What I Learned Marching in DC
Forty-Four hours and twenty-two minutes from the time Bus 1 TC (organized by Becky Beauchamp) pulled away from Leelanau Studios to the time we arrived back at the parking lot. About nine of those hours were actually spent at the march in Washington D.C. I offer here what I saw, what I felt, the “understandings” that are now seared in memory, even some thoughts I do not yet fully understand. I can speak for only myself, not for the 48 other women on my bus, but I will try to offer my experience.
Driving down through dusk and into night, I stare through high wide windows of the charter as it tears through heavy fog—southern Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and on, and all the way we feel at speed, suspended, rolling forward over highways like some immense bird following the barely visible surface. But we are not alone. Like specters rising all around, other busses, hundreds of busses appear and disappear on the highway, tearing open the tissue of fog, driving with us, past us, behind us. We become a narrow flock.
We settle in, sleep badly, up and down, whispering, texting, back and forth, restless in the highway vibrations. I doze, then wake to see a waning moon become obscured in fog. I wake again, see down a steep slope into a dark valley dotted with pale light. Wake again, a grey dawn, our last stop, and see hundreds of women pour out of busses in a plaza suddenly too small for all of us. We stand in line wearing pink hats, invade all the bathrooms, and not a few men are startled to find themselves sharing sinks with a row of women brushing their teeth. A convenience store sets up free coffee and hands it out. I wrap my hands around the cup and bow to the women behind the counter. They give us a thumbs up. Among many of us, a feeling rises that I will call quiet determination, the feeling that I am doing my work.
Around 9:00, our busses pull near Independence and Third, and we can see the white dome in the distance. The site of the Capitol stirs me—as it always does. Even on a cloudy day, the majesty, the place on the hill. This is us. And then I see the streets. From every street in every direction, people arrive. The streets are filling, more every minute. Women of every age, color, nationality, and dimension—most wearing pink hats. Mothers with young daughters, babies, toddlers in slings, fathers with children on their shoulders, people with strollers, elders with walkers, wheelchairs; veterans, internationals, indigenous peoples. Boyfriends and young men. Entire families. We are all awake, mostly smiling, but again, that quiet determination feels pervasive. This is even more us.
What do I notice after the people and pink hats? Signs. Everywhere hand-held signs that are clever, defiant, reverent and irreverent, determined and beautiful. I realize signs represent the diversity of individuals coupled with the diversity of language. Niki photos the funniest ones. Electile Dysfunction? We shall over-comb? But the dominant themes are clear and telling: women’s rights (and LGBTQ, POC, immigrant, indigenous and differently-abled) equal (as a verb) human rights, and must be protected. The second motif calls for real respect, for women and all. So we carry the signs, brief but important words on poster board or our tee shirts.
The women off Bus 1 TC pick up their signs, enter the human river and almost immediately, we are separated from each other and become part of the larger throng. Using our buddy system, Niki (Nicola Conraths is my buddy for the day) and I follow the crowds, headed toward the stage. Within minutes we are closed in, hemmed on every side. We shift sideways, sliding into tiny spaces between other women, keeping our heads up. We wiggle our way. Youngsters climb the few trees and view the crowd. One young man shouts directions from the branches, but soon it’s clear, we will move in small increments—a lesson I feel in other ways. Finally we can see the side of the stage, an angle of the jumbotron. We try to move closer, but we are a mass-mass. One woman suddenly leans against my back, and I’m not sure if she’s annoyed that we have moved into her space or if she is resting. For several minutes, her back leans against my back, a kind of balance, and because I can’t move, I hold, still and firm, and decide that whatever is happening, I’ll simply wait, warmed by our body heat. After a while, she pulls away. I never see her face.
And then, voices. A chant. Glo-ri-a, Glo-ri-a. It’s not religious. The crowd is chanting for Gloria Steinem, nationally known feminist, and I think I see a glimpse of her on stage, and yes, on the slice of jumbotron. There she is. Her words are muffled but the response from the crowd is not. It’s not a conventional response cheer, nothing like what pervades sports arenas, but a wave of warm greeting, high and clear, a whoop extended to a love-cheer like none other because it consists of thousands of women’s voices. It is the first time I hear it, rising to crescendo, filling the canyon of buildings, strong as a bell. I will hear it repeatedly through the day. Each time, it confirms an impulse. It strikes me again: this is our work, to be active, vocal citizens.
We stay until the crush of bodies is too much, even for us, then wiggle our way back to a wall where Muslim women in hijab’s stand, holding beautiful Shepard Fairey posters that say, We the People Defend Dignity and We the People are Greater than Fear. The media is interested in these women, and so we sit near them as photographers and journalists approach and interview them. One of the women, from Milwaukee, says she is less afraid for being here.
We re-enter the slow amoeba of crowd. Further along a tiny raised stage where a young woman and colleagues practice “no amplification” directing. The young woman shouts the directions we need to hear, and the crowd repeats, thus extending her voice beyond the range of her voice. She shouts: Move to the left. (Not a political statement.) We respond those same words. Follow the street. The same. Slowly we get the picture. We are being directed to the street parallel to Independence Avenue. We follow. On the way, at a small amphitheater, we step out to watch the human river. A parade of “Indigenous Women of America” stream by, singing softly to their drum. Some people join their humming song. A group of veterans pass, a group of transgendered folks pass. From somewhere in the march the scent of pot rises, drifts, and fades. We stand again, enter the marchers, walking slowly. We learn later that the crowd grew so fast that the main rally was caught in place, and these side marches formed. We spot enormous cardboard puppets, a beautiful tree banner, a man with a bible shouting apocalyptic scripture. The stream of pink hats, shirts, signs moves slowly forward, sometimes chanting “This is what democracy looks like.” It is diverse, multiple, compound in ways I hadn’t imagined. I see no trouble, experience no fear, but feel a persistent quiet rightness. I lose track of time. (Later, we learned from our team mates Karen and Nora, who stood in the rally for four hours without moving, that the main march also broke from its prescribed route, entered the Mall, and peacefully crossed it.)
We continue the side march toward the rally. We hear again that women’s cheer, sometimes a distant refrain, sometimes so close it vibrates in our bodies, echoing off the concrete. By now, we are tired, but even the porta potty lines are too long (over an hour), so we stumble into a packed McDonalds, and there, the ever efficient American fast food place, we get hot coffee in less than fifteen minutes. We try to find our team mates, but phone service is down, and the app for the Women’s march was overwhelmed almost from the beginning. We finally get texts through. Time to head back. We’ve been here that long? The busses, our blue chariots, are gathering near the Kennedy stadium some two miles away. We rise and move out again into the throngs of women, tired but walking steadily in the opposite direction. I realize my body has taken on the vibrations of the cry, an interior pulsation that stays with me every step as we move away from the center.
Back on the bus, we greet each other like family. We get phone service again. The first thing we learn is how big we were. Early estimates come in at half a million. We all feel we were more than that, especially those of us who moved around, who saw the extent of the packed side streets. Then we start to get reports about the sister marches. Large crowds everywhere, even abroad. How many in Traverse City? Word comes. At least a thousand, quite possibly two, maybe three. A sweet gasp goes up. There is no gloating, just satisfaction.
I start to ask the women on the bus: What stays with you, what shifted? Here are some responses from my notes:
I want to harness this moment.
We showed up. We can change things.
Being there reminded me we have a broader community.
We are galvanized for action now.
Being there made you aware of the diverse elements, a cross-section of the world.
The physical sensation of the sound. The power of that sound.
The majority of us are invested and now we know what it will take.
I don’t feel quite so devalued.
I’m here for the immigrant issue. I have a green card but…
I don’t hate; I just want that real respect I felt there.
A woman in the crowd passing her baby to other women in her circle.
I felt maybe, just maybe, history shifted a bit.
I feel that we are a force.
We were massive, now will this administration listen?
We’ve made the powerful statement. Will we be ignored anyway?
I was scared in the crowd, but then that faded, and I felt secure among women.
I’m ready. Now, will the media overcome their fear and report honestly?
The marshals on the rooftops.
I was so glad to be part of it.
The kid in the tree, calling out the crowd news.
I marched for my daughters; I felt them every step.
The police were so nice; one cop wore a pink hat on her cap.
This was my access to activism.
A little girl on her father’s shoulders holding a sign that said, “I am the future.”
When we rolled back into the parking lot in Traverse City after all those hours, what finally brought me to the tears I’d repressed? The men and families waiting for us in the lot, many with their own signs of welcome. Here they were, the fathers who had stayed home and looked after the children, the husbands who had minded the fires, the boyfriends and brothers and guy friends who just wanted us to know they supported what we did. For all the beautiful moments of connection on the bus, in the march, this one caught me by surprise—though it shouldn’t have—of course these good men would come. I wrapped my arms around David and thanked him and he thanked me.
I am grateful. In that march, I could exercise my freedom to assemble peacefully. It is a right I exercised properly and proudly but in that moment, it also felt like a gift that could be taken away. May we treasure it and protect it. But what else? When I look at this piece of writing compared to my piece from a week before the march, I feel the difference better than I can write it. I wrote that piece from a compelling need to stand up and in for people I cared about when our new leadership gives every indication of not caring, of actively repressing our rights. Mine was a reaction to real fears. That still stands but by degrees has intensified. I’ve also read the signs. Rights and respect. Action. Direction. These are old themes, some of the same marched for by suffragettes a hundred years ago, now re-invigorated and restored by new necessity. After this march, my approach feels both humbler and more determined. I feel affirmed; I hope I’ve affirmed others, but I’m also aware of the sheer smallness of me, the largeness of the march, the one still to come. I know we are still on that march, and will be for a long while. As we go, we will have to become even more multiple, inviting, and varied. We will have to encourage even richer communication with people whose opinions differ from us. We will have to be even more determined and clearer—that action, that step-taking, that call sounded in thousands of women’s voices.