January 24, 2017


The Women’s March on Washington

If the Republican National Convention—with its blood-chilling chants of “Lock her up!” reverberating off stadium ceilings, and vendors selling shirts reading “Trump That Bitch!” like hotcakes—was a revivalist megachurch concert from hell, Inauguration Day had the feeling of a quiet, solemn Easter Sunday. There were no chants, no celebratory posters. Trump supporters walked to the National Mall in small groups, speaking in almost hushed voices, as if they were heading to mass. Hawkers selling inauguration memorabilia at times seemed reluctant to shout out their prices, for fear of disturbing the quiet crowds. And almost nobody was buying anyway; most attendees already had t-shirts and hats.

On Eighteenth Street, just a few blocks north of an access point to the Mall, I approached a man and woman selling shirts from underneath an office building’s awning, keeping their products out of the light drizzle. She was exhorting him to hold a shirt higher and stretch it out for people to see. She introduced herself as Camille, a middle-aged grocery-store cashier from Niagara Falls, New York. Her unenthusiastic business partner was her brother who lives in California, and whose only words to me were “I don’t vote for these fucking clowns.” Camille does vote: She voted for Clinton in 2016 and Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In 2009, she sold Obama-inauguration shirts in DC. Her main qualm with Trump’s inauguration was that business wasn’t as good.

“Way more people in 2009,” she said as she worked on her third cigarette in twenty minutes. “It was so packed you couldn’t walk against the flow of people. To the gills! Made a good buck then.” So taken was she by the lucrative glories of 2009 that she accidentally called out “Obama shirts!” instead of “Trump shirts!” to passersby, who gave her puzzled looks. Cursing to herself, she looked down at one of the shirts featuring a picture of Donald and Melania. “Do you think she loves him?” she asked.

Noah Stillman, a teenager from Connecticut, was standing at an intersection near the Mall with a few of his high school buddies. They carried a couple of large American flags, but instead of red, white, and blue, they were colored black and white barring a single stripe—the one right beneath the stars—which was colored blue and symbolized the fact that “Blue Lives Matter.” He didn’t have much to say about the cause his flag represented, except to admit that what some cops have done to African Americans is “rough—I guess.” But when a couple dozen protesters passed by, mostly women in town early for the Women’s March on Washington, he offered some puzzled commentary. “The women’s rights thing, duh, of course,” Stillman said. “But I think they’re accusing us of being something that we’re not. I guess they feel a threat, but I don’t see that there’s much danger at all. Women’s rights have come so far, you really can’t go back on it.”

I watched the inauguration on a jumbotron near the Washington Monument. As if on cue, it began to drizzle as Trump completed the oath of office. “Mr. President, in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing,” observed Reverend Franklin Graham, whose father, Revered Billy Graham, once wrote that a woman requires a “man’s strength and leadership qualities to complete her.” In his inauguration address, which echoed his relentlessly despairing campaign stump speeches, President Trump said, “There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”

The next morning, DC was completely transformed. Torrential rivers of people converged on Independence Avenue and the National Mall for the Women’s March on Washington. Unlike their politically victorious counterparts, they were ebullient and sardonic. They carried signs (“Trump, you ignorant slut!”) and clapped and whooped and chanted (“We need a leader/Not a creepy tweeter!” “The people empowered will not be golden showered!”). News came in that thousands of others were marching around the world, and I remembered that the last time I saw signs saying “We Are With You, America” was after 9/11.

A block away from Independence Avenue, I nudged my way to a man who wore a cap that read, “Open Books Open Minds.” He introduced himself as William Liss-Levinson, a New Yorker, Bookforum reader, and author of In Search of Theological Modesty. He found the previous day’s events rather immodest. “Trump’s obviously not a person of faith. His invoking God and religious belief is an insult to those of us who are. God sits waiting for us to make justice in this world. God is not on our side, or anybody’s.”

Nearby, leaning on a truck parked in the middle of the intersection, was Karen Buckley and a few other women, all veterans of the 1960s and ’70s antiwar and feminist movements. I told them about the boys from Connecticut. “They obviously don’t understand history,” Buckley replied. She argued that words have implications on people’s actions, especially the words of a president. “This march is important because this can change minds just by seeing all these women that are here,” Buckley said.

I also met Amy Noble, a gregarious school social-worker from Madison, Wisconsin. She was resting next to the Smithsonian Metro stop on the National Mall from which an unrelenting gush of people had been emerging all morning. In a march featuring many clever, hilariously derisive posters, hers was the most affecting. She held a poster-sized cutout of a black-and-white photograph taken on May 9, 1914, showing a couple hundred suffragettes holding a rally on the eastern steps of the Capitol just before they presented Congress with thousands of signatures demanding the right to vote. Noble had added purple arrows that pointed to three women in the picture. “That’s my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my great-great grandmother,” Noble said, beaming as she fidgeted with her homemade purple and white suffragette sash. As a few women with young children gathered around to look at the photograph, it became clear that the kinship here was based on more than blood. “But really,” Noble said, “these women are all our grandmothers.”

Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. He tweets at @jshalv.