I have participated in exactly two protests in my life, both of which have been within the last ten days. The first, the Women’s March I planned to attend. The second, an impromptu decision for an impromptu protest at Philadelphia International Airport, one of many around the nation. Normally, my weekends are filled with exciting things like trips to Costco, catching up on laundry or a book, and dinner out with my husband. Now, I guess, I am a protester.
Within the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd around me at the airport I heard a man behind me saying to another guy, “This is my first protest. I wanted my kids to be here.” I turned around to see them. He was a big guy with a round face, two round-faced kids at his side. They were wearing what most of us were, a strange blend of outerwear and weekend wear—coats and sweats and sloppy scarves. Our collective look was “Drop What You’re Doing and Go.” The other guy said, “Yeah, this is my wife’s first protest, too. She said we needed to be here.” His wife was the woman standing next to me—grinning ear to ear with her homemade poster saying, “Let them in!” The woman sandwiched on the other side of my husband stood less than five feet tall. She had brown skin, shiny black hair, and rolled her Rs as we chanted, “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” She appeared to be there by herself. Probably a rookie, too.
Thankfully, there were plenty of non-rookies at these protests. Volunteer organizers were there to welcome us, tell us where to go, and lead us in chants that felt so good to shout out. (My favorite, a call and answer: Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!) The police kindly and professionally facilitated these events, re-routing traffic and re-drawing the bounds of the protest line as the crowds grew and grew.
Both of these events were the best use of weekend time we’ve spent in a long while. When we got home and watched news coverage later, it felt good to say, “We were there. We were part of that.”
Because the thing is, there’s something I can’t get out of my mind…
In spring 2014, our family was staying in Warsaw, Poland. My husband and a colleague were teaching a course at the University of Warsaw as visiting professors. One of the faculty who helped coordinate our stay was a professor named Janusz, a spritely old man who spoke softly and whom we grew to love even though he once encouraged me to order a dish at a restaurant that was basically cold fish in a Jell-O mold. Terrible taste in food aside, Janusz was one of many heroes of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, one of the important negotiators at the Round Table discussions that finally, finally, finally ended communist rule—the final chapter in a long volume of war, oppression and anguish for his people.
Janusz didn’t like to talk about himself, and he certainly didn’t view himself as a hero, so it was only out of the kindness of his heart that he agreed to be interviewed by my son Christian, a high school sophomore at the time who was taking an AP European History course. The interview would serve as part of Christian’s course credit while he was away on this visit. Janusz came to our small apartment and shared his story, the details of which were scary and overwhelming at times. House raids. Arrests. Imprisonments. Danger for himself. Danger for his loved ones if they were to know any details of his work in the resistance. It was an incredible story, a hard-fought victory story, and a story that these few years later seems more of a cautionary tale.
Here’s the thing: the number one item they fought for, the first thing at the top of the list was the right to gather. To be a group of people in public. To coordinate and organize a collection of people to be at the same place at the same time. And not even a mass of people, a group of people. More than just a few. That victory took years.
Next on the list were things like the right to freely share information, the printing of newspapers not owned by the state. Possessing a passport. Being able to use the passport you possess.
It was hard for me, as a born-and-raised U.S. citizen, to comprehend this. Well, until now. Admit it—it’s not impossible to imagine Trump in the not-so-distant future, embarrassed and enraged by the mass protests happening, issuing an executive order that protests and marches are temporarily banned. You know, in the name of safety. Law and order. And it’s not hard to imagine your conservative dad or aunt or neighbor saying, “Good for him! Get those hooligans off the streets! He’s making America great again!”
Admit it—it’s not impossible to imagine Trump starting a state-run media, to combat what his White House has deemed the Opposition Party, otherwise known as the free press—a pillar of any free society. The groundwork for this is already being laid.
Admit it—it’s not impossible to imagine travel restrictions. Oh, because we already have them.
History has a well-worn recipe card for dangerous leaders: mix fear and chaos thoroughly, bring to a boil, remove rights to restore order. Serve for decades.
Trump is showing all the signs and symptoms of Stage 4 There’s Something Seriously Wrong with Him, a diagnosis that encompasses both his psychology and ideology. I see it. You see it. We all see it. Hell, a kindergartner sees it.
Here in America in 2017, we are all rookies on this scene. If my friend Janusz’s story has taught me anything, it’s that we need to exercise the shit out of our rights, lest we lose them. Otherwise, we will become a nation of There’s Something Seriously Wrong with Us.
So, I’m going to speak up and speak out because right now I can speak freely. I’m going to donate what I can to the independent institutions that are committed to shoring up democracy. I’m going to call my senators and congressmen to tell them what I think, and what I expect of them as my representatives. But I’m not going to wait on them to do something. I’m going to volunteer my time and resources to organizations that can’t weather the storm without all of us. I’m going to support art and music and newspapers, local and national. And when I can, I’m going to grab another cardboard box from the basement, fashion it into a sign, drop what I’m doing and go.
My son’s last question to Janusz in that interview was this: What advice would you give young people today?
He smiled and laughed a little.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “Be yourself. Just be yourself.”
Be yourself. In the scope of his story it took on an entirely different meaning. It’s not a cliché or a branding position for a sneaker. To be yourself is a right. To be yourself is a freedom, one that we the people have been striving and struggling to expand to include everyone since our nation’s birth. So don’t waste it. Think about it. Contemplate it. And then be who you truly are because you can.
I would never have guessed it a few years ago, but I’ve sure been thinking about it lately. And the thing is, as unlikely as it seems even to me, I’m a protester.