The Women’s March and the Triumph of the Won’t - Pacific Standard

The Women’s March and the Triumph of the Won’t

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The Women’s March on Washington overshadowed Trump’s inauguration. Here’s why that matters.

By Laurie Penny

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A protester holds a sign during the Women’s March on Washington January 21st, 2017 (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

“I’m not willing to be crushed,” says a teenage girl in a pink knitted hat, trying not to tread on her friend’s toes as people all around us keep pouring into the National Mall. She could be talking literally or figuratively. It’s impossible to move for all the bodies. Whatever we were expecting, it wasn’t this.

Nobody was expecting the Women’s March on Washington to be so big, so brazen, so much bloody fun. Crammed in with more than a million marchers in the morning chill, heaving and breathing with the roar of the crowd on the mall, the phone networks are so overloaded that it’s all but impossible to post live updates. When I do tweet, I have to be brief:

Hundreds of fragile Twitter fascists instantly launch into a frenzy of meaningless abuse, which is how I realize that this matters. The size and strength of this march and the sister marches around the world is humiliating to the alt-right, and humiliating to President Donald Trump too. As his press team scrambles for a counter-propaganda strategy, someone tries to bully the National Park Service out of tweeting pictures of the march. That’s not the reaction of any garden-variety narcissist. That’s how a toddler behaves when some kid shows up with more toy soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of them, to be precise.

The crowd heaves, and I can hardly breathe, and for a second it feels dangerous, like we might really trample each other. Someone scrambles up on a bollard and yells at a group of us to turn back, move back, and come around the other way.

Three times as many people have attended the Women’s March around the world as attended the inauguration. That matters.

“I think this is a pretty good metaphor for this moment in history,” says a young man wrapped in a rainbow flag as we finally start to move. “Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards.” Heavy-handed imagery: It’s the American Way.

Not all the women I speak to on this march are feminists. Hell, some of them weren’t even progressives, unless we’re now defining progressive as anyone who would rather not shuffle quietly back to the 1930s. They’re just, you know, sensible. It says something that, along with relatively apolitical family field trips from Kansas, Connecticut, Michigan, Massachusetts, Texas, Tennessee, even the most conflicted radicals have come out to bear witness — and I mean, with great fondness, the sort of people who can’t attend a bake sale without producing a 10-point retort jammed with Marxist jargon. They’re here too. They’ve brought their critique, and much of it is solid, but they have also brought their bodies in solidarity.

Avery, Jay, and Dave are anti-capitalist queers from Minneapolis, and I meet them entirely by accident because we all had the same idea to go hiding in the shrubbery when the crowds got a bit much. I push my way into the tangle of bushes and find myself among fellow far-left introverts who use non-standard pronouns and like to dress in black and complain about how liberals don’t go hard enough. I’m among friends. I mention that I’m having cramps, having started a vengeful hell-period in the middle of Trump’s inauguration speech, as though my uterus had been trying to kick its way out of America in panic. Someone produces some painkillers from their belt and hands me some water to wash them down with. Solidarity happens in small ways. I’m reminded that all kinds of activism will be needed in the coming months and years, including the quiet, gentle activism of quiet, gentle people.

“There are a lot of folks [on this march] who aren’t willing to speak out about racism in the way this election has really been focused on,” says Jay’s housemate Avery, pointing out, as though any of us could forget, that more white women voted for Cheeto Mussolini than for Hillary Clinton. “I think that to be a feminist you have to include people of color, you have to include trans people, you have to include gender not-conforming people. Not only include them but centralize those people. Part of just showing up as a queer person is using your body to protest. Somebody asked us yesterday, ‘Are you guys protesting?’ and I said ‘We’re queer. We’re always protesting.’ And we’re here because we’re queer and to be queer in the United States is still a dangerous thing.”

If you’re about to toss off some leftier-than-thou whingebaggery about how this day of marches won’t really achieve anything in the long run, how it’s all a bit bourgeois, a bit knit-your-own-hummus, how nothing but total and immediate proletariat revolution will ever be pure enough to get you out of your pontification chair and into the street, let me get in there ahead of you: No, this is not a perfect protest. If such a thing is possible, this march isn’t it. There are a fair number of white women thanking the police for their service. There are no attempts to burn the actual White House to the ground and replace it with a statue of Angela Davis made from the fossilized tears of fascists. Angela Davis is there, though. This is what she says, over the roar of hundreds of thousands cramming the mall:

Let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism, hetero-patriarchy from rising again.

That might sound a bit radical to some people on the march who don’t really “do politics,” and that’s no bad thing. I don’t want to play the tired old game of good-protester-bad-protester. I’m pretty laid-back about the people in hoods and masks I saw the day before, building barricades out of news stands and getting teargassed for their trouble. I’m all about diversity of tactics. But damn, do I love to see smug chauvinists getting shown up by a gang of mothers and grandmothers and losing their minds over it. I love watching Twitter eggs cracking apart and Sean Spicer slurring platitudes as angry women all over the world out-style and outsmart and outnumber them. I’m not proud of it, just like I’m not proud of how much time I spent giggling gleefully and refreshing that video where neo-Nazi Richard Spencer got punched in the face by an anti-fascist on Inauguration Day. What I am proud of, though, is getting the chance to stand with millions of women and men all around the world and say: Enough now. Enough of this nonsense.

I’ve spent enough time trudging wearily from point A to point B, repeating three-word chants and losing all the sensation in my toes and most of my will to live, that I know how futile peaceful protest can feel. This did not feel futile. It felt fantastic.

Actually, there’s a great deal to be said for making people feel better right now. After all, millions of people voted to let an autocratic orangutan squat with intent in the Oval Office just to make themselves feel good. If millions of other people want make themselves feel better by going for a bit of a walk, that’s fine by me.

“I feel much better than yesterday,” says Sarah Donovan, a freckled 33 year old who came here from Baltimore with two generations of her family. She holds a sign that says “The Future Is Female.” “For me that means that we need to stay vigilant as citizens, and engage.”

There aren’t many things sweeter and sillier than progressives who have unexpectedly won something, however small — really won something, I mean, rather than being delivered whatever deflated compromise they’ve agreed to settle for in place of real change. This victory is symbolic — Trump is still president, and a hell of a lot of people of every political persuasion are going to suffer in the coming years — but symbolism is important. “It’s inspiring,” says Susan, 73, whose last protest was to end the Vietnam War.

“This is super empowering,” says Tina, a dark-skinned 19 year old grinning under her pink hat. “It’s crazy. It’s great. It’s just fantastic seeing people out here. I think if we keep up this kind of enthusiasm for rights and standing up for people, it shows good things for our future.”

By mid-morning, my recorder is full of quotes just like this. Everyone is on a contact high. We cheer for Scarlett Johansson. I dash into a drugstore to pick up snacks, and the entire place is full of people giggling and freaking out like the store is stuffed with every birthday present they longed for as a child and never got, rather than cheap chocolate and incontinence pads. I hear the teenagers in line behind me conduct an entire passionate friendship in the course of five minutes. “Goodbye!” One of them calls as their number comes up. “I’ll probably never see you again! Have a wonderful life! Keep fighting!”

This is the ugly-hatted sea of women of all ages, races and backgrounds that Clinton could never have achieved. I spot a few Hillary shirts, but far more Black Lives Matter banners and union flags. If Clinton had won in November, I wonder whether the Mall would have been much fuller than it was for Trump yesterday.

“If Hillary had won, we wouldn’t be celebrating anything,” said Jay, who is 22, from Minneapolis, and transgender. “I think that maybe this has brought to the forefront in people’s minds the reality of the violence that is already happening,” Jay tells me, “and it’ll only escalate from there. This is fucking crazy to the mainstream.”

One of the placards that seems to have occurred to a lot of women at the same time was “I’m with Her”— with arrows pointing out in all directions. I’m with her, and her, and her, and her. I’m with all of them. I appreciate a good protest sign, and that was a good sign. The whole day was a good sign.

Because really, it’s all about signs — signs and portents, which is why the placards matter, the T-shirts matter, even the fucking hats matter. Most of all, the numbers matter. In Los Angeles, 750,000 people have crammed the streets. In Chicago, the crowds are too big to move. In London, 30,000 marchers were anticipated, but a hundred thousand have shown up. One of them is my youngest sister, who sends me a picture taken by a friend in which she’s halfway up a lamppost, halfway around the world, waving a placard that reads “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?” I’m as proud as I was when I watched her graduate with top honors last year. The New York Timesreports that three times as many people have attended the Women’s March around the world as attended the inauguration. That matters.

It certainly matters to Trump. Size doesn’t always matter, but when it does, it matters a great deal. Remember that Trump is a man who bragged about his dick size on the campaign trail. Remember that tens of millions of Americans applauded his meat-slapping approach to electoral politics. Well, when it came time to unzip, lay our respective phalanxes of angry people on the table and measure, the Women’s March turned out to be longer and girthier and a hell of a lot more satisfying than the crowd at his inauguration.

Online, the yammering army of Trolls for Trump can’t cope with seeing us out in such numbers. Hundreds of panicked strangers on Twitter threaten me with gas chambers, gang rape, immediate deportation to Saudi Arabia, and all the usual make-me-a-sandwich grumbling that tells you you’ve upset the right people. There’s a special, raw edge of desperation to the harassment today — the blind rage of fragile masculinity watching itself, unthinkably, being outmatched by a bunch of girls. I’m told I ought to be shipped to Syria, and I remember that this sort of thing is why the Kurdish army deploys female soldiers to fight ISIS. When women fire at fascists, they go down harder, because it hits them where it hurts. It hurts their pride. That’s how you beat a bunch of angry little man-children on the only battleground that really matters: the battle of ideas. You make them look ridiculous. You make them feel ridiculous. You refuse to allow them to build their pride on the bodies of women and immigrants and people of color. You take that dignity away, just like we took Trump’s triumph away from him today.

Pride has been hard to hold for anyone who’s been fighting against despair while watching the world darken. I do feel proud today. I feel proud to be part of this moment in history in a way that I truly wasn’t expecting. I think, if we’re honest, most people were expecting a rather dejected shuffle down the National Mall with a bit of earnest, wonky sign-waving and some prepackaged speeches about health care. Instead, we got something more. Something bigger.

The whole thing is big and brash and brilliant in a way that nobody could really foresee. If you’ve spent the past three months peeping through your fingers at the news, you’ve probably had the impression that resistance is somewhat futile. It turns out, though, that Trump not only lost the popular vote; he is also rapidly losing the popular mood, and millions of Americans are ready to stand up and point out the little orange emperor’s evident nudity. And their hats are even uglier than his.

Let’s talk about the battle of the hats for a second. Trump’s infamous Make America Great Again baseball caps were a masterstroke of aesthetic warfare, pumped out by low-wage immigrant factory workers and stained that deliberately disgusting alarm-bell red, designed to suit absolutely nobody. They were a statement of defiance against what had previously been deemed good taste and good sense. That was the point. But the lurid pink pussy hats are even uglier. On the D.C. march, people are handing them out by the handfuls, but many more seem to have knitted their own, apparently spending the weeks between November and now desperately crafting their way out of major psycho-political breakdown.

The hats are every shade of pink, as if the entire doll section of Toys “R” Us suddenly got woke and bashed out of their plastic cages to the delight of marble-eyed little girls everywhere. The hats’ incomprehensible shape vaguely suggests a vulva, a pair of cat ears, a collapsed wedding cake, or all three. This is, in fact, the easiest shape of hat to make — you barely need to know how to knit to construct one — so the fact that almost nobody wears them in their normal lives says something. A nice girl from Michigan gives me a spare one that her mum made because she was angry and couldn’t stop knitting. It doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t suit anyone. But a million women together make it look good.

People are kinder to each other right now too. The doors of St Mark’s Episcopal church are open to any marcher needing a rest, and, by noon, the place is packed with families getting warm and watching the masses roll by on a projector screen while Trump’s spin doctors frantically fart out what Kellyanne Conway will later call “alternative facts” and what everyone else calls brazen drooling lies, inflating the attendance at yesterday’s inauguration. Trump can do a lot of damage from his scream room in the Oval Office, and a lot of people are going to have a hard four years, but when it comes to the war of stories, his side may well have already had the biggest victory it’ll ever have. What if all the rest belong to us? What if they belong to women, to queer people, to people of color, to every human being who thinks it’s not cool to take aim at the notional establishment right through the chest of their next-door neighbor?

Even the air is different during the Women’s March. Inauguration Day stank of limp rage and lukewarm hotdogs, lost-looking people shivering in American flags, the crowd too thin to keep each other warm. The Women’s March smelled of paint and glue and, not unpleasantly, of lots of nice ladies sweating lightly under sensible knitwear, realizing that they have more power in numbers than they ever guessed.

“I know the president has power, and he can do things that will affect a lot of families,” says Claudia Galindo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “but I also know that I am part of organizations that have power too. I have met more groups of people today who are committed and will be fighting for their rights in this country so we really need to use all our energy and resources.” Claudia speaks in Spanish. Her translator’s voice is thick with emotion. It’s been that sort of day.

The thing is that those red hats and the increasingly awkward people under them aren’t edgy anymore. They aren’t the resistance anymore. They aren’t anti-establishment. We are. Women are. They went low and now we go hard, and deep, and loud, in numbers too big too ignore.

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