I. Arrival, Jan. 19
The National Mall is January brown and crossed by fences sectioning off viewing areas for tomorrow’s inauguration. The taller ones have yellow signs reading “Police Line: Do Not Cross.” A helicopter passes over ahead, again and again, setting my mother on edge.
Tomorrow, my mother will protest the inauguration of a bigot, my aunt will stand up against sexism. Tomorrow, I will witness history. But today we are tourists. Mom wants to see the Lincoln Memorial, so we join a stream of people heading west. Many are wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. I have never before seen one of the hats in real life, although I have met Trump supporters, and for some reason the hats take me by surprise. They are bright and unapologetic.
The Lincoln Memorial is closed for the “Make America Great Again Welcome Event,” a concert featuring Toby Keith. (“So patriotic,” a Trump supporter later tells me. “No trouble, no protestors.”) So instead we walk north along 17th Street. About 3 p.m. a motorcade of shiny black Suburbans passes: Trump on his way to the concert. Passersby cheer and I realize that these are people who won. They haven’t spent the last two months in a state of shock — they’re not worrying if they will lose their rights, if they will be forced to register, if their parents will be deported. They have spent the last few months celebrating, and they are celebrating now.
II. Inauguration, Jan. 20
The crowd of hundreds outside the security checkpoint is pretty quiet, perhaps because it’s 7 a.m. and cold. The Secret Service has set up fences parallel to the parade route on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. You don’t need a ticket to get into the parade route, but you do need to go through a metal detector and let your bag be searched, a slow process that meant up to a five-hour wait to get in, for Trump supporters and protesters alike. Then ahead of us, three signs appear above the mass of people. A commotion; the three parts are rearranged; the sign forms the word “Fascist” in bold letters. People cheer and raise their own signs, and suddenly I see that at this particular checkpoint the protesters outnumber the attendees.
That’s the way the trip goes: a series of recognitions. Pink hats and protest signs on the street are met by a grateful smile — you are not alone. Names are exchanged, hometowns, reasons for marching. Between Trump supporters, I imagine similar bonds form. (Pamela Lawrence of Ohio told me that her favorite moment of the inauguration was hearing her fellow Trump supporters cheer.) In some ways, the inauguration weekend is the war of the stupid-looking hats: The pink pussyhats and red Make America Great Again ballcaps each identify their wearers’ ideologies from a distance, and they create both the feeling of isolation (in a crowd of the wrong hat) and the joyful jolt of recognition.
Inside the checkpoint, the Navy Memorial is packed with protesters. A man wears a sandwich board that reads “America was never great.” Another carries a sign with nine capital letters: “KKK KGB DJT.” Trump supporters in red hats trickle past along the sidewalk.
ANSWER Coalition, an anti-war and anti-racism activist organization, is hosting a protest with a stage for music and speeches. I talk to Alexis Salazar, who’s been with ANSWER for a year and spent the past few days learning to be a safety monitor for the event. She’s a member in ANSWER’s socialist arm.
“Trump is a product of the capitalist system, a symptom of its more poisonous aspects,” she says.
Other protesters bring up issues of racism and sexual assault.
“I don’t want to stand by and let this happen to people I love,” Kirsten Desjardins from Minnesota says. “From a Trump presidency, I probably have more to gain than to lose, because I am a white privileged person, but my friends and family are among the marginalized: gay and lesbian, Muslim, trans.”
Marsha Weissman came from New York to protest both Donald Trump’s policies and his persona.
“I felt a strong need to be as present as possible in the capital of this country, the focal point for any administration,” Weissman said. “I felt the need to be part of hopefully a large turnout from across the country that shows the collective disdain for this fraudulent president.”
The inauguration begins in front of the U. S. Capitol. There are tall posts with loudspeakers along the parade route, but the PA system isn’t working very well and the speeches are interrupted by hisses and crackles. When Donald Trump is sworn in, the crowd boos.
“I felt like it was too important to not come. My brother and dad wear turbans, and during the election they were verbally abused. This is my way of saying, ‘Fuck you.’ ”
Waiting for the parade to begin, we move down Pennsylvania Avenue to where a few protesters have congregated. A man in a red hat approaches and shouts something angry about “special snowflakes” while his companion holds a courteous conversation with my mother.
Spectators stand two or three deep along the waist-high fence lining the avenue. In the street uniformed officers stand in a line, their hands behind their backs, facing us. As time passes, more and more Trump supporters arrive and I talk to a few, though most decline once they see the notebook in my hand — even after I’ve removed my own obnoxious politicized hat.
“I like (Trump’s) emphasis on jobs and border security,” Joy Wimberley of Mississippi tells me. “Everybody was predicting the stocks would be down after the election results, but they were up.”
I ask how she feels about the protests.
“I think it’s sad. There’s a lot of people upset about the results, but it’s time to move forward,” she says. “I think it’s time to go home and do something productive.”
Pamela Lawrence and her husband have come from Ohio.
“I wanted to see history in the making,” she says. “And what more historical presidential election have we ever had?”
How was the inauguration?
“It was packed,” she says. Her husband interjects: “The news media may not say so.”
She’s generous toward the protesters: “Everybody has a right to protest … Most of (the protestors) have been awesome. They’re people like the rest of us.”
The Lawrences end up standing by my mother when the parade — motorcycle police, Marines, military band, motorcade — goes past. It feels like it’s over in moments, but maybe that’s only because the wait was so long. My mother, who had sworn to herself that she would not use profanity, screams when the motorcade goes past. All the limousines have their windows rolled up, and it’s unclear which one transports Trump.
When the parade has passed, the Lawrences turn to go, and someone in their group tells my mother that she ruined the experience for them.
“I guess I did,” my mother said afterward. “I wish that I had been clever enough to say, ‘Yes, but Trump is ruining our country.’ ”
The crowd of protesters begins to disperse. My father texts from California: “Are you okay?” There are arrests on the news, a limo set on fire somewhere north of the parade route. At other checkpoints protesters formed human barricades. Along the parade route I’ve seen no more than chanting and sign-waving and a few highly charged conversations.
III. March, Jan. 21
The train struggles to a halt in the underground darkness between stations. Some announcement is made — the Metro is very full, we’ll be moving again shortly — but I can’t hear it over the chatter. Our car is crammed full of people, so full it’s uncomfortably warm, so full that at every Metro stop the nice lady on the PA asks if we can squeeze any more in and people laugh and shake their heads at the throngs of marchers waiting on the platform. When the train crosses the Potomac River we see a handful of people in pink hats headed on foot across the Rochambeau Bridge into DC, and the car cheers.
The man next to me is wearing a red hat, not a pink one. He’s taking the metro to return the tuxedo he rented for an inaugural ball. He chats with a protester about graduate school and smiles when I dodge to keep from stepping on the garment bag.
It’s close to 10 a.m.; the car stops and starts and stops again. We are missing Gloria Steinem’s speech. At last the train reaches L’Enfant Plaza and people pour out into a station packed with pink. The crowd inches its way to the exit as trains keep arriving full and leaving empty. Every time another train arrives a cheer goes up.
Independence Avenue is crowded when we arrive. It’s hard to hear the speeches, and harder still to see anything. Writer and trans activist Janet Mock speaks: “Our approach to freedom need not be identical but it must be intersectional and inclusive.” Actress Scarlett Johansson pleads for Planned Parenthood. A speaker brings up the 1913 suffrage march without mentioning that at that particular women’s march, the black women were asked to march in the back.
Race has been a women’s march issue since the beginning, when the organizers, facing criticism for lack of diversity, chose to bring on an experienced and racially diverse team of four co-chairs. The name of the march was changed to avoid conflict with the original Million Woman March, a 1997 movement of black women. The March site lists an intersectional feminist platform that affirms women’s rights “regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.” The list of speakers supports that diverse claim, but the participants appear to be largely white.
Criticism has come from the trans community, too, that the march’s emphasis on vaginas — pussyhats, cartoon uteruses — alienates trans women by reducing womanhood to anatomy. At the march people hold trans-positive signs, and some wear the trans pride flag as a cape. But for every anti-transphobia sign, there are 20 signs reading “Pussy Grabs Back.”
The crowd is tired of standing; people chant “March! March! March!” On the Mall groups of marchers move in conflicting directions across white panels laid over the grass. Eventually, consensus builds and we are swept southward. The crowd is dense enough that from the middle of it I can’t see the edges, not even on tiptoe. No one seems to know the route. There are still fences everywhere and I worry that we’ve hit a dead end. But the crowd surges forward into downtown Washington like a river.
Chants rise up, ring out for a few minutes, and then dissipate spontaneously. The most popular: “Si Se Puede!” “Black Lives Matter.” “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” “We want a leader, not a creepy Tweeter.” A woman holding a sign that reads “No More Burning Mosques” leads a chant of “no registry for you or me.” At every intersection I crane my neck to look down side streets filled with protesters. (Later, the Washington Post reported that organizers considered cancelling the march because the crowd was so large.) People have brought drums, megaphones, their children. Two small girls sit together in a wheelchair.
Outside Trump International Hotel, the tenor of the march darkens. People boo. Then, just as quickly, the mood brightens: Someone is waving from an upper-story window of the hotel next door.
The march is supposed to finish at the White House, but there are fences everywhere — leftover from the inauguration, or in place for the march? Instead, marchers end up north of the White House, blocking traffic. In a park, people lay their signs along the lip of a fountain.
Preet Chaggar is here from California, having decided to come at the last minute.
“I felt like it was too important to not come,” she says. “I’m of Indian descent. My brother and dad wear turbans, and during the election they were verbally abused. This is my way of saying, ‘Fuck you.’ ”
Michael Young of DC is making a new sign on a strip of cardboard: “Civil disobedience requires disobedience.”
“I want to encourage people to hang on to that passion and not let it go away when we go back to our jobs next week,” he says. “Channel that energy into political action.”
IV. Return, Jan. 22
On the plane back to Oakland, my mother reads statistics aloud. Crowd scientists at New York Times estimate march attendance to be around 470,000, about three times the attendance of Trump’s inauguration. The Women’s March estimates over one million attended the march in DC. More than 1 million people marched in other cities around the world. Also on the news: the mosque in my small hometown of Davis, California, has been vandalized, the windows smashed, bacon left on the door handle.
Chaggar’s parents live in the Bay Area, where she said they faced harassment “from people who are clearly not California natives. One guy drove by in a truck with a Confederate flag and shouted at my parents, who were going for a walk.” I disagree that the shouty bigot was necessarily not a “California native,” but during my high school years in Davis, a truck often drove by with a full-size Confederate flag streaming from the back. Hate crimes even happen in Berkeley.
A day or two later, the Women’s March page updates: “10 actions for the next 100 days.” The first action is to contact your senators. My mother, however, is skeptical. She says the march left her without a sense of resolution.
“You don’t know how to make things better,” she says. “You don’t know if things can get better. … It’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything that’s going to make any difference.”
Weissman, who I talked to during Trump’s inaugural parade, attended her first protest during the Civil Rights era in the 50s and 60s. I asked her how it felt to be protesting the same thing, 60 years later.
“At the end of the day I’m optimistic,” Weissman said. “What we’re seeing is the dying throes of the ugliest part of this country. It’s not going to go quietly and it’s not going to go overnight. (But) white people who are really scared and don’t know how to live in a diverse world, they don’t have a choice.”
Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected].