On the Value of Symbols, Shared Experiences, and Presence
Thoughts and photographs from the March in DC for those who were there and those who weren’t
by Kristina Pedersen
Photography by the author
I would like to preface this by first separately addressing my more skeptical liberal and conservative friends because I want you to trust me so I guess that means you need to know me a little, at least superficially. If you are reading this and you think I have no place to tell you my opinion or tell you what to do, you are probably right!
Liberals: I am the daughter of immigrants who escaped Iraq in the 1980’s and who, I suppose, achieved the elusive American Dream. I marched in solidarity with those whose civil liberties are more fragile than some to send a message to the new administration and to the world that, no matter the political ideology substantiating it, hate will not be tolerated. I watched the entire inauguration the day before as well because I think there is extreme value in being present in a time when liberal thinkers and liberal media confuse intellectual superiority for moral superiority and subject themselves even more willingly than others to manipulation because they confuse the echo chamber as a community of support.
Conservatives: I am proud to be an American and wouldn’t trade my citizenship/home for any other. I am grateful to our troops who defend our freedom with their lives every day. I marched with women in solidarity of those whose civil liberties within our very borders (but also certainly abroad) are more fragile than some. This was to send a message to the new administration and to peers that, no matter the ideology it hides behind, hate will not be tolerated. This is not a “victim thing,” as if ‘victim’ is just a word with no meaning: this demonstration was to support those who are actually and truly harassed, oppressed, threatened in their daily lives. Most likely you the reader are not one of them, but there are people who want to do real harm to other people and it is important to recognize that and confront it in order to end it. The march was extremely peaceful.
People who voted for Gary Johnson: wtf
I WENT TO THE MARCH with some strangers I connected with on a carpool matching site. They definitely seemed radical: Aleena’s Facebook said she had received her masters in comparative literature from a college in England and she described herself to me in our first correspondence as weird funky.
In our texts she also said she would be bringing some booze for the event because she wanted the day to be a party. This all seemed a little Vice-reporter’s-friend-tripping-acid-at-the-inauguration-y to me and I was extremely nervous that I might die.
I did not have a see-through backpack like the official website told me I would need (and of which you did not actually need because there was virtually zero security, nonetheless clear plastics backpacks sold out anyway on many websites which is very exciting for the clear backpack industry) but I carefully packed a small bag with anything I might need as a lone wolf to survive ANYTHING: three bandaids, a plastic bag, mints. I bought cookies for the road and also some carrots that I pretended I would eat but did not.
My party, all from Long Island, picked me up just before 5 am at my place in Brooklyn. I met Aleena and Allie and Aleena’s partner Al. JK, Will. Aleena and Will are married but only so they could get a discount off their comparative literature tuition. They seemed to be in a very open and loving relationship, but possibly like open open because Aleena told me she is gay also.
As devoted patriots, the first thing for which we needed to stop was a lil bit of Dunkin to run ourselves on, so we popped into the DD right down my street. At this most unfortunate hour, the hour when you don’t even know if it’s the late Dunkin shift or the early Dunkin shift, we proceeded to order some coffees and some sandwiches in a minimally complicated manner (but definitely complicated nonetheless: some orders added on at the last second, etc.) The guy working accidentally rung up Aleena’s and Allie’s waters together while Aleena debated with herself out loud over whether she wanted a Mochaccino or a Dunkaccino, neither of which this franchise had in stock.
Then the guy also forgot to make one of the sandwiches we ordered. All of this seemed pretty normal to me and not at all important but my party talked about it in the car for a weird amount of time after. It was a complicated feeling for them I think, suffering this injustice before heading to a giant protest for civil rights. Other injustices along the way: someone was driving too slow in front of us on the highway for one minute, a bus had flashing lights on it that were very annoying, a single stop light on a highway that we had to stop at once.
Everybody whines about dumb shit because complaining is one of the few things in life that gives people a sense of satisfaction. I learned later in the day about the fairly traumatic and oppressive childhoods of Allie and Aleena. I will not repeat them here for their privacy but I think we can all imagine some fucked up shit that has happened to us or to someone in our families and get the idea. Everybody is complicated just like you. And they also complain and act entitled about random dumb shit just like you. But this doesn’t negate the fact that everyone wants to be respected and have their opinion heard in important situations and have their physical presence respected just like you. Simple so far, right!
When we finally arrived in DC there was reeeally something in the air, something contagious. The excitement was overwhelming and overall the day was full of joy and love. There are, however, many undeniably valid voices condemning the march for not being as inclusive as it advertised. In DC there was probably a white majority, though the crowd was encouragingly diverse in age, gender, race, sexuality, and fashion sense. And, though certainly a protest, the demonstration had a strikingly positive tone with an empowering timbre.
(For a long while during the march, we did that group-field-trip thing where you wander around wondering what you all should do, not realizing that that is exactly what you are doing. That was the march. I think this is a particularly American phenomenon, we are constantly chasing the feeling of having performed labor, due to the implosion of the production/consumption cycle, and it makes us restless. It took my party several hours of walking to be satisfied that the walking they are doing was actually in fact YES part of the official march FINALLY!)
I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised to learn, at the end of the day on Saturday, how many people all over the world stood in solidarity with them. The numbers spoke for themselves. Many people on Sunday asked to no one in particular on Facebook: what even is the point of a protest, what does a demonstration even accomplish? I think the demonstration itself is a kind of accomplishment, like steps on a ladder, the point is certainly not to fix anything in one day because these issues and ideas are bigger than that. But oppression will not be tolerated and the point of the demonstration is to demonstrate in numbers the urgency of this message. For other people it meant other things.
The successes of the March were also in a way small failures: it was uneventful (extremely peaceful), and very very crowded and a little aimless. There were no martyrs, there was no real tension. Unlike one of the realities it aimed to protest, it was a very easy, safe day. And for that I am extremely grateful. It was an internal memo to the team saying we can show up.
And unless we engage with our friends and family who weren’t present, it will remain an internal-only memo.
I realize this argument has a million problems, as all arguments do, and for the sake of brevity I will not address them and instead you can curse me in your head:
I think there is an important silver lining we need to embrace in the new administration. That being that the sentiment and anger drawn out in campaign season had always been there, and we all know that (it’s not like Trump invented it), and now said anger and said power have an active symbol, one symbol that many not-necessarily-organically converging efforts can unite against.
I’m not advocating (though some do with their good reasons) to act like Trump is not the president because I think this denies the current state of the union. The union is confused and accosted with propaganda daily (no opinion or person, regardless of ideology, is safe from media manipulation) and the total paradox that the people’s billionaire has been elected as President is a situation that needs to be addressed head on because it can’t simply be denied out of existence.
We have been given a singularly complex symbol to uniformly oppose, different parts of which will oppose different kinds of progress, and I think in our world of symbols this is extremely valuable. I would like to remind us all how well a lot of important social propositions did in the election and that social change has many channels through which it works. I think it is also important to remember that we must not unite against people but rather against ideas. Because if we are united against groups of people this would mean that we want specifically to conquer them and are not looking to find common ground, which only incites further tribalism and really only makes it a war where no one has interest in fixing the system and only interest in winning it.
(Some people are okay with that and believe that this is a zero sum game and embrace that this may be a war that some people are going to lose, and they probably think I’m stupid or maybe secretly evil which is okay with me because in 100 years I will be dead anyway.)
We should be uniting against the ideologies and hate that are represented by the symbol that is the current state of the union. But Kristina, how do you unite against an ideology! Don’t be abstract. You engage with people, specifically your closest family and friends, people that you trust and that trust you and not strangers on the internet that don’t care about you and think you are just another manipulated lie machine which is exactly what you think of them anyway. What I am saying is not entirely new.
How to engage? You humble yourself and your agenda; you realize that everybody thinks they’re right, and liberal does not always equal righteous, and that there are people of all walks of life and ideas that may not even think much about politics, who have been lied to and abused, and who no longer trust. (And for people here that will accuse me of defending [something bad], I am not in any way talking about humbling yourself or apologizing to/for crazy people who openly carry signs that say ‘God Hates Fags’ and shit. Those people are crazy and there are people all over the ideological spectrum that are crazy and want to harm people and I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer on what the fuck to do about them. They are angry.)
Talk to the people you know and love and that you know will listen to you. Most of the people you love that disagree with you or who you believe act complicitly by failing to acknowledge oppression want your respect and want to find a common ground with you because they love you and respect you. So talk to them about it when it comes up. Again, I know some people are totally beyond talking to, but there is a vast majority of people that are not and with margins so close it matters.
I know sometimes it seems to liberal thinkers that all Republicans must be stupid or evil but the reality is that your liberal head, as belonging to a human, is also actually pretty far up your own ass. By definition, classic conservatism underscores the idea that you should act in a way that you think is best for everyone, whereas classic liberalism emphasizes that an individual should act in a way that they believe is best for herself because if everyone does this then we can live in a more true majority rule. (Political parties have changed a LOT over 200 years and so today the terms are essentially reversed.)
Neither way of thinking, though, is more valid or “better” or “more evil” than the other, they are just different. Today’s liberal could in reality have no fucking clue what is best for everyone and the conservative maybe has no clue that what is best for her may affect someone else differently. We are all extremely limited by our own perspectives and the (hate to say it) echo chambers we built.
(Think of your smartphone as a pocket mirror but instead of it being a mirror that reflects only a two dimensional image of yourself, it also reflects every facet of your identity back to you. And since you engage with the reflection, the reflection becomes active: it is perpetually creating more substantiation and more facets to confirm even more deeply the identity you are staring at. And we stare at our phones a lot. )
So it is important in this life and in our efforts that we transcend political ideologies and focus on curbing hate, not through abstractions or attempted conquering, but through our relationships with our friends and family.
Finally, now more than ever it is important to be present in spaces and at events that are important and maybe even outside of our comfort zones because watching anything on the news or consuming anything through social media channels, like, you know that it’s all fucked. And if you don’t know it, read this and this. And it affects everyone on the political spectrum: people are trying to make you afraid so you come back for more to ultimately see more ads.
(Marketers are trying to divide us into markets, don’t buy into it. You don’t need to identify with your target demographic, you really really don’t. It only makes things worse when you green light the efforts of a brand to tell you who you are and what your hopes and dreams should be (and ultimately which products you will need to achieve them). This is an entirely different conversation that we must have but I definitely invite you to be more aware of the fact that your brands want ur money and ur eternal devotion and ur soul… for reasons that are not yet obvious (except the obvious ones).)
The most interesting and exciting part of my day was the people with whom I shared it. Our relationship and dynamic as strangers was the meat of the experience, the march was the context, and the inconsistent but steady unraveling throughout the day of sheer humanity, the deepening levels of our acceptance of each other as people, because there are many levels, is the effing point. People’s shared experiences with you in the context of anything sacred, anything challenging, anything at all, is part of their experience with that thing. If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear, things don’t work from the top down, so we must work from the inside out.
I am very hesitant to express this all because I know people will hate it or think I am wrong or an apologist or a loud mouth or entitled or an idiot or whatever. I am going to be, to you, whatever you think I am. My point is that, since I am a human, I hope you can respect me either way for it.
See more of Kristina’s writing, photography & art at kristinapedersen.com.
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