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Saturday, January 21, 2017

"This is what democracy looks like": Jovial Gridlock at the Women's March on Washington

I am not much of a fan of gigantic Parisian-style marches in protest of this or that. I prefer American-style democracy of the town hall/zoning board variety, in which neighbors squabble passionately over boring matters like zoning and snow plows: The ratio of decision-making to time expended seems more favorable to the honing of real political skills. When my wife asked me whether I would attend the Women's March on Washington, therefore, I only reluctantly agreed, with the understanding that I was present strictly to register disapproval of President Trump. (As a lifelong Republican, I did not want to be dragooned into some peripheral cause aside from my "Never Trump" position). During the march, I found myself most in agreement with one sign: "Not usually a sign guy... but jeez."

With all of these caveats, I can report that the Women's March (four hours of which was just a "Women's Stand Around and Wait in Washington Gridlock") was a triumph of democracy, if by "democracy" one means spontaneous, patient, and completely good-natured collective action. In this sense, this March was the perfect complement to the basically spontaneous, patient, and completely good-natured attendance of Trump supporters at the inauguration of their standard-bearer the day before. Both those Trumpistas on the mall and their successors were, for me, a palate-cleansing chaser: The Republic, I feel, is safe.

The Red Line from Tenley Town to Judiciary Square was jam-packed (and I say this as a veteran of the 2 Line in Shanghai, the Shinjuku subway station in Tokyo, and the Bergen Street stop on the F line's morning commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan). Yet the squashed humanity, signs and all, were all stoic smiles as they squeezed themselves together to let yet more marchers on the subway car. We found a plausible intersection to wait for the marching to begin, at Third and Jefferson -- and thousands of us proceeded to wait for four hours for someone to tell us where to march. Marching, however, was out of the question in that jam-packed street until someone took down fences to allow us swarm across the mall and make our way to Pennsylvania by an unplanned route. Still complete good nature prevailed. Rousing chants of "the people united will never be divided" and other protest balderdash would swell and fade, alternating with equally enthusiastic chants of "march down Jefferson!" Both were equally unavailing and for the same reason: we were all far too disorganized to be so united. The most popular chant captured the metaphor perfectly: The crowd would regularly shout out, "this is what democracy looks like!" and I thought ruefully, "true -- all too true."

Despite the hours of milling about, the bright side of disorganized protest shone through in everyone's basic decency. There were zero arrests. There were no hateful shouts of any sort at Trumpistas (or I heard none). There were no broken windows. A guy protesting same-sex marriage with a sign that denounced the floodgate of lawsuits against bakeries was unmolested. People booed the Trump Hotel in the good-natured way that one boos the Red Sox at a Yankees game. I checked from the top of the bleachers in near the Willard Hotel and saw a crowd flowing as slowly as lava, stretching from the Capitol down Pennsylvania all the way to Lafayette Park, an immense stream of humanity with a gaudy array of signs and virtually no bile. (BTW about those posters: Aside from the guy whose sign announced his dislike of signs, my favorite was a picture of Trump's head on a pipe bowl with the Magritte-style slogan "Ceci n'est pas in president").

I came away from the March footsore and heartened by our allegedly polarized polity. Admittedly, the Coasts and the Interior do not really like each other. But, since the days of John Quincy Adams and Old Hickory, they never have. But the old habits of democratic decency die hard, and they were amply on display this weekend.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 21, 2017 at 07:12 PM | Permalink


Well said, Rick.

Posted by: PaulB | Jan 21, 2017 9:52:06 PM

"The Republic, I feel, is safe."

Because a lot of people went out on one day to protest?

I'll see how things work out later. Election Day didn't help. A truly safe republic wouldn't find electing Donald Trump and a united Republican Congress a sane thing to do.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 22, 2017 11:34:24 AM

Absolutely right: I should not have said that the Republic was safe, Joe: I should have said that democracy was safe. The Republic is in mortal peril -- in part from the prospect of events unnoticed by the protestors, like a possible war with China. (Tillerson's chilling remark during his confirmation hearing that he would block the access of Chinese ships to shoals in the South China Sea should have us much more upset than we actually are).

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 23, 2017 5:28:12 AM

FYI I was at the inauguration and recall vividly a mass "boo" for the introduction of John Roberts.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 23, 2017 10:49:05 PM

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