SIGNS OF THE TIMES
On the way to the Women’s March on Washington I met a photographer from Michigan who had driven in for the occasion, never before having been to Washington. I couldn’t help but think about how thrilling it would be to see the nation’s capital for the first time and to experience the Mall so highly charged by shoulder-to-shoulder citizens speaking up for their rights in a chorus that could not go unheard….nor be silenced. What a compelling show of democracy!
In his plan for the federal city, Pierre L’Enfant conceived the Mall as a grand promenade, but it was the MacMillan Plan of 1902 that reimagined it as the monumental public core of the country.
The 2-mile long, 1,004-acre space is visited at least once by half of all Americans and by a steady flow of overseas travelers, totaling 25 million people each year. The Mall is the shared front lawn of some of the nation’s proudest monuments, cultural institutions, and historic events: the pageant of presidential inaugurations and demonstrations both for and against matters of conscience. According to the Trust for the National Mall, “It is where people from all walks of life come to reflect upon — and shape — the story of America.”
That story, as written on January 21, 2017, was one of steely resolve and kaleidoscopic inclusion: women’s rights, human rights (reinforced by signs as one and the same), LGBT rights (ditto), Black Lives Matter (ditto), education, dignity, equality, peace, respect, health care, taxation, repression, global warming, immigration, anti-Fascism, Putin puppeteering, and more. In a word, anti-Trump.
The huge crowd was similar to the one I’d joined with my sons eight years earlier for the Obama inauguration but the tone was palpably different. In place of jubilation there was anger, fear instead of hope. Under the brooding gray sky, which reportedly made aerial photography impossible, the crowd was flecked with signature pink, radiating defiance with peaceful but edgy — and pointedly “un-ladylike” — behavior. It was a daunting show of strength that spanned across gender (lots of men attended, many in pink “pussy hats”), and denied demographic distinctions, perhaps most powerfully for me, age.
There were babies in strollers, countless students and millennials of course, mothers marching for their children and for themselves, middle age women, and surprisingly many elders. The shock impact of explicit sexual imagery and only thinly veiled innuendo channeled outrage at the new president and his demeaning comments about women. But the vulgarity of the “Predator in Chief” was trumped by the mass sensationalism of female genitalia stridently displayed — ours NOT yours — like the proprietary use of the N-word in Black street talk. It was all right out there, everywhere and inescapable.
I was struck by the immediacy, even urgency, of the moment, and then, without quite knowing why, I imagined away the sea of signage. Thud! The hundreds of thousands of protesters remained well beyond what the eye could see but, except for the dappled pink palette, the crowd all of a sudden lost its voice. I thought of other major demonstrations in Washington, ranging from the March for Women’s Sufferage (1913), the Ku Klux Klan march of 1925, the March for Jobs and Freedom (1963), Protest against the war in Viet Nam (1969), Women's Lives Matter (2004), and Protest against the war in Iraq (2007).
All of these demonstrations telegraphed their messages in force whether with pointy white hats, raised fists, flags, or banners. As the art of protest matured, the powerful testament of unprecedented crowds found ever greater strength in signage. To be sure, individual voices appeared on personal placards, but mass-produced signs were the primary vehicle to communicate a unified message.
That’s where the Women’s March on Washington was different. Sure, there were plenty of iconic printed images but most signs, by far, were handmade. That means people took time to think about what they wanted to say, to gather materials, plan, and put their thoughts on paper, big and bold with different colors and graphics for emphasis. The results were infinitely varied, creative, and caring. They were informed, opinionated and raw, and very often as funny as they were brazen. More passionate, indeed more intimate, than objective, they transformed Trump’s crass sexual denigrations into the front-line offensive of a powerful and unrelenting force which, like the genie escaped from the bottle, will never again be suppressed.
On the morning of his inauguration, Donald Trump tweeted that “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” He might have added that women comprise more than half of the population. He didn’t, of course, but did allow on January 21st, the day of the Women’s March: "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.” If only he would recognize the power of all the uprisings against him; it could change the world.