Eight years ago this month, my father and I traveled to Washington, DC to watch Barack Obama be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States; it remains one of the most important and emotionally powerful days of my life. The day, like many January days on the east coast, was clear and cold. From the base of the Washington Monument, we watched as thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people arrived. We stood wrapped in layers of clothing, stomping our feet to keep warm, marveling at what was about to unfold.
We stood next to a woman from Georgia who had a framed photograph of her father around her neck. “My father died three years ago,” she explained. “He never would have thought I would live to see a black president.” She explained that her grandfather, who had died before she was born, was a slave. We cried together and hugged. We met a couple from Texas who were wholly unprepared for the cold; they had just bought winter accoutrements from a street vendor and asked for help in tying their new “Yes We Can” scarves. We met smiling person after smiling person from all over the country and all walks of life. We cheered as if we could see the cloud of fear and war being whisked away by a gale of hope. We had a clear view of numerous jumbotrons, cried as President Obama took the oath and listened intently as he gave his remarks, including a line I have never since forgotten: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” This decency, this moral high ground, this invitation was President Obama’s promise in 2009 and, while I have not agreed with every decision he has made, it was a promise I truly believe he worked tirelessly to keep. I was never prouder to be a citizen of this work-in-progress country.
The image of a hand extended and a fist unclenched is one I carry with me. I think about it in my daily practice as a teacher. I think about it as a person, friend, colleague or neighbor trying to understand differences of opinion. And, since Donald Trump won the presidency despite widely losing the popular vote, lying to his constituents, debasing his “enemies” — his word, not mine — and attempting to silence or degrade his dissenters, President Obama’s words ring truer now than ever before.
Yet here we are. Inauguration Day approaches. President Obama will soon be “former” President and it looks like we must all contend with four years of kakistocracy — a word I didn’t know existed until a Greek friend explained it to me post election: a government run by the most unprincipled of citizens. I know that there are many people in this country who will cheer as the helicopter takes the Obama family away, just as I know there are many people who are excited to attend Trump’s inauguration with the same excitement I felt back in 2009. But I also know this: the populace did not choose Trump. His electoral college victory ranks 46 out of 58 election cycles and his negative popular vote margin ranks 47th out of 49 (the popular vote was not entered into official reports before 1824).
The people believe in equality and fairness and fundamental human rights. The people want fair wages and good education and equal access to health care. We, the people. We need our populace, including and especially a wealthy president, to pay their fair share of taxes to support our schools and roads and general health. We must demand ethical progress. We lost the election, but, as Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” While Trump parades around treating press conferences like circus events, playing the victim in “the media is fake!” cycle, let us not forget that he launched his entire political career by deceitfully questioning President Obama’s birth certificate, a man he did not even come close to beating in terms of the popular vote or the electoral college.
There have been many mornings I’ve woken up since November feeling that moral arc to be impossibly long. Indeed, the line has at times seemed perpetually straight and unyielding. I’ve had friends and neighbors be victims of hate crimes with the perpetrators invoking Trump’s name. I’ve heard from colleagues in my profession across the country who have seen their students of color and non-Christian faith be attacked, ridiculed and terrorized at increasing rates. And yet. I’ve also seen, in my home of Portland, Maine, a community rallying around new citizens from around the world. I’ve seen students work daily to accept and embrace the differences of their classmates. I’ve felt despair and I’ve seen hope. I’ve gone through the stages of grief. I am ready for action. I am ready to put one foot in front of the other. I am ready to march.
And so, next weekend, I will return to DC for the Women’s March on Washington. I will carry with me the words President Obama spoke in his farewell address last Tuesday: “When minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.”
I will march for this equal treatment. I will march for equality. I will walk forward with friends, brothers, sisters, fellow citizens, the undocumented, mothers and fathers, and all people who believe that all people should be treated equally. We will march knowing that words matter and so do actions, that our words and our actions reveal our character. I will march because we have misstepped. We have slipped backwards. We have hardened lines of the political divide and made it acceptable to put party before country, to put politics before health and basic human rights. But it is time to put one foot in front of the other.
The truth is, Maine is a state that requires marching, and not just because of our demagogue of a governor or so-called “moderate” senator. The streets and sidewalks are icy for much of the winter and sometimes the winter seems to take up much of the year. It’s the season when I am reminded of the privilege of my health and mobility. Walking on snow and ice is a skill. You have to stomp. You have to be cognizant of a balance you may normally take for granted. You have to concentrate. You have to march.
It is with this privilege, focus and knowledge that I ready myself to journey to Washington to march with fellow feminists in the wake of a known sexual predator taking the oath of office of the presidency. Times are dark. Lies are abundant and profuse. The bully just won the fight. But I know, now more than ever, that hope is worth the struggle. I have the freedom and ability to stand up. And so I will: for everyone who has stood up before me, for everyone who does not have the privilege to stand with me, and for our future. If I make a fist, it will only be out of solidarity, raised high in the sky. Otherwise, my hands are open, extended and ready to work.