They weren’t there to make history; they just wanted to be heard. In the end, however, their feet and voices and signs and songs marched them straight into the record books as the largest demonstration of its kind, and perhaps the most widespread global protest in history.
As the sun prepared to set over Dunn Avenue on Jacksonville’s Northside on Inauguration Day, more than 100 people waited to board two charter buses bound for the Women’s March on Washington. Other than gender — the overwhelming majority was women; our bus included a single token man — they represented a broad section of the community but, although they did not share one race, nor religion, nor job, country of origin or age, they were bound by something more meaningful than a question on a form — a common purpose. These men and women would spend the next two nights on a bus traveling to the nation’s capital and back to march for freedom, equality, the environment, immigrants, refugees, minorities, women, LGBTQIA people and the oppressed the world over. And, to the person, protesting the presidency of newly inaugurated Donald J. Trump.
While four buses of Northeast Floridians marched in D.C. on Jan. 21, more than 600 sister marches, rallies and demonstrations would take place in all 50 states and on all seven continents, including local events in St. Augustine, Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach, where an estimated 1,000 people, including one very brave topless woman, took to the streets.
This record-shattering day that saw the single largest inauguration protest gather across the world was not the brainchild of a public relations team of experts; it was kicked off by Teresa Shook, a retired grandmother in Hawaii who started a Facebook page on Nov. 9, inviting 40 of her friends to march on Washington to protest Trump’s election. By the time she woke the following morning, on Facebook 10,000 people had indicated they were interested in attending.
Concurrently, thousands of miles away, activist Bob Bland, whose “Bad Hombre” and “Nasty Woman” T-shirts had raised $20,000 for Planned Parenthood in three days, posted her own similar event. With interest quickly catching on, within a day, Shook and Bland had joined forces. Momentum surged when the march captured the interest of the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group and its three-million-plus membership. They soon enlisted seasoned activists Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, who, along with Bland, organized a march that had all started with one angry grandmother.
Shook, who spoke at the march, told the LA Times, “I’m overwhelmed with joy. A negative has been turned into a positive. All these people coming together to unite to try and make a difference. That’s what we’re going to be doing for the next four years. I see it’s really going to happen.”
For most marchers on the streets of D.C. on Saturday, being there seemed no less than a calling. When a bus didn’t show in Tallahassee, those who could afford to travel another way gave their seats to those who could not and a few rented vans to take people still without a ride. At the march, two young female seniors of the University of South Carolina said they’d decided on the spur of the moment to drive all night to be there. One woman said she’d dropped everything and hopped on a plane.
They just had to be there.
On the Monday before the march, Crown Point Elementary teacher Amy Hynes-Johnson, 42, admitted that she’d been caught off-guard by the results of the election. She’d fully expected Hillary Clinton to win, and handily.
“I was truly shocked … then when it emboldened people who were racist or anti-immigrant and anti-woman … ” she said, shaking her red curls.
At school the day after the election, she and friend Jennifer Oliver, communications chair for Duval County Council PTA, wept together about the results. The two women, who have eight children between them — Amy and her husband have six, Jennifer and her husband two — have long been engaged with education issues but, aside from performing their civic duty at election time, before Trump’s surprising win, neither had taken as much interest in other political issues. Nor are they particularly partisan; both are Democrats, Jennifer’s husband is a Republican, Amy’s is an Independent. (Their husbands did not support Trump.)
After the election, Amy and Jennifer’s anguish faded into a desire to do something. Then, in early December, Amy heard about the march. After giving it some thought and discussion, she and Jennifer decided to go, if only to experience the acceptance that they feel this community sometimes lacks for people with liberal or progressive views, views that in part drew them into friendship after they met at Amy’s school, where Jennifer, 32, volunteers.
“You feel so isolated, so persecuted, too,” Amy said.
Neither saw the Women’s March on Washington as a single issue, partisan protest. It was more than that.
“It’s not just a Republican-Democrat issue. I didn’t feel this way when [George W.] Bush was elected,” Amy said.
Nor did they know what they were getting into, other than that they were going to ride all night to the capital, march and ride all night back to Jacksonville.
“I don’t have any expectation,” Jennifer said.
Lining up with the others waiting for the bus on Friday, Jennifer, whose quirky and, at times, crude humor earned her the proud moniker of being the “inappropriate” one, admitted that she’d already been moved to tears. The mood among the group was one of excited energy; people hugged, chatted and showed off signs, buttons, shirts, hats and other expressions of protest; some simply stood quietly and observed the scene, bags and coats puddled at their feet.
Chuckling, Amy said that a man in a pickup truck had circled the group, jeering and taunting them about Trump. Unfazed, many jeered back.
For the next 14 hours, nervous excitement gave way to the rhythm of the highway. We talked, toasted and, those who could manage it sitting upright, slept. Accompanying us on the road were scores of other buses carrying protesters; all told, before we even arrived in Washington, we had encountered riders traveling from Miami, St. Augustine, Tallahassee and Gainesville. At 5:30 a.m. in Ruther Glen, Virginia, 83 miles south of our destination, ours and the other Jacksonville bus were two of five at a packed gas station where a cheerful, tired line of women snaked through the store waiting for the bathroom as locals in camouflage — clearly taken aback — ogled and quietly stepped around. Pulling back out onto the highway, we counted 15 more buses at nearby gas stations.
The night’s rain was giving way to a foggy, grey morn when our bus joined the steady procession pulling up to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium just after 8 a.m. on Jan. 21. In all, more than 1,400 buses applied for parking permits for the march, six times more than Inauguration Day.
Wearing orange sashes that said “Jacksonville Florida,” which one woman handed out upon our arrival, the marchers piled out, gathered their signs and joined a stream of people bound for the Metro and the streets and their place in history. Taking in the endless line of people walking to the march, like many, Jennifer briefly wept. Adrenaline surged and whatever fatigue we’d felt from our long journey vanished as we wound our way around RFK Stadium.
The anticipation turned electric as we descended into a sea of marchers on the escalator to the Metro. The D.C. subway system would break its ridership record for a Saturday; the 1,001,613 Metro rides that were taken that day has been exceeded only once: When Barack Obama was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, officials counted 1.1 million rides.
After a short ride on a packed train, we joined the waves of people walking toward Third and Independence, where speeches were scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Disoriented by the size and density of the crowd and realizing that it would take a herculean effort to get close enough to see the stage, we slowly made our way onto the National Mall amid much jostling and some confusion — no one seemed to have any idea where “it” was happening, it was just happening.
“This is exciting. There are so many people here. I’m so glad I came,” Jennifer said.
Though our plan was to stick together, after entering the mall, we were soon separated. I did not see Amy and Jennifer again until boarding the bus after 7 p.m.; instead spending the march with the professor from a local college who’d been my seatmate on the long journey from Jacksonville.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, we never got close enough to see more than a sliver of the jumbotron through the trees and, other than the occasional cheer that seemed to emanate from around the stage and ripple through the mall, we were essentially cut off from the speeches, harpooned in the sea of people waiting for the march to begin at 1:15 p.m.
Though some endeavored to find a better place to stand, elbowing through the thick mass of bodies, many holding hands in a chain or touching the shoulders or back of the person in front of them to stay together, for several hours, most people packed into the mall simply remained where they were, talking, watching the crowd, taking photos and videos with cameras and cell phones (service was spotty at best) and joining chants and songs that spontaneously erupted. It was a feast for the eyes and ears.
There were pink “pussy hats” aplenty, most knitted by the wearer or a friend, banners and sashes bearing the names of causes, hometowns and states, costumes, buttons, balloons and signs of dizzying variety. Some signs were tongue-in-cheek and jesting — “We are the grandchildren of the witches you weren’t able to burn,” one woman lifted as high as she could on the mall, “Queef on him,” a middle-aged woman proudly displayed in the street — others brought tears — “I’m marching for my wife,” a widower held, “I’m making my mom proud,” a young man carried — others elicited hugs from strangers — “My daddy enlisted during Vietnam, served 20+ years despite his flat feet, to stop being called a Nigger. He’s here today to stop you from judging us by our looks, making us use a coat hanger & grabbing us by the pussy. And to stop being called a Nigger!” a daughter and her father held up on the side of the street — some bore famous quotes — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” Audre Lorde’s “Your silence will not protect you” — others merely expressed outrage, anger and disbelief — “This is fucked up,” “WTF,” “NO,” — others begged for unity, love, peace, truth and, many, action — “Yes we will.”
For several hours, we stood there, cold spreading up our legs through the metal covering on top of the reflecting pool beneath our feet. Though there was little to do but talk and watch the people around us, it felt less like waiting than participating in something momentous. Even before 11 a.m., people had started saying that they would speak of this experience until their dying day.
Asked why she was marching, D.C. metro-area resident Elizabeth Rosales said that she joined the workforce in a male-dominated field in 1982 when once a week her father, who was superior in rank to the men who supervised her, would “march her down to the coffee shop” past everyone in the office. She now believes he was making sure none of them harassed her. Rosales, whose daughter lives in Orange Park, said that she found out only later that the women she worked with were routinely sexually harassed by their supervisors and colleagues.
“Donald Trump is the epitome of those dirty old men I worked with,” she said, adding, “I don’t think these younger women today realize what we went through.”
Though the majority of marchers were women, large numbers of men turned out and, though many faces were white, Caucasians did not represent an overwhelming majority. By the end of the day, it seemed that every imaginable demographic had been represented. There were Syrian refugees, Russians, Iranians, LGBTQIAs, clergy of countless faiths, atheists, blind people, deaf people, babies in tiny pink pussy hats, octogenarians in wheelchairs, rich, poor, young, old, first-time marchers, lifetime activists, Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, and every race on the planet. We saw signs in Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, German and Russian, talked to protestors from as far away as Austria, Maine, Colorado, California.
A young man carrying a sign on which he’d written a Russian phrase on one side told us in accented English that it translated to “Not one step back.”
“It’s a Stalin quote,” he said, “It’s the only thing [Trump] understands.”
The only people who seemed to not be in attendance at the Women’s March on Washington were counter protestors; throughout the entire day, we did not see a single sign of opposition to the march or its causes, nor heard a single jeer of contempt. Perhaps they all stayed home or, seeing the size and passion of the crowd, changed their plans.
Police and other authorities were so few within the mall that, if violence or vandalism had broken out, mass chaos could easily have erupted. But out of this crowd of a half-million, not one single arrest related to the march was made in D.C., nor have any arrests been reported from any of the more than 600 sister marches that took place across the globe. At press time, estimates of the total attendance at sister marches ranges from more than 1 million to upward of 3 million or more. In truth, we may never know exactly how many people took part. Some marches were planned weeks in advance, others a few days, and some seemed to spontaneously converge in the streets with little or no aforethought or coordination.
Though some people tried by climbing trees, signs, traffic signals, benches, bleachers and vans, or by making their way to the upper floors and rooftops of adjacent buildings, no matter where you stood, it was impossible to take in the scope of the crowd at once. Spotting the familiar face of former Cummer Museum Director Hope McMath, who’d traveled on the other bus from Jacksonville, came as a surprise.
Shortly after 1 p.m., we guessed that the speeches were over when the crowd slowly seemed to start moving toward the streets on either side of the mall. A young woman nearby climbed onto a man’s shoulders and confirmed that people were starting to march, so we joined the flow heading in the direction of Independence Avenue.
As people took to the streets, the chants became more frequent and passionate. “Show me what democracy looks like,” a man cried into a bullhorn from atop a van; “This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd roared back. “My body, my choice,” women yelled; “Her body, her choice,” men yelled in response. “Black lives matter,” was one of the more frequent choruses, as were “We need a leader, not a creepy Tweeter,” and “Build a fence around Mike Pence,” and, the ubiquitous chant that will probably come to be known as the anthem of the Women’s March on Washington: “We will not go away. Welcome to your first day.”
Early on at one intersection, we heard sirens in the distance as the march was abruptly rerouted by police rapidly placing barriers up in front of us with assistance from the National Guard. An officer said that he’d heard that a stage had collapsed, but it later turned out that the protest had been rerouted due to the unexpectedly massive turnout.
CBS reported that interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham explained the diversion, saying, “The crowd stretches so far that there’s no room left to march.”
People crowded the roofs and windows of buildings surrounding the route, some just watching, some holding signs. From one fourth-story window of an apartment building, a woman in pink waved a sign that said, “Future woman in here,” pointing at her swelling abdomen.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, two women in orange Florida sashes, Linda Gillespie, a social worker, and Tracy Edwards, a schoolteacher, said they had flown in from Jacksonville the night before. When a flight attendant asked how many people on their plane were going to the march, everyone raised their hands.
“We just disagree with everything in the new administration,” Edwards said. Gillespie added that they were marching for future generations.
As the afternoon gave way to evening, the further we walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, the slower the march moved. At each intersection, we looked left and right and could not see an end to the crowd — nor a defined direction. It was all movement. Media reports later said that after police rerouted the march, it continued in a massive multidirectional sprawl headed in the general direction of the White House, overwhelming streets that had not been closed for the protest. In the thick of it, we saw cars stranded in the midst of throngs of marchers. There were occasional horns and shouts but, by and large, most who were unexpectedly caught up in the march seemed too awed by the scene to mind the delay.
Though the individual causes that compelled people to march were numerous, the feeling of unity was palpable all day long. There was anger about the election and Trump in general, yes, but there was also a great deal of mutual respect and expressions of love. On one street, a row of National Guardswomen and men exchanged handshakes and hugs with an ongoing line of marchers. Swept up by it all, many simply wept.
Darkness was falling fast when we got to the Metro. Though the march was scheduled to finish at 5 p.m., it was far from over; protests continued for hours, a thick knot converged around Trump International Hotel, where marchers had shouted “Shame” and booed as they passed.
A fine mist had started to fall when we reached the maroon bus that would carry protestors back to Jacksonville. The riders looked tired and happy and ready to go home.
The following morning, the president reacted by tweeting, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.” Two hours later, the tweet was followed by what many viewed as a slightly uncharacteristic, and potentially hollow, addendum, “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.” Neither tweet came from the president’s official account, but instead were sent from Trump’s personal account.
No one knows what to expect next — if people will fight for the values, rights and perceived progress they believe Trump’s election puts into jeopardy; if the protests, however historic and record-breaking and global, are actually the beginning of sustained efforts to push back against policies and changes that do not reflect their values. There is much that remains to be seen. All we know is that this was just the first day.