Do you need a shoulder? Next to a curved stanchion on the national mall, a young, east asian woman with cropped short hair bent down, offering her shoulder as a prop to a sexagenarian white woman in a military jacket hoping to stand on the uneasy surface to get a better view of the crushing crowd. In a moment, a well-coiffed Washingtonian woman stood on the other side, offering her shoulder as well as a push up to the top. As the older woman teetered on the post and took in the view of the sea of pink hats and multitudinous bodies, the women below held onto her legs and feet and kept her safe. After a few minutes, the older woman came down, and the three individuals melted, separately, into the crowd. The setup repeated endlessly throughout the long day at the Women’s March on Washington--strangers, representing a spectrum of ages and races, giving each other a boost with a smile and steady support as long as it was needed.
In the days leading up to the Women’s March, I was torn between intrigue and confusion. Living a couple miles from the National Mall, I was an easy walk from the happening and was drawn to observe the historic event. But at the same time, the nebulousness confused me. Was the mission so broad as to include virtually everyone who didn’t vote for President Trump, or was it so narrow that it excluded even white feminists? Were people marching to send direct policy requests to the new administration, or were they voicing something broader, more multi-faceted, and harder to send in a memo? Was there room for that kind of potential self-contradiction? And would the mood be angry or hopeful? Would the thousands of Trump supporters in town for the inauguration agitate the group, the way anti-Trump protestors had agitated the inauguration--was there any potential of danger?
As an Indian American raised as a Hindu, I also wondered about my personal role there. Throughout my life, I have felt relatively protected in America. My father was an employer-sponsored engineer, welcomed to this country with open arms. While I had experienced some racism and ignorance from classmates as a child, it hadn’t escaped my notice that I was considered one of the “good minorities.” In all the states I’ve lived and traveled in, life as a smiling Indian American woman was pretty gentle, and I rarely felt excluded. But this past year, the general anti-immigrant rhetoric has affected me, and I was feeling, for the first time, my difference. Whatever privileges I have, I will never be white. And, to me, the distinction between me and a Indian American Muslim woman feels very subtle... to a racist observer, I know that we are basically indistinguishable. So I felt just a taste of the fear that my Muslim American friends must feel now. Some Turkish friends, who look European, said they have stopped mentioning their religion and talking too much about their home country. A South Asian American Muslim friend said she has been swimming through “despair, bewilderment, confusion, anger, fear and exasperation” since the election. In the end, my curiosity got the best of me, and, with a group of friends, I headed down to the scene.
Even from my home two miles away, the convergence began... all the sidewalks were full of pink-hatted groups headed in the same direction. Within two blocks of the center stage, the crowd was a crush--movement slowed, and all the side streets filled up with masses of people. A general push towards the stage, which was tucked behind the National Mall on Independence Avenue, behind the Museum of the American Indian, started about two blocks away in all directions, and only the lucky early birds made it to see Gloria Steinem, America Ferrera and others speak before the official march began. For the rest of us, poster-watching and spontaneous marches filled the time before the march, (which spilled over from the packed official route onto Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue, tributaries all headed towards the White House).
From the start, the scenes of solidarity surprised and moved me. A Southeast Asian marching band inched its way through the crowd, with drums beating and horns blasting, and grinning white millennials would follow behind for a while, making noise. An African American woman lost her family, and the diverse crowd played a game of telephone through the crowd, shouting out “Looking for Wax!” “Looking for Wax!” until they were all reunited. And the homemade posters revealed the answer to my question: instead of narrowing, the march was broad and inclusive, with marginalized people, like Muslim woman, Latinos, Native Americans and transgender women, stating their hopes and fears, and privileged allies, like white men, quietly holding up signs that said “Quality Men Do Not Fear Equality,” and “Her Body, Her Choice.”
If an overall theme emerged, it was to define the face of America as pluralistic, by race, religion, gender and age. While “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” signs were numerous, it was clear that all marginalized people felt like this was an opportunity for them, too. A Muslim woman in a headscarf held an empty frame around herself, with the statement “WE THE PEOPLE are greater than fear” written at the bottom. Another holds a sign: “Judge me by what’s in my head, not what’s on my head.” One speaker on stage, a young Latino woman with a pure American accent, introduces herself: “I’m undocumented, and I’m terrified.”
As I marveled at the bravery of these women, I started to understand the importance of the march. For those who feel at risk in the new America, this march and day created a safe space to express their fear. They were buoyed by the sheer mass of people--the event in Washington attracted between 500,000 and 1 million marchers, a number basically equivalent to the population of D.C. (658,893 at the last count). Protected on all sides by signs with just the word “Love” and many of the Statue of Liberty, they felt emboldened to shout and declare themselves, not to hide away in fear.
And for those who feel at risk now, the march was a visible count of those who would help protect them. Like the young white man holding up the sign: “America is brown, America is queer, America is female, America is great.”
If President Trump’s administration is seeking to define the outline of a new America, this march, held just a day after the inauguration, was fighting to uphold another definition: a country made up of immigrants and a progressive country that expands and protects the rights of more and more people. Instead of splintering into small groups, at the march, vocal citizens stood up affirm their desire to remain a United States of all people, and to offer a helping hand, or shoulder, whenever they were able to.