I went back and forth on making the trip to D.C. I’m glad I did.
by Brett Aresco
It's Friday, January 19th, and I'm still undecided about my plans for the Women's March. Despite being a straight white male, I know I want to participate in some way, both to voice displeasure with the state of our political discourse and show solidarity with the many groups feeling marginalized in America today. The question is where. On the one hand, New York is my home. On the other, it is called the Women's March on Washington, and being in D.C. with what is sure to be the largest crowd anywhere has its own unique appeal.
I decide I have to go to the nation's capital. For one, Donald Trump’s wholly unorthodox campaign for president has focused less on issues and more on perception- the idea that America’s faceless masses revered both him and the idea that only he could make things right. No doubt he still believes this, despite the fact that fewer than a quarter of voting- aged Americans cast their ballots for him. The more people marching on his new doorstep, the day after relatively few had made the trip for his inauguration, would surely send a message. Additionally, I’m excited by the possibility of meeting people from all over the country in Washington. As big as the march will be in New York, D.C. is the main event, and it is sure to attract concerned citizens not just from surrounding areas, but from all over our United States.
I finally sit down to book transportation late Friday night. I have a couple of leads on buses, but am not sure which, if any, will have room for one more traveler. I sit down to look into one of them at 10:30pm and, just as I do, I get an email from a friend about her bus. I decide it must be fate- it’s too perfect. I email her back to see if they have room. They do.
1 week before, I had returned from the Big Island of Hawaii, where my girlfriend’s family lives. I’ve been four times now, and each time I’m more taken with the island’s beauty and spirit. I mention this because, as I notice from my friend’s email, I had just secured a seat on the Hawaiian bus, sponsored by Halawai, “your New York City Ohana”.
Arriving at the bus, I receive a homemade lei, of course presented with a kiss. I only know two other people on the bus, but I immediately feel like family. Almost every seat is filled as we set off for D.C. around 5 AM. The bus is co-sponsored, I soon learn, by a New York City artists group, Art Change US. One of the group’s members has painted everyone a white flag with an eye on it, both as a means of identifying one another and a signal to the incoming administration that we would have our eyes on them.
As we pull into D.C., everyone receives a pamphlet with traditional Hawaiian chants (including E Ho Mai and I Ku Mau Mau). The trip’s main organizer, the man who so warmly greeted me when I got in line for the bus, stands up to say, in his own words, why Halawai has made the journey, “America has elected a leader openly hostile to many core tenets of Hawaiian culture. Among these are equal protections for all human beings, reverence towards the land, and respect for tradition." Though I am not Hawaiian, these words resonate with me as a mission statement. The Women's March is to be, primarily, by and about women, but it surely wouldn’t hurt to see other attendant causes advanced by such an inspiring gathering of people from different locations, backgrounds, and walks of life.
As we make our way to the starting line, we pass many fellow demonstrators, some in “pink pussy” hats. Thanks to the length of the walk, I am able to interview two young black women from the Bronx who work in healthcare. They have come down with their union, with whom they are walking, all clad in purple baseball caps. I ask what they cared about most during the election. Unsurprisingly, it’s healthcare. One says she works at a hospital that services 90% Medicaid patients. With regard to the new president, her feelings are clear “I want to give him a chance, but... morally speaking, he’s bankrupt.”
By the time we arrive at the starting line (around noon), the National Mall is so packed that we can’t get onto it. Instead, we march with thousands of others down one block, to C Street, which runs parallel to the Mall. Along the way we hear chants of all kinds, from “my body, my choice” to “science is real.” Not a cross word is uttered- scarcely have I ever seen so many smiles or so much kindness in one place.
Along the way we pass a Trump supporter in a notorious red hat. I stop to interview him- how could I not? A geologist from Kansas, he has come to town for the inauguration. He and his wife have stepped out of their hotel and onto the street today to watch some of the marchers go by. As soon as another journalist finishes speaking with him, I swoop in. I ask him some of the questions I’d asked other people on my trip around the country, and he is open and thoughtful in his answers. He doesn’t embody the energy that the Women's March is protesting- at least, not outwardly, yet he has directly contributed to its underlying cause: America, like its history, remains complicated.
When we reach 9th Street, we are finally able to walk over to the Mall. We get there just in time to hear the legendary Angela Davis speak, followed by Janelle Monae performing a rousing tribute to victims of police brutality. Throughout the day, I have been supremely aware that this demonstration is primarily about women’s issues. But the great thing about women, much more so than men (on balance), is that they care. Women are mothers- they are society’s protectors and planners, guardians and teachers. They cannot merely advance one cause when there are others that need attention. When Angela Davis tells the assembled masses that we are at “ground zero of the struggle for social justice,” it doesn’t feel like hyperbole. With the force of however many hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people in attendance, it feels like all of the ills of the country, and perhaps the world, can be cured.
After taking in the speakers, we decide to continue our march. We find ourselves, however, a little elevated from the Mall itself, on a raised area about three feet from the lower level. To get down to the main grassy area, we need to take a significant step down, one that some in our party doesn’t feel comfortable making. Rather than give up and march along ancillary streets as we had done before, our little group bands together in what is a beautiful display of togetherness befitting the day’s activities. We find a part of the ledge where no one has gathered, probably because of the tree branches blocking the view. I step down and hold those branches back as, one by one, some of my fellow Halawai marchers help others down the ledge and onto the main area. Onlookers who do not know us cheer us on. The moment is small, but inspiring. We joke that the area should be forevermore designated the “pono ledge,” after the Hawaiian word for righteousness.
Righteous is what we and others feel this day, and with good reason. As we march towards the Washington Monument, passing sign after sign of clever slogans satirizing societal missteps, we are united. Some have accused participants in the Women’s March of being aimless, the same charges indiscriminately leveled at movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. But I remember what our fearless Hawaiian leader said about the threats to his homeland’s culture. That culture – like femininity, tolerance, and the right to peacefully organize and agitate for change – represents the best of America. Without those and other empathetic elements of our society currently under threat, we may not survive.
Regardless of your politics or feelings about the new administration, you can surely recognize the importance of listening. Without it words, ideas, and policies mean nothing. Saturday, millions of people across the globe spoke. Let the four-year dialogue begin.