A year ago, I went to my very first protest march. Around the world, on all seven continents, millions of women, men, and gender-nonconforming people marched for a number of causes: women’s rights, pay equity, reproductive freedom, justice, equality, civil rights, disability rights, voting rights, LBGTQIA rights, immigrant rights, environmental protection, and others.
The trigger event was, of course, the electoral college’s election of the current occupant of the Oval Office. The marchers feared—rightly, as it turns out—that all of these rights and protections would be under attack in the new administration. And so women, cis and otherwise, together with those who love and support them, took to the streets to make sure our voices would be heard.
Yesterday, the second Women’s March took place in towns and cities around the world. More than half a million people marched in Los Angeles alone. One television station reported that Austin broke the record for the largest march in Texas history. Here at home, Hartford matched its 10,000 from last year.
Last year, I went to the March alone. The experience was new and overwhelming. The energy was palpable. Shortly after I arrived, a young woman named Karen asked me to hold a sign with her for a photo. We ended up spending the entire time together, working our way through the crowds until we stood on the steps of the state capitol with a nearly-unobstructed view of the speakers.
This year, I knew people. My neighbor, Winnie, called and asked if I wanted to drive in together. Another friend was coming from the other side of the river, and we made plans to meet. Other people I knew were coming to Hartford, and even though we didn’t make serious efforts to connect, it was nice to know I had friends in the crowd. I was comfortable.
Up by the Capitol, a number of tables were set up for various groups to provide information. It was like a conference or fair. At one table, voters could register. At others, people could pick up information, sign up for mailing lists, and pick up swag. Emerge Connecticut was giving out pink hats of various styles in exchange for a $20 contribution. (In days of yore, we called that “selling.”) I made my contribution and wore my pink baseball cap for the rest of the day.
The atmosphere was festive. Creative signs were everywhere. Winnie carried a bright pink sign with a picture of Princess Leia and the slogan, “The Force is With Us.”
I snapped dozens of photos, often asking first if it was all right, a reflex that struck me as odd since the point of carrying a sign at a protest is to be seen publicly. I heard others doing the same, and I wondered if this peculiar politeness was a Connecticut thing or a woman thing.
One young woman had brought her daughter. The child looked to be around three years old, and she was carrying a sign. I don’t recall what her sign said, but when I asked if I could take a picture, the little one promptly turned away and hid her face against her mother’s legs. I hastened to assure her that it was all right, but her mother apologized. Walking away, I wondered at the peculiarly female notion that saying “no” somehow required an apology.
Winnie and I made our way to the Corning Fountain where the March would begin. I felt almost like a tourist or a photojournalist as I snapped photos of the signs and the crowd, heavily dotted with pink hats.
Eventually, the marching began. Because the crowd was dense and the route to the Capitol was very short—a single city block—my friends and I elected to walk up to the Capitol by a different path in the hope of securing good spots for the rally. We arrived at the top of the hill just as the first marchers came around the corner.
As the crowd began to thicken, Winnie and I lost track of the others. When it became clear we would not meet again, I showed her how to make our way through the crowd to the front where I’d watched the rally the year before. We worked our way up to the steps, and eventually, we had front-row spots for some powerful speakers. Writer Susan Campbell rallied the crowd with her cry of “Swords up!” Activist Jillian Gilchrest told of how, when she wanted to run for state representative for the 18th District, she was told that she had to wait until the male incumbent decided he didn’t want the seat any more and even if he did give it up, there was a line of men who wanted it. Her response: “Well I’m not waiting. Because this is a democracy and there are no lines. There are elections. And our voice is our vote.” Kate Callahan, our state troubadour, sang with a former state troubadour, leading us as we sang about wanting “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Poet Desirée Taylor recited two poems about self-respect that should be mandatory reading.
For me, a high point came when I turned around and saw a young woman on the step below me, with a scarf over part of her face to keep warm. She looked familiar, but I wasn’t quite certain, so I looked up the photo. “Karen?” I said. She looked startled, and I showed her our photo from last year. In total girl fashion, we squealed and hugged, and we took another photo.
The March began at 12:30. The rally was supposed to last from 1:00 to 3:00. Because we were on the steps, we couldn’t see down the hill to the crowd. As time passed, it seemed that there weren’t quite as many signs in the parking lot. Three o’clock came and went, and the program was clearly nowhere near finished. My toes were getting cold. Karen and I exchanged contact information, and she slipped away. Another speaker, and another, all with worthy things to say, but my enthusiasm was fading. Finally, when it was nearly three-thirty and no end was in sight, I turned to Winnie and suggested leaving, a suggestion she heartily embraced, and we made our way down the steps.
Only then did I realize how few people were left. From thousands at the start, probably no more than a few hundred remained. The group now fit in the parking lot surrounding the building. Winnie posited that maybe it was because the people down the hill couldn’t have seen the speakers, any more than those of us on the steps could see them, and so they didn’t see much point in sticking around.
At home, I pondered the afternoon. Among the things I’d heard were that some women of color felt excluded from the March’s mission because they felt it didn’t address concerns specific to their communities, including maternal and infant mortality, gun violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. One speaker offered this statistic: seventy-one (71%) percent of the inmates in Connecticut prisons are African-American or Latino, but African-Americans and Latinos do not make up 71% of Connecticut’s population.
Others found the pink pussy hats offensive because not all women have pink genitalia. This I found curious since it had never been my understanding that the hats were supposed to reflect the color of body parts. Rather, I’d thought it was simply the use of a traditional girly color as a color of power, and the reference to “pussy” was simply because that was what the current occupant of the Oval Office bragged about grabbing in the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
In some ways, this was inevitable. Last year, we were in crisis mode. Adrenaline raced as organizers hastily cobbled together the largest protest in history, with people across the globe joining in what was rightly viewed as a catastrophe that required prompt, decisive action.
If I’d thought, I’d have expected the same this year. After all, mid-term elections are less than ten months away. If supporters of human rights are to halt the current train wreck, there is no time to waste. Also, the federal government is currently shut down, and even though the GOP controls the House, the Senate, and the White House, a certain someone is blaming the Democrats. (I’m surprised he hasn’t figured out a way to pin this on President Obama as is his wont.)
And yet, the mood at the March was very different. With a year to think and reflect and discuss and observe, many had time to ask the questions there wasn’t time to raise last year, including, “What about my issues? Will you stand up for me, too? Will you have my back?”
In some ways, last year’s March was the shiny new relationship where everything your beloved says is brilliant and you agree on nearly everything. A year later, some of the gloss has worn off. His jokes are stale and he leaves his socks on the floor, and it’s up to you to plan outings because all he ever suggests is getting takeout and watching television, and he complains that you’re obsessed with your career and can’t you ever close that damned laptop and pay attention to him? In other words, you’re in the thick of it, and even though you still love each other, if you don’t listen to each other and work at resolving your differences, the relationship is going to splinter until there’s nothing left.
This, I think, is the risk to the current March movement. From my perch as a privileged white woman, it all looked fine and unified, but it turns out that mine was not the only perspective. I watched the rally from the capitol steps, and I never even realized how many people had left because I couldn’t see the people down on the hill.
As more than one speaker said yesterday, this is a marathon, not a sprint. If we want this team to reach the finish line, we need to run together—and that means listening to each other, supporting each other, strengthening each other, caring about what the others care about. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it can happen. We can make it happen. I don’t know how, but I know we need to do it. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves triumphantly leading a march, only to discover that there’s no one marching behind us.