The sense of resistance was fierce, but it was also, oh Lord, joyous — in a scraped raw kind of way, you might say.
For instance, the young woman with the bullhorn, who led the chant where I was walking, had almost no voice left as she shouted “Show me what democracy looks like!” But as soon as the marchers shouted back, “This is what democracy looks like!” she threw her vocal cords back into it, and somehow, oh, somehow, I could feel it: the birth of a movement.
I was at the Chicago rally this past Saturday, one of 673 such events, according to womensmarch.com, around the country and around the planet, with nearly 5 million participants in 83 countries.
This is stunning. But what was it? What happened this past weekend? The coverage I’ve seen and read mostly boiled it down to issues: women’s rights and reproductive rights, of course. These were women’s marches, after all, fueled by women’s anger and shock over the attitudes, policies and basic idiocy of the incoming Trump. Add to this environmental concerns and a dismay over the president’s alliance with climate-change deniers and corporate polluters; the demand for LGBTQ rights; an intense condemnation of right-wing racism and Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats to register Muslims and build a wall on the Mexican border; a defense of the Affordable Care Act and demands for universal health care; and on and on, including basic contempt for the president’s reckless arrogance and utter lack of moral authority.
But these rallies were also more than a sum of their parts. They were a culmination — a fusion — of the issues the participants stood for, and thus they were something new, nameless, in the process of becoming.
While the rally I joined clearly was focused on women’s rights, those rights didn’t feel in any way separate from my own rights or needs. Indeed, a celebratory vibration continued to swell as I walked and swayed and danced with the enormous crowd down Jackson Street to Chicago’s Federal Plaza. On Dearborn Street, in front of the plaza, the music began. Suddenly everyone began singing the old Bill Withers song, “Lean on Me”:
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong/ And I’ll be your friend/ I’ll help you carry on/ For it won’t be long/ ’Til I’m gonna need/ Somebody to lean on.”
I confess — I couldn’t help myself — I broke into tears in the middle of this song. “We all need somebody to leaaaaaan on …” On this incredibly beautiful January afternoon, a wound burst open: a wound of joy and outrage, but mostly joy. I felt cradled in the collective soul, connected to everyone there — including the police, including the very, very few counter-demonstrators (one guy, holding a sign comparing abortion to the Holocaust). This was peace, whatever that is.
Peace in all its pain and diversity and anger. Women and men, grannies and toddlers, lots and lots of children. I saw one couple leading a border collie, who wore a sign that said: “Dogs for equality.”
Yeah, the signs. There were so many of them, mostly hand-scrawled, occasionally obscene:
I love science
You haven’t seen nasty yet
Don’t tread on me
Men of quality do not fear equality
Girls just wanna have FUN- damental rights
No wall no registry no misogyny
Equality is not a big ask
We’re all immigrants (except Native Americans)
Hate Has No Home Here: Not my president
This is my agenda: Love is love
Here was a country, here was a philosophy of being, constructing itself out of all these pieces and so many more. I felt the presence of history: the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement … good Lord, the suffragettes: They still live, they still seek fulfillment. This was not spectator America, helplessly watching the news.
This was a turning point. This was a beginning.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.