On January 21st, I had a most extraordinary experience. I stood in the midst of the largest crowd I’d ever encountered and was overwhelmed by peace and good will. Half a million strong, we stood shoulder to shoulder, packed so closely together we could barely move, yet everyone was friendly and polite. Kindness and respect for one another were the order of the day.
I’m not sure what I expected when I set out on this adventure. I was not a likely candidate for a political rally. In my college days, during the Viet Nam War, I’d pass fellow students and professors staging sit-ins on the lawn when I went to class. My sentiments were with them, but as a penniless scholarship student, my spare time was devoted to work and study. In after years, while causes came and went, I was busy with family and work. More recently, I gathered signatures on petitions for environmental causes, emailed politicians, and wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper. But I’d never done anything like this before.
When a lady at church announced plans to hire a charter bus to the Women’s March in Washington, something nudged me. This was something I knew I must do. Another lady recruited volunteers to crochet and knit pink hats for the marchers. Armed with my crochet hook and pink yarn, I lost count after a half-dozen hats.
I hadn’t realized how much preparation was required for such an event. We were asked to register online so organizers could plan for numbers, get parade permits, and arrange for porta-potties and first aid stations. I attended a meeting on how we should conduct ourselves, how to dress for the weather, and what kinds of bags we’d be allowed to carry. Those making signs were given guidelines—they should have a positive message. This was to be a solidarity march, not a protest. I didn’t want to carry a sign but was paired up with a young woman who couldn’t attend due to her disability. I wore her picture on my back, allowing her to participate in the march.
The trip to DC was an adventure in itself. We left at 6pm and traveled through the night, changing drivers in North Carolina. About 5:30 Saturday morning, the bus stopped at a truck stop outside DC to gas up and let us use the restroom. The line for the ladies’ room was long and slow-moving. I fueled up on coffee and a banana while I waited. The clerks in the store were friendly and helpful. They allowed ladies to use the toilets in the shower rooms. I quipped that we should take over the men’s room, since we outnumbered them. Someone took me seriously. When the last man came out, a group of ladies crowded in.
Occasionally some poor man would walk in and see all those women. Thinking he had mistakenly entered the wrong restroom, the panicked look on his face was priceless! We’d invited him in and say, “You can use a stall.” Everything worked out just fine.
We pulled into the Naylor Road Metro station about 8am. The last time I rode a subway, you put a coin or token in a slot. No more. We’d been advised to purchase Metro cards, a sort of debit card. The man at the turn style must have been used to tourists. He patiently instructed us to swipe the cards. Over and over. He must have felt like a broken record by the end of his shift. At the end of the ride, at L’Enfant Plaza, we swiped the cards again. I don’t know why.
Marchers from Florida were to assemble on a corner of Independence Avenue near the Capitol. I had signed up for the Florida Breakfast hosted by our women Senators and Representatives, held at the Library of Congress. We went to the building but couldn’t find the breakfast. We didn’t realize there are two buildings. By the time we found the breakfast line at the other building, it was still a block long and we were running out of time, so we skipped breakfast. I found the Florida delegation but got separated from my bus mates and didn’t see them for the rest of the day.
The throng moved down Independence Ave. Spirits were high but the crowd was twice the size as had been anticipated. We reached the National Museum of the American Indian and many people were uncertain which way to go. Some tried to circle the building, only to find a dead end. I tried a passage between the museum and a reflecting pool, but there was no egress and I had to double back. Some adventurous souls took the short cut, wading across the pool. Somehow, I ended up on Jefferson Ave. Lining the Mall was a row of porta potties. I didn’t knowing when I’d have another opportunity, so I got in line. Everyone was courteous and cheerful despite the wait.
Afterward, I found myself on the Mall. This park is over a mile long and nearly a third of a mile wide. There was barely standing room. A man next to me hoisted his little boy up on his shoulders and asked if he could see any open area. The child said, “No, it’s like this everywhere.” Occasionally a line of people would move through the crowd and I’d move with them. We’d jostle one another and say, “Oh, excuse me.” I knew better than to carry a purse and had a “fanny pack” under my jacket, but I was aware of no attempted thefts or other unpleasant actions.
The people—every race and religion, every state in the nation was represented, and I heard there was a couple from Australia. I spoke with a young woman from Miami was had driven here by herself for the march. It wasn’t exclusively a woman’s march. There were many men, and families with children. By the end of the day, the children were tired and the parents exhausted, but I heard no harsh words or crying children. In a post I read after the march, a woman told how her little girl had been impressed by the kindness she saw everywhere.
Eventually I moved down the Mall, past the museums. Later, a man on our bus said he’d gone into the Museum of American History to get something to eat and use the restroom. I love these museums, but I wasn’t here for that. I stayed in the crowd and ate the sandwich I’d brought. Near the Smithsonian castle, I found some open space and a tent with tables and chairs. I was glad to get off my feet and chat with the others resting there. As I made my way past a carousel, I heard loud cheering and decided to check it out.
I knew there were to be speakers but wasn’t sure where they’d be. I joined a crown squeezing by the African Art Museum toward Independence Avenue. That’s where the excitement was. This street and even the side streets were packed. I could hear speakers but caught only occasional snatches of their speeches. There were large screens and loudspeakers, but they were too far away and I was too short to see over the crowd. So I chatted with the people around me about where they were from and why they had come. Every social justice issue was represented, from Education to Racial Justice. My pet cause is the Environment. Let’s face it, without a livable Earth, those other issues won’t amount to a hill of beans.
The march was supposed to start at 1pm. The speeches went on until after 2pm. We were getting restless, partly because we couldn’t hear much of what was being said. We started chanting, “March! March! March!” Every so often, we tried to move west on Independence Avenue, but were stopped by the crowd at the next screen who were able to see and hear the speeches.
Finally, we heard sirens and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. A police car moved cautiously down the street closely followed by a cadre of reporters. The March had finally begun. Every so often someone would start a chant. My favorite was, “Tell me what Democracy looks like! This is what Democracy looks like!”
There was very little police presence and those I saw seemed intent on maintaining safety. As we approached the corner where we were to turn towards the Washington Monument, two policemen stood on top of their patrol car. Marchers waved at them as they passed and the policemen waved back. When the crowd began to chant, the officers made hand motions to encourage us.
At the Washington Monument, I ran into some friends from church who had driven up separately. They said they’d been by the White House, but the police there seemed quite antsy, so they left. Not wishing to place extra burden on the peace officers, I didn’t venture to that part of town, but made my way back toward the Metro station. On my way, I came to the corner I’d passed at 3pm. The last of the marchers were approaching. It was now 4pm. It had taken an hour for the entire march to pass that point.
I managed to find the Metro station and rode the train back to Naylor Road. There I met up with my bus mates. All that day, separated from everyone I knew, I hadn’t felt the least bit frightened or alone. It had been an uplifting experience. The local people I came in contact with throughout the day were friendly and proud of their city. Without exception, they’d say, “Welcome to DC.”
My feet were so sore I could barely walk. Once on the bus, I took off my shoes. When we stopped for a restroom break in the middle of the night, my feet were so swollen I could barely get my shoes on. Once I got home, I hit the couch.
My takeaway from this incredible experience is: this is a great country where so many people of all walks of life and diverse causes and opinions can gather in peace, respect, and camaraderie. My faith in my fellow Americans has been restored. This is what Democracy looks like.