by Jessica G. de Koninck
CARVED ABOVE the granite entrance to the Dupont Circle metro station in Washington, D.C. is a quote from Walt Whitman: I thread my way through the hospitals . . . I recognize these words as his even before I see the name — the sad recollections of a Civil War wound-dresser, the poet measuring the price of liberty in bandages. I look up to avoid looking down, reassure myself on the long escalator descent by reading his words. The handrail I clutch wobbles a little, and every so often the stairs slide perceptibly over something underneath. Hundreds of women and men seek to make their way to the Capitol by traveling underground. Though the trains run frequently, the platform is packed with people, and after the third train stops with no room to take on new passengers, my companions and I decide to walk.
It is Saturday, the Sabbath, the day after the inauguration, or the unauguration, as I have been calling it. We are headed to the Women’s Rally. It’s unseasonably warm, even for D.C. in January. The excess layers I am wearing create an extra weight. But we plan to be out all day and know we will get cold. Few cars on the street, it’s not a work day, but with each block more and more people head towards the rally until each street corner pulses every time the light changes and the crowd moves.
Many women are wearing pink “Pussy Caps” or “Hats.” (I prefer caps, sounds more like cat.) All are hand-knitted or crocheted. I thought it a silly idea when my crafty friends suggested I wear one. They would be wearing them, but I balked. I spent too many decades rejecting certain kinds of gendered labels to adopt one now, and the conversation around the words “pussy” and “nasty” do not resonate particularly for me. I did try to persuade my brother to wear one of the hats. I thought that might make a statement, but he declined.
THE EXPANDING crowd is friendly and excited. The D.C. police directing traffic are friendly and excited. One black officer is wearing a green spongy Statute of Liberty headband over her official hat. Two black male officers wear knit pink pussy caps. The National Guardsmen wave as we walk by.
We try to get as close to the Capitol as we can, but the long walk has put us behind schedule. The closest we can get is to 7th, about halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. We cannot see the stage. We cannot hear a thing, and the screen of the closest Jumbotron is too far away to make out a clear image.
None of that matters.
I didn’t come expecting to hear speakers. Truth is, I don’t want to hear them. I am here for unity. I am here to defeat the Trump agenda. I do not need to be fired up. I do not need to be talked at. I came to be with people who want to be with other people in this scary time. I am here with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nephew. I drove down from New Jersey the day before. Originally I planned to take a bus, but my schedule changed and I did not think I would be able to attend. At the last minute, things changed, and I could go.
My brother’s neighbors invited us for Shabbat dinner. Everyone there would be attending the rally. When we arrived, there was an open bottle of scotch circulating. This was very unusual. The Trump inauguration has put us all on edge. The neighbors hadn’t planned on so many guests. In addition to me, at least three of the other people were unexpected, but there was more than enough scotch to leave us fortified to “pray with our feet” as Abraham Joshua Heschel said when he marched with Dr. King.
AT THE RALLY, the space we finally find has little breathing room. From time to time the crowd surges for no visible reason, and groups of people move or try to move through. Next to us is a group of women who have spent all night on a bus from Indiana and will be returning the same day; next to them, a social-work professor from Texas; behind my brother, a large group of women from Hawaii. There is a metal platform behind me on which about a dozen people are standing. Two young Ohio women are standing there leading cheers. A group opposite them participates with a call and response, “This is what Democracy looks like.” From time to time a cheer goes through the crowd like a wave. I find myself thinking that if I lived in Indiana or Texas or Hawaii or Ohio, these women would be my friends.
I have taken care to limit my liquid intake to avoid having to use the bathroom. The lines for the port-a-johns are long, and I cannot quite tolerate the idea of using one. But we did bring snacks; granola bars, nuts, cheese sticks. I get hungry standing outdoors, even if the weather is not terribly cold.
We did not bring any signs. But the signs people are carrying are fabulous. I am reminded that we are a land of poets and artists, a people of unbounded creativity and wit. I take a lot of photos of signs and of some people in costume. A man standing on the metal platform takes crowd pictures for me. I ask lots of people where they are from. I even run into a couple of people I know. That astonishes me, given the number of people here. At some point, the crowd begins to sing. They are singing, we are singing, “My County ‘Tis of Thee.”
“Let freedom ring!” I am strangely moved. It is less than a week after Martin Luther King Day. I remember watching him on television when I was a child as he exhorted the crowd to believe in a vision of freedom. I remember wishing I was there.
A bit after 1 pm, when the march itself was supposed to start, we get a bit restless and the crowd begins to push towards Independence Avenue. We wait and spend some more time chanting and cheering. I decide that even though I don’t like the idea of the caps, in this setting they are simultaneously adorable and subversive. I like that. I have come around. On the Jumbotron, people continue talking. Somehow my nephew gets a moment of cell service. We learn that there are still fifteen speakers, and that the organizers have decided the crowd is much too big to march. In fact, everywhere I look, as far as I can see, there are people.
We decide to head back. When we work our way to Constitution Avenue, we discover that people there, closer to the Washington Monument, have decided to march. We join their cramped and slow procession until almost as far as the Trump Hotel, but do not stay while they continue to the White House.
OFF THE PARADE route, there is still a sea of people. People laughing. People cheering. People saying hello. Hello people. This is a friendly place. There is laughter in America. I am feeling patriotic. Trump, I have decided, is unAmerican. We Americans must take our country back. When we get back to Dupont Circle, we grab some pizza. I recall a campaign moment with Trump eating pizza with a knife and fork. Nothing about him is like me. I smile. It’s been a powerful Shabbat.
I drive back to New Jersey the next day, stopping at the Maryland House rest stop for coffee and restroom. Many march participants are there too, and the line at Dunkin’ Donuts is long and chatty. Someone has written in colored chalk at the entrance to the rest area, “What did the march mean to you?” People have responded. “Empower.” “Vote.” “There’s a Lot of Us.” Rain has washed away many of their statements. But I can to hold on to the feeling. When Trump won, I decided that each day I would do at least one thing, no matter how small, just so I could feel that I was doing something.
Going to a march is no big thing. But I’m not the only one who went. Millions of people in every single state and around the world marched on Saturday. A lot of little things turned into one enormous thing. We know something that Walt Whitman knew and Langston Hughes knew, but Donald Trump will never understand. America is singing and we can make it go on singing.
Jessica G. de Koninck, a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, is the author of Cutting Room, a book of poems.