The last time I was part of a massive protest march was November 15, 1969, in Washington DC to end the War in Vietnam. It was major. I wrote a novel about it. This past Saturday, I was in Chicago, part of the Worldwide Women’s March to maintain our hard-won rights. It was bigger. It will be mentioned in inevitable books to be written four years from now. In both cases, I immediately knew I just had to be there, if for nothing else than to be counted.
The first song at Saturday’s rally was Let it Be and 48 years dropped away
Back in ’69 I’d arrived in DC sleepless, after an all-night trip on one of three school buses taking 200 of us from Northern Illinois University to what we were certain would be the end of the war. I froze in a threadbare pea coat left over from high school and gym shoes that got so muddy I had to pitch them the minute I returned. I had three PB&J sandwiches in my paisley bag along with a knit hat to hide my red hair so my military mother wouldn’t see me on TV and realize that I’d gone even though she’d pitched that fit. “What do you mean you have to be there?”
We were full of purpose and joy –everyone was so friendly, eager to know where you were from, what protests were going on at our campus, to show off their homemade signs and share buttons. “I’ll trade you my green Texas SMC (Student Mobilization Against the War) for your blue SDS. We were walking posters of cross-country solidarity. The only tension was over how to greet new friends. But soon, even if you got it wrong and they answered your peace sign with a clenched fist or vice versa, embarrassment turned to giggles and it didn’t matter. So much was going on. Though we were there to demand that Nixon end the war, there were lots of ‘isms” about other issues that blurred in the background—communism, Marxism-- debates about peace vs violence. I warmed my hands by a fire while listening to an anarchist. He was cute so I listened. It didn’t matter. I was there and would be counted in the million plus number we were certain we’d hit and Nixon wouldn’t be able to ignore.
The New Yorker called Saturday’s pink sea “radiant with love and dissent.” It was equally full of purpose and joy. We snapped selfies instead of traded buttons, showed each other our witty—sometimes smutty--signs, marveled at how far people had travelled, asked each other what activism we had planned, and obeyed orders by staying off the grass. I was in a perfectly warm Cole Haan jacket and Mephisto walking shoes. The only tension was wondering how long my lower back would put up with standing on pavement. I was not nineteen any more. The message was equally messy. We were there to demand Trump not roll back our rights, but the speakers spilled over into calling for Rahm’s ouster… union rights. Someone was trying to give away a free pair of Ivanka Trump sandals. I laughed, having fun while knowing I’d be counted among the numbers that were escalating from 50,000 to 75,000 to 250,000. Who’d ever seen so many people in one place? I mean…not since ‘69. After, we stopped for lunch in a cozy spot over hip health food and reflected.
Had to be there
I was motivated in ‘69 to do whatever I could, including putting myself in jeopardy, to be counted as against a policy that simply could not stand. After that I moved on from activism. Nearly 50 years later I feel equally threatened.
My late mother often told my sister and I that she’d been certain we’d have so much more freedom than she’d experienced in career, marriage, family—all of it. She’d gone as far as she could in her day and wanted us to go farther and we did. But she was disappointed it hadn’t been more. Yesterday, there was a post from my second cousin who is a diplomat in the foreign service awaiting the birth of her second child, with no paid maternity leave. She has to decide to take either a financial or a professional hit over her “choice” to have a baby. She hopes her two-year old daughter won’t face the same decision.
The past is not past, it isn’t even dead. What I object to is the hamster wheel of things. I reject the way a new administration is coming into completely repeal the work of the previous one, and how that will tee up the next to do the same. Massive programs like Medicare and the Affordable Care Act don’t arrive perfectly operable. There are a lot of moving parts. We start with what makes sense based upon what we know and then we need to work to make it better. Sure it’s messy. If we repeal instead of refine, they’ll be another plan with its own messes that will either be rejected or refined and we’ll keep going in the wheel of negative progress so my cousin’s daughter will still be fighting and being threatened by the repeal of Roe vs Wade. Just Let It Be.
That’s why, after so many years, the Women’s March has helped me come out of my radical sleep. The voice of my own novel reminds me. This time, my mother would have agreed it was worth it. She may never have understood the antiwar part, but the woman’s rights part, she’d SO get that. She would have come to the march. She looked great in pink.
She would have known it was important just to be there.