By now you’ve all seen the march pictures, the living rivers of people all over the world streaming down streets or standing, chanting, laughing at signs, tearing up, singing, raising their fists and pondering how to move forward together. Living in Washington, marches aren’t rare. Protests on reproductive rights are a hardy perennial. But January 21, 2017 was one for the record books, in size, spirit and timing. It was the largest group of people any of us have ever witnessed. Multi-generational, rich in diversity and shades of pink, patient, peaceful, hopeful, funny.
This one felt different. I’ve marched at least twice for reproductive freedom. It’s not a strategy the pro-choice side uses much anymore. Then there was the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010. Over 200,000 people came. Put on by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, it was a comic way to highlight the polarized, rock bottom state of our nation’s public discourse. Their assertion was that 70-80% of the public has more moderate views and can’t we hear from them? Can’t we listen to each other?
Well, no, it turns out we can’t. Moderates, and I count myself as one, are increasingly lonely in the middle, drowned out and drummed out of office. For me moderate means that I believe in a fact-based reality. I believe that expertise, experience and actually studying what works matter more than dogma in running government for the benefit of all citizens. I believe conservative means conserving something, like taxpayer funds (remember the off-budget Iraq war?). You get my drift. So where do moderates find solace and community these days? For a day anyway, it was a march. This march felt different because we’re in serious trouble with this president—not because he calls himself a Republican—and we get it.
Why did people march? As America Ferrera said, “The President is not America. We are America.” A young woman crowd-funded her flight from Montana because she wanted to be surrounded by people who respect women and are willing to work for them. A 50-year old government attorney said he marched because “Today, a body is a vote. Showing up is not, by itself, enough. But it's a vote for the kind of country we want.” A grad student from Boston said, “this March is a way for people to feel a sense of solidarity with others who share their sense of outrage.” A 50-year-old consultant said, “As a black woman, I march for women of color both gay and straight, immigrant and Muslim who have been stereotyped, further marginalized and lied about for political gain.” We all wanted company, to know we weren’t alone feeling powerless and worried.
The logistics were daunting. The crowds to get into my local subway stop were unprecedented. Our group split up and called rides. The Lyft driver, a 56-year old woman, joked that she ”wanted a date with Gloria Steinem.” (I expect she drove all day; the ride cost $223.) Once we got there, we couldn’t hear the speakers. There was nowhere for aging feminists to sit and nurse aching joints. Cell service and even texting were spotty. It didn’t matter.
What do 237 marches with millions of marchers worldwide say? Primarily, that Trump has no mandate. It’s not just that he lost the popular vote by several million. It’s that he preaches a fear-based doctrine that leaves no room for hope of a better world. As a mother and a human being, I can’t imagine subscribing to the politics of scarcity for individuals or countries that he represents, e.g. “I’m going to get mine and to hell with anyone else.” It’s like climbing to safety and then pulling up the ladder.
A motivating force behind the marches was the feeling that we had to do something, and gear up for resistance to policies a majority of the public doesn’t support. A 62-year-old former military employee said: “I’m marching to demonstrate that this president doesn’t represent the majority of Americans, and we’re going to be watching him every step of the way. This is the first day of a 4-year opposition to stop policies that are anti-woman and anti-people.”
Many people marched to protest Trump’s crude language, insults and demeaning treatment of women. His deeply polarizing language and behavior horrified and disgusted people (including many of his voters, who chose party over person and hoped he would clean up his act). One sign said, “Our rights aren’t up for grabs, and neither are our pussies.” A young attorney said, “I’m marching big time for reproductive rights. This shows a majority support women’s rights to control their own bodies.”
The big question is: what next? Will the march make any difference? Were the organizers making plans and building lists for future action? Most people were much clearer about why they marched than what they hoped would happen as a result. One young man said candidly “I haven’t been politically active in the past. My hope is that this march is a jumping off point for getting people engaged to vote, organize, protest. Light a fire.” A mild-mannered family physician from Seattle said, “If we object, maybe this administration will soften their views on women’s rights.” A retired teacher said, “It was amazing. I hope all the demonstrations do some good, but sadly, I doubt it.”
Time will tell, but the outpouring of emotion from such a broad swath of people shows that millions know what’s at stake and are ready to spend money, put up with great inconvenience and take action. A common chant among the throngs of people was “this is what democracy looks like.” Personally, I hope these marches and the election results lead to a sustained 50-state strategy for people to organize, run for office, speak up, donate and most important, vote. A dentist from New York said it best: “I don’t think that the president will be impressed, but the mid-term elections are going to be here in two short years. I want to be able tell my grandchildren that we did not remain silent.” Me neither.
Shelly Gehshan © 2017
Ms Gehshan was a staff member of the original Austin Sun. She has worked in health policy and nonprofit management for 30 years and is now a career coach. She started her career in journalism and public affairs. Gehshangroup.com.