At the Women’s March on Washington, two veteran protesters worry about Trump
Women say they don’t want to roll back progress on civil rights and environmental protections
The first time Michele Tucker came to protest in Washington, D.C., she was 9 years old and here for the 1963 March on Washington with her mother. For her friend Renee Allen, it was a rally against the Vietnam War.
Saturday, they were both present for the Women’s March on Washington, bundled up and walking along 7th Street downtown, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of chanting, joyous and ticked-off women. Despite the seriousness of the issues they were protesting — including possible changes in reproductive health care and civil rights — the vibe of the day was one of jubilant defiance; women marched in celebration of one another, too.
While much has been made of the march’s origins as a postelection Facebook event that multiplied overnight into a real, tangible thing, Tucker, 62, said she found out about it without the help of technology. A friend told her.
“I’m not on Facebook,” she said. “She told me about it and she came in from California.”
Both women decided to lace up their shoes and drive to Washington from Philadelphia because they’re worried that a Trump presidency will mean regression for many Americans.
“I want to protect women’s rights, environmental rights, and I don’t want to step backwards,” said Tucker, a retired clothing manufacturer and real estate investor. “I want a planet for our children and I think with Donald Trump’s appointees, that may not be part of our future.”
“I am here to support women in the resistance against misogynistic ideals and also racism,” said Allen, 65.
Those were part of the range of issues, grievances and ideals that galvanized people in cities around the nation, and around the world. There were black women, white women, lesbians, intersex and asexual women. There were disabled and able-bodied, Muslim women rocking hijabs or eschewing them, Native Americans, undocumented millennials. Also, men. If the inauguration presented one version of American, mostly vanilla, this was Baskin-Robbins, boasting a full complement of flavors.
Great seas of pink-wearing humanity pressed toward the march’s main stage across from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and radiated outward in every direction.
“I will no longer accept the things I cannot change, I will change the things I cannot accept” one sign proclaimed. Another featured a picture of former first lady Michelle Obama, appearing to grimace at Friday’s inauguration. “When they go low … we throw shade,” it read.
Both Tucker and Allen said part of the reason they came was because they wanted to make sure the number of people marching in protest outnumbered those who attended President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Early estimates put the number of protesters at upward of half a million. The Washington Post called it the “largest D.C. rally in years.” Newsweek said it was “believed to be one of the largest-ever demonstrations in the history of the United States.”
Organizers were forced to scrap the original parade route because there were so many more attendees than expected. Protesters resisted in place when there was no more room to walk.
“I just thought if we could stand, our numbers would be stronger that the inauguration numbers, it would show a strong sign how we’re upset,” Tucker said. “We want to protect the strides that have been made in the past and not have to take five steps backwards.”
“The strides President Obama made,” Allen chimed in.
The program stretched into midafternoon and featured speaker after speaker, political, scholarly, iconic, folksy, hip-hop. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem took the stage, and at 82, said she represented the long view and could “remember when things were worse.” Actor Ashley Judd called Trump’s words a “dis-track to America,” and reciting a poem in solidarity with victims of sexual assault, “keeping my eyes to my feet hoping you don’t mistake eye contact for wanting physical contact. I’ve been zipping up my smile, hoping you don’t think I want to unzip your jeans.” Singer Alicia Keys took the stage and women leaned in to get her on video singing “Girl on Fire.” Political activist Angela Davis lectured the crowd on the prison industrial complex. Singer Madonna gave an impassioned, defiant speech so expletive-laden that CNN cut away from it.
Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland label protegé, Nigerian rapper Jidenna, provided an emotional high point when they included the Mothers of the Movement (Sybrina Fulton, Lucy McBath, Maria Hamilton, and Gwen Carr) in a call-and-response tribute during a performance of “Hell You Talmbout.”
Monáe would shout, “Say her name!” and point the microphone at one of the mothers, who would respond with the name of her slain child.
Jidenna not only performed at the rally, but also spoke at a panel discussion hosted by the college division of the NAACP Saturday morning. Speaking at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, he said men could be better allies to women marching, referencing his hit “Classic Man.”
“If you’re a traditional man, if you’re a classic man in certain ways, then know the day in age where you’re just defending your sister and defending your wife and defending your mother — the day in age where you take a baseball bat and go out and try to whip somebody — those days, I already know that happens, it goes down — but the other way to defend is to defend marginalized voices,” Jidenna said. “That means defending women’s rights. That’s what it means to be a man.”
Protesters who couldn’t fit around the stage began snaking their way through the streets toward The Ellipse and the White House. Several blocks away from the rally, a busker played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on a trumpet. Further down, strains of Beyoncé’s “Partition” drifted out of a speaker.
As they headed down Constitution Avenue, Tucker and Allen said they were troubled that the America represented by Trump’s Cabinet selections was so unlike the one on display at the march. They also worried about a lack of relevant expertise in some of his Cabinet nominees.
“The institutions they’re supposed to be representing, it’s an antithesis to what their organizations mean. They’re opposite, they’re even against it,” Allen said. “Look at [proposed energy secretary Rick] Perry — he wanted to close it down. He didn’t even know that nuclear weapons were part of the energy department. It’s just scary, the ignorance. It’s really scary.”
Allen, who retired a year ago after teaching social studies in Philadelphia public schools for 24 years, said she found the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary particularly troubling.
“She didn’t know the difference between proficiency and growth,” Allen said. “As an educator, how you could not know that?” Allen cited a colleague who had taken a school from one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia — the Badlands — and transformed its academic standing from one of the worst schools there to one of the best.
“You’ve got to go on growth,” Allen said. “You can’t just go on proficiency. They teach the test to the children that are right above or below the proficiency line. The children at the bottom and at the top — they don’t really get taught anything. You have to go by how much a child progresses and grows.”
She was disheartened by the decline in Philadelphia’s public schools. Before Allen left, she was teaching six classes, when a full-time course load used to mean two or three classes. Toward the end of her tenure, she was teaching a class of 33 students, nearly half of whom were special education students. She had no special ed training, and no teaching assistant because of budget constraints. Allen is worried about public education, but she doesn’t think Trump, or DeVos, if she’s confirmed, will improve conditions.
“We are not taking care of our children,” she said. “We’re not educating our children. I believe it’s the civil rights issue of today. Education is freedom, and they’re not going to be able to get the freedom they deserve. It allows you to be who you want to be and take care of yourself and your family.”
Allen and Tucker said they were disturbed by the way the new president speaks about black people, particularly his comments about blacks in inner cities “living in hell.” They were concerned about urban problems, particularly public education, but found Trump’s talk disingenuous and “condescending.” They were particularly turned off by the use of the phrase “American carnage” in his inaugural address.
“If we can put somebody on the moon, we can get someone to go into Chicago and all the major cities and do something about crime and education,” Allen said. “It can be done. We’re just not doing it. We need somebody who’s going to do something. Somebody with a plan.”
Allen, a breast cancer survivor, lamented Trump’s signing an executive order Friday that would in effect do away with the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. She cited herself as a person who would be affected if insurance companies were once again allowed to screen patients based on preexisting conditions.
Both Allen and Tucker said the only way to change anything was to be involved, so they returned to Washington to protest once again, not against a war, or for civil rights, but to rebuke a president they see as “unqualified.”
“For years I taught my students that they need to protest,” Allen said, surrounded by clapping protesters spontaneously erupting in intermittent whoops all around her. “I needed to take my own advice.”
Gertrude Joseph contributed to this report.