By Bettina Weis
January 23, 2017
Picture credits: Rosa Pineda
Saturday January 21, 2017 was the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency and he had a few guests in his new hometown of Washington, D.C. Crowd scientists are estimating that about 500,000 people attended the Women’s March on Washington—which is three times more than the amount that attended Trump’s inauguration the day before. On Saturday, more than a million trips were taken on the metro: a statistic I am not surprised to see after my experience on Saturday morning.
As a D.C. resident, my plan was to take the metro from Columbia Heights down to Archives to meet my coworkers at the EMILY’s List gathering site in the Spirit of Justice Park. At 9:00 a.m. when I left my apartment in a residential neighborhood in northwest, small groups of people with posters and pink hats were streaming up the hills, down the streets, and toward the metro station. I was surprised to see this, simply because the day before, on inauguration day, there was no one in sight. I felt like I was the only person out and about in my neighborhood that day.
Standing on a corner on 16th street, I am surrounded by a group of 10-15 people, with signs in tow, pins and buttons affixed to their clothing, and comfortable shoes on—ready to walk. I look behind me to see an unsuspected familiar face. One of my friends from college was standing on the corner. This wouldn’t be so unusual if she didn’t live in Boston. I gave her a hug and she introduced me to the group she was with comprised of colleagues from Teach for America. We walked to the metro, where her group decided to walk down the street, but I was sticking to my original plan. Parting ways, we wished each other luck after taking a selfie and sending it to our other friends from school.
Below ground, the metro platform was swarming with people. Trains were delayed and there was no estimate for the next southbound ride. The metro kiosks were running out of SmartTrip cards, tourists were confused but happy, and no one was going anywhere. Since I knew the area, I turned right around to leave and started walking down the street. Every single bus that passed said “BUS FULL, WAIT FOR NEXT” and went screaming by, filled with smiling faces, pink hats, and posters. I walked a mile down the street to the U St Metro station, where things were still hectic, but there were less people. The southbound platform was full of people as a packed train came rumbling to a stop. As someone who has taken the metro during rush hour before, I knew I could slide in and find a space, but big groups weren’t as lucky. I jumped on to the train, that ended up being very delayed due to packed platforms and sardine-like cars. Eventually, I made it to Gallery Place where I got off to avoid the fray of the closer metro stops—wrong again. This was the last time I would underestimate the size of the crowd gathering downtown.
At Gallery place, I had to wait in line to get out of the station. So many people were trying to walk up the stairs that police officers with mega phones were telling people to, “Stop texting! Look where you’re going!” Finally in the fresh air, I looked out to see that crowds of people were flooding the sidewalk down 7th St NW. Still a mile away from the gathering site of the march, protesters were taking to the streets and stopping traffic on their own. As I weaved through the crowds, I saw another collegiate classmate. This one was in town from New York City, waiting on the corner to meet up with friends. I ran over, hugged her, took another selfie, and kept going. It was almost an hour since my journey began and I had not made it very far.
Continuing down and across town, the crowds grew bigger and louder. On Pennsylvania Ave, I saw the only dissenting protesters of the day. Two people were holding large signs outlining why they believed the marchers would be going to hell. One woman with a mega phone preached about how abortion is murder. Instead of engaging with the anti-march protesters, marchers waved their signs higher and took photographs with them. One person was carrying a large sign with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s face and held it between the signs before sauntering away. There was no kerfuffle between the differing opinions. Shortly after, I ran into another friend from college who was there with her mom. Third time’s the charm: hug, selfie, exit. I was making my way to the park but was receiving delayed contact from my co-workers. “The park is full,” one said, “We have to meet somewhere else.” We eventually determined a new location, and after at least another hour, a group of 8 coworkers and friends had gathered on the corner of First and Independence.
From that point on, two hours before the projected starting time of the march, thousands of people spilled into the city from every direction. We made our way toward the mall, where an enormous replica of the Constitution was unrolled and marchers were taking photographs with a giant model Earth. Although there was a stage with famous speakers, we couldn’t get anywhere near it. Our most memorable celebrity sighting of the day was Secretary of State John Kerry, who inspired loud cheering and a flurry of picture taking. The event wasn’t about the speakers, though it was great to have the support of prominent politicians, musicians, and celebrities. The event was about solidarity—and the crowd was enthusiastic, determined, and most of all: kind. Throughout the entire event, marchers were so courteous of each other. I am proud, but not surprised, to know that not one person had been arrested in D.C. Not only were marchers kind to one another, but there was an enormous respect for law enforcement when we interacted with them. They were happy to see us and we thanked them for their service. Amicable as can be.
Despite the amicable nature of the crowd, not all of the messages were positive; it was a protest, after all. The main messages seen on posters and signs were about Trump’s inappropriate language used towards women. Many messages referred to Trump keeping his “tiny hands” off of women’s genitals—as he had touted in the leaked Access Hollywood tapes. Messages of fair pay, equal rights, human rights, reproductive rights, immigration, climate change, and affordable healthcare could be seen everywhere. Chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go,” and “Show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like,” were common. More obscure and creative chants like, “Hands too small, can’t build a wall,” “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter,” and “Let’s build a fence around Mike Pence,” rang loudly through the crowds, too.
At the time of the march, the participants had no idea the real scope of the event. With limited cell phone service and such enormous crowds, there was essentially no way to understand the size of the event. At one point, a fellow marcher turned to her friend and said, “I wonder how we’re doing!” This inspired laugher from the surrounding marchers. Shortly after that, I got a news alert reading, “Turnout for the Women’s March on Washington too large to conduct a formal march to the White House, organizers said.” Apparently, we were doing pretty well.
After six hours of walking, marching, and standing, we made it to the White House and decided to make our way back uptown. When we finally sat down, we were able to see the news coverage from not just the march in Washington, but also in several major cities across the country—and the world. This piece of news made the entire day even more inspiring. I actively ignored news coverage about Trump’s press secretary’s comments concerning the women’s march because there was simply too much good happening in the city to let fake news bring it down. Still, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of solidarity and support from the millions of people, men and women, who marched all around the world. As Aziz Ansari said in his opening monologue for Saturday Night Live, “If you look at our country’s history, change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people. And if Day 1 is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen.”
Bettina Weiss is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and works in Communications at Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Navy combat veteran and NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly.