By Barbara Slavin
This analyst has been to a demonstration or two going back to the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands of people used to congregate in Washington to protest U.S. military intervention in that faraway Asian nation.
Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington was of a different order of magnitude – larger by a factor of several hundred thousand and broader in its scope of issues – but similar in sketching a different direction for a country divided by the recent presidential election. That the march was replicated all over the United States and in cities around the world gave it an even greater potential meaning.
The mood of the march in Washington was determined, passionate and full of kindness.
Chaotically put together on social media, the march outstripped the expectations of its organizers, who anticipated that only about a quarter of a million people would attend. In fact, the number of marchers was at least twice that large. Independence Avenue, a narrow thoroughfare by Washington standards that was chosen as the venue after authorities denied a permit for the much larger area around the Lincoln Memorial, simply could not accommodate all of those who turned up.
This led to a feeling of claustrophobia and even mild panic among some of those stuck, sardine-like, in the crowd for more than four hours. But attendees who became upset found comfort from those around them and room somehow was made to allow people who absolutely needed to leave to squeeze past.
Miraculously, there was no violence and not a single arrest.
The organizers, oblivious to the discomfort of people blocks away, allowed the speeches to go on too long. At times it seemed that a representative of every sexual and ethnic permutation – as well as a large compliment of Democratic politicians — had to be given his or her moment before the actual march began.
But some of the speakers were magnificent. Gloria Steinem, the great grandmother of feminism, electrified the crowd when she said, “This is the upside of the downside.”
Indeed, the election of Donald Trump has re-galvanized the feminist movement particularly for millennial women and men who appear to have taken the progress made in women’s and minority rights for granted. Now they realize that they will have to fight to preserve the gains of recent decades.
Filmmaker Michael Moore gave practical advice to the crowd to ensure that the event was not a one-off. He advised those worried about the election of Trump and a Republican-led Congress to call their representatives every day, pointing to the recent reversal of a Congressional effort to downgrade an ethics office after members of the House of Representatives were inundated with complaints.
Moore also told the audience to join advocacy organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, which provides basic health care to millions of American women and is threatened with a loss of federal government funds because it also offers abortions. And Moore, who ran for a local school board in Michigan when he was only 18, admonished the marchers to do the same and seek elected office, however modest.
The youngest speaker, six-year-old Sophie Cruz, was another highlight. With her parents and siblings behind her, she spoke about the fears of undocumented immigrants that they will be deported under Trump. She said that she had come to the march to make “a chain of love to protect our families.”
When the march finally began, the crowd was so huge that it forced local police to allow the demonstrators to essentially take over much of downtown Washington for all of Saturday afternoon. Three major avenues – Independence, Constitution and Pennsylvania – were choked with people wearing pink and purple hats and carrying placards in support of women’s rights, the environment and other causes.
The hand-made signs were creative. One said, “If I made my uterus a corporation, would you stop regulating it?”, a reference both to Trump’s promise to nullify his predecessor’s regulation of industry and to fears that his administration will roll back women’s right to choose whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy.
Another sign, held by a young boy, read, “I’m 5 and I know better.” This seemed to be a reference to Trump’s boasts of sexually predatory treatment of women, as revealed by a tape of his comments to a television host.
As at any good rally, there was lots of chanting. Among the favorite slogans: “We will not go away. Welcome to your first day!” and “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”
As the marchers cut through the National Mall to Pennsylvania Avenue and past Trump’s new hotel, they booed and raised middle fingers. Reviewing stands that had been put up for what turned out to be a sparsely attended Inauguration Day parade were overflowing with anti-Trump demonstrators on Saturday. Office workers waved from high-rise buildings along the route and gave the marchers a thumbs-up.
Police blocked the marchers from walking directly in front of the White House, but White House reporters said the chanting could be heard at the president’s residence. Presumably the large size of the protests had something to do with new White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s unfounded tantrum about reporters’ underestimating the audience at Trump’s swearing in and with Trump’s own lambasting of the media and the march.
Trump tweeted early Sunday morning, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”
Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
Shortly thereafter, however, his Twitter feed featured a much more conciliatory reaction written in a style that suggested a different author and a recognition of the forces his victory have unleashed: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.”