Anger and Empathy: The Lasting Accomplishments of the Women’s March on Washington — Part II

By David Himmel

"Anger and Empathy" is a three-part report. The final installation will be published tomorrow. Read Part I here.

Signs, Splinters, Pregnancy and Lesbian Farmers

Nicolette had booked our stay at the home of a fellow musician friend’s parents in Falls Church, Virginia. The Potrykos family provided the perfect crash pad. A basement with enough air mattresses, blankets, snacks and endearing hospitality to make any unknown out-of-town protester feel perfectly at home. Mr. Potrykos deals in real estate and had secured us exclusive credentials to park in the underground garage of Patriot Plaza,  located just a few blocks from where the rally was meant to take place the next morning.

It was late when we arrived at their doorstep, but they didn’t seem to mind one bit. Happy we were there, happy we arrived safely. After an hour of chatting around the fireplace, we retired to our respective air mattresses and overslept.

We didn’t stress too hard over the late start. Falls Church was only a twenty- or thirty-minute drive to D.C. But then, traffic—uh-duh—was a nightmare. It took us an hour to get even close to where we wanted to be. The Prius did well in traffic. Dean drove as Nicolette’s friend—now all of ours—Kate Potrykos, navigated while Jessica and Nicolette announced clearings in lanes and warned of obstacles ahead, as well as commenting on the signs being carried by the droves of people heading to the rally. I was focused on the Prius’ dashboard, mesmerized by its accounting of power used and levels of the best environmentally-friendly performance. It made me feel guilty for owning a strictly gas-powered car. And a Volkswagen at that. If I wasn’t the patriarchal enemy of women, I was certainly the gas-guzzling enemy of the environment.

“Tell you the truth,” Dean said, “I’d rather have a GTI driving in this kind of traffic.”

Ah yes. Redemption. Gas makes the ass move.

With the most direct route to Patriot Plaza blocked off, as well as the next three routes, Kate and the app Waze suggested zigzagging through D.C.’s neighborhoods. Having grown bored of the Prius’ dashboard eco-shaming me, I took notice of what was happening around us. Women, men, the old, the young, black, white, brown, etc., liberals and potential progressives occupied every block as they made their way to the rally and the start of the march. Protest signs hung from apartment balconies. Two of which I saw multiple of, bothered me.

1)    “Not Our Bigot”
Fact is, he is our bigot. We elected him. Well, the Electoral College elected him but the Electoral College is still a system we allow to exist. And that he is our bigot is why we were all there. That’s why we’re all gathering in protest, right? To oppose the bigot we allowed to get into the White House because of our long history of party politics, identity politics, dirty politics and a comfortable notion of faux American exceptionalism. (That it was Trump vs. Clinton is also a part of this self-centered, egoist behavior.) We failed ourselves for too long and Trump was the end result. But that’s the thing, the end is here. We’re now against the wall and we have to see to it that his bigotry does not succeed.

I say this to those who voted for him, too. Because, if it hasn’t happened already, many of those voters will see the error of their ways as the Brotherhood of Evil CEOs continues to strip down regulations that keep all of us safer and healthier. The swamp Trump said he was going to drain will only continue to flood. The schools to which we send our kids will crumble faster and harder, and without the majority of Americans realizing this and stepping up to fight against it, we’ll all fail and our bigot will have won.

So, yeah, dismissing him as “Not Our Bigot” is missing the whole goddamn point of making the sign in the first place.

2)    “Love Trumps Hate”
Plain and simple, it’s terrible copywriting. And it’s that kind of all-thumbs marketing the Clinton campaign championed that helped solidify her loss and Trump’s win. I understand the sentiment. But for Christ’s sake, the slogan against him uses his name. When I was a radio disk jockey, I worked for a station whose direct competitor was called Sunny 106.5. My program director instructed all of us to never use the word “sunny” when giving the weather report. “We don’t ever want the listener to think about Sunny. Use sunshine instead.” It was a challenge because we were in Las Vegas, a town with weather that is mostly sunshine. The Clinton Campaign would have been better served to keep the idea of Trump out of mind entirely. It failed miserably.

There was a hefty segment of the campaign that focused on pointing out how mean and offensive he was. But voters didn’t care about all that. What Clinton should have done was focus on her capabilities rather than his inabilities. Because the Trump campaign fed off of any and all attention. Using his name against him only fed the hungry beast. And worst of all, the slogan “Love Trumps Hate” is one rogue apostrophe away from declaring love Trump’s hate.

The March, I was realizing, was the moment when all Americans were being called to action to own up to our failures and make amends.

If the March was going to be a success, if real progress was going to find a way to beat our bigot, we had to be aware of semantics and our missteps and, most of all, aware of the reality that faced us and aware of the future that reality would provide.

Finally, at our reserved parking space we unloaded, geared up and set out to the rally.

 

Some of the more vulgar but direct signs.

Jessica Comfort is weird in that Portland way of being weird, which is to say she’s interesting. She lives in a house that is half boat on all land. She used to make and sell handbags for a living, but has moved into the business of antiques and now runs the store with her boyfriend. They focus on mid-century items because that’s what sells. However, she has a penchant for Edwardian things, and although it’s part of her job description to buy and collect old stuff other people don’t want in order to sell it to other people who do want it, she admits to being an Edwardian clothing hoarder. So no, her Edwardian fashions are not for sale.

Because of her skills as a seamstress, she was able to, at the last minute before leaving Chicago, round up the materials needed to whip up a clear backpack so that we had a bag that met March standards to carry our snacks and bottles of water. The request from the March organizers to allow only clear bags of a certain size was for safety reasons. And so we saw lots of marchers with transparent backpacks hanging from their shoulders. Not a one looked homemade, and all of them were smaller than the allowed size, save for ours. I felt a rush of superiority that we had the most unique transparent, plastic backpack made by my friend, and I had to remind myself not to be a competitive asshole. This was not the place for that sort of behavior. I was there to do good and I needed to be better.

In the thick of it—everyone was in the thick of it—I stood mostly by myself. Jessica and Nicolette and Kate were bunched up in front of me and Dean was off filming. I stood next to a group of young women. They were loud, they raised their signs when the excitement called for audience participation. They had dyed hair and bright lipstick and multiple ear piercings. One of them, however, was less animated. She had shoulder length brown hair, little makeup, earlobe piercings only and the kind of light winter jacket that you’d find in any outdoor store in any shopping center in any city. I tell you this because her appearance matters only to show the contrast between her and her friends. She looked more middle-America—the kind of voter Trump appealed to most—than she did libtard-America, which is probably how most opponents might describe most March attendees. And that, of course, is idiotic.

Then I noticed she was pregnant. Six, maybe seven months in. The weather that morning, as Madonna cursed and challenged the conventions of singing on pitch, was in the balmy low fifties. The hive of hundreds of thousands were mostly—from my vantage point—in light layers with scarves, hats and some gloves. But this girl stripped off her jacket and fanned her sweater at the collar and then at the waist. She shifted and stretched. The standing had made her uncomfortable in her considerable physical state of pregnancy. I empathized with her discomfort, though I had never experienced any of the discomforts pregnancy brings. But hey, discomfort is uncomfortable. I know that much.

Gloria Steinem. Ashley Judd. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. California Senator Kamala Harris. Six-year-old Sophia Cruze. Token white man, Michael Moore. All the speakers rallied the crowd. There were cheers and there was applause. Signs were hoisted and waved. But not from this young pregnant woman. She was trying to find some semblance of comfort within the crowd. But she did have a sign. The small piece of poster board read, “For the little girl on the way.”

There are plenty of women who have never experienced sexual assault, or workplace discrimination, or have had to make the awful choice between keeping or terminating a pregnancy, or have been concerned about not being able to afford healthcare. And many of those women were there. They were there because they had loved ones who had been, or are at risk. They had seen the horrors of injustice before and had heard the rhetoric that had allowed those injustices to occur—even encouraged them.

If the March was going to be a success, if real progress was going to find a way to beat our bigot, we had to be aware of semantics and our missteps and, most of all, aware of the reality that faced us and aware of the future that reality would provide.

And that’s what’s important. It didn’t matter what you had experienced or how you had been wronged as much as it was about the crime of anyone being wronged. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reverberated in my mind: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That quote had made it onto a few signs as well.

I don’t know what the young, pregnant woman was concerned about specifically. “For the little girl on the way.” Perhaps her concern was climate change. Because if the Brotherhood of Evil CEOs gets its druthers, her little girl on the way might spend her sixtieth birthday drowning under the weight of melted ice caps or not getting to blow out the candles on her cake because there won’t be enough oxygen in the atmosphere to allow fire to burn. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was there and by being there, she was poised to protect her daughter from hate and villainy.

She noticed the bottled water in Jessica’s clear backpack. “Excuse me,” she said, tapping Jessica’s shoulder. “Can I buy a bottle of water from you?”

Jessica, Nicolette, Kate and I instantly sprang into action opening the bag, digging down toward one of the bottles, our hands getting in the way. We told her, “No, no. It’s yours. Of course. Take it. Yes, absolutely.”

“Can I give you a dollar?” she asked.

“Are you kidding. We brought this for everyone,” Nicolette said.

The water, the snacks, the tampons… everything in everyone’s clear plastic backpack was for everyone. Even for the baby girls on the way. And probably the baby boys, too.

Still, I teetered back and forth between feeling empowered and a part of the gathered mass to feeling like an interloper. An unwanted guest. A helicopter parent at a teenager’s make out party. A speaker at the rally, a male, I don’t know who it was—I missed his introduction—and I’ve been unable to find any record of him since, took hold of the microphone after Scarlett Johansen spoke and said, “As men, we must protect our women!” This garnered some grumbles, low-register boos and hisses and sideways glances from the crowd. And I thought, Whoa, brother! Tread lightly. It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it. Jesus, you’re going to get us guys killed! I understood what he meant. He was telling men that we needed to join our women, our sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, cousins, et. al., in the fight against injustice. He just used the wrong words.

Perhaps he was part of the Clinton Campaign. Great intention, poor execution. Bad copywriting. Myopic in oration.

There were other triggers. Another sign.

“Knock Out the Patriarchy,” with a drawing of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries presented as boxing gloves. I loved the artistry of it. It was clever. But it made me feel like a bad guy, like the enemy.

These women were angry. They were angry about a lot of things but they could find common ground in the common cause of being angry at white men—men like me. Even though their collective disdain toward the general population of my kind was never directed at me, it was hard not to feel guilty and responsible. I knew and I know I’m not to blame. But plenty of people not unlike me are to blame. OK, maybe I’ve forgotten the time(s) I was an insensitive prick who used his privilege for self-promotion and evil instead of for good. But I can’t remember when. And if I ever was, I am sorry. I spent much of the time marching in Washington on revisiting my own privileged life. I didn’t find myself guilty but the feeling continued to flirt with me.

 

 

When the rally concluded, we headed toward the direction of where the march was meant to go—west on Independence Avenue—like slow cattle leaving the corral for a long drive. We quickly got stuck. A traffic jam of smiling, happy, empowered people unlike anything I’d seen before took form. For as angry as women were for the decades and decades of mistreatment, they sure were full of grins. From the vantage point on top of a sand-filled dump truck in the middle of the street, you could see that the sprawling D.C. landscape was jam packed. Everyone was trying to march but no one was moving. No one could move.

“There’s too many people. Can’t march,” an older white man said to me. “The march is canceled,”  he said. I considered that he was from the opposition, sent in to hinder the march’s success through courtly deception.

I looked around at the others, my friends and strangers, who had heard this and we confirmed that the March may have been a bust. The five of us decided to move away from the center and find a restaurant to have lunch and exploit their plumbing. The several cups of coffee we had downed back in Falls Church had taken hold of our bladders like an occupying force. As we headed away from the center of it all, we got wrapped up in what appeared to be the actual march that we’d been told had been canceled.

Ah ha! The old white man was an enemy agent for sure.

But no. Not at all. As it’s well known now, there were too many people to march down the pre-determined path. And so the people broke off into three or four splinter marches. It was organic. Maybe some were heading for their cars or walking home or in search of port-a-potties. We became part of a march made of several hundred thousand women, men and kids of all colors, shapes and sizes. We were moving. We were doing what we came there to do. Our urine took a back seat.

We chanted:
“Tell me what democracy looks like!
This is what democracy looks like!”

“Her body, her choice!”
My body, my choice!”

We had to stop every few yards so other marchers could take photos of Jessica and Nicolette with their signs. One was a freeze frame of Rick Astley in his Never Gonna Give You Up video with the words, “Human Rights, Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.” The other was a photo of Kathy Bates as Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes. It was the scene in the Winn Dixie parking lot after Evelyn has the parking spot she’d been waiting on stolen by “younger and faster” girls in a Volkwagen Bug. As the girls stroll off flipping their hair at Evelyn, she proceeds to ram her larger, heavier car into the back of the bug causing it to crumple. The girls run back out screaming at her, “Are you crazy?!” Her response is a stonecold stare and the line, “Face it girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.” But Jessica’s sign was written:

            "Face it girls.
            I’m older and I have more insur…
                  Oh wait… Damn it."

We continued. There were smiles everywhere. Jessica and Nicolette marched in step with each other, their arms around one another. Their friendship had been bonded by fun and feminism, and here they were sharing that bond with half-a-million other people. It was like watching the final dance scene of a Bollywood film.

In the running for Best Signs.

In the running for Best Signs.

A tall, dark-skinned man with a beard was leading our march in song. “This little light of mine… I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” He led the crowd through six different versus of This Little Light of Mine. When he stopped, a black woman and her friend, an older white woman, worked hard to cram different, event-specific lyrics into the song. “Won’t let Trump put it out… I’m gonna let it shine.” It didn’t last long.        

There was what seemed to be an endless amount of marchers and sign wavers coming along with us. And there were spectators with signs lining the sidewalks and overpasses as we made our way through town. I had no idea where I was in relation to where I wanted to be or where we were headed. And maybe that’s because we had no destination. We were marching, so, I suppose, we were exactly where we needed to be.

At Independence Avenue and 12th Street SE, I was swallowed by a rush of people. We had marched straight into another splinter march. Maybe three other splinter marches. It was hard to tell. The scene was erratic. All of these different songs and chants being sung and chanted at the same time. We were momentarily stuck the way we were before the one march split off into what we were facing now. The five of us were being separated. I shouted to them all, “Over there!” and pointed to a patch of sidewalk next to a food truck that looked like a safe place. We pushed our way up and across stream to get there.

Jessica and Nicolette had to pose for more photos with their signs.

I’ve been to crowded places before: Disney World, summer concert festivals, the Mexican–American border in Tijuana. In most traffic-related instances, I’ve felt and participated in a purging of internal rage and hatred toward and against my fellow human. That is, after all, the leading side effect of traffic jams. In all instances, we become enraged because other people are in our goddamn way, preventing us from living our lives and doing what we want to do when we want to do it. That could have so easily been the case at Independence and 12th. Instead, everyone—from the fringes of the traffic jam to the eye of its storm—remained calm, friendly and in good spirits toward one another.

All of our anger was directed at the man who was at the real cause of the jam—President Trump. We wouldn’t have been there without him. And I imagined him during an important speech in the Rose Garden years from now bragging off topic that there had never been a bigger protest for any other president, and so immediately after taking office.

Clear of the fray, we made our way back down Independence Avenue. Dean zigzagged the street capturing images of the aftermath. We were getting closer to where the rally took place hours ago. Jessica and Nicolette remained lovable figures because of their witty signs.

Finally, the five of us were together as one and we walked past the Air and Space Museum, which is where we were standing during the rally. We laughed at ourselves and then cursed ourselves. We couldn’t see them at the time because of all the people and the signs and the pussy hats. Barely fifty yards from where we were stood two-dozen port-a-potties. We seized them.

 

 

Kate split off from us at Patriot Plaza to host a dinner party of sorts at the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. The four of us settled into the Prius and relished resting our legs. I called my old family friends, Gerred and Holly Howe, who currently live in D.C. We had planned on meeting up at the rally but clogged cellular service made communicating across the sea of pink headwear difficult. With the march(es) mostly over, there was finally enough reception that our phone calls could get through to each other.

“Come over. We’re drinking wine and talking about the day. We’d love to hear your stories,” Gerred said.

“I now have hope and I’m finally latched onto it,” Jessica said as we drove to Gerred and Holly’s house.

We met a few of Gerred and Holly’s other friends who had come to town for the march. We passed our phones around to show the photos we’d taken in a friendly challenge of who saw the best signs at our respective marches. Phog, the Howe’s new puppy, made violent love to the elder dog’s bed while she, Sally, watched on with affectionate disdain. We drank beers and got a little drunk on the amazement that marches took place all over the world, on all seven continents.

The other friends had flights to catch and Gerred drove them to the airport. Holly and the four of us walked to Far East Tacos, described to us by Holly as a delicious hole in the wall. We weren’t the only ones who had this idea. The small to-go restaurant was full of marchers with empty stomachs. There were more waiting in the parking lot. The young woman working the register, and the two male cooks were not expecting the rush. They were out of several items including the steak I was hoping to get on my tacos. Holly assured me that anything I ordered would be delicious and hit the spot. I’m not a picky eater and in the 24 years that I’ve known Holly, I have always put my absolute trust in her advice.

We over ordered and took our wait to the liquor store next door. I grabbed a six-pack of a light lager, Jessica and Nicolette purchased a large bottle of Jose Cuervo Grapefruit, Tangerine Margarita. We returned to Far East. The same energy we had experienced all day was still going strong despite the reduced menu and long wait for grub. Holly opened a beer. Jessica and Nicolette got into the margarita using the small, plastic cups intended for sauces as shot glasses.

“Here,” Nicolette said lining up three more plastic shot glasses. Dean came back in from the parking lot where he had been on the phone with his counterpart who had documented the Chicago march. She poured a shot for him. We toasted and drank. The drink was sweet and not my usual speed but was finding itself right at home as the alcohol made its way into my bloodstream.

“Let’s pour shots for everyone,” I suggested.

“Who wants some margarita?” Nicolette called out, her old bartender instinct kicking in.

We filled the eight or so people left in the restaurant with booze until we ran out. We even lined up shots for the Far East Taco employees working their asses of. Jessica ran to get another bottle. With everyone a little buzzed, conversations opened up. I was interested in talking to the local white guy I saw walk in earlier. He was on the phone with someone and was shocked when he saw how busy the place had been. “Whoa. It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen it. It’s probably going to be a while,” he said into the phone.

“You’re a white male,” I said as I handed him another shot of fruity, pink margarita.

“I’m a Cuban male,” he quickly corrected me.

“OK,” I said. “You’re a Cuban male. Why did you march?”

“My wife and I live here. We have a two-year-old son and a girl on the way. I wanted our son to see democracy in action. I wanted to support a movement so that our daughter has the same opportunities as our son.”

I thought back to the pregnant woman at the rally. His cause and hers were similar. And they were in line with Jessica’s and Nicolette’s, and mine and Dean’s, and Holly’s and Gerred’s. We all had quite different conditions and experiences but we had a shared desire—equality, human rights, women’s rights. In that restaurant, the reasons for marching given by the patrons never once mentioned a hate for Trump or his Brotherhood of Evil CEOs. Perhaps that was understood. But it’s important to recognize that the quick answer to Why Did You March? was about making a better future. Jessica’s hope was not hers alone.

Holly, the author, Nicolette and Jessica at Far East Tacos with their community hooch.

Holly, the author, Nicolette and Jessica at Far East Tacos with their community hooch.

And then I talked to Swan, a self-described lesbian farmer from South Georgia. Her wife, Jennifer, was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot. Together, they live on and operate a 240-acre farm on the banks of the Satilla River in Camden County, Georgia. The March, Swan told me is, “like therapy.”

Two years ago, Swan was working as a child abuse investigator and human trafficking specialist in Florida. Fortunate circumstances allowed her and Jennifer to retire and purchase the land outright. Their cost of living is incredibly low and they are able to pretty much do whatever they want with their land and their time. They use both to operate an organic farm and are almost completely self-sustainable. They grow 80 to 90 percent of their own food. They sell or barter with whatever they don’t use themselves.

They call themselves the Hairy Farmpit Girls. Because, you know, lesbians don’t shave their pits. And lesbian farmers especially don’t shave their pits. But Swan was quick to tell me that she and Jennifer both do shave their armpits. They chose the name because of the antiquated stereotype and because, well, these girls like to have fun with wordplay. They have a pig named Tammy Swinette; a donkey named Jaqueline O-Asses; goats named Billy Vanilli, Baaad, Baaad Leroy Brown and Vincent Van Goat. The chicken that never blinks is called Beth Anphetamine. “She’s mean but she really wants to be a mother. She’s always trying lay eggs,” Swan said. “Like a meth addict.” Another chicken is Ruth Bader Hensburg. The rooster with big hair is Roo Paul. There are 70 animals on the farm and they all have names like this and their own backstories.

The life Swan and Jennifer share sounds ideal. Who among us wouldn’t want to retire in their early thirties and own three-and-a-half miles of riverfront with 70 pets to keep you fed and earn you money? And for the most part, Swan and Jennifer live a charmed life on their land with their animals. Perhaps it’s the American Dream. But they’re planning to ditch the charming dream for a slightly northern way of life by moving up to Athens. It’s not something they really want to do, more something they have to do, Swan said, “Because of how Camden County is.”

Where they live, they’re the anomaly. “We drive a big pickup truck with a Clinton sticker, and a typical lesbian Subaru with a Clinton sticker. We get shit all the time,” said Swan. Their property is on a road with only a handful of homes, most of which are used as vacation or weekend getaway spots. Swan described it as a road of well-to-do southern Tea Partiers who all hate each other despite being on the same side of the political and social spectrum. “They’ll pull their guns on each other during the weekends then head back to their law firms on Monday.”

Swan with a few of her goats.

Swan with a few of her goats.

The Hairy Farmpit Girls have had guns drawn on them, too. The threats arrived shortly after arriving in Camden.

“Jen and I got married only a couple of months ago,” Swan said. “But we were together for six years before that. And when we first got the property, it was only in my name. I was out of town. Jen was walking around the property and some neighbors decided to go up and tell her that she wasn’t allowed on our property. She explained that it was her property, too, but they said that they don’t recognize our relationship and that she needed to leave the property if I wasn’t there.”

It’s not as if the neighbors come strapped looking for a fight. But the farm has fallen under siege in other ways. Like logs being thrown through their mailbox and bottle rockets launched at their donkeys. Taking issue with their lesbian lifestyle is one thing but what did a jackass do to deserve that kind of violent bullying?

Occasionally, Swan and Jen will have about sixteen kids come to the farm to play around, plant and visit with the animals. Half of the kids are white. The other half are black or biracial. When the kids are there, some neighbors will drive by the property, slowly, trying to get a glimpse of the black kids in hopes of staring them down and intimidating them.

Yet, because it’s the south, much of the distaste for the lifestyle of the Hairy Farmpit Girls is delivered in backhanded, sweet, southern politeness.

“We deal with other local farmers all the time,” Swan said. “We’ve been told that they’re against homosexuals and that we’re going to hell but they still love us and our products. They just want us to know. It’s either real polite with a hug or its whiskey-based without. But then they’ll call the next day and you can hear the hug in their voice.”

The Hairy Farmpit Girls are brave, and despite the threats and intimidations, they work hard not to live in fear. “But after the election, we were scared of everybody again,” Swan said.

As soon as they heard about the march in D.C. they knew that had to go. “We knew we wouldn’t be outcasts. We needed to be surrounded by people who weren’t just stuck in their own bubble.”

It takes a lot for both of them to leave the farm. There’s an incredible amount of planning required to keep the place running and the animals tended to. Since living there, the only other time both Swan and Jen left was for their wedding. But, Swan said, “We had to do this.” They arrived in D.C. with three other friends—all straight women from Florida—on Friday at two in the morning, “all on the same cycle.” They marched. They basked in the joy and safety of not being the freaks. Because, “it’s a losing battle when you’re in a red state.”

One-and-a-half bottles of margarita down and the whole population of Far East Tacos buzzed, our order came up and we humped it back to Holly and Gerred’s house. We tore into our food like starving savages and continued the process of communicating our thoughts on the day between bites.

To be concluded...