illiberal thinking by way of defending Donald Trump has caused me profound anxiety. I’ve never wanted to shout through a bullhorn so passionately in my 50 years.
It was clear something significant was happening when we boarded our Southwest flight in Nashville. I was one of about five men on board. When the flight attendant asked “Who’s going to the march?” the plane erupted with whoops. I began to see Twitter light up with photos of other planes full of marchers, from state after state.
On Friday morning, the Washington Metro was jammed. Our party of five ladies and this silver bearded dude rode the train for more than an hour standing hip to hip, surrounded by nothing but mirth, visiting and anticipation. Emerging at street level from the Smithsonian stop was disorienting. We were more than a half mile from the rally stage, yet even here, Independence Ave. was almost as crowded as the train cars. Our party crept to the East, past one big video monitor of the speeches in progress and toward another one about 100 meters farther down toward the Capitol and the event’s epicenter. We found an elevated embankment with a bit of elbow room and a clear view of a screen, simulcasting from a stage so far away that it would have been a speck to our unaided eyes. As it was, stretching before us was a sea of pink pussy hats and tens of thousands of people.
Speeches at progressive political rallies are simultaneously the biggest reason people attend them and the biggest reason people avoid them. Often the rhetoric of the Left is harder to take than their actual ideas, but on this Saturday in January, the speaking was largely warm, inclusive, positive and intelligent. Some, like Ashley Judd’s controversial recitation of a hip-hop poem by a Tennessee teenager came off as fierce and artsy. Angelique Kidjo singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” was the finest of the musical highlights. Michael Moore was witty and practical; Call Capitol Hill every day, he said. Van Jones urged everyone to engage with and believe in the best of Trump voters. We can’t say “Love Trumps Hate” and then be hateful, he said. I liked that. By contrast, Angela Davis, with due respect to her lifetime of activism, delivered the kind of droning harangue against the “heteropatriarchy” that drives moderate/middle America completely crazy. My wife was sad we’d just missed Gloria Steinem and yes, that would have been righteous (and depressing) to see her address the triumph of Trumpism in 2016. We wound up leaving before Madonna, which, according to reports, was exactly the right speech to miss.
The crowd began to get restless. Chants of “March! March! March!” washed over the people like waves. We didn’t know this at the time, but behind the scenes, organizers and D.C. police were engaged in an intense discussion over whether a march was even feasible. The planned route up Independence Ave. was obviated — already overflowing with stationary humans. All we knew was that at some point, we were supposed to spin around toward the Washington Monument and make a parade. And eventually, that’s what the crowd did of its own volition.
Or we tried. We shuffled slowly into an apparent bottleneck. Though the collective will to avoid trouble was palpable, thoughts of something possibly going wrong crept in for the first time, because there was no way out. We were reassured by two policemen standing above the crowd on a traffic box. Both were calm and confident. One smiled broadly and exchanged greetings and high fives with marchers. This made any sense of claustrophobia or danger dissipate.
With the voices of the speeches literally and figuratively behind us, the crowd’s voice took over. My favorite chant had a sharp New Orleans syncopation to it. “SHOW me WHAT demOCracy LOOKS like,” went the call. Then, in response: “THIS is what democracy looks like!” The cleverest chant I heard or heard about (the experience and the news coverage of the experience blur together) was “We need a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!”
Sign-wise, this was the most biologically and gynecologically candid protest I daresay in history. “This pussy grabs back” was perhaps the most common variation on the theme. There were uterine signs and uterine wall jokes, a banner that said “Legion of Womb” and a placard that seriously cracked me up: “Viva Vulva.” Later, I would hear a lot of pearl-clutching from conservatives about this scandalous vagina talk, yet it is very safe to say that pussies would not have been an issue in 2017 had Mr. Trump not bragged about grabbing them. As a father of a teen, I’m very happy to show her that millions of us agree on the (apparently radical) truth that her body A) has feminine parts and B) is her own and no one else’s to control.
I was also happy, as a militant moderate, not to hear the “Not My President” chant that was so prominent on Nov. 9. While I saw that on a few signs at the WMOW, the throng seemed to have aligned more with my point of view that denial of reality is dumb and self-defeating, even, dare to say, Trumpian. If this was about anything for me it was about demanding Trump’s accountability for in fact being everyone’s president.
Presently we got rolling and paraded past the Department of Agriculture. We reached 14th Street where we had more space and we were tempted to turn right and walk to the middle of the National Mall, just to get a wider view. There were thousands more people moving here and there across the open public field — a sort of living metaphor for the American Left, marching over every possible issue in no one direction. But there was joy, fire, catharsis and inspiration. I felt a collectively inspired rush of emotion that I’ve only previously associated with music. Yet it was unclear if this was it or if some other kind of epiphany or climax was supposed to happen. We knew from Twitter that the event had drawn extremely well. But was there more? Had we had our WMOW Moment? It didn’t seem so.
Guided as much by the lure of food and a Metro station as saving the planet, we continued north to the big museums on the Mall and reached Constitution Ave. by way of the wide patio of the Museum of American History. Here, the scale of what was happening became shockingly clear. We were some 25 feet above street level. A virtual river of people and pink hats flowed from our right to left. And as if to complete the scene, the crowd was carrying a simulacrum of the Constitution itself, like a 100-foot-long flat flag. It had “We The People” at the top in proper calligraphy and most of its body seemed to be signatures and messages, from whom and to whom it was not clear. But it was moving and thrilling. Cheers surged up and down the boulevard.
We were drawn still further north to Pennsylvania Ave., which had been the route of Trump’s inaugural parade the day before and which was only opened to the march at the last minute in an incredible show of flexibility and resourcefulness. The scene there was even more overwhelming. It did not seem possible for there to have been a reservoir of human beings big enough to feed this big a march for this long, but on they came, all the way down toward the Capitol and on up toward the Trump Hotel in the Old US Post Office, where thousands of marchers left their signs on the ground, emoluments of a different kind.
We’d heard nothing by this point but positive attitudes and resolute marchers. And this did not change. There were, if early reports held true, virtually no arrests of scuffles of any kind. Given the chance to vent into the open air, the throng seemed lifted of heavy burdens. There was joy and celebration of being American and of defending basic rights to dignity, speech, assembly and dissent. A march premised on feminism and progressivism transcended identity politics and became something profoundly American and mainstream. This is what Democracy looks like indeed.
It was only once we got back to our friends’ house and turned on a TV and began scrolling the news sites did the scale of what had happened that day become clear. Stunning aerial scenes from Boston, New York, Los Angeles and dozens of smaller cities and towns presented a mass demonstration nearly unparalleled in US history. According to two different political scientists, marches in 500 cities and towns drew at least an aggregate 3.3 million people.
The next day, my family returned to the Mall to do tourist Washington and show our daughter more of her adopted country’s culture, antiquities, inventions and art. We strolled galleries in the Museum of American History dedicated to the presidents and their many trials. Some visitors wore their pink pussy hats. Others wore their Make America Great Again caps. Everybody treated each other wonderfully. I submit that when we get away from cable news and social media, most Americans are moderates after all.