We weren’t shoulder to shoulder or even elbow to elbow, but belly to belly. I have never spent such an extended period of time in such close contact with strangers as I did yesterday at the Women’s March in Washington. Though the crowd would loosen from time to time, at least allowing enough space to walk or even to turn and chat, much of the six hours of protest felt the same way the ride in on the Metro did: like you were squashed into a human panini sandwich.
When we got on the train, the six of us were each carrying only a bottle of water and a granola bar. As we exited the Smithsonian station just before 10AM, we were reassured to see a long line of portable toilets. However, there were no vendors, meaning there would be no food or water beyond what we brought in. At that point, we were not very concerned. The group gathered was a healthy size, but it was not yet unusually crowded. Though the time allotted for the rally before the march (three hours) did seem, even at the outset of the day, like an excessive amount of time to stand on your feet, we did not expect a big physical challenge.
We were wrong.
Even at 10 AM, we were not able to get as far as the platform where the speeches were beginning because, ahead of us, the bodies within sight of the stage were already too tightly packed. The folks in the Dayglo vests told us we were better off staying where we were. So we did. I think we were about two blocks from the stage when we stopped. About Independence and 6th, I think.
Early on, I saw the one thing I saw all day that might have caused a row. A small group of conservatives had set themselves up with huge Islamophobic and anti-abortion banners and they were yelling something through megaphones. They seemed to be intentionally provoking a fight. But people were rather studiously ignoring them. It was very clear, right from that moment, that the whole crowd wanted to this to be a peaceful protest. And so it was, all day long–but I never again saw anyone who was not “with us.”
The crowd was a forest of pussyhats and posters. Many topics were addressed, but most were gender statements of some sort. “Viva La Vulva” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-damental Human Rights” were two of the most common. The next most common were jabs at Trump. Lots of overcomb jokes and, of course, “Love Trumps Hate.” Many pickets were some combination of Trump-plus-gender. Like a picture of an angry cat with some caption that essentially dared him to grab pussy. Or something like “Keep your tiny hands off my rights,” accompanied by a drawing of the female reproductive tract. But nearly every poster was home-made, so there was an infinite variation on these themes.
There were big TV screens posted every block or so. You could see and hear the stage that way, if you were close enough, but many people weren’t. We saw Gloria Steinem and Michael Moore, both of whom were terrific. Melanie Campbell and Ashley Judd were completely awesome.
But, during these speeches, the spaces around us started to get smaller and smaller. Around 11 AM, you could see that the side streets and alleys emptying into Independence Avenue were tightly packed. The people who squeezed their way through told us that the streets parallel on both sides were super-crowded. By noon, you could hardly move. We were supposed to start marching at 1:15PM. One of the women in our party announced she was going to go back up to the toilets before the march started. Two of us said we would go with her, in part out of worry she would get separated and be alone—and in part because it seemed prudent to go while we could.
A stretch of ground we had covered in less than 10 minutes coming in took us more than an hour to cross in this crowd. Solid bodies the whole way. People were being extremely polite to each other. I think everyone was aware that, as close as we all were, there was no other way to avoid a disaster.
We lost contact with the rest of our group almost immediately. I guess there were so many people trying to make calls or send texts that all systems were overloaded. I don’t know. But none of the three of us were able to send or receive texts for hours after that, never mind make a phone call.
We moved, very slowly and erratically, joining a single-file rivulet that had somehow composed itself to get through the crowd. I remember at one point somebody standing by did actually shout, “If you are going back to the bathrooms, follow these people. Anyone trying to get to the street, go this way.” He pointed to another rivulet. The street was maybe ten feet away, but you could not see it from where we were standing.
It was frustratingly slow and we three were worried about getting separated from each other. We did not try to hold hands or attach somehow to each other’s clothing, but that is what many people did. Every so often, there would suddenly appear a group of four or five, each holding desperately to the other, all of them yelling, “Please let us through,” as they snaked through the crowd like a Chinese dragon, snapping people uncontrollably in their wake. We agreed over wine later that this was the most irritating behavior we saw all day. We felt it was permissible if you had children in tow—which an astonishing number of people did—but not otherwise.
The slow move through the crowd did allow, though, for us to read the funny signs, talk to the people who made them, and get a good sense of the crowd. It was, for sure, mostly women. But don’t let the photos of crowds with pink pussy hats fool you: there were lots of men (I would say about 30% of the crowd) and many of them were wearing those pink hats. I was amazed the first time I saw it, but by the end of the day, I got used to it. Later in the day, we even saw people handing them to police, who would then try them on, smile and laugh, then give them back.
There were quite a few disabled people and, of course, everyone parted for them and tried to help navigate wheelchairs and so forth. There were also lots of people who were recently injured, with casts and the like. There really were a lot of children, including infants. Lots of very old people, too. Lots. For all the talk about how Millennials don’t care about the women’s movement, I would say there were more of them than any other age group, females and males. But pretty much every age was well represented.
The crowd appeared to be very ethnically diverse—and you could often tell by the message on the signs. Signs in Spanish, for instance, or with Stars of David.
Twice during the time we were en route to the porta-potties, we saw a medical emergency. In one case, a woman was having some kind of panic attack and a DayGlo vest was just dragging her through to clear ground (where they went I cannot imagine because there was no space anywhere). We all crushed into each other to make way. The second time was more serious. An ambulance needed to get through. The crowd noise was so loud, you could hardly hear people behind shouting, “Ambulance!” So the word came through in a form of “telephone,” with smaller groups shouting the news a short distance forward as the vehicle moved forward and everyone ditched to either side at the last minute. Bodies smashed on bodies. The vehicle got through, but the incident dramatized the risks of having such a huge crowd in a small space for what had now been five hours.
When we finally made it to the toilets, I did not see how there could be any kind of organized way of sorting this mass of people into each one of maybe twelve (maybe more). Once we got up to the doors, which could not even be opened all the way because of the crush, we found that there was a consensual order going on, in which everyone within a certain distance had an agreed place in line. From time to time, one of the nearby toilets would become free and no one was assigned yet. So whoever was standing nearby would shout “this one is open!” and someone would jump in.
While we were waiting, a young man with a Fire Department patch on his jacket, a paramedic, suddenly appeared in front of us. He threw himself on the mercy of the crowd, saying he needed to go before he got another call. Of course, we let him in. But when he came out, we pressed him with the Burning Question, “How big is this crowd?” He said he had no idea but that it was definitely much larger than the crowd had been the day before, for the inauguration. It was clear from his tone and his body language that the “authorities” were playing catch up on what was happening.
Just as I was coming out of the can, the crowd started to yell “March! March! March!” It was already 1:30. It seemed the real march was about to begin. Very exciting. The three of us said, “OK, rather than try to make it back to the others, we will stay here and when the marching starts, we will just flow into the street with the movement.” We couldn’t move more than about six inches anyway. We were at 9th and Independence, just near the corner, and the plan was for the march to proceed down Independence, across the Mall, and from there to the White House. We figured we were well positioned, but we were nervous about not being able to even contact our group and tell them our plan.
Everybody waited. Minutes and minutes ticked by. From time to time, someone started another round of “March! March! March!” But nothing would happen. Since I was the tallest of anyone around, I was appointed to stretch up and see whether I could see any of the TV screens. None of us could hear them. I pulled myself as far as I could, but had to report that I could only see that someone was giving a speech. We groaned and began to grouse that the crowd was too big and they should just get on with it. It was after 2PM at that point.
Hours later, when our own group reunited, I learned that, closer to the stage about that time, there were disputes about stopping the speeches and starting the march. Apparently, it became quite tense, but the leadership wouldn’t budge. We don’t know whether this was because they were working out plans with the police about the crowd size or whether they were just oblivious to what was really happening and too afraid to tell Madonna she wouldn’t get to talk.
The decision to keep that rally going for another couple of hours beyond the original time was the only thing I really think went wrong. It was hugely irresponsible to keep a crowd that large in such a tight space when there was no food or water, insufficient toilet facilities, no place to sit, no way to call out, and no way to get emergency assistance through. Very, very bad decision-making. Sorry, Madonna. You should have passed on the publicity and let people march.
Today, I do see that having all those celebrities is helping to get out a lot more messaging on the march. Still, since I have a sense of just how many elderly and disabled were out there, as well as small children, it seems like a particularly let-them-eat-cake strategy.
About 2.30 or so, access to information broke through for a few minutes. We were finally able to reach the rest of our party. I got texts from my family, who were attending marches in Providence, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Austin. I learned that the march in Chicago had been too big to proceed and was turned into a rally. I thought, “Please God, don’t that happen here. We will all be trapped.” Then the window closed again.
Suddenly, a few people around us shouted they had learned that, indeed, our march was cancelled. Somebody said they got the news off NPR and that the reason was the crowd was bigger than the permit allowed. We all just stood there in shock. Some folks who had come in from Illinois were really upset. All around us, people were saying, “Wait a minute. I came to march.”
After a few minutes, it seemed there was nothing to do but leave. So we walked away from Independence Avenue toward the Mall. There, we were pleasantly surprised to find an informal march was forming. We joined it, feeling great that we would get to march, after all. More and more folks joined and we were really moving. People started chants. These would go for a few minutes then stop, just as I have heard they did elsewhere. There have been several favorites mentioned in the press already, but in actual practice, I think the best one was a responsive chant: “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” The rhythm was better than any of the others.
As we came on to the Mall and headed toward the Washington Monument, we could see masses of people pouring in from both left and right. These must have been the folks packed into the parallel streets. It was only then we could appreciate the full size of the crowd.
We all flowed, without any apparent direction from authorities, into 14th Street. For a little while, we were really marching. But once on 14th, the crowd again became extremely slow, sometimes stopping entirely, because there were just too many people to move. You could not see ahead because of all the banners and pickets. We knew we were supposed to go to the White House, but were not sure which route we should take, especially given that, as far we knew, the march had been called off.
There was a young black man next to us who must have been seven feet tall. We asked him what he could see ahead. He said the crowd was thick all the way to Pennsylvania and filled the street. Wow. That was great, but it meant we still had a long time way to go and it was going to be slow.
Once on 14th, though, tired as everyone was, the energy changed. We could now see the magnitude of what we had created. The spirit became even more upbeat, as the sense of hope buzzed through our bodies. And, from where we now were, we could get reports of the marches elsewhere in the country, as well as photos from around the world. Hooray! We are a movement!
One woman in her 90s told us—and then told an ABC News journalist who overheard and turned his camera on—that she had been in the Martin Luther King March on Washington in 1963. She had been marching ever since. She was emphatic that she had never seen anything like this Women’s March. It was truly huge.
And then the drummers came through. I have no idea where they came from or who they were. I never even saw anything but the tops of their heads and the spin of their sticks when they occasionally reached up and twirled them between beats. You could tell that they were a practiced, disciplined group, whoever they were. And I think they were wearing matching magenta pussyhats.
The effect of the rhythm on the crowd was magical. We stepped in place and jiggled and bobbed and nodded. We smiled at each other. It was absolutely great.
The police, now appearing on horseback, didn’t let us up 14th any farther than the African-American Museum. By that time, the street had been blocked and we were turned left on Constitution. When we broke into the Ellipse, everyone shouted. We had done it! And there were food trucks!
The three of us sat down on the curb and waited for our friends, who were still well behind us. Every few minutes, a new wave breaking through into the Ellipse would shout with joy and all of us in the park would shout with them. People photographed each other and shared stories. They began affixing the protest signs to the fence, creating a huge and colorful, if impermanent, monument to the march.
Cindy went off to find food and came back with only a few naked hot dogs, saying we had to share because the food trucks were rationing. Our friends arrived just in time for all six of us to gobble down a partial hot dog without even mustard. It tasted like heaven.
Dusk was coming as we walked across the grass toward home. When we faced the White House, I wondered what Donald Trump and his team were thinking. Everybody said, “He doesn’t care.” I could not imagine that he didn’t, especially as thin-skinned as he is. And I thought to myself that if his handlers aren’t worried, they are not doing their jobs. But I read the next morning that they all simply ignored the march, though they could see and hear it all day long.
But, at the moment we were standing there, the Big Cheeto wasn’t inside. We know because, just a few minutes later, we were passed by the Presidential motorcade. A knowledgeable young man with us (our little group was four women, two men) explained that the weird little car that follows the motorcade is a communications vehicle and it is only there when the President is in the limo. So Trump was in the car, on his way, as we later learned, to or from a meeting with the CIA that was actually probably set up just to draw press attention away from our march. We did not shoot him the finger, as I learned later that others did. But we weren’t quite close enough.
Again I wondered what he thought. There were so many of us. We were so colorful and loud. I could not see how he could look through the windows of the limo and not be amazed and—surely—moved. But no, the next day he scoffed at the whole thing, saying for the thousandth time that the election was over. We had lost and should get over it.
But here’s the rub: we did not lose the election. And the forty-three percent of the Americans who voted—remember that only about half of America did vote—thus only constitute about 20% of American adults. And he is slipping so fast in popularity, he is losing even some of them. Trump actually does not have a popular mandate. And all 500,000+ of us, standing just outside the White House, were rubbing it in his face.
This march was one of the most physically difficult and yet most exhilarating days of my life. I believe that everyone there went home a changed person. The Women’s March has given birth to the resistance—in nearly 700 cities all over the world. It was a hard labor—or at least it was in DC. But nothing will be the same now.