Yesterday, I found myself at Vermont and K in Washington, D.C., blocking buses and general traffic. Although I feel as if I’ve protested through much of my adult life, I had never before engaged in civil disobedience.
I hope we did Henry David Thoreau proud.
I just spent three days in D.C. Like many other Americans, I had made travel arrangements months in advance, assuming it would be a celebration. I had attended Bill Clinton’s ceremony in 1993 and Barack Obama’s in 2009, each time thoroughly enjoying the historic opportunity, the pomp, and the unexpected moments, such as meeting, among other colorful figures, former Washington Mayor Marion Barry in ‘93.
But every two steps forward gain has been invariably followed by a great leap backward. That’s the way it has always been in a country that is both philosophically and generationally divided, marked just as definitively by those who seek a progressive way forward as those who cling to the old guard, with its notions of ethnocentric, militaristic, financial and sociological supremacy. Yet humanity is never that neatly ideated in practice, and change occurs painfully slowly. Wars rage across human history. Biblical conflicts and hostilities continue, unabated and unresolved.
Many progressives, nonetheless, buoyed by generally liberal values held by millennials, many of whom came of age during President Obama’s two terms in office, believe that the hard-won civic and social advances of the past century herald irreversible and increasing shifts in our society and, hopefully, in our global relations as well. We can hope this will happen, perhaps naturally. An unnamed official at a recent election recap in my Massachusetts town remarked dryly, “maybe those old white conservatives will just eventually die out.”
But for now, we have Donald Trump. And desperate times can indeed call for desperate measures. During and following the inauguration on Friday, my companion and I got grief, but ingrained reporter objectivity and immutable poker-face helped to both retain composure and restrain from counter-griefing. So did a fair amount of utter disbelief. Seeing so many women, even grandmothers with granddaughters, and mothers with daughters, streaming from the inauguration toward the parade, decked out in their “Make America Great” and pro-Trump finery, was a bit of a shocker. So was hearing their parroted remarks about facts being fake news, Obama not really having reduced unemployment, and other beliefs and utterances we often merely read about but don’t hear in person.
On Saturday morning, I remained for some time within the safe confines of the press tent. While it provided shelter and remote monitor viewing of the stage, for reasons unknown, there was no Wi-Fi and only intermittent and sketchy cell service. But for some equally unknown reason (Sprint? Android?), my texts and some Facebook messages were coming through, and I got the tent scoop from a friend in Boston, who said that Chicago’s and then our D.C. march had been cancelled. We all rushed to verify a source (she said it was MSNBC, but the cancellation wasn’t reported on their website when I was able to momentarily view it). Finally, we knew it was true. No march — or at least, no sanctioned one.
Within that frenetic time frame, during which we also took in a few medical emergencies and summoned medics, we needed to barricade the tent entrance for their safety, and to maintain order within the growing outside chaos. I was able to get the press tent sign off the outer tent wall, by then obscured by the crowd, and affix it to the barrier table. It was no place for claustrophobics. With no impending march, I left the tent about the time Madonna, for better or worse, took the stage. And then, there was a march anyway, down Penn ― our own.
Thoreau, whose bicentennial is currently being celebrated, would have understood our grievances. “They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts,” he wrote presciently in his 1849 masterwork essay “Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience),” in a passage that could handily be applied to our new President and his Cabinet.
The march was massive, to say the least. As we passed the Newseum, certainly a sacred place in my esteem, supporters lined the second-level balcony and cheered us on.
That set the course, as all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue, en route to the White House, huge pockets of chanting protesters stood on the structures left over from Friday’s parade. In my history of dissent, I’d never seen anything like it. Reports of a million or more people seemed apt.
Some good slogans:
"We need a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!
"He's orange! He's gross! He lost the popular vote!
"We will not go away! Welcome to your first day!
"Say it loud, say it clear! Immigrants are welcome here!
"No Trump! No KKK, No Fascist USA!"
News reports soon stated that marchers were now barred from the White House grounds, however, and so the huge, chanting mass of humanity turned down 15th, just outside its periphery. We reached K, filled the intersection with Vermont Avenue, and stood there, linking arms.
I had never done this before, but I figured, if I could help get a hundred thousand people onto the street with us, the police were not likely to arrest that many people. We had quite a crowd standing and chanting, and we stopped many buses as well. As police arrived, the thought crossed my mind that I would really like to make my 10 p.m. bus home. But as I hesitated to head to a sidewalk, they simply began lining up in a convoy behind us. The happy ending is that the police escorted us toward the White House area, with no arrests, and no harsh words. No altercations, no escalation. (Perhaps they also don't like Trump.)
I am very proud of my loved ones at home who immediately supported my civil disobedience. They included my mother, coworkers, relatives and friends. We were amazing, and the cops were wonderful. We held up the entire giant intersection while getting our message across. The nearly negligible amount of resistance that we encountered only shows me that we are not alone in our disdain of Donald Trump, and our fear of his policies.
“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government,” wrote Thoreau, “let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth ― certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”
Thoreau, influenced by his disagreements with slavery and the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, advocated for the rights of individuals to resist when governments attempt to override their own consciences. Moreover, he felt it was a duty, as inaction and blind acquiescence will only further governmental injustice.
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” he asked.
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
On Saturday, 2.6 million people across the world exercised his wise counsel.
Susie Davidson tweets at @SusieDavidsonMA.