My Experience on the Ground at the Women’s March on Washington, DC
My trip to the Women’s March on Washington covered the span of 36 hours. The morning of inauguration day I went to work as usual. While listening to Minnesota Public Radio during my commute an immense sadness overcame me. It’s happening. This is real.
I was brought back to the ugly moments immediately following the November election results. If I had any doubts about my plans to fly to DC before, they were gone now. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone in my protest of what was to come, I leaned back on the feeling of future solidarity and was able to focus on work the rest of the day. The nearer 5 pm came, the more excited I grew.
My husband dropped me off at the airport at 6 pm, two hours before my flight. Check in was quick, but I was surprised to be patted down by security. I wondered if the feminist buttons on my lanyard made me look suspicious.
The airport was fairly calm. I didn’t see large groups of women walking around together, but I had a feeling it would be different when I landed in Baltimore. I got to my gate with plenty of time to spare, and ate half of a crappy airport sandwich before tossing it in the trash and dipping into my gallon-ziplock baggy of provisions for the march. The FAQ was very strict on what we were allowed to bring to the march, and what we carried it in.
As fellow travelers filtered in, I began to spot pink pussy hats and overhear conversations. Rolled up signs, feminist buttons and swag signaled I was among friends. Three college students sat across from me and we struck up a conversation. I asked them when they decided they were going to Washington DC. They bought their tickets on November 14th. Excited & unsure was their response when I asked them how they felt on the eve of such a large event.
The waiting area was soon bursting with people and not enough places to sit. I walked around and asked women in hats and holding signs when they made the decision to march. With one exception, everyone had bought tickets or at least decided to march the same week as the election, just as I had.
I asked everyone “if you had to describe your feelings tonight in one word, what would you choose?”
Sad. Empowered. Excited. “Peaceful and powerful.” Angry. Inspired. Scared. Optimistic. Crazy. Terrorized. Resolved.
One gentleman said he was marching because his daughter asked him to. He was excited because a stranger had gifted him a pink pussy hat. Two young girls, probably age 10 or so, walked around giving everyone buttons that said WoMN Power (the MN is for Minnesota).
A somber looking woman said she decided to attend the march after her mother passed away, which was near the same time as the election. She told me her mother had brought her as a child to the early “Take Back the Night” marches in California, and this march was in her memory.
As we began to funnel into the plane, one of the women I’d interviewed was selling a pussy hat to someone behind her. I purchased a hat and asked if we could snap a picture together.
Once seated on the plane it was obvious the majority of us were travelling for the Women’s March. Those who weren’t stuck out like sore thumbs and looked uncomfortable. I introduced myself to the women sharing my row of seats. They both worked together at the same restaurant, which one of them owned. The owner lamented how difficult it was to reach out to her conservative fellow business-owners. When discussing the inauguration speech she said, “Trump was genuine today. He doubled down on no compassion.”
During the flight I tried to sort out my own feelings. I was proud of the women on the flight with me, and proud of myself for putting myself out there and going on this trip. I had built safety precautions into my planning. All my plane and train tickets had insurance so that I’d receive a refund if I cancelled. But my resolve had stayed strong, and there I was, on a plane to Washington DC, hoping that the 15 minute delay wouldn’t make me miss the Amtrak from Baltimore to Union Station.
When we landed in Baltimore at midnight, and the airport was not very busy. Everyone disappeared in opposite directions. Some had friends in the city. Some were renting vehicles. I had an Amtrak shuttle to catch.
Myself and one other marcher ended up waiting at an eerie Amtrak station for about 30 minutes. She was going to be taking an Uber from Union Station to her boyfriend’s apartment in Virginia. I confessed I wasn’t sure how I was going to get from Union Station to my friend’s sisters house, but hoped that Uber would come through. Neither of us had any idea how busy downtown DC would be.
As the train pulled in we could see car after car of pink pussy hats. The dining car tables were covered with signs and markers as women hunched over poster board putting the finishing touches on their witty phrases and powerful messages. Some were sleeping, but most were chatting. A hum of anticipation permeated the train. I felt ready.
Union Station seemed empty at first, until I stepped outside. I instantly regretted not planning ahead more. People were lined up in the loading area and fighting over cabs. I attempted to use Uber, but I couldn’t locate his vehicle in the crowds. Taxis and cars were being diverted to other areas because of inauguration blockades not yet removed.
I ended up finding a taxi after wandering around anxiously for 15 minutes and by 2:15 am I arrived safe and sound at my friend’s sister’s house. I shook her husband’s hand, thanked them for letting me stay, and promptly fell asleep on an air mattress in their basement. A short four and a half hours later my alarm went off, and it was time to get to the Women’s March.
My kind benefactors had already purchased a metro card for both me and my friend (their sibling, who had arrived the day before) which ended up making a BIG difference in how we experienced the event. They also dropped us off at the nearest metro station, which took a long time due to traffic backups.
Once we arrived at the station we had to wait outside for about fifteen minutes.
When we finally got inside the train station we understood why.
This is where the Metro Card saved the day. A Metro Card line was formed on the far left of the station, and we ended up getting through the gates in less than ten minutes. I have no idea how long it would have taken otherwise. Another stroke of good luck: this station was the first on the line so the train car was empty. Four stops later we had to turn people away.
When we stepped off the train we stepped into chaos.
And that’s when the fun really began. Each step of the journey to the National Mall escalated my expectations for the event. I kept thinking – There are people everywhere! But then I would go up some steps, turn a corner, or get off a train and BOOM. Even more people than I anticipated. That feeling didn’t disappear.
It’s hard to explain.
I, we, the people around me – we kept thinking “everyone’s probably here now”, but they weren’t. That picture of crowds at the station above? That was the first stop on the line. They were guaranteed to get into a car. Everyone else down the line? Not so much. As a result, thousands of women and men kept flowing into DC hours after the official start time of 10 am.
I estimate now that due to our fortune with our metro stop location and having the prepaid cards that we arrived with the first 25 – 35% of march goers. We could still see swaths of ground when we first arrived at the National Mall.
We hustled to where we thought the stage was, but couldn’t get close enough to see it. We could hear it though due to strategically placed speakers (once the speakers started working, that is, right in the middle of Gloria Steinem’s speech). We found ourselves wedged in between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a metal, pyramid sculpture called the Delta Solar.
We stood and listened for three hours. It grew tighter and tighter as people pushed to be closer to the stage from behind. Soon there were eddies of people moving both toward and away from the stage area as nature began to call. The speeches were supposed to wrap up by 1 pm, but by 1:20 they were still going. People started chanting “March, march, march!” at the end of each one.
Check out our videos taken from the ground at the Women’s March on Washington, including: crowds, funny signs, pink hats, Princess Leia, and a whole lot of kick-ass activists.
Me and my marching companions has to make a decision. Do we stay here and hold our bladders? Or do we risk missing the official start of the march and try to reach the porta-potties? Nature made the decision for us, and we attempted to turn around. Attempted.
We had NO idea how many people had arrived after we had. In the photo above you can see the row of white porta-potty roofs in the background. Due to the inauguration blockades, those porta-potties were behind two rows of fencing that were now bursting with people trying to come in our direction. It took us roughly twenty minutes to reach the bathrooms.
That bathroom break ended up being the best decision we made that day. It gave us a broader appreciation for the scope of the event. It also enabled us escape the crush of people who wanted to start the march at the “official” starting line. There were FAR to many people to make that feasible. Instead, four separate march streams ended up taking shape. We were in a much roomier, but still crowded, group heading west on Madison Drive. I found out later from others closer to the stage that they ended up stuck there for a long time, unable to march until much later than those further away from the stage.
As we were marching, I thought I knew the scope of the attendance now. I thought the reverberation of our chants were echos off the buildings. Eventually I realized it was the OTHER STREETS chanting. The constant noise was other people. And they were everywhere. As we marched down Madison and reached 12th street, we realized the downtown (NOT permit covered streets) were already filled with people. Their chants were bouncing off the walls of the tall buildings. The noise shook my bones. I threw all my anger into the chanting. I shed the last tendrils of inhibition. I had goosebumps then. I have goosebumps now remembering it.
The official march route completely dissolved. There were simply too many of us. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment to have an aerial view of the crowds.
There were a few moments I felt worried that the protest could turn ugly. We temporarily joined an off-shoot that was marching to Trump Tower. The streets filled with booing and insults, and I grew worried that potential nearby Trump supporters would retaliate. We decided to backtrack at that point and rejoin the largest vein of the march on 15th street, which ran next to the White House.
The Ellipse (a big green lawn between the White House and the Washington Monument) became a resting area for marchers. It ran along 15th street as well, and some food trucks did very good business there that day.
The last half mile of the march was my favorite. 15th street was wall to wall people, and a chant would start at the front and move backward like a vocal wave. At the end of a chant hollering, whistling, and cheers would cap it off, and everyone would join in. Everyone. You could hear the crowds on the side streets, and way back on the mall, catch the cheer and throw it back. It was one of the best moments of my life so far. I’ll never forget it. Trump had no choice but to hear us on Saturday, January 21st. The streets echoed with our chants:
Yes We Can.
Her Body Her Choice. Our Body Our Choice.
Hands Too Small. Can’t Build Wall.
Build A Fence Around Mike Pence.
Trump & Pence Don’t Make Sense
This is What Democracy Looks Like.
This is What America Looks Like.
Racist Sexist Anti-Gay, Donald Trump Go Away
My skin was covered in perpetual goosebumps. My voice hoarse. When our block died down, another block was hollering. The sheer volume of noise in every direction boggled the mind. We knew that the official march route was gone, but where would this new one end? Do we leave now, or keep going and see what happens?
After the White House each cross street became a decision. Eventually we saw cars trying to get through. Me and my marching companions decided that was our signal to head back. It was almost 5 pm, the official end time of the march.
Getting out of the march was difficult. The lines at the stations were even longer than in the morning. We spent almost two hours before catching a train to our final station, and we were packed tighter than sardines. Tempers flared and bickering could be heard between friends. I did a lot of yoga stretches on the platform, trying to ease my tight muscles after over ten hours straight of standing and marching on cement.
Despite the squeeze inside the train cars everyone was mostly civil. One man on the train shared how he was wearing a fun mask over his forehead to prevent facial recognition software from placing him at the march. He didn’t say what branch of government he worked in/for, but stated it was to protect himself from anyone who might use that against him. This is the world we live in now.
We arrived back at the house by 7 pm, and our hosts had pizza waiting for us. We inhaled the food and swapped stories of the day. Everyone said the same thing over and over again. “I can’t believe how many people there were.”
I tried to get some rest after dinner. After all, I had to be back at Union Station by 3 am to take my train back to the airport. With a few hours of sleep I was on the road again. Fellow marchers milled about Union Station. I wasn’t the only one making this a short visit. As if to punctuate the necessity that drove me to turn up in Washington DC the closed storefronts inside Union Station displayed tables of Trump merchandise.
Each leg of my return journey was filled with fellow marchers. I met some amazing women on the planes and the Amtrak, and we all had our own resolutions. Since Saturday the Women’s March organizers have released their #100DaysofAction agenda. This week on Tuesday I attended my first local senate district DFL group. The ball is rolling now. We’re coming for you Trump.
For more of my trip to DC, check out the photo gallery–including all the clever and funny signs spotted at the Women’s March.