A Woman’s First March

  

11:15am: N Vancouver and Skidmore

The bus slowed down, though not much. Just enough for the driver to make eye contact with the dozen of us at the bus stop, mostly dressed in rain gear and carrying signs, and offer up a one-handed shrug. He gestured to the bus behind him—filled to capacity, almost bulging at the doors. “What can you do?” his gesture said. “You’re not the only ones headed downtown.”

I had never gone to a protest before. Or a march, or a political rally. No mass action of any kind. Not that I didn’t agree with any causes, I just always made excuses. Too busy, I’d claim, or no reliable means of getting to and from. Maybe I feared it wouldn’t be safe, and I didn’t want to do anything with any risk of being arrested. But now I’m older and angrier. I had to come out.

The crowd at the bus stop dispersed in favor of the MAX or Uber or some other method of getting downtown. I wound up driving, seeking out a parking spot in the Pearl District, a ways away from the march route. I had a walk to go before I even got to the walk. Still, I used to take a 1.5-mile route to and from work every day, back when I worked downtown and lived uptown. Going from The Pearl to the Waterfront was nothing, even with a little bit of rain.

11:45am: Stumptown Coffee, SW 3rd and Pine

My glasses fogged up as I pushed through the masses outside of Stumptown Coffee. The masses were inside as well, an immense queue both for coffee and for the bathroom. I wasn’t expecting to get coffee, though it would’ve been nice. I had an off-brand KIND bar in me. I’d be fine.

Past my initial notice, my group was waiting outside: a half dozen of us connected by pub trivia. They, and the rest of the crowd, were in good spirits. Not joy, not pleasure, but a sense of communal positivity. Something was happening, something useful, and being there was a good thing. The energy started working its way into me. The crowds were already large, the sidewalks filled to workday density with people in pink hats carrying signs. I was already feeling safe, feeling in a good place.

I told my crew—bragged, almost, from my tone—about my preparations. My 2017 reading goal is 50 books by women and people of color; the first entry was Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, a novel set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest. That, combined with the overreaction by Portland’s police during the Inauguration Day protest, led me to prepare for the worst. I removed my fingerprints from my phone and put on a stronger password. I wore a scarf in case I needed a gas mask. I carried spare prescriptions and some pepper spray. I didn’t expect anything to happen—the optics of gassing a bunch of suburban white women are terrible—but I remember my Boy Scout days. Be Prepared.

The Crowd Departing Waterfront Park

The rain kicked up. I hadn’t prepared for that.

12:15pm: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, SW Naito and Oak

We migrated to the Battleship Oregon Memorial, a massive battleship mast standing as a monument in the Waterfront Park. It is an understatement to say we were not alone. The waterfront doesn’t get as full for MusicFestNW or any of the dozens of other events held there during each summer. Equal rights are a bigger draw than Modest Mouse.

The signs covered a wide array of topics. Many were predictably anti-Trump, with plenty of tiny hands, angry cats, and calls for impeachment, along with several cause-centered posters: climate change, abortion, LGBTQ rights. The sort of blend that would be easy to dismiss as unfocused and disorganized if you’re willing to disregard the unifying thread: concern for those being marginalized and maligned by the world, and anger at those doing the most mistreating. The fact that so many different areas were being addressed just spoke to how much work there was left to do.

I noticed a young girl—maybe 10, 11 years old—passing by. She carried a sign advocating for transgender rights, because she was trans. I didn’t know I was trans at that age, but that was mostly because I didn’t have the language for what I was feeling. If she were closer I would’ve offered her and her parents a high-five. I was certainly present, first and foremost, to represent LGBTQ rights. I wore lavender ears for a reason. More importantly, I was there for that girl. Back in December 2014, a trans girl named Leelah Alcorn committed suicide and garnered international attention. That was the jolt that pushed me to be defiantly weird and queer, to show that trans women do have hope and power. So much of my activism and visibility now comes down to making sure that girl with the sign, and all others like her, don’t end up like Leelah. It’s going to be a harder fight now.

1:00pm: SW Naito and Morrison

The crowd started moving. Our group was anticipating two more members, but we eventually dropped the stragglers and made our way onto Naito Parkway. Mud sloshed beneath our feet, the park’s grass giving way, and we needed to keep moving to keep warm. The masses were moving south, but a number cleaved off toward the right, into the parking lot. It made sense to fill out the pavement. With tens of thousands around, anything that relieved the pressure would be worthwhile. As a bonus, we walked under the bridge, a momentary shelter from the ever-present rainfall.

The lot ended at Morrison Street. Between the lot and the street was a fence, about three feet tall, solid and railing-like. Going around it required pushing through the crowd. So we climbed the fence. The youngest and most agile got by just fine. I managed to climb over without injury, but not without effort. I may have kicked somebody in the process. Once over, I stayed behind for a moment in order to help some of the other marchers make their way over. A couple that was at the bus stop earlier came up to the fence; I gave them both a lift. Some of the marchers, seemingly near my grandmother’s age, didn’t need a hand. They were definitely strong women.

We came onto 1st Ave outside of the Hotel Rose. I stayed at that hotel before I moved to Portland, when it had a different name. I remember sitting in the empty restaurant early in the morning, looking out at Mt. Hood, thinking about what I liked about the city. Its willingness for activism, the fact that it cared, was part of it. As I passed by, the restaurant was packed. People inside held signs and waved at the marchers. Both sides of the glass demonstrated why I moved here.

1:15pm: SW 1st and Madison

Slowly, like a traffic jam, we zipper merged into the main march route. The six of us walked through the street, Michael occasionally jumping up to the curb. I found myself closer to the middle of the street, the median lines painted beneath my boots. When you’re driving, you don’t really notice the subtle bumps and layers of the paint. You may not even pay attention when walking through crosswalks or along sidewalks. But when you’re in the street, the details are right in front of you. What you see close up and what you see at a distance can be very different.

The rain came and went, shifting from its usual Portland presence to something everyone can agree was actual rain. It started to saturate my jacket. The cold penetrated my boots. I should’ve worn more layers, better gloves. Oh well. Nothing important is comfortable.

Chants and cheers washed over the crowd like wind gusts, a natural force that the marchers were just intersecting rather than creating. The chants were as varied as the signs: “My body, my choice,” “No Trump / No KKK / No fascist USA,” “This is what democracy looks like.” There was never a clear source of the cheers. Those felt like second-hand sports fandom; somewhere, a soccer player scored a goal, and for a moment we were excited about it. I joined in on most of the chants. After a while I stopped joining the cheers. They just didn’t feel right; we were fighting, not celebrating. Still, I continued to throw up a peace sign in response. I didn’t bring a sign with me, so two outstretched fingers would have to do.

“The Promised Land” statue

1:30pm: Chapman Square, SW 4th and Madison

We took the turn a block early, walking more quickly up the sidewalk, passing cars unfortunate enough to be intersecting the route. That took us past the Justice Center, the jail inside the city. A constant site of protests in defiance of, or solidarity with, the prisoners inside. We cut through the park across the street—Chapman Square, one of the parks that Occupy protestors camped in for months on end.

Micah White, writing for The Guardian, compared the Women’s March to the Occupy movement. It’s easy, and desirable, to downplay the comparisons and assert that things will be different. Certainly, details were different: the Women’s March was an immense event, with overall estimates surpassing 3 million Americans in contrast to Occupy’s roughly 100,000, and police behavior was overwhelmingly peaceful and positive. But the reminder is always warranted. Marches are a show of support, but they aren’t the nitty-gritty work that can cause the real change.

I’ve never been good at social engagement. I’ve always been a loner, an outsider, an observer. I’m trying to get better, but I know that right now, my best means of contributing to change is through donations. ACLU, NAACP, SPLC, HRC, PP, and other groups that don’t turn into neat and recognizable acronyms. I can provide time, but nobody’s threatening to cut off Planned Parenthood’s time allocation. They need money to do their work, and as part of the overly-gilded technology class, I have funds to provide. And even though more women should run for public office, I don’t think anyone’s about to elect me any time soon.

Besides, sometimes, having another body in the crowd helps. Enough drops gives you a flood, enough snowflakes gives you an avalanche.

2:00pm: Pioneer Place Mall, SW 4th and Yamhill

We passed a man playing “America The Beautiful” on a trombone. We passed parked cars with supportive signs in every window. We passed four different parking garages, each garage filled with people leaning against the ledges and out the open walls to cheer their support. Eight, nine, ten stories full of people. Others, in office and apartment buildings, sat on windowsills. The staff of a downtown office held “NSTY” balloons from their window, the A presumably having drifted off. Nothing compared to the number of people on the ground, but the shows of support and solidarity can’t be understated.

I lost count of how many pink pussy hats I saw. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many people wearing animals ears in one place, and I go to furry conventions.

A young man, dressed in black and wearing a skull-printed bandana, scurried past with a bike. Michael and I worried that someone might try to start trouble—indeed, someone was screaming curses at the police while we waited by the Battleship Memorial—so figures like the bike-carrier caught my eye. He was only the second I saw with an outfit that heavily implied anarchy, and the other was walking away from the march route. I’ve never been to a protest before this, so I don’t know if my instincts were justified. But there’s always a lurking fear, especially for those of us who have to create our own spaces out of nothing, that someone will come along and ruin them. It’s what made seeing Nazis at Rocky Mountain Fur Con such a shock, and seeing a lack of arrests during the marches such a relief.

©️ Adam Harris, used with permission.

2:30pm: SW 4th and Stark

I wore the same kind of outfit I wear on any cold day. Boots and jeans, with a camisole, t-shirt, hoodie, and Army jacket layered up to protect my core. As an outfit, it’s not waterproof. It’s just thick enough that I don’t mind getting a little wet.

As we approached the last corner, I had long since passed “a little” wet. Michael was also feeling it; his outfit claimed to be waterproof, but he had discovered the limits of that claim. We both decided to split off early, walking back to my car to heat up and dry out. I dropped him off at his place just in time for the heat to really get going, then finally drove off for lunch. True, I should’ve done something more local and community-centric than Jack in the Box. But that’s my “tired and indifferent” meal; I was definitely tired, and I had too many bigger issues on my mind to really care what I ate.

Strangely, there’s a part of me that felt disappointed by the event as I left. But I think that’s because, in the thick of it, it’s hard to tell how much impact you’re having. I’ve learned from playing shows with my band that, when you’re on stage, you can’t know what the audience is hearing. You can feel your own stage energy, maybe see a bit of reaction and feedback in the crowd, but ultimately you just have to trust that you’re getting your message out. It’s only when I came home, warmed up, and started flipping through the news that I could hear it for myself. I like what I hear.

I can read the numbers now, look at the photos of Chicago or London or Antartica, and intellectually grasp how large the day was. But I think it’ll be months, if not years, before it truly registers what I’ve participated in. What we, millions of us, participated in. Hopefully, it’ll be because today was the start of something great. And I’ll be able to look back on today the way I look back on the first presidential ballot I ever sent in, for Barack Obama: as an unforgettable, historic moment.