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Belly to Belly: The Women’s March in Washington

The crowd at the Women’s March was so big and packed so tightly that the doors for a line of maybe a dozen porta-potties would barely open wide enough to get your body through. With no room for a queue, people had to improvise an orderly progression toward relief. As those waiting stood smack up against the doors, we had plenty of time to enjoy the caricature of Trump that some wag had stickered to every one, as well as the irony of “Don’s Johns” just above it.

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.

These conservatives were clearly there to pick a fight. No one took the bait.

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.

The crowd was at least 30% male. A surprising number of men were wearing pussyhats. You can’t see him from the positioning of another marcher, but the bearer of “I’m With Her” is one of them. That slogan from the Clinton campaign took on a whole new meaning as men throughout this march carried the signs with arrows pointing to the women all around them. The male support was a real boost to this demonstration—and they vigorously adapted the slogans and chants to show their enthusiasm. At one point, during a “my body, my choice” chant, the men around me started saying, “Her body, her choice.” It was awesome.

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.

This is the wall of flesh we were trying to pass through on the way to the toilet. It took us more than an hour to get across a section of street we had crossed in less than ten minute just two hours earlier.

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.

Anyone who has seen Rogue One will know that this slogan not only refers to The Force of the other Star Wars movies, it adds a poignant subtext. This is what one of the Rogue One characters, the blind Japanese priest says as he repeatedly plunges into battle against insurmountable odds, eventually to his death. The sentence becomes a mantra for keeping the faith when going against the Empire and its leader, despite very long odds. I especially like it that they illustrated this one with Durga, the Hindu goddess of war, whose name means “the Invincible One” in Sanskrit.

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 w