I sat out Trump’s inauguration in the restaurant of the Watergate Hotel, reading Middlemarch. When it was over, I walked down Independence Avenue to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, where a 30-foot statue of King looked out over the Potomac. Quote after quote blazed from the walls: We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. A woman stood next to me, and it was clear we had both been crying. Wordlessly she took my hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
The next morning I found myself, along with three generations of my mother’s family, swept along in the massive pink tide streaming toward the gates of the Capitol. Women, men, babies, and kids of all ages choked the streets, as hundreds of thousands of protesters made their way to the Women’s March.
The vibe was gentle, kind, ecstatic, electrifying. Strangers greeted each other with hoots of excitement; marchers with ukuleles sang This Land is Your Land; “Tiny hands can’t crush democracy,” proclaimed one sign, while “Keep your tiny hands of my reproductive rights, gropenfuhrer,” blasted another. A group of women, all north of 70, sang We Shall Overcome next to us — “Final verse, we shall live in peace!” the leader cried out, and the crowd joined in. Arms linked with my aunts and cousins, I felt something I hadn’t felt since election day. Exuberance.
And then, we all flew home and well — things just got crazy. There was the travel ban and the protests at the airports. Steve Bannon put himself on the National Security Council. Michael Flynn resigned and the Russia scandal roared into life. The march slipped from view.
But for those of us who marched, it didn’t fade away. Standing amid the joyous hodgepodge of causes — civil rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, freedom of religion, immigration, the environment, and on and on — it was a reminder of what it felt to stand for something, instead of just against something. It was also, almost certainly, the largest protest in US history. So it was strange when two lines of thought emerged, almost immediately, to dismiss it. The first was that it was more about a feeling, a primal scream, than a coherent policy objective. The second was it couldn’t be sustained.
Well, absolutely the march was about a feeling — the feeling of solidarity. It was a communing, united around the idea of dignity and equality for all. And here’s the thing: Standing alongside so many different causes actually amplified people’s determination; it didn’t water it down.
When I started interviewing women the week after the march, I heard this again and again. Ana Pottratz Acosta, an immigration lawyer and law professor at Mitchell Hamline in St. Paul, Minnesota, put it this way, “I looked down at the size of the crowd, from the Cathedral of St. Paul to the Capitol, and it was amazing to see all these people coming together in solidarity.” Julie Whitehorn, a writer and community organizer in Seattle, said one of the things she loved the most was, “You had men advocating for women, whites for people of color, cis for trans.” In a way, the march was like a reverse engineering of Trump’s us versus them rhetoric.
Which isn’t to say the protest didn’t also highlight divisions that were painful, like the signs pointing out that the majority of white women voted for Trump. But from what I saw, people leaned into those uncomfortable feelings, questioning whether they were doing enough to support everyone’s rights, not just their own. A Seattle teenager, who participated in a Black Lives Matters protest before her local women’s march, and is biracial, put it this way, “I hope people take this time to realize that if you aren’t here for all ethnicities and all marginalized groups, then we aren’t going to see change.”
The feeling of communing at the march also supercharged what came to be known as the resistance, sending millions of people back home fortified for the essential slog of activism — the calls, the letters, the grassroots organizing. In fact, A Washington Post poll found that 40% of Democratic women wanted to get more politically involved after the protests. A year later, that’s translated into real progressive victories in Virginian, New Jersey, Washington, and Alabama.
Recently, I checked back with several of the women I interviewed a year ago. Pottratz Acosta has thrown herself into immigration advocacy, hosting pro bono law clinics with her students to serve immigrant communities throughout Minnesota and lobbying to protect DACA. Peggy Sturdivant, a Seattle resident who helped film her city’s protest for the Women’s March, joined an Indivisible political advocacy group, and the stone lions outside her home wear pink pussy hats from the march. “When I see the tax bill pass at 1 a.m. I want to be on the street again,” she says. “I want that sense of hope I had listening to such diverse voices.” A real estate asset manager from San Francisco who flew to DC for the march told me she’d participated in two protests at City Hall, hosted a letter writing party to support DACA, and now leads a women’s initiative program at her company. “This year when we were going around the table at Thanksgiving, the thing I said I was grateful for was a new sense of a feminist community. That’s re-emerging as part of my identity, and I’m really grateful for it.”
All this matters, because the most surprising thing to me about the Trump presidency is that it’s actually worse than I expected. There is the utter disregard for norms and ethics. The attacks on people of color, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community. The attacks on the rule of law. The intentional distortion or reality. The shamelessness. It’s part of our DNA now. But so is the march. So is that joyous scrum of people, standing together, saying if one of us is not free, then none of us is free. That is us too.