The Women’s March on Washington began as an errant idea posted to Facebook, right after Trump won the presidency. The notion weathered controversy to evolve into something that, on Saturday, was funereal in purpose but decidedly celebratory in tone. The march, in pretty much every way including the most literal, opposed the inaugural ceremony that had taken place the day before. On the one hand, it protested President Trump. Its participants wore not designer clothes, but jeans and sneakers and—the unofficial uniform of the event—pink knit caps with ears meant to evoke, and synonymize, cats. It had, in place of somber ritual, a festival-like atmosphere. It featured, instead of pomp and circumstance, people spontaneously breaking into dance on a spontaneously formed dance floor.
And yet in many ways, the march was also extremely similar to the inauguration whose infrastructure it had co-opted, symbolically and otherwise, for its own purposes. The Women’s March on Washington shared a setting—the Capitol, the Mall, the erstwhile inaugural parade route—with the ceremonies of January 20. And, following an election in which the victor lost the popular vote, the protest seems to have bested the inauguration itself in terms of (physical) public turnout. During a time of extreme partisanship and division—a time in which the One America the now-former president once spoke of can seem an ever-more-distant possibility—the Women’s March played out as a kind of alternate-reality inauguration: not necessarily of Hillary Clinton, but of the ideas and ideals her candidacy represented. The Women’s March was an installation ceremony of a sort—not of a new president, but of the political resistance to him.
“I DO NOT ACCEPT THIS FILTHY ROTTEN SYSTEM,” read one sign, carried by Lauren Grace, 35, of Philadelphia. She got the quote from Dorothy Day. And she intended it, Grace explained to me, to protest “a system that sort of left me out.”
“We’re told that voting is a sacred right in this country,” Grace said. “But even though Hillary won the popular vote, she still lost. I feel pretty conflicted about a country where that could happen.”
This was a big-tent protest, in other words—a messy, joyful coalescence of many different movements. The Women’s March deftly employed, in its rhetoric, the biggest of the big-tent tautologies: The point of this protest wasn’t so much the specific things being protested as it was the very bigness of the crowds who were doing the protesting.
In doing that, it took direct aim at the things the new president has a record of valuing so highly—crowd sizes, ratings, large-scale approval—and countered them. Trump, after all, since the beginning of his presidential candidacy, has made a point of emphasizing the size of the crowds he has been able to attract by way of celebrity’s gravitational pull. He has boasted about the throngs attending his rallies. He has taunted his opponents about the relatively few people who turned out for their events. And Trump’s ascendance to the presidency seems to have done nothing to assuage that impulse: On Friday evening, at the Armed Services Ball, Trump again talked about the large size of the crowd that had come to witness his inauguration. And on Saturday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer used his first official White House briefing to blast the media who had mentioned the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds as compared to those of past presidents, dismissing their assessment as attempts to “minimize the enormous support” that had gotten Trump elected. (Though crowd sizes are notoriously difficult to determine with precision, Trump’s crowds were in fact decidedly smaller than the ones that came out for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.)
According to organizers, too: That matters. If the Women’s March was trying to inaugurate a movement on January 21, 2017, the first thing it had to do was to prove that there was a movement to be inaugurated. As one sign read: “TRUMP, DO YOU REALLY WANT TO PISS OFF THIS MANY WOMEN?”
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