Every now and then, like the roar of a massive land animal, the crowd erupted in a wave of sound. You could call it cheering, but that word fails to capture the magnitude of the effect, the choral layering of voices or the way it broke like surf across downtown Washington during the Million Women March.
The first time I heard the Roar erupting from the distance, I thought it was jets soaring through opaque gray skies. But then it swelled, surging forward, passing through this giant clot of bodies like the rhythmic rise-and-fall of an audience wave in a crowded arena.
Did 500,000 people congregate the streets of D.C. to rally and march? Less? More? A National Guardsman near the Washington Monument told me “more than a million” showed up. If you’re counting the Mall alone, the smaller number makes sense. But if you’re including the sum of humanity gathered on Independence Avenue and a spiraling, sprawling network of nearby streets, the larger numbers sound almost conservative. Let’s put it this way: If the Million Women March didn’t actually draw a million people, I can’t imagine what a million people looks like.
It wasn’t just crowded. Along Independence it was wall-to-wall pedestrian gridlock with no room to move, just arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks crammed up against one another with a spontaneous and unwanted intimacy (oooh, nice! an armpit in my face!) that most everyone tolerated with astonishing calm. Everyone, children included, seemed to realize we were all stuck together as one, so why fight it? There were no strangers in that crowd, a diverse mash of humanity from all points on every conceivable spectrum of age, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, gender.
That morning I’d taken a mobbed metro downtown alongside my sister-in-law, her husband, two of his sisters and one of their wives. I had hoped to connect later on with my oldest daughter and her pop-pop, but I bailed on both plans. Then, when I got separated from my clan, I bailed on trying to find them. I would not locate anyone in this thick and quivering mass of people.
Instead, I abandoned myself to the wisdom of the throng, inching along in whichever direction the people nearest me happened to move. Oh, the person ahead is moving west on Independence? So will I. Oh, we’re crossing 14th, now? Okay, whatever, that sounds good. The inching felt organic. It felt like the langorous twitches of a single colossal creature, or maybe a colony composed of many smaller organisms. I thought, this is what it feels like to be part of a coral reef. And as the ocean flowed around us, we bent to follow it.
Some people sat in trees. Some stood on garbage cans. Many hefted homemade signs emblazoned with creative and amusing slogans — anti-Trump, pro-woman, pro-immigrant, some of them employing profanity, quite a few of them sporting artful renderings of male as well as female anatomy. Among my favorites: “I FART IN YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION,” quoting Monty Python; “Women of Earth Unite,” which had a nice, sci-fi ring to it; “TRUMP EATS PIZZA WITH A FORK,” a damning accusation; and, even more damning for those of us who care about music, “TRUMP LIKES NICKELBACK.” Shudder.
The most striking poster I saw all day was the portrait of an orange-haired figure grabbing Lady Liberty’s crotch. The sweetest one stated, with fetching simplicity, “MY MOM IS MY HERO.” I told the young man that I liked his sign. “Thanks,” he replied. “I like my mom.”
It was that kind of day, marked with brief conversations (“I flew in from Seattle/Missouri/California!”), briefer admonitions (“watch out for the curb!”) and helping hands. Marchers assisted a woman having a panic attack in the crowd. On a metro platform that morning, a man collapsed — and was quickly attended by two nurses and a doctor, all three women in bright pink “pussy hats.”
From the time I first heard about the Million Women March, it seemed larger than politics. It seemed more than a sum of its many particulate issues and complaints against Donald Trump. As a mother of two daughters and a son, and as a human being who views the rights of one as the rights of all, I knew I had to be there. I had to get my body down to the masses assembling in D.C.
At some point in the midst of the morning rally along Independence, as speakers bleated out barely audible bits of rhetoric (“this is the upside of the downside,” I heard Steinem say, and that’s about it), word got out that the march itself had been officially canceled. Too many people. Now way for us to move toward the White House, because the entire way was already clogged. But the mass of bodies had other ideas. It marched anyway, the thick clutch of arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks finally giving a little, breathing a little, chanting a lot:
“We want a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!
“We’re women! We’re loud! We’re nasty! We’re proud!
“Show me what democracy looks like! / This is what democracy looks like!”
The mass wound its way toward the White House. But it didn’t stop there. It kept going, bleeding out into the artery of connecting streets. At the intersection of H Street and Vermont Ave I finally dropped, pooped, onto a concrete block and started chatting with a similarly knackered woman and her daughter. They were from Oregon, it turned out. We talked about the day, the thick crowds, the sense of a giant creature moving as one. The Roar. And as we chatted, I glance across the street and saw a statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish general who helped defeat the British at the Battle of Saratoga.
Kosciusko. A foreigner who aided the American Revolution. It seemed apt.
So maybe the Million Women March drew a million people; maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was the start of a new revolution; maybe it wasn’t. But as a member of the swarm in Washington, as witness to a vast, variegated gaggle united in hope and human kinship, I will say this: It felt like history.