By Mary Finn
I stood on the corner of Constitution Ave. and 14th St. surrounded by a crowd chanting “Hands too small, can’t build a wall.” It was the day after the inauguration and I had joined in the Women’s March, somewhat reluctantly. I thought I could predict how I’d feel at the march: a bit skeptical and pessimistic. I was wrong.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been “into” politics the way some are “into” baseball. I was twelve years old and went on vacation to Florida with my family. Instead of heading to the beach, I begged my parents to let me stay in the hotel and watch Ollie North testify at the Iran Contra Hearings. In 1998, I took a Greyhound bus from Providence, RI to D.C. to watch Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing from the Senate gallery. I’ve been to every inauguration since Clinton’s in 1993. I lived in D.C. for thirteen years and I checked out as many protests as I could– The Million Man March and its offshoots, the huge anti-war protests of the early aughts, ANSWER, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter. Hell, I even went to the Promises Keepers march. Still, I’ve rarely engaged as a bonafide protester.
The marches I’ve witnessed were each important and some had long-term impact in shaping national conversation and public policy. But protests are not my game. I’m more of a behind the scenes type.
I became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Manager at Democracy in Crisis because I needed to do something to resist this administration but I felt more comfortable filing requests for words that government officials don’t want me to read than repeating the words my allies encourage me to chant. I don’t like mob mentality under any guise.
I travelled to D.C. in January to check out Trump’s inauguration. I attended one of his rallies in Sacramento,CA in June and I was horrified by what I saw (chants of “rape her, rape her!” when Hillary’s name was mentioned, for instance). I’ll be honest, I bought my plane tickets to the inauguration when I thought Hillary was a shoo-in and, well, the tickets were non-refundable. I decided to attend Trump’s inauguration because I thought that it may our country’s last peaceful transition of power (okay, slight exaggeration, but I did go to the inauguration feeling hopeless and dejected about the future). But hearing Trump talk about “American carnage” did nothing to lift my spirits.
The Women’s March was perfectly timed because it provided me with the necessary reminder of what it feels like to take democratic action and I now have a working model of how we might move forward.
There was a markedly different feeling in the air at the D.C. Women’s March than in the weeks after the election—even if it was Trump’s first full day as president. Maybe we were all done moping. The anger and sadness about the state of country is still with many of us, but since the inauguration it has clearly been channeled into a creative, community-focused resistance movement.
A friend of mine sent me a text when the march was over and she was ecstatic, “Oh and I made up a cheer at the march and people did it! It was thrilling!” This woman is an accomplished lawyer. Still, the fact that a crowd of strangers liked and performed her cheer made her feel like she was offering something up and, in a small way, leading the strangers around her. It seemed like everyone was contributing something to the protest. A guy who was walking near me blew up a giant beach ball and dozens of little kids kicked it for fifteen blocks down Constitution Ave.; he was the child whisperer for parents worried that their kids would become antsy. The decentralization of the march was liberating and unpredictable.
American political theorists in the 18th century, including many of our founding fathers, espoused a concept they called “public happiness.” In fact, our enshrined right to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness” was originally crafted as, “life, liberty and public happiness.” Public happiness was, supposedly, a flavor of contentment that could come exclusively from being involved in the public realm and in civic affairs. Public happiness is supposed to bring us a distinct joy that only can be felt through civic action. Needless to say, the vast majority of those living in America in the 18th century were legally barred from participating in or experiencing public happiness. Yet, the philosophical concept stands.
I was happy at the Women’s March because I was reminded of what public happiness feels like and I recognized that I need more of it in my life. Public happiness is fundamentally different from the happiness garnered in our private lives, at work, or scrolling through our siloed Facebook streams.
In 1907, thousands of British suffragists took to the streets on a rainy day in London and the weather was so terrible that the march was dubbed the Mud March. Notwithstanding the weather and the oppression that these women were living under, a journalist noted that the protest was a “… gay enough procession by most accounts, despite the weather.” It may be that the protestors were getting a feel for public happiness as they fought to expand their access to it. More than a hundred years later, the considerably more comfortable Terminal 1 at SFO was the staging ground for resisting the refugee ban but it also allowed participants a chance to sample public happiness. I am hopeful that as more and more people get involved in the anti-Trump resistance, we will each crave and cultivate a taste for public happiness.
The Women’s March reminded me of the political value of in-person connection. Assembling in the flesh is qualitatively different than the “shares” we offer up to our “friends” on Facebook; 700,000 Facebook likes does not feel the same as being part of the sea of 700,000 protestors at the Women’s March. I can’t remember the last time I walked down a city street where so many people were acknowledging one another and simply saying, “hi.” For many marchers, the day proved to be the rare unfiltered experience; technology didn’t stand between the individual and her world.
Protests like the Women’s March serve as the training ground for future action, especially for moderates, the introverts, and the less-than political among us.
No doubt, social media and technology are essential organizing tools for getting people to a protest on short notice and for inspiring others after the fact. Still, when I find myself at the next protest, I’ll try to put the phone away and inhabit the public sphere as my whole self and not a disembodied, less present version. Putting our phones away and being fully present when we resist may be a baby step to building and sustaining the solidarity we will need for the next four years and beyond.
In our data-driven, poll-centric era, we expect to be able to measure and predict every outcome. The recent protests have provided a chance for us to accept the fact that we can’t see the future and we don’t know what is around the next corner. We had better act, and act often, precisely because we don’t know what’s next.
If we live under the illusion that we can measure the impact of our actions before we take them, we will be too hesitant and timid in the fights ahead. There is no algorithm for political resistance. We ought to value and encourage spontaneity as an essential and welcome ingredient of the resistance. I heard a story of a guy at a protest in California who decided to buy a dozen pizzas to share with the crowd around him. This guy’s action was small, whimsical, and generous, but it was also spontaneous. Let’s not let ourselves be hampered by our notions of what’s an “acceptable” way to be and feel at a protest, let’s go with our instincts and keep the administration on their toes.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us in her “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” that spontaneous action is more essential than ever in a shaky and fragile democracy. Spontaneous political action and speech is, by its very nature, unpredictable and, therefore, less able to be controlled by those in power. Arendt claims that spontaneous action allows us to “make a new beginning” each time we show up in public to resist. We need to prepare for the unexpected and be adaptable and ready for the unpredictable; when we practice spontaneity we are building the muscles we need for the unforeseeable events of the next four years.
Over and over again at the Women’s March, I heard the call and response: “Show me what democracy looks like.” The crowd chimes back in unison, “This is what democracy looks like.” In the weeks since the march, I’ve written and filed dozens of Freedom of Information requests as a member of the Democracy in Crisis reporting team. I like demanding information from the government that they’d rather not share; I geek out on filing FOIA appeals and keeping my FOIA tracker up to date. I hope that my FOIA research will eventually help to shine light on the underbelly of the Trump administration– this is my ideal vision of what democracy looks like and it is where I feel most comfortable. Yet, after participating in the Women’s March and experiencing what democracy feels like in these nascent days of the Trump administration, I am also committed to getting out of my pj’s, getting off my computer, and going back out into the streets.