Like any New York City kid my age, I have these events as the bookends to my childhood: Just before my first memories was the September 11, 2001 attack; Donald Trump’s election serves as the prologue to my coming-of-age.
In between was a confusing tangle that included rising bigotry against Muslims; an opposite, liberal force of growing acceptance; a conversation about race under Obama’s presidency; the creation of universal health care; the legalization of gay marriage; and the seeming promise of the first female president. I thought that reproductive freedom was assured and girls would grow up knowing they could become leaders. I was wrong.
On Friday, January 20, in the moment before Donald Trump was about to be inaugurated in my government class’s live stream of the event, I walked out in protest.
A bus full of Broadway activists
Well, I sort of walked out in protest. I actually left to get on a bus to the Women’s March on Washington with my mom. My class had looked kind of depressed, especially when compared to my fourth grade class’s joyous viewing of Obama’s inauguration. I felt almost glad that I had avoided watching the fateful moment.
Our family friend Valerie, who had organized the bus trip, kicked it off with some call-and-response:
“When I say WE WANT, you say JUSTICE!”
“When I say PEOPLE, you say POWER!”
And in the middle of that depressing day, the 40 women on the bus perked up.
I listened on my phone to Obama’s speech about the origin of his iconic “fired up, ready to go” chant: At a dreary campaigning event in 2008, a woman wearing a “big church hat” piped up with the chant. The room repeated it back. Obama started to feel fired up.
That’s how we were on the bus to Washington that rainy New York day, “fired up, ready to go,” energized as Valerie led us through the chants. Amidst this energy, Obama’s voice continued to filter into the background from my phone: “One voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city,” he said. “It can change the world.”
To me, that speech could easily be the story of the Women’s March. We learned two days later that it was one of the largest one-day, worldwide protests ever. It started from a mere Facebook post by a woman in Hawaii and culminated with over 700 gatherings in over 60 countries.
There I was, on the bus Valerie had organized for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a theater-based nonprofit that helps people receive life-saving medication, health care, and other support services. Learning about my fellow bus-riders gave me a picture of the staggeringly wide web that the arts world provides. Trump regularly belittles artists and has reportedly planned to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, and these were just a few of the people who would be affected by the delegitimization of the arts.
We met Renee, who works for a theater curtain and set company. There was Beth, a proprietor of a tavern serving the Broadway crowd, along with the tavern’s manager, Onika. Nancy, who works in advertising. Amy, an actor, playwright, and teacher.
We were comfortable, hopeful, and excited as we rolled towards Washington. When we got to Baltimore, we laughed that we should sing Hairspray’s “Good Morning Baltimore.”
We had to stay the night in Baltimore because the D.C. hotels had been filled. We ate dinner at a restaurant that was playing the inauguration on its bar T.V., and we felt encouraged, in a sardonic way, that the best act Trump could get was a cellist with bagpipers.
But we were still angry. “I want more people to be outraged,”Amy said. Huddled around a table in the restaurant, we discussed our anger at Trump’s attacks on journalism, on the arts, and on the people of our nation.
All these threats were quite tangible. During the campaign season, Trump supporters compiled something called “The List” of journalists they believed were trying to rig the election for Hillary Clinton––and my brother is on it, with a red X over his face. While I don’t believe my brother is in any real danger, the nation’s trust in the media is.
From the next table, an Iowa woman and her daughter, also headed for the march, called to us, “See you tomorrow, ladies!”
Our table erupted in cheer. Everyone else in the restaurant turned around and eyed us critically.
At the hotel, I made signs: “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” for me to carry and “Keep America Kind––Fight for it––I stand with John Lewis” for my mom.
On my bedside table, I placed “March,” Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novel-memoir about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, and a stuffed animal of the Obamas’ dog Bo.
An organic, artsy protest
The next day, at the march, I saw signs of the organic nature of the march everywhere.
My mom remarked on how unusual it was that all the signs were individually drawn rather than mass-printed. The abundant “pussyhats” that colored the crowd hot pink (named in crafty allusion to Donald Trump’s lewd comments caught by Access Hollywood) were all hand-knit or hand-sewn, as well.
I took pictures with a few other young women with Beyonce-inspired posters. (They all happened to be from New York.) Other signs proclaimed, “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE,” “KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF MY RIGHTS,” and “TRUMP IS WORSE THAN UMBRIDGE.”
Images of uteruses, a giant tampon, and slogans like “pussy grabs back” were likely the easiest to ridicule for people who disagreed with the march, but they were among the most important. It was a protest against a president that has shamed women’s bodies countless times and even bragged about sexual assault.
We stood among the crowd a few blocks away from the stage. Frustratingly, we were not close enough to hear the words of any of my feminist idols––Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Alicia Keys—but the surrounding crowd kept us engaged. We chanted, “Love! Not hate! Makes America Great!” and “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!”
I had never been in such an enormous, dense crowd of people who shared my beliefs and eagerness to shout about them.
After the election, I felt estranged. I realized that there was a half of America I neither knew nor understood. An America that had voted in a man who trampled on the fabric of what made America so great already.
But here, strangers conversed, sang together, and complimented each other on their signs. Internet was down, and people were forced to talk to each other (gasp!) to find out what was happening. This was the America I understood: one that stood in solidarity even when under overwhelming pressures.
For several hours, we were stuck in place like sardines. Since it meant the entire march route was filled with protesters, I was glad to stand there and listen to the chants.
When we finally moved, it was even better. We booed Trump’s hotel as we passed, and I laughed at the thought of the Trump International Hotel guests being booed for five hours straight as the infinite crowd streamed by. We made ourselves impossible to ignore.
Sometimes there were no other Asian Americans in sight, but at least the people around us could see my mom and me.
Hear us roar
My grandfather wrote a memoir called “Immigrant Son,” carries a Constitution in his wallet, and donates to the American Civil Liberties Union every year. He told me over the phone about his experience at a march during the Civil Rights Movement.
He couldn’t remember what it was, but my mom thought it was the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march: “People, including myself, were sleeping on the floor of the old yellow school bus because there were so many people,” he said. “And they sang all the way down to Washington! It was hymns. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Music has a power to inspire.”
The day after the march, back in New York, I saw a Facebook video of women at the Women’s March on Washington singing a song they had never rehearsed together. “I can’t keep quiet no more,” the song said. The harmonies were beautiful, and the lead singer was an Asian American woman. I wished that I had seen it at the march. I also thought my grandfather would have liked it.
I’ve been taking American free speech for granted all my life. Now that the executive branch proclaims the media the “opposition party,” I am genuinely scared.
I can only hope that this march will be in future textbooks as an example of a whole lot of Americans effectively exercising their right to free speech, maybe as a defining moment of third wave feminism, or maybe as the beginning of a whole new movement. As something that made journalism more important than ever.
I was also comforted by the knowledge that, with the help of the media, most people immediately saw through White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s lies that tried to undermine the march. In a time when the president is trying to sweep truth under a rug, the presence of hundreds of thousands of people in bright pink “pussyhats” is hard for anyone to deny. We were there to be heard. And we were.