My First Protest (The Women's March in D.C.)

On January 20, I find myself in a hotel lobby in Silver Springs, Maryland. About thirty teenagers in prom dresses and shirts with ties are on the couches in the lobby. You barely hear over the chatter. It's already midnight. 

The hotel attendant gives Edward and I our keys and warm cookies (it's their thing) and we get into an elevator, with more of the formally-dressed high schoolers. On our floor there are more kids on carpet having conversations so involved they don't notice when we step over them.

There's a woman with a clipboard doing bed checks through an open door. I tell Edward that they were probably an Inauguration Band. 

"Well, we're definitely not getting any sleep tonight." 

I'm exhausted. I had a full day of work, I got on The Path Train, I met Kel in New Jersey and we drove six hours to be in Washington, D.C. for the Women's March. It was all a fluke, really. Kel called Wednesday night with an excited urgency I'd never heard from her: 

"I was raised to do what I am told and put my head down. But with everything that has gone on, I said, 'You know what? I need to do this.'"

So here we are, in D.C. with only three days notice. I open the window shade to a main street. I tell Edward that I haven't been to D.C. since 2009, and start into my favorite story about taking the Amtrak alone, writing the whole ride, alighting at Union Station and getting a cab and feeling so independent. I tell him about seeing the monuments from a tour trolley in the freezing cold ("It was April, it was supposed to be warm, it was the Cherry Blossom Festival") and seeing The White House where there was a protest. Then the famous punchline -- it was an anti-circumcision protest. 

"I've never protested before," I keep saying. I'm scared but manage to sleep.

Edward and I set alarms for 6 am, we have to meet Kel and the girls at 7:15 am sharp. 

The alarm goes off the next morning and my eyes feel...sore. I put on a pair of jeans and tennis shoes, I hide my purse in my larger overnight bag and only tie the essentials to my chest in an old passport pouch. We go to breakfast buffet. A woman looks over at Edward's pink sweater. 

"I hope a lot of people show up. He's wearing pink, but maybe I'm reading too much into it." 

All is quiet in Silver Lake, Maryland, at 7 am until Edward and I make it to the station platform and we realize that everyone going to the march is there. My heavy eyelids perk up, a smile crosses my face. We're not alone, and everyone is exuberant instead of angry. Kel and company arrive in pink just in time for the train. We exit the metro near The National Mall and start walking to find coffee. 

There is an Au Bon Pain right off the march route, and it's packed. The line is wrapped around the interior three times. A barista is holding a hot vat of coffee high above the crowd. 

"Excuse me, hot coffee," he says, and places the dispenser right beside Edward and I. 

"Has it been crowded?" someone asks. 

"Yeah, but a really polite crowd, much nicer than yesterdays crowd that's for sure," he says, mentioning the inauguration crowd from the day before.

We walk back to a meeting point, where Kel's friend is gathering people from a nonprofit organization to pass out posters. There's a memorable moment on a bathroom break: the women's line is longer than the men's line (naturally) and one of the elderly woman kicks open the door and yells, "I'm coming in! We have to fight the patriarchy and the man, and just make our own way!" Other women follow-suit, and suddenly the sexes mixed in each bathroom laughing uproariously. 

I make a mental note, that I'm going to blog about that moment no matter what. 

The group starts to gather for the rally just a block or two away. Edward and I find out that if we hold hands on our walk, we get television cameras in our face. 

"We're, 'That Interracial Couple at the Women's March,'" I whisper to him with a hell of a lot of snark.

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The first six hours, are the worst. A crowd forms near The National Mall around 8 am to watch the rally on a big screen. Everyone is shoulder to shoulder. That big breakfast wears off and I wonder if anyone will be able to hold it together until 1 pm, when the official march is supposed to begin. 

Around 9 am, the crowd starts screaming “Am-bu-lance. Am-bu-lance.” The first casualty. This will happen about five more times, someone at one time screaming, “Does anyone have a blood sugar checker?” About five doctors part the crowd but they are helpless without an ENT to lift the body for a man who has passed out. I look around and notice that there’s no cops in eyesight, but why would there be — there are probably cameras everywhere.

For the Rally portion of the march, several celebrities make speeches and bands play music. It would be fun but it’s not what anyone is there for, we’re there to say things, to make noise. For a long time we've watched the news, read articles, felt powerless and out of control, and this is finally the moment we get to express ourselves. We're tired of listening to people at microphones, it's our turn.

The crowd gets more and more angry as we get closer and closer to 1 pm. “When are we actually going to start marching?” someone asks. Even if it muffles the rally, a small group even starts to scream, "March! March! March!" The crowd decides that they’ve had enough. 

“Everyone turn around and start walking,” someone shouts. We’re just going to do this, and so we start off in any direction where there is room. It’s disorganized. Most of the walking paths are short lived and end on giant fields and streets that start to look like street fairs. Our group finds multiple groups to follow down the streets.

The chants are as thus: 

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, Donald Trump has got to go.” 
“We will not go away, welcome to your first day.” 
“We need a leader, not a creepy Tweeter.” “This is what democracy looks like; this is what America looks like.”
"Thank you Obama! Thank you Obama!" 

I get the feeling like I’m going to cry whenever I see a sign that I agree with, or just because some rage and disappointment floods me and because I still feel like a pawn in a very large, hard to fight game. We have work to do. This is an exasperating feeling of helplessness that I’ve felt long before the election began. 

Despite this, there is an overarching feeling of happiness, too. People find moments to dance to a jazz band that's playing, to laugh, to be polite to each other. You'd think the crowd would be showing more of their rage, but it's good we're civilized. My parents text me: "Don't go to jail." I read this to my friends and they all laugh, it seems unlikely now. 

After a few more hours of marching, we find the end of the trail. The protesters have dissipated to bars and restaurants or the nearby T station. Edward and I are taking a rental car back the same night. We have six hours of road to cover. We expect to be back in New York by midnight. 

We take a train to Silver Springs, grab dinner, pick up our bags at the hotel and took the train back to the airport to get a rental car. A heavy fog settles over D.C. as we exit. 

"Ah, all the monuments look so beautiful glowing in the dark," I say to Edward. 

We sing oldies songs on the way home and stop at a rest stop in Delaware, stretching our legs beside buses of admirable women in pink gear.

Even though I'm inspired by being surrounded by like-minded people in a safe forum, I also feel discouraged, lazy, and anxious. Sure, we'd had a success that day. But we couldn't all party and rejoice without keeping the momentum going for the many months or years that we would need to. Showing up was only 1/4 of the battle.

Edward and I make it to New York around 2 am. My feet hurt, my lower back sore and I'm losing my voice (a seasoned protester was trying to tell me to preserve it, but I was such a newbie). When I close my eyes to sleep, I think about our rental car headlights on the highway and feel the movement of the car. Roads to cover, hours to drive, unfinished, urgent business. Work to be done.