It was the end of the day, the early evening hours of 21 January in Washington, D.C., and as the sky darkened I left the Ellipse, the park by the White House, and soon arrived at the U.S. Capitol. It was a bit of a deconstruction site, with bleachers and shelters erected for Inauguration Day still partially standing, but beyond the remnants was the Capitol Building itself. I gazed at it, drained after a day of my emotions running high, feeling a sense of gravity and sobriety when I felt anything at all. It was tall and white, elegantly domed, looking just as noble as it did all the days I walked through it this past summer.
Funny how that worked, with all that’s happened between then and now. Last summer, D.C. bustled: home to the Obama Administration and all the young and naïve progressives who came along with it, it vibrated like a cello string in anticipation of our first woman president. Now, the city’s very DNA had mutated. Passersby eyed each other, pink hats versus red ball caps, trying to decide who they could trust. The D.C. spirit of neighborliness that I’d so loved in the Obama era felt nonexistent. And yet, there was the Capitol Building, still stand- ing proud. Everything was the same, and nothing was the same.
The half-moon was luminously bright. “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning,” President Obama told us on 8 November. He was right, but I hadn’t really wanted him to be.
Walking on, my friends and I picked our way around litter and discarded cardboard signs. A couple sat in the grass, gazing silently at the Capitol Building like it was a fireworks show. It was eerily quiet. A man crossed the street in front of us and said D.C. looked like a war zone. I knew what he meant; it felt surreal to me, too. But it reminded me more of photographs of the aftermath in Rio in 2016 or Beijing in 2008. Maybe the Olympics aren’t such an odd metaphor for what actually happened in D.C. that day. When else in recent years has there ever been such a day of cathartic, sweeping patriotism?
‘Dissent is patriotic,’ read many of the signs I saw at the Women’s March on Washington, and it gave voice to the feeling I’d had ever since I heard that there was going to be a march at all. The feeling that as an American—a feminist American, a politically-minded American, a justice-demanding American, but mostly just as an American—I needed to be there or I would never forgive myself. Although I’ve been involved in feminist and racial justice activism in high school and college, I’d never been in a march before. I arrived at my university in St. Louis, Missouri, less than a month after the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in the city of Ferguson, which was only about eight miles away. Eighteen years old at the time, I was terrified of the Ferguson riots I saw on the news, and I steered clear of the protests that year, to my continual shame. I promised myself I would not make that mistake again.
I never labored under any assumption that my one additional body would make such a difference, but ever since the election I had been wracked with guilt over how far I am from my friends and my communities that are suffering so existentially. The election pushed me from feeling blessed to feeling selfish by spending a year at Oxford. I can still donate money from afar, and I can call my representatives, but when the Women’s March began to take form, I knew I needed to be there in body as well as soul. So I found cheap tickets and I went.
Walking around that evening was a surreal end to an unreal day. I’d woken up that morning to a house full of people—I was sleeping on the apartment floor of several friends who hosted people (including a boy who’d just spent a day in jail for his involvement with a Marxist protest the day before) for breakfast and sign making before the March. It was unseasonably warm; all I needed was my sweatshirt, emblazoned with ‘USA.’
We packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and walked to the rally, bypassing the metro (a friend of mine was immobilised in a metro station for two hours, unable to push past the throngs of protesters converging on every side). On our way, several little old ladies stopped us to say thank you, and as we passed a group of empty-handed young women we gave them some of our signs. We’d brought extras; it felt like a good day to share.
As half a million people poured into the streets around 10am to listen to the speakers, it became apparent that this was bigger than anyone had bargained for. The crowd was so massive that it extended all the way back to the White House, where the marching route was supposed to end. The protest was too big to suddenly turn around and start marching. For about an hour, organization disintegrated as some people grew impatient. The March had been modeled after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but it differed significantly in that its leadership was grassroots, lacking a clear, MLK-type visionary. The protesters around us, much like the Fourth Wave of feminism and every Democrat in America for the past several months, wrung their hands anxiously for a while, trying to decide what to do.
But I believe in the power of stories, and I was mesmerized by the speakers. I cried when six-year-old immigrant rights activist Sophie Cruz spoke about fearlessness and God. As the Mothers of the Movement led the crowd in shouting their children’s names in a gospel-esque and not entirely irreligious rhythm, I let my heart crack open and sent them silent messages of love through the cloudy atmosphere, trying to affirm, ‘Black lives matter to me.’ And when newly minted Senators Tammy Duckworth and Kamala Harris, either of whom could become our first woman president, gave speeches exhorting young women to run for office, shivers of exhilaration traversed my body.
“Are we marching for everything?” my friend’s mother asked as another speaker representing a cause took the stage.
“Yes,” we replied. It’s what makes sustained activism so hard.
Eventually we started moving—not as a bloc but more organically, with several distinct thousands-strong groups finding their own ways to wind through the streets. Some of the marchers stopped at the Washington Monument. Others diverted to shut down traffic near the brand-new Trump Hotel; I kept going until we reached the White House, which despite its new tenants somehow also looked the same. (This is helpful for me, thinking of Trump as a White House tenant, the temporary renter of a space that will someday return to the likes of Barack Obama.) Just as we arrived, a willowy woman with a guitar was leading the crowd in singing ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ A few minutes later, we were dancing in a drum circle. A girl beside me turned to her friend. “We’re dancing in front of the White House right now,” she said. Everyone grinned.
It’s an achingly detailed moment embossed into my memory: little kids, people of color, gay people, Muslim people, all holding their signs in the air like badges of honor and dancing together to the heartbeats of drums. We were there less than an hour, but during that time I had this inexpressible feeling that we were reclaiming this moment for joy.
Since November, joy has been largely phased out by anxiety and anger in my daily repertoire of emotions. As things keep getting worse, I am finding small ways to reverse that trend. When the world seems bent on taking you and your friends down, joy is radical, and it is resistance.
Most of the women who came to the March weren’t raised to be protesters. We were raised to be peacekeepers, to ease tensions and swallow our pride. The familiar phrase, ‘It is better to be kind than to be right,’ comes to mind (I’ve always been a bit obstinate), advice that I doubt is shared with little boys as frequently as it’s shared with little girls.
It feels counterintuitive for us to take up space and make our voices heard. But we are claiming our place in this resistance. Ours is a nation of protesters and hell-raisers, and I have never felt more American than when I was surrounded by 500,000 people chanting ‘Water is Life’ and ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ many of them for the first time.