I had hoped to just write about what participating in this weekend’s Women’s March on NYC, a sister protest of the Women’s March on Washington, meant to me personally. But I also see there are a number of misunderstandings about what the march was about, what it was like, what marchers personally stood for, how marchers behaved, and general purpose nay-saying, so I will address that a bit too.
First, some background. The Women’s March movement was begun with a Facebook post by a woman in Hawaii, shared with friends, and it went viral, gathering momentum through the stages of grassroots organization into something global. With the need to organize millions of people and apply for legal permits, they gained partners and sponsors. (If you are inclined to think it was a bunch of women acting like sheep and somehow organized or funded under the aegis of George Soros, the DNC, the Clinton Foundation, or some vast left-wing conspiracy, I suggest you stop reading right now and if we are friends on social media, do me the favor of changing that.) There were a lot of questions in the early phases of planning, which coalesced into the decisions to include sister cities and to march the day after the Inauguration, in part so that the marchers would not be included in the administration’s attempts to fudge Inaugural attendance numbers (of course they still tried, #alternativefacts).
The march was not simply anti-Trump or pro-abortion, as I’ve seen many falsely claim, but in fact has a number of Unity Principles, which clearly reflect the nonviolence built into the Women’s March Mission and Vision. Not every marcher supported every principle, but the consensus agreement was to use First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly in nonviolent protest. This march was not affiliated with any protests that occurred on Inauguration Day, including those that advocated violence or destruction of property and were characterized on the news as riots. I was surprised that my brother and father still texted us a few times during the day to check if we were safe, but when I later saw how the first wave of protests were covered, I understood a little better how they misunderstood the nonviolent missions of ours.
(I don’t like that I keep feeling like I must have such a defensive or over-explaining tone, but it seems like a lot of basic facts I’ve taken for granted are being warped and not getting across to all my friends and family, so I am trying to be perhaps excessively clear. I am, of course, always happy to discuss anything further one-on-one or in the comments.)
I chose to see my participation as a march FOR and not AGAINST, though I was marching for both. To this end, among other things I was marching FOR:
- equality and sanctity of humanity regardless of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, wealth, or family status
- human rights, civil rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of conscience
- environmental protection and responsible policies in the face of climate change
- ethical treatment of Native American and First Nations people and respect for their lands and culture
- equitable and ethical treatment under the law for Black lives and all people of color because extrajudicial executions and institutionalized racism are reprehensible
- immigrants and refugees, who deserve a safe haven in the world and a path to citizenship
- universal, affordable health care because I believe health care is a human right
- veterans and service members whose health care, benefits, and job assistance services should be nonnegotiable; increased access to mental health care and support for PTSD
- preservation of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, along with the other social safety nets that protect vulnerable people when they need help
- protecting disability rights and ensuring disabled people have access to education, independence, and opportunities to work and thrive in society
- a living wage for hourly employees, expanded family leave, and protections for workers’ rights
- protection of women against violence, rape, and sexual assault, including removing the biased institutional policies that protect perpetrators at the expense of survivors (Brock Turner, for example)
- preservation of voting rights for all citizens and expansion of access to polls by making Election Day a federal holiday and removing discriminatory voting registration laws
- peace and not waging untenable wars that destabilize entire regions over oil
- honesty and transparency in our government, answerable to all citizens and not just corporate donors or SuperPACs
And that is the short list. The thing is, I was marching for everyone, as some of these concerns don’t affect me personally, though others do or could. That is what “Liberty and Justice for All” means. Mostly I was marching for what I believe is right, for the principles our nation is built on, and for what I consider ethical and morally responsible comportment in the world. I know that not everyone will agree with where I land on every issue, but some are nonnegotiable. If you are okay with the government making policies that are specifically designed to disenfranchise people of color because it benefits your candidate, you are supporting institutionalized racism. If you are okay with our government discriminating against poverty or disability in the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” then we have a much bigger discussion about morality and the role of government ahead.
So now that we’ve established just some of the reasons why I marched (I could go on), I want to move on to how incredible it was to be part of it.
A few weeks ago my mother and I started discussing the Inauguration and people planning to protest it. We discussed the Women’s March on Washington and what a peaceful demonstration could plausibly achieve. One of us pointed out there was a sister march in NYC, and I said it meant more to me to march in my beloved city than the Capitol. I wanted to be with fellow New Yorkers, to make our presence known where I live. We continued a then-hypothetical conversation about the goals of the march, the history and spirit of nonviolent protest, and by the end, we both felt compelled to join the Women’s March in NYC. I registered us with the organizers (so they could apply for an appropriate amount of permits), we worked out our logistics, and we were in. I don’t know what possessed me to, but I asked my mother, “Will Dad be cool with you marching?” and she laughed, “Frankly, it’s not his decision, now is it?” (He was, for the record, not only cool with it, but wholly supportive, proud, and said, “This is something really important.” You can’t grow up with a strong mother and five sisters and marry my mother without being an avowed feminist.)
A few days before the march, I decided to knit our protest hats. At first my mother and I weren’t going to wear any, as we were concerned they were infantilizing or made light of seriously life-or-death concerns. The more I read about the Pussyhat Project and discussed it with fellow knitters, the better I understood its power as a unifying symbol, summarized well in this article. I appreciated that these hats were handmade, as individualized as the people making them, and they served a practical purpose in January weather. Some knitters and crocheters made and donated dozens of hats for other marchers, and I wish I’d made more than our two.
The night before the march, we ate pizza, talked at length, and painted our signs. I went with Hillary Clinton’s quote, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” and my mother made a more specific message, “Complacent Is Complicit / Strong Women Stand Together” in a somewhat retro style to reflect that she has been fighting for equality and basic human decency her whole life. As we made our way to Midtown through subway delays and extra transfers, we started to see more and more pink hats and marchers, and it was a genuine treat to feel like we were joining our tribe. People stopped us to take photos of our hats and signs, and we instantly bonded with other New Yorkers in ways I wouldn’t have considered possible before. By the time we got to Grand Central, there were hundreds of marchers in every direction, and I’ve never seen such a pleasant, considerate mood in New York.
The start times of the march were staggered by last name, so we could already hear thousands of people marching down 42nd Street as we made our way to the start point. It was an astonishingly beautiful sound. When we got to the plaza where the march was assembling, we were amazed at the sheer volume of people, dazzled by so many hats, signs, and such beauty in literally resplendent afternoon light (I have a mild sunburn on my cheeks to show for it even though I was wearing SPF 30). As we waited for our start time, we participated in chants and pointed out particularly clever or emotionally impactful signs to one another. Say what you will about New Yorkers, but our reputation for being an exceptionally literary city is well-earned. I can be hypersensitive to spelling and grammar mistakes, and I saw almost none. Just pause for a second to recognize that of the thousands of signs I read over several hours, I may have seen a total of three grammar errors or misspellings. That by itself is kind of miraculous.
© Jenny Sowry, via Mashable, #WokeBaby
I observed an incredible diversity of people marching, representing more causes than I could possibly list, with varying levels of specificity, complex emotional nuance, and unbelievable creativity. As an artist, I was deeply touched at all the people who took the time to express themselves visually, and I was stunned by how truly effective many of the signs were (including, of course, #WokeBaby from the Charlotte march, above).
The march picked up as we turned the corner onto 42nd Street, down a corridor of amazing architecture toward the gleaming Chrysler Building. I have literally never seen so many people in my life, a sea of humanity united as far as I could see, and it was just plain staggering. The family behind us lifted their children onto their shoulders to show them how far the march stretched in both directions, and their mother said, “Look at how many people are marching for what they believe in,” as my mother and I simultaneously became overwhelmed with emotion.
They continued to explain how everyone was marching for people like those in the children’s lives, whom they named by name and cause, including “so Grandma can still have her medicine,” which hit me right in the feels. They told the brother how all these people want to make sure his sister and mother have the same rights and freedoms as him and Daddy. Right about when I’d regained my composure, they said, “But it’s important that no matter what, you decide what you believe and that you care about that as much as we care about this.” Considering our family motto growing up might as well have been, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what to think, including us,” my mother and I both turned to thank the parents for raising socially conscious children and encouraging them to think for themselves. That family gives me so much hope for the future.
I didn’t take many photos, but I will never forget some of my favorite signs, chants, and experiences:
- The Resistance is Fertile (imagery of plants and the earth)
- A photo of Malala Yousafzai captioned just, “EDUCATION”
- A young woman marching in memory of her grandmother, a feminist and civil rights activist who had passed away in 2017, noted “With Us In Spirit”
- A 9- or 10-year old girl beside us shouting, “My Body, My Choice!” at the top of her lungs
- The call-and-response style of men chanting “Her Body, Her Choice!” after women
- People playing upbeat songs out of their apartment windows to energize the marchers; one guy saying he didn’t like the song one group was playing and his friend quipping, “Hey man, her apartment, her choice.”
- A man in head-to-toe rainbow clothes waving a Pride flag joking, “How did they know I love this song??” when “YMCA” came on
- The same strength and enthusiasm of chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No DAPL” as everything else (this shouldn’t be remarkable, but it still is)
- A group of women marching with the Statue of Liberty’s torch
- The incredible feeling of shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” and knowing it was true
- In Grand Central, a man carrying a sign as tall as him reading Don’t Be a Dick
- The admittedly somewhat petty and slightly mean-spirited chant of, “Hands Too Small, Can’t Build the Wall!”
- The second line and drum bands leading the marchers in singalongs of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”
- Several police officers being given pink hats to wear over their uniform hats, cheering for various signs and chanting along with “Black Lives Matter”
- Speaking with several college-aged women about how for some marchers like my mother, it wasn’t clear if they were protesting Again or Still; the awe in their eyes as they asked how she could stand it, and the fire in my mother’s as she said, “By insisting we don’t go backwards.”
- An image of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with “A woman’s place is in the resistance”
- Pithy one-word signs that got the point across, “UGH!” and “NOPE.”
- An elaborate drawing of the earth surrounded by flowers and hearts, against a backdrop of space, “I Love the Whole Universe”
- The spectacular echo under an overpass as we chanted, “This is not normal!”
- Signs in Spanish that repeated 70s-era feminist slogans like, “I am woman, hear me roar”
- Weak Men Fear Strong Women (one of my badass friends in Los Angeles had a great version of this one)
- Fight Like a Girl
- Shortly after an anti-Wall chant, “Have no fear, you’re welcome here!”
- “We need a leader, not a creepy Tweeter”
- You Don’t Need to Suppress the Press If You’re Not Doing Anything Wrong
- Very young boy’s sign decorated with the Twitter logo Xed out, “Quit Tweeting and Get to Work!”; his explanation, “Sometimes I play video games when I’m supposed to do my homework, but the President shouldn’t be bad.”
- Save the ACA If You Insist On Making Us Sick
- I’m With Her, with arrows pointing in every direction
- A moment I shared with a Black woman in about her late 70s, when she stumbled in a low spot and I reflexively offered her my arm. She looked me in the eyes, nodded, smiled, then said, “Thanks, sister” like she meant it.
- A group of young women starting the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch,” but everyone forgetting the words past the intro, mumbling to the refrain, then one yelling, “The point is bitches are complex and beautiful!”
- A quote from Hillary Clinton’s graceful and inspiring concession speech, “[To] all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world…”
- The fact that very few of the chants mentioned the President by name, and none of them had expletives (the latter by request of the organizers)
- Science is Not a Partisan Issue
- Without the Arts, I Would Be Dead
- Without the Arts, I Couldn’t Make Such a *Glorious* Sign (beautifully lettered with loads of glitter)
- Incredible quotes by MLK and other nonviolent civil rights leaders and thinkers from history
- And lastly, this guy, who truly pulled off that bow:
(You can see loads more here.)
When we were finished marching we walked back down Fifth Avenue near the New York Public Library, where an impromptu gallery of signs had been set up (a much larger display was being established at the President’s tower). I’ve seen another misguided criticism of the marches that slams people for “leaving their trash behind” as if the signs were just discarded litter, but it was clear that this was an intentional installation so the message could continue to be considered and spread after the march. We saw crowds of pedestrians and tourists thoughtfully reading and photographing the signs, clusters of conversation among strangers discussing the issues presented in the signs, and we were stopped to have our photos taken by people who particularly responded to our messages.
After the march, we had one of the coolest, most healing experiences of my life (I will write all about that soon) and I went home positively glowing.
As I looked at photos and read accounts from literally every continent on the globe the next morning, the full reality of what we’d participated in hit home. We marched at the same time as millions of people in other states, for causes so important that women around the world organized in solidarity. The collective positive energy of nonviolent protest and determination was palpable, and I believe we were heard. We participated in a powerful moment in history, and I will be proud for the rest of my life that we refused to be complacent. I felt more connected to humanity and the universe in that one day than I ever have in my life, and it was more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Naturally, I have also seen plenty of cynicism and criticism, misconstruing the tone and intent in ways that seem woefully ignorant and needlessly partisan. The march was held on a Saturday so most people would not have to miss work, yet there are still plenty of people sneering that maybe if the marchers had jobs they wouldn’t be protesting. I’ve seen attempts to bash the Women’s March as a bunch of self-involved, overprivileged white women whining because our candidate didn’t win an election, using the gaslighting technique of criticizing marchers for not doing anything about oppressed women in other parts of the world; to this I say, it’s not either / or, and I was specifically marching for their rights too. (Also, do you support NGOs that help women in India escape domestic violence or sex slavery to achieve self-sufficiency and economic freedom? Because I do, and I have met these women – it’s part of why I’m so passionate about women’s rights.)
I’ve seen friends ordered by out-of-touch relatives to stop posting “such vulgarities” because “men are watching this!” and I’ve seen people suggest that if every marcher cooked a meal for a veteran or homeless person that day we could actually make a difference (but of course, they didn’t do anything charitable that day – I think they had something really important to do like go grocery shopping, run errands, and comment on Facebook posts). There is a common and mystifying misconception that the women who marched aren’t also actively involved in volunteer work and community organizations because they took one day to make a stand against bigoted institutional policies. As I learned about other causes and efforts made by my fellow marchers, I saw how that couldn’t be further from the truth. But while we’re at it, when did it become okay to police how others spend their free time??
The work, obviously, is just beginning, and it’s never too late to join. Check out the 10 Actions for 100 Days, and don’t hesitate to contact your representatives to make your voice heard. Seek out local and grassroots organizations where you can volunteer or donate to national organizations to help the causes you believe in. Even something seemingly small like tutoring for adult literacy or ESL can make a world of difference in someone’s life. Above all, please never stop speaking up for what is right, and never stop standing up for what you believe in.
I, for one, refuse to sit down, shut up, and behave myself ever again.