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Clippings: This is what democracy looks like

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Posted on January 26, 2017 |
By Sarah Pope



On Inauguration night at around 10:15 p.m. two charter buses, carrying more than 100 people — including my two teenage daughters and me — departed Middlebury headed for the Women’s March on Washington. The seats were narrow, the legroom minimal, and we were asked not to use the bathroom except in an emergency. Not perfect, but those inconveniences were a small price to pay for the opportunity to speak our minds in the nation’s capital. Riders passed around snacks donated by Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Pink Pussy hats were shared and compared.

It was evident from the first rest stop three hours later on the Interstate in New York that we were taking part in something extraordinary. The place was overloaded with women (and men) sporting pink pussy hats, patiently waiting for the rest room. Buses pulled in, buses pulled out and many more buses like ours drove by on the Interstate. People could be heard saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” or, “This feels unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” By the second stop the energy and excitement were palpable, the number of buses multiplied, the buzz of voices filled the air. When we finally pulled into D.C., we were met at the RFK Stadium parking lot by lines and lines of buses, with more lined up on the highway waiting to park.

In line for the portable restrooms, we watched a continuous stream of people, rank upon rank, throng from the parking lot — and still more buses lined up waiting to park. There were young families, teenagers, women and men in wheelchairs or sporting walkers. People from Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, whole families, mothers and daughters like us — and so many pink hats. While some flooded to the Metro station to get to the rally site, many, like our group, opted to walk.

The folks in Washington were ready for us. As we walked through the residential neighborhood leading to Capitol Hill, people waved out of windows, came out and clapped for us, thanked us, cheered us on as we cheered them. Someone had gone to a great effort to post hundreds of signs with Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. A pair of small boys still in their pajamas waved at us through one window, a woman at another home waved her walker in the air and the crowd roared. Young families lined up to watch us pass. Three little girls in particular caught marchers’ eyes — one, perhaps three years old, held a sign saying “I Can Be President” and jumped with excitement.

As we walked onto the National Mall it was clear we were not going to get anywhere near the speakers’ stage. It would take us an hour to make our way across the Mall. Amidst chanting, drumming, laughter and rolling waves of cheering, we flowed where the crowd took us. While news reports said the crowd was “mostly white women,” we experienced quite the opposite. Everywhere were people of every extraction imaginable — black, Latino, South Asian, East Asian, Native Americans, gay, trans, straight.

The crowd cheered for a contingent of people from Hawaii, a large group of women from Canada (wearing red pussy hats to distinguish themselves) and for the National Guardsmen atop their Humvee who graciously accepted cell phones and cameras to snap photos from their elevated position. If someone tripped, others immediately went to their aid, checking that they were all right. People posed with their signs and placards for photo opportunities. Crowds broke into cheers when they saw a balcony filled with what looked like policemen. They waved to the crowd, and gave what looked like thumbs up to the people below. And everywhere we went pink pussy hats abounded.

There were a few Trump supporters out. A dozen or so “Bikers for Trump” were taking as many pictures and videos as anyone else, and if they had a problem with marchers sitting on their staging, it never came up. In the six hours we spent on the D.C. streets, we saw only one disturbance — a man throwing punches. The crowd halted for a moment. A small group of people surrounded the angry man and moved him to the curb, away from marchers. People surrounded him to protect others.

On any given cross street, if you looked toward the mall all you could see was a mass of people, a mass of signs. A quick read of them made it very clear that this march was aimed directly at the proposed policies and behaviors of our new president. Some were angry, some were humorous, some were ominous, some were hopeful. “Make America Kind Again”; “My cat would make a better President.” They reflected the feeling among protesters that this presidency threatens the very values that make America so dear to us all. They reflected determination on the protesters’ behalf to speak out, stand up, and fight all of those who are threatened by the new administration.

By 2:30 p.m. people were moving in multiple streets heading back toward the Capitol or toward the Ellipse, confused by where the march was going (or not going). While the adults were thinking things were petering out, the teenagers among us wanted to carry on, return to the Ellipse. Walking against traffic — thousands of people heading home — we found the march was still in full swing with wall-to-wall marchers from the Capitol all the way to the mist-capped Washington Monument. Five hours in, we were tired and footsore, but the massive crowd was still coming and we were right back in the spirit of the day.

At one point the rumor was going around that the march attendance was 500,000. Another rumor spread that there were 1.2 million people marching in D.C. We got texts from family at rallies in Montpelier, Boston and New York. In some ways we were just overwhelmed. It’s easy to grasp the concept of 52 people on a bus heading to a protest. It’s not too far beyond one’s capacity to accept thousands of people mulling around a stadium or walking with enthusiasm toward an event. To be among hundreds of thousands of people of all stripes yet unable to see more than 10 feet in any direction, and to know that it is the same for everyone as far as the eye can see is something else again.

It could have been frightening, but it wasn’t. It was somewhat claustrophobic, but that didn’t seem to matter. The bathroom scene was grim at best, but people just seemed to accept the reality of it. What was important was the fact that each person there was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of women, men and children all expressing their determination to stand up for all, venting their fear and anger in positive ways at a huge, peaceful protest, and knowing that hundreds of thousands — and possibly millions — of people all over the world were doing the same.

Middlebury resident Sarah Pope works for the Little Phone Book and Independent news editor John McCright is her husband.

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