by Charles McGuigan
My son and I arrived shortly after noon, catching the orange line at the West Falls Church Metro Station where I parked our Honda CRV. A hundred people, almost every one of them wearing a pink hat, boarded before the metro pulled out. At each stop along the way through Virginia, more and more people—women and men of all ages and ethnic origins—entered our subway car until we were packed in like drupelets, shoulder to shoulder, and when the doors opened at the Smithsonian Station we all poured out, and made our way to a world capped with a dull gray dome of sky.
From where we stood, in every direction, as far as the eye could see, there were people holding placards above their heads, all of them moving, some chanting, some singing, smiling, laughing. Kind people, engaged people, folks who care about their Republic, united and with every intention of upholding its principles. There was not a grimace among them, and contrary to what might have been reported by the alternative truth bearer, there were no Trump supporters present. None that I saw. And had there been, I think that would have been fine. These people were here with a message of love and acceptance and an almost embryonic protection. They took their cue from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Here’s the thing: there was that pewt
er sky above and the slight chill of winter still in the air, and the trees dark and denuded of leaves, but it was as if spring had somehow emerged, because in among all the trees down the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, along Independence Avenue and Constitution Avenue and many other contiguous streets, the pink of pussyhats—hundreds of thousands of them, maybe half a million—seemed to erupt from the dormant branches of the trees, from the filigree of limbs, as if the cherry blossoms had suddenly and inexplicably sprung forth. It was something to see. There even seemed to be a slight fragrance, a sweetness in the air, full of warmth and promise.
In the course of the next seven hours we would talk with hundreds of women and men from all over the country, from California to Minnesota, Michigan to Colorado, West Virginia to South Carolina, every single corner of the country represented here.
Early in the day we met Katie Jettwalls and her husband who had been here the previous day. The contrast between this march and the inauguration. Katie is a documentary photographer. Here’s her husband.
“Yesterday DC was a wasteland,” he said. “I mean it was just empty. There were no people yesterday.”
Katie nodded along. “It was so quiet and dull and dead even the Trump supporters felt it,” she said. They were disappointed when Trump didn’t get out of his car until he was in front of his hotel. They were saying, ‘We waited four hours for this?’ All they could see was tinted windows. And I said, ’Yeah, get used to disappointment.’”
We inched through the crowd that had gathered around an outdoor stage. Madonna held a microphone, and said words that later got her in a little hot water. To understand what she was really saying, you have to listen to her complete message which I captured on tape. There was no veiled threat.
“So my question to you today is, ‘Are you ready?,’” she asked. “Yes I’m angry. Yes, I’m outraged. Yes I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won’t change anything, and we cannot fall into despair. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, on the eve of World War II, ‘We must love one another, or die.’ I choose love. Are you with me? We choose love. We choose love.” And then she broke into song.
After another song, the crowd began to move like a massive organism toward the distant Washington Monument. A woman offered a prayer from the same stage where Madonna had performed.
“Will you pray with me as we begin the march?” she said. “Mother, Father, God, you brought us to this place. We’ve been empowered by every person who’s stood before us, and we’re empowered, God, to make a change in our nation. Help us to remember everyday of our lives that resistance begins now. This is only the beginning. We will march into the future prepared, oh God, to ensure that each person’s rights, each person’s dignity, worth and value is ensured. We ask this in the mighty and matchless name of Jesus, Amen.”
And then an American Indian woman took the stage and told the multitude: “We are indigenous women. And we are all connected, every single one of us. We are the original habitants of this land.” She then broke into a women’s warrior song.
As this slow procession crept ever closer to the Washington Monument, we encountered a trio from New Jersey. One of them was named Jennifer Kim, and she had this to say: “I’m here to support all women of color and say that we won’t stand silent.”
As we made our way over to Independence Avenue, Charles recounted our trip over to the district that morning.
“It was a little chilly,” he said. “But we met some people on the Metro, and there were women with signs. They were all against Trump because he talks badly about women and Muslims and Mexicans and calls them names, including African-Americans.”
At the intersection of 4th and Independence, four separate masses of people merged, four armies converging, and the march came to a complete halt. We began moving along a thick, fluid mass, like tree sap. And there were men and women on stilts performing around us, and a brass band that engulfed us in sound. It could have been Mardi Gras.
“It was really crowded and it was really loud, but a nice kind of loud,” my son would later recall. “It kind of reminded me of the Mummers day Parade up in Philly.”
Throughout the long afternoon there were constant choruses of lovely voices raised against injustice. As I turned my head to the left I could hear one group chanting, “Hands too small can’t build the wall. When I turned to the right, I heard this call and response, “Who runs the world? GIRLS!” When I faced the opposite direction, this is what I heard, “Black lives matter.”
There was one universal theme: all Americans deserve equal rights, regardless of gender or race or religious affiliation. Messages, the vast majority of them hand-written on poster board, were clever and informed, artistic in their presentation. No sloganism; they were thoughtful. They were funny. They were not mean-spirited, but they were satirical.
Never in my life had I seen so many people gathered in D.C., and I grew up there and attended concerts and rallies in the nation’s capital since I was a boy, thumbing or riding my bike over from Falls Church, or later, in cars with friends.
All along the route, which spread from street to street because Independence Avenue alone could not contain this great flood of humanity, the marchers greeted and thanked police officers and national guardsmen, a number of whom I interviewed. Each one of them said, these demonstrators were the nicest group of people they had ever encountered. And despite a crowd of hundreds of thousands, there was not one incident of violence, not a single arrest. One man with the National Park Service said that in his 45 years on the Mall working events like this, he had never seen a group of protesters who were as “kind and polite”. None of this was lost on my son.
“We saw many people,” he said. “Thousand sand thousands of them from all over the USA actually. I felt like it was the best thing I ever did in my life. I felt like a true American, protesting like that. It wasn’t a riot at all, it was a true protest it was calm. Everybody was just really sweet and loving and talking to each other and joking around.”
This was not some kind of planned civics lesson. I wanted Charles to understand what it means to be a citizen of the Republic, to know just how fragile and noble an experiment democracy really is. So I wanted him to know those things. But more than that I wanted him to participate in his democracy. Which is what he did.
When I asked him, on the drive home that night, about the March, Charles was silent for a couple of minutes.
“It told me not to judge anyone by their skin or color, just like Martin Luther King Junior said, and to not judge anybody by their religion,” he said. “Bu by the content of their character. It felt like I was part of everything and I was a part of everyone. When we were all walking together, it felt like we were a big family.”
After seven hours we threaded our way through the thick crowds and made our way beyond the National Mall where we met a woman, an African-American woman who works in the defense of our country.
“There were far fewer people yesterday, and there was no excitement,” said this woman who works as an engineer for naval defense contractors. “And there were not just people marching here. They marched in six hundred cities across the country and around the world. That’s amazing. And it was all peaceful. It was a very diverse group, all day long. This is a women’s march but there are men, there are women, there is old, there is young. Everyone is represented here today.”
My son engaged with everyone he met. That’s the word he kept using. Engaged.
“Everybody was engaging and that’s what American people should do, that’s what people in a democracy do,” he said. “They engage with each other. No matter what religion or race, no matter where they came from, they always should engage. Because we’re all human, we all have the same soul and we’re all Americans.” At his young age Charles seems to have a better understanding of what it is to be an American than many of the nation’s elected leaders. He told me he would never forget the day. And he said this: “I was part of it.”
Which means he is now part of history, and, more importantly, part of the democratic process. He won’t be able to vote for another three years, but he exercised his First Amendment rights, was equal, in the eyes of the law, to the man who resides, at least part of the time, in the White House.