Super, callous and fragile: reflections on marching with women in the Trump era
The first time I attended the Women’s March in Sacramento, I wasn’t sure what to feel. At first, I wondered if I, as a man, should even be there. Maybe women didn’t want to share the spotlight with me and other men like me, even though I saw myself as an ally to the women in charge. Secondly, I wondered if I participated primarily because I wanted to support the organizers and participants, or because I wanted to take part in some grand national celebration of authentic democracy.
My family has a history with inaugurations. A Washingtonian since the mid 1960s, my mom lives not far from Capitol Hill, so she walked over to see President Obama’s first inauguration, securing a viewing spot only a few blocks from where that former constitutional law scholar would take the oath of office. And in the last century, about a decade after she and my dad moved to town, she also took my brother and me to watch the post-inauguration parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, where we saw the new President Carter walking on his historical journey from the Capitol to his new home in the White House (walking down a public street against the recommendations of the Secret Service).
Having always commemorated the peaceful changing of executive power, I again wanted to celebrate something worthy and historical on the day after Inauguration Day, 2017. I remember that back then many people held out hope for the best from this new president – maybe the office would help him mature, some said – while many of us braced ourselves for the worst. And, of course, the worst was what we got. The excesses, failings, and scandals of the Trump presidency are ongoing, and too numerous to list here.
Nevertheless, we are fortunate that the checks and balances encoded into American democracy exert an analogous force at a level above the three-branched government. When the electorate believes the government is exerting insufficient control, thus letting the creative forces of chaos run amuck, they might elect a “law and order” candidate as U.S. President. On the other hand, when government leaders become totalitarian, despotic, and too illiberal for our tastes, we the people remember the meanings and responsibilities of democracy, and we storm the proverbial gates. As we don’t have a Bastille to overrun, we must find a proverbial key, and the key to the gates of power in this country is the ballot box. As one protest sign put it on Saturday, “GRAB ‘EM BY THE MIDTERMS.”
Women are answering the call. In a recent essay in The Cut, titled “The Other Women’s March on Washington,” Rebecca Traister quantifies the resolve felt by American women seeking to participate in the political process, sparked in part by last year’s march: “To date, 390 women are planning to run for the House of Representatives, a figure that’s higher than at any point in American history. Twenty-two of them are non-incumbent black women — for scale, there are only 18 black women in the House right now. Meanwhile, 49 women are likely to be running for the Senate, more than 68 percent higher than the number who’d announced at the same point in 2014.”
At the Women’s March this year, I found the tone and rhetoric to be more mature, less raw, and more resolved than the year before. My wife Kate and I brought our two sons to both Sacramento marches, and noted some important differences between the two; we also learned a few practical lessons. First of all, we arrived a lot earlier this year, and as a result situated ourselves towards the front of the crowd preparing to leave Southside Park on T Street. Some of those eager to start the parade seemed to have brought kettle drums, while others brought their trumpets. The resulting cacophony provided a hint of Mardi Gras.
Secondly, we noticed that the crowd was less shocked and angry this year, and more resolute. We could tell the difference in the nature of the chants, and in the tone of the protest signs: this year the signs were even more creative, more assertive, and more insistent on political action. A few favorites include “WAKE UP AND SMELL THE KREMLIN,” “I’VE SEEN SMARTER CABINETS AT IKEA,” and “SUPER CALLOUS FRAGILE RACIST SEXIST NASTY POTUS.”
Finally, the was a Return of the Jedi feel to the march and the marchers, as if the California home team had grabbed the momentum in this conflict. Since Donald Trump ascended (descended?) to the presidency, in special elections voters have pivoted left, and voted blue. I bet most Alabamans didn’t know who Doug Jones was a year ago, and now our newest U.S. Senator is America’s canary in the industrial coal mine. Likewise, nobody expected such a radical shift in Virginia state politics, exemplified by this lede sentence in a November 8, 2017 Washington Post story: “Virginia’s most socially conservative state lawmaker was ousted from office Tuesday by Danica Roem, a Democrat who will be one of the nation’s first openly transgender elected officials and who embodies much of what Del. Robert G. Marshall fought against in Richmond.”
During the speeches in Sacramento, I saw some local (Yolo County, California) public servants and Facebook friends up on stage, including Davis’s own uber-politician Don Saylor and future Davis mayor (one hopes) Lucas Frerichs. The MC was a boisterous Sacramento poet, and thus a member of one of my tribes (I’m the poet laureate of Davis), and the head of the Muslim girl scout troupe, who brought the best speakers of the morning, was one of my UC Davis faculty researcher colleagues. Despite all these welcome connections, the goodwill was not reserved only for rediscovered friends and other recognized affiliates. Even before the rousing speeches, the entire event had a Whole Earth Festival tone to it, with everyone sharing goodwill and bonhomie. One woman gave a big hug to every woman she was introduced to, and several strangers thanked me for participating.
Kate and I realized that during the march and as we gathered to hear speakers, we were surrounded by kind and committed people who were preparing to act, to mobilize, and, for many of us, to run for office. As the Ukiah-based singer and activist Holly Near put it, “If you have the guts to keep making mistakes, your wisdom and intelligence leap forward with huge momentum.” The women who organized and lead the march convinced me that momentum is on their side, and that our country is due for a welcome turn back towards democracy. I look forward to marching alongside such patriotic advocates for equality and justice through every such turn.