I grew up not having to march. I was privileged enough to have my understanding of marches be purely academic and historic. The images I associated with marches and protests—of hardship, danger, and courage—came directly from the video footage I’d seen on TV and historically-based movies. They showed minorities’ responses to decades of oppression. The Women’s March on Washington and the one I attended here in New York, were built on the foundations laid by those who had marched before, and the images of the fight that is currently taking place today show similar unity and force, joy and belonging.
I have always thought that demands were best made in full sentences rather than in chants and that conversations were better than screams. I grew up in a liberal home, and my first true understanding of an election was Barack Obama’s successful run in 2008. For me, the results of a vote had always favored the side of reason—or at the very least, “reason” as defined by my parents. Donald Trump’s election, at first, seemed to upend that assumption. As I walked west on 42nd Street last Saturday, I began to realize how insulated it can be within Columbia’s gates and how little I knew about the many different definitions of “reason.”
As I approached the march, the pink “pussyhats” began to multiply, and the sidewalk thickened with people. I looked around to see the road completely blocked off, police standing guard at each corner. My pace quickened, and adrenaline rushed through my body as I walked toward the crowd. A feeling of purpose suddenly penetrated the hard shell of fear that I had been encased in since Nov. 8.
I assumed this march would not create any tangible change. Our president is our president, and impeaching him would only leave us with someone worse. Yet I am not hopeless. I felt I had to march, as though not marching would be accepting the new rhetoric of disrespect. I went, not to experience the marches of the past, but to honor them—to honor the suffragettes, the Vietnam War protests and the (first) March on Washington. For me, this march was a refusal to allow the sacrifice and progress made by Susan B. Anthony, Ida Wells, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and hundreds more to become forgotten. I was intent on showing the new government that we would not go backwards. Despite all this, though, I was sure that the intended audience would not be listening.
The first March on Washington was in 1963. 200,000 people gathered in D.C. to fight for the rights of African Americans, and the march famously culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rival groups in the black community—such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—put their differences aside to march together. This was only the beginning of a struggle we continue to fight today. The March on Washington was a show of unity, a practice of democratic rights, and a declaration of hope. Fifty-four years later, in an inspiring continuation of the march’s legacy, over 3.3 million people marched for women’s rights in more than 500 cities worldwide.
Normally, I would expect to feel vulnerable in such a massive crowd. I generally do my best to stay far from busy events, be it a football game or the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square. Yet wherever I turned my camera, people smiled. Parents openly turned their children to face me with their signs. No one pushed or shoved or was in a rush to get anywhere. This was the anti-New York. These pictures would not show the hardship and oppression of either the past or present; instead, they would expose the essence of unity and courage. Everyone, it seemed, was exactly where they wanted to be.
It rained the day after the election. As I walked to class, the campus seemed to be weeping with the skies. Some professors cancelled class; some students began crying in the middle of lectures. I remember going to my last class of the day—it was a science writing seminar, and it seemed that all hope, for both science and for the press, was lost. My professor began the class by addressing the issue, inviting us to speak. “What do we do next?” I remember asking. “We keep writing,” she said.
I approached the crowd with an odd combination of hope for change and despair for what was to come inevitably. Though I knew the outcome of the march would not be a change in power or a reevaluation of the new president’s policies, the march was reminiscent of those before it in its show of solidarity and demand for respect. It was a declaration of unity and support, and this time, it involved far more than the amount of people who showed up to the march.
Surrounded by strangers and signs, I looked around at the faces of the marchers. There were protesters and observers, men and women, young and old, and people of all colors, faiths, and languages. I was in a crowd of more than 400,000 people in the center of the second largest city in the world, our city, Columbia’s city—I could not help but feel as though this was the majority.
This election, for many students, has been one of complete confusion. We have been unaware of the logic of the other side and the sheer magnitude of others’ feelings. The 2016 campaign was like nothing else in recent memory with regards to its extent of divisiveness across the country, within and between states, and among families and friends. With every new Trump update my reaction has been: I just don’t get it. Though the bubble of Columbia’s campus and my liberal home have sufficiently shown me that I am not alone in my political beliefs, there is a sense of isolation when so much of the country moves one way, and I become part of the unrepresented remainder. Yet as I stood among the masses, I was overwhelmed by how comfortable I felt. I looked around and thought, Look how many people feel what I feel.
But this understanding of the number of people there—that just 400,000 marchers could feel like an entire world—produced a striking realization that the world is actually much, much bigger and that the range of reason can span much further than a crowded street in New York City. It can be easy to feel like you are part of the masses when everyone around you appears to agree. Columbia has a reputation of liberal professors and activists fighting for liberal causes.While I have often agreed on progressivestances, it can be difficult to then hear the other side. Among my comrades in that march, I was reminded of those who were not there, of those who feel just as strongly about their rights but want them carried out differently than I do, and I was reminded of how little I know about them.
I have tried, in the week or so since the event, to understand from where the innate sense of excitement, belonging, and hope exhibited in the march originated. I have attempted to understand why it felt so right to be there when one of our most dire problems today is our inability to listen, not a need to yell louder. I have realized that this march impacted me personally, not only in giving me that warm feeling of unity and belonging, but also in highlighting contemporary discord in this country.
Throughout history, these peaceful grassroots marches and movements of solidarity have caused incredible change. Women today would not have the right to vote without the actions of the suffragettes. The United States would not have pulled out of Vietnam when it did without the contributing factor of the anti-war protests, and Congress would not have passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without pressure from Martin Luther King Jr., his followers, and and civil rights groups like the NAACP. These movements were successful because the people made their voices heard and demanded representation. At this march, my voice was amplified among the voices of hundreds of thousands, which forced those who disagreed to acknowledge and hear my side of reason. At the same time, marching with one side did not keep me from hearing the reason of the other one. Instead, it reminded me of how truly massive this country is and how many voices of reason I have failed to hear.
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