Going to protests is not something I do anymore, but my conscience kept nagging at me. All week long I remembered saying to my daughters when they were young, “If you don’t like something, speak up.” And here I was, unhappy and silent.
I didn’t make up my mind until Friday evening to go to the Woman’s March, after the reality of what had happened had set in. I felt really isolated and as if my voice hadn’t and didn’t count. I’m sure that a lot of people felt that way when Obama was elected and now I understood them. I felt like I wanted to take my country back.
On Saturday morning, I went to the station at the end of the Metro Green Line in Norwalk. At 9:00 AM, nobody was there. Only a few people on the train. I started thinking, ‘Am I going to be out on a march with three people?” When I transferred to the Blue Line train, it was an entirely different story. Men, women and families, a lot of them, where on the train. The train was sprinkled with the pink pussyhats that had virally become the rage just 48 hours before. Every stop we added more people until eventually, we just didn’t stop until we got to Metro Center.
Once up on the street, I was in what I considered a crowd immediately. We all walked toward Pershing Square where the march was to start. There were two things that I noticed right away. First, there were a lot of different kinds people there and they were excited, engaged and unafraid. There was almost a party atmosphere. Second, there were almost no police in sight. I will say right now that the LAPD handled this event perfectly. Everything was low key with the police having long conversations with the protesters, not always agreeing but everyone remaining respectful. I, and hundreds of other demonstrators, shook the hands of every cop we met. We need each other more than ever.
The closest I got to Pershing Square was three blocks away. As we stood there chanting and hooting and hollering and I could feel all of the frustration I’d felt over the horrible year we’d all been through. All of the yelling and lying that passed for a campaign, all of the fear that Russia has it’s hooks in our country, all of the anxiety over what comes next went away. I wasn’t alone. Other people think like I do. A lot of them. I felt lifted up for the first time in long time.
All of a sudden a chant went up from far away. It took a while to reach us and it’s message was mysterious, “Go to Seventh. Turn Left.” It got louder and louder while we all stood around and tried to figure out what was meant. Then it changed. “Turn Around. Go to Seventh. Turn Left.” We were so far way from the march that we had to turn around and go back a block away to merge into it. Almost as one person, we all swung around and headed up to Seventh Street. The march had begun.
As we turned the corner, a young woman was chanting, “Tell me what democracy looks like?” To which she got the response, “THIS is what democracy looks like.” The sound pressure was like a rock concert. I was instantly and completely emotional. I was full of pride, anger and joy all the same time. A hot tear rolled down my cheek and I didn’t try to hide it.
I got caught up by everything around me. The women, thousands of them, of every possible age and race and in every imaginable costume. About a third of the crowd were men and there were a large number of children, especially younger girls marching with their families, but sometimes just with Dad. That really hit me. I told my daughter to stand up for what she believes in, this father was showing his daughter how.
The conversations between young and old, white and black about Trump or Hillary or Bernie or abortion or contraception, not always in consensus, but talking none the less. Calmly. Often with laughter.
To that point, there were a number of Trump supporters there as were a number of anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood demonstrators. The Planned Parenthood protesters parked in the middle of the street so that the group would have to part around them. And that’s what happened. For the most part they were a rock in a moving river, they didn’t impede the flow. And the few people that did engage them were civil. In fact, that the most amazing thing, outside of the chants, there was almost no yelling.
The Trump supporters came mostly to see what was going on. One of them got interviewed by an internet blogging channel. The questions were respectful and I think minds on both sides got changed a little bit. In a humorous moement, an airplane with a banner reading “CONGRATULATIONS PRESIDENT TRUMP” orbited almost unnoticed over the crowd that was between 500,000 and 750,000 strong.
It wasn’t until the march arrived at City Hall that I understood how many people were there. If you looked up every major street it was packed as far as the eye could see with people. I got within 200 feet of the stage, but the sound system was horribly undersized. You could hear about every third syllable, like the speeches were being made via a bad cell phone connection.
But it didn’t matter. In the end, I think we were all there to be with each other. The people around me would cheer when those who could hear the speeches did. Farther away, spontaneous demonstrations took on a life of their own. A couple of times I was overwhelmed all of it and my heart would overflow, especially when I would talk to people and try to explain how I felt. A couple of times they cried too. We were together. There are no words that communicate how amazing that felt.
Soon it was time to go and deal with the commute back to my parked car. The Metro Center was packed.
To get on the blue line, you turn a corner, walk about 100 feet, go up some stairs, cross the tracks (about fifty feet) and then descend the stairs to the platform. On a normal day, this is about a three minute task. On this day, it took an hour to reach the top of the staircase and another half hour to descend to the platform.
There was a crush of people and it was unbearably hot. I’d managed to psych myself all the way to the boarding platform where there were about a dozen rows of people ahead of me waiting for the next train. My pulse had been racing for about a half an hour and I was getting light headed. I knew I was about to have a panic attack.
I’ve had them for the last 25 years. I’ve gotten pretty good at controlling them, but this situation was really taxing me. Usually when I have a panic attack, it’s strictly an internal affair but this time was different. I was actually panicking. I could hear myself saying, “I have to get out.” as I pulled people out of my way and started heading for the stairs. Each second I felt closer to death.
At the bottom of the stairway, there was a knot of people. I looked at the woman closest to me and said, “I’m having a panic attack, I have to get out of here.” She turned and yelled up the stairs, “This guy needs out! Make a hole!”
Like magic, there was a clear path up the stairs along the railing. At the top, the biggest black man I’ve ever seen said, “You look like shit, ” and started moving forward through the crowd, making a path for me. What took an hour and half was retraced in about three minutes. Soon I was standing in the cool fresh air hanging on a newspaper box, looking like I’d just climbed out of a collapsed building. It took forever, but the blackness that overcame me in the subway eventually receded and I could deal.
Just across the street, I noticed a bus that ran to the Green Line station. I got on. While it too was crowded, the air conditioning was on full blast and there were windows. I could handle it. I met some people coming back from the rally and we talked. But mostly I watched the poor neighborhoods of Figueroa Street pass by. Not unlike a neighborhood Trump warned you about getting shot in.
Yes, there were security gates, but there were kids playing in the street. There were mini-flea markets and people cooking tamales and tapas on burners with ice chests full of drinks. Hard working poor people got on and off the bus, carrying heavy backpacks, weary from work that doesn’t pay enough.
There were old ladies who couldn’t speak a lick of English swiping through pictures of their families on their cell phones. Or the young black girl who offered to give up her seat because she had overheard me telling someone about my panic attack. Or the young man who came on in a hoodie and shades who stood next to me and asked, “You go to that march?” When I answered that I had, he simply nodded, “Cool…that’s cool.”
In the neighborhood that I was passing through, I had no illusions that many of the people I was riding with or seeing out the window were not here legally. But they are here. Going to work on the bus, coming home exhausted, barely making it. Aren’t they, at long last, because of their contribution to our society, Americans too? When did they become less than human? What is wrong with us?
What did we just do?
When I got to the Green Line station, the feelings of dread were washed away. I had a beautiful view of downtown LA. The memories of what had just happened wrapped around me like a warm blanket, staving off the chill wind that swirled across the platform. I remembered the women and men and children. I remembered the chanting and laughing and cheering. The quick kindness of the people at the Metro Center. All those decent hard working people on the bus. For the first time in a long time, I felt happy and at peace.
America is already great. This is what democracy looks like.