Guest Commentary

I WORE A PINK PUSSY HAT IN DC

Just before 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, we stuffed our signs — plastered with varying degrees of sarcasm, wit, and political directness — under the chartered bus and boarded it. Every poster board was a small testament to what was weighing heavily on all of us; it had been confirmed, inaugurated, and situated in our nation’s capital earlier that afternoon. Donald Trump was now our president. We were headed to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., as a statement to our new leader and his administration: Women’s rights are human rights.
     The event sparked from a Facebook post by former attorney Teresa Shook the day after the election. As the post went viral, officials in the nation’s capital prepared for an estimated crowd of 200,000; actual attendance approached the 500,000 mark. D.C. Metro reported more than 275,000 rides by 11 a.m., two hours before the march even began. That was already 82,000 more rides than the previous day at the same time during Trump’s inauguration. Rough estimates indicate marches across the country drew more than 3 million people, with some estimates nearing 5 million. The marches also spread internationally to  every continent.
     Chatter on the bus ranged from “Free Melania” comments to the price of toilet paper and the exorbitant amount their children used. There were several mother-daughter groups, friend duos, and a few one-off singles like myself. I sat next to a woman named Laura, who had owned an art gallery in downtown Nashville, but lost it when the recession hit in 2008. She works in Metro Nashville Public Schools now and raises her 8-year-old son (whose Star Wars fleece blanket she brought along for the ride). When I asked her if she was happy with her job change, she laughed and said firmly, “No, no I’m not.”
     Our bus was completely full, save for three seats reserved for women who had to cancel at the last minute. In total, 53 of us piled into the bus, mostly women and a few men who appeared to be accompanying their wives or female friends. A pattern of pink, freshly knitted pussy hats scattered around the seats. One woman brought extras along to pass out on the bus, while another handed everyone “Pussies Against Trump, Cant Grab This” pins. I donned my own pink hat, knitted by a friend’s mother who regretted not being able to attend. Despite her absence, she sent me on my way with some cash, the fleshy cap, and some advice: “Those that choose to put their heads in the sand only strengthen the tide of hate.”
     We left on our 10-hour drive early enough to account for any traffic outside the city. And there was a lot of traffic, with chartered buses crowding the interstate as we approached the capital. Their destination — and ours — was RFK Stadium, where buses were parked for the march. The Washington Post reported the week before the march that parking permits for buses at RFK had already reached 1,200, five times the number of permits granted for President Trump’s inauguration the day before.
     As we exited the bus, grabbed our signs, and began to make our way toward the rally point, I decided to walk with our two rally captains and the group of ladies with them. I didn’t know a soul on the bus, so I figured it best to find a group and stick with them. Among our small pack were three 20-something women, myself included; an all-smiles expectant mother; and a middle-aged woman named Sheila who was prepared to walk the 2-mile march route with her walker. Sheila suffers from a number of diseases, with a nerve condition being the most painful and debilitating. As she jokingly told me, “My body will be paying for this march all next week.” She might have been the most enthusiastic of the five of us.
     National Guard soldiers greeted us with huge smiles as they directed pedestrian traffic. Women shouted, “Thank you for this,” a phrase I would hear repeated throughout the day to both soldiers and police officers — all of whom returned a warm smile or “Happy to help.”
     The crowd quickly thickened as we neared the area where the rally would be held. We left Sheila at the ADA entrance and continued on. A few short minutes later, we found a spot from which to watch the rally, and although we were so far back we couldn’t see the stage, we were lucky enough to be near a screen showing the performers and speakers. People began scaling port-a-potties to sit on top for a better view.
     The rally began with Charlie Brotman — the 89-year-old who announced the last 11 inaugurations, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama — telling us he was elated to be opening the rally since he’d been booted from his usual duties at presidential inaugurations by Team Trump. To say the rally had a full lineup would be a huge understatement.
     Actor America Ferrera, a daughter of Honduran immigrants, kicked things off with a powerful speech, voicing concerns for young immigrants and the hateful credo adopted by the new administration. “It’s been a heartrending time to be both a woman and an immigrant in this country,” she said. “Our dignity, our character, our rights have all been under attack, and a platform of hate and division assumed power yesterday. But the president is not America. We are America. And we are here to stay.”
     With over 30 scheduled speakers, including 6-year-old Sophie Cruz, Gloria Steinem, Michael Moore, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif), and Alicia Keyes, the rally went on for four hours, perhaps too long for those eager to march. Ashley Judd vibrantly recited Franklin, Tenn., teen Nina Donovan’s “Nasty Women” poem. (Safe to say Judd will not be receiving an invitation to the White House anytime soon.)
     In one particularly powerful moment, musician Janelle Monáe brought out the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Dontre Hamilton as they led a call-and-response chant of their sons’ names. Monáe reminded the crowd to remain resilient in the face of challenges to their civil rights. “And whenever you feel in doubt, whenever you want to give up, you must always remember to choose freedom over fear.”
     We maxed out at just over three hours; regrettably, we missed a surprise appearance by Madonna, but we were ready to start moving. There’d been whispered rumors that the march was cancelled, which, of course, wasn’t true — the route had been diverted to Pennsylvania Avenue. There were simply too many people to march down the original route, which was gridlocked with bodies. We walked the parade route that our now-president had taken just the day before.
     I’d seen the photos of barren parade stands on Inauguration Day. Now they were filled with protesters waving signs, blowing whistles, and cheering us on. The march moved past Trump International Hotel where a man shrouded in a rainbow flag holding a megaphone said, “I’ll be your tour guide for D.C. today. To your left you have Trump Hotel; as you pass I’d like you to raise your middle finger and say hello.” Marchers followed his instructions as they passed the building, now in the midst of a $2 million lawsuit for failure to pay contractors. Later in the day marchers would leave their signs in front of Trump’s hotel and the White House as a parting message to the new administration.
     Several chants erupted along the protest route: “We will not go away, welcome to your first day,” “This is what democracy looks like,” “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” and “We are the popular vote.” Many signs referenced Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy” comment. One fluffy Husky wore a poster strapped on its back that said, “Huskies against treason.” A solemn-looking young boy stood on top of a concrete pot holding a sign above his head with a pink-painted fist on it that said, “Outraged.”
     Such were the sights as we slowly marched our way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Although it wasn’t the original route, law enforcement rolled with it and let the marchers continue. They finally stopped us when we reached 15th Avenue, just before the White House. It was around 4 p.m. by this point; exhausted, tired, and hungry, I was ready to depart the march. But the march wasn’t ready to give up yet. It kept going. Women in front of me split off down side streets and continued marching as I headed toward the subway. Officers maintained their benevolence, clearing traffic and escorting marchers.
     I made my way to Metro. A line wrapped around the block to get inside, a sea of pink hats and protest signs. I waited patiently in line as we entered the station and descended the escalator. Soft chants of “My body, my choice,” “Her body, her choice” echoed around us.
     Finally we reached the bus and were eager to see coverage of the march. Because of the huge crowds, most people didn’t have service. Texts from the course of the day clicked in from my boyfriend all at once: “So many people,” “The crowd is huge,” and one “You ok?”
     He’d stayed home to attend the protest in Nashville and march with his band, The Weeks. He told me how blown away and moved he was by Nashville’s turnout. The TV screens in the bus switched on to show us expanses of people sprawling the streets of NYC, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We weren’t sure exactly what the victory was, but it felt like one. A woman walked down the aisle of the bus, showing a picture of her with a group of “Bikers For Trump,” all smiles. “They were so polite,” she remarked, surprised.
     The news the next day was filled with shots of marches across the country and the world, dominating headlines throughout America and abroad. Monday followed with our first press conference from new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, where he went on to blatantly lie about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. It was clear that the march had been so large it bruised our president’s ego.
     Alternative facts aside, America showed up for the Women’s March in D.C. and across the U.S. Political scientists have said that it was the largest demonstration in our history, with 1 in every 100 Americans marching to protest Trump’s inauguration. These protests were peaceful and no arrests were made.
     Now, just a few weeks into Trump’s presidency we’ve witnessed a rapid-fire approach to controversial directives. Never mind the first 100 days; in his first 100 hours President Trump had banned Muslims and refugees from entering the country, revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, gagged the Environmental Protection Agency, and taken the first steps toward directing the construction of his border wall.
     I hope that the millions who showed up to marches across our country remember to stay vigilant. In the week following the march, there were demonstrations around Nashville nearly every single day. For every controversial appointment or executive order, there was a rally. A Nasty Women exhibition at The Basement East drew a huge crowd and spread awareness for and racked up donations to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have stayed fixed in my “recently called” list, and I imagine that’s where they’ll stay for the coming months. As I write this, I am preparing to attend a vigil this evening to support immigrants and refugees.
     The fight is only beginning. For those that marched, let it be a springboard into continued activism in your community. Don’t be overcome with a feeling of powerlessness and victimization. Don’t let this movement become swallowed by hopelessness when the odds seem so against us. Our country cannot remain great without the voices that make it so.     
     I’m reminded again of a sign I saw in D.C. “We won’t be silenced.” We won’t.