Photo: Jorge Santiago
Photo: Jorge Santiago

People Mountain, People Sea

One woman wanted out, but no one was sure which way was out. Someone was trying to direct people: the stage is that way, but it’s a people press; food trucks over there. “But which way is out?” asked the woman trying to leave. The direction-giver looked at her blankly. There was no clear way out, no way out of any of it. We were just here. Hundreds of millions, and growing.

My friend Kate and I had set out from Pittsburgh about six hours before, listening to the music our mothers grew up on: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, James Taylor. We’d been so naive back then, six hours before. We thought the march would be big, but as we passed bus after bus after bus, we still asked ourselves, Are they all going to the march? We decided, tentatively at first, that they were, and waved at them gleefully in the darkness.

Protest was new for me, but after the election of Donald Trump I knew that going forward I would have to rely on something more than the whiskey-fueled back porch tirades that had constituted my political engagement until this point. And despite the fact that I had many rehearsed reasons for traveling to the march, the truth was that my decision was an act of utter faith in a moment of despair. Even if I didn’t understand, I knew it was time, finally, to show up.

Kate and I hadn’t really talked about any of this—talking about the election at all had become almost taboo for the way it would glaze her eyes over with sadness—but now, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, I asked her why she was going. “I want to know what to do next,” she said.

When she asked, I told Kate what I was worried about. I started with the small and personal: a history of agoraphobia and panic attacks. We exit-planned for this, just like we had when discussing the possibility of injury to her fragile knee. But my real worry was harder to say, harder to reckon with: That this would all be for nothing, that I would continue to feel small and useless.

Kate was worried that there would only be white women there. As soon as she said it, I said something about the march’s leadership being people of color. But it was a stupid thing to say, I knew, this idea that addressing one injustice would wipe out an entire history, would be read as all the invite that was necessary.

Kate nodded quietly, and her worry became mine. I began to feel sick again, a familiar queasiness by this point. It wasn’t just about Trump, though he was the catalyst. It was a slow, sickening reckoning with my own complacency—not just in regards to the presidential election, but in the way I’d lived my life.

As we drove, I thought about my mother; about Obama’s goodbye speech, which she didn’t watch (“I couldn’t watch it,” she told me); about how he thanked everyone who went door to door for him. It threw me into tears for the umpteenth time, watching Obama thank people like my mother, who had stood on snowy New Hampshire porches, knocked on the doors of strangers and engaged them in political conversation. I knew I had to be more like her, that I had to do as Obama said, to be one of those “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” But there was so much to guard now, and I still didn’t know how to meaningfully begin. Or maybe I did, but I was stuck. Maybe I needed to be shaken from the fog that had settled in around us. Maybe I needed to go to the march for reasons I wasn’t admitting, to feel less alone in my sadness and fury, to feel a part of something, a group that could act.

We started counting buses. Twenty-seven, -eight, -nine. As the sky turned from black to gray we started to see into the cars alongside us, full of pink hats, protest signs, women, women, women. We glimpsed other people’s lives: a car full of women singing; two college-aged women in the toll line who threw the car in park, then gleefully got out and circled around it, switching drivers. They pulled up to the booth and the new driver shouted Goooooood Moooorning! in a voice that told us that we weren’t the only ones running on coffee and adrenaline.

We laughed. Their car was from Michigan and I began to think of how much earlier other people had set out. We left late in the 4:00 hour; others must have left at 2, 3 in the morning, or before that. Michigan seems like a dream to me now. We were in a cloud, fog all around.

“I can’t wait to see Angela Davis,” I said to Kate.

“And she can’t wait to see you,” said Kate, absurdly. But it was a true feeling, like we were all in this together. Still, this feeling was punctured regularly; I had grown suspicious of it. It was easy enough for me to feel like most everyone was on my side—the right side—before Trump was elected president. But now I was beginning to think that even I wasn’t on the right side anymore, that my quiet inactions were their own violence. I had turned my attention from the many injustices that had brought us here. I had done it with poise, as though I wasn’t doing it at all; I had softened away from the fight.

Kate and I were politically in a pretty similar boat: We supported Clinton, and though we saw her flaws, we suspected that a lot of them could be explained by a lifetime of being a woman in politics. But we felt quieted by her critics. We didn’t speak as loudly as we could have; we both felt insecure in political conversations, despite the fact that Kate has a degree in political science. I, on the other hand, barely understand how my country runs, and am susceptible to believing that my lack of understanding nulls my ability to engage in conversation. I’ve left this work to other people. But that could no longer be the case. Our new president, a nightmare, inaugurated the day before.

Our friend Miriam, several hours ahead of us, texted to find out where we were. “Inside a cloud in Maryland,” I responded. We drove past another car full of women, the driver crying.

After a few miles in silence, Kate asked me to put on “America.”

“I need to measure how much crying I’ll be doing today,” she explained. I put on the song. We’d come to look for America. In our new direction, the fog was breaking up and a bright sun reflected off the bottoms of the clouds. “Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

 

We waited for two hours in line at the Shady Grove metro station. In front of us, a father and his 14-year-old daughter. It was the daughter’s idea to come to the march—she stole shy glances back at Kate and me while her father, who seemed to have no real interest in politics or the march, kept looking at the line and back at her, saying, with utter tenderness, “I hate you.” He never, in the whole two hours, suggested leaving. She seemed excited and hesitant. At 14, this wasn’t hidden at all, and looking at her felt like looking in a mirror of how I felt, too, underneath the fear and anger and sadness. It was my first large-scale protest. I imagined it was hers, too. I kept thinking that she would be able to vote in the next presidential election.

We read the constitution handed to us by someone from the ACLU. We checked Lyft and Uber. We played soccer with acorns. At 11, when prices finally dropped to around $40 dollars, the four of us decided to go in on a Lyft together.

An hour later, we were walking into the middle of more people than I’d ever seen in my life. There were no landmarks I could make sense of—everything looked different with people everywhere—so we followed the direction of people’s faces, which slowly took on a uniformity of direction, until we could begin to hear the speakers’ voices, begin to see the florescent glimmer of a giant screen. Together we listened. Already, people were chanting “March! March! March! March!”

The poet Aja Monet read her poem, “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter,” and the crowd went something like quiet to hang on her every rhythm, her every word. “…It was a woman. It was a black woman. Dark as night. Dark as love…”

But the chatter kicked up louder when she was finished. When I couldn’t hear, I looked around. Monet had said, “She was lonely, but she was not alone.” Now I wondered if we could, in some way, make things not-alone for people we couldn’t see. There were half a million people here, and millions more around the world in this protest, and millions more whose lives would change in the coming days, just the first week of this administration.

She was a freedom fighter, and she taught us all how to fight.

Here, in a landscape of bodies, surfaced a phrase from my past, a Chinese idiom: People mountain, people sea. It was how I felt all the time in China, where I was faced constantly with enormous crowds, but this was different. People, everywhere. People standing on news trucks, crawling atop porta potties, people in trees and dangling from lampposts. People mountain people sea. Would we be enough? I didn’t know. Would we be a message that could transcend? Could we be an image that reached out to create change?

There was a time I would have scoffed at my hope of being part of a powerful image—a mere symbol. What was a symbol compared to action? But I’d been thinking more about symbols lately, about images. It had started with Ta Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” in which he responds to the idea of Obama’s presidency as “merely” symbolic for black people: “But there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols,” he writes. “The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.”

Symbols matter; they spur actions, sanction actions. I thought about the images of the Civil Rights movement, how they communicate and record resistance. I wanted this communicated to people across the globe: We’re resisting. I wanted this communicated to the next generation: We resisted. I thought about my father, a soldier in Vietnam, the image of his boyish face in the jungle, focused and harrowed by battle—an image splayed across newspapers back home. I thought about my mother, a flower child with her long straight hair parted down the middle, protesting this war for which her friends were being drafted. I thought of the Iraq war, the order not to photograph coffins, and of the protest that recreated the outlawed image, hundreds of mock coffins that citizens marched down the streets of New York City in 2004.

By the time of the Women’s March, we had a new powerful image: the empty white floor of Trump’s inauguration beside the packed people mountain, people sea of Obama’s.

The National Parks Service retweeted it, spurring a gag order from Trump, who insisted on the falsehood of the numbers: “I looked out, the field was—it looked like a million, million and a half people.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer would say it was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, would christen the phrase “alternate facts” to excuse the lie.

Now the next image, of this day, the day we marched. Until I saw it—the image we made—how would I know if we mattered?

After successfully migrating to the porta potty line, Kate and I found a more central location. From here I could see further, but still, I could only see people. There was no end. Angela Davis took to the stage and I tried to hear her, but could only make out small phrases, that “we represent the powerful forces of change,” that “we are the collective agents of history,” and that we salute the Standing Rock Sioux. But Planned Parenthood was slinging pink hats, and around me people shouted for them. Later, I read the ending of her speech:

“The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance: Resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music.

“This is just the beginning and in the words of the inimitable Ella Baker, ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.'”

And then from the loudspeakers came the invitation to march. I didn’t know it, but people had already been marching, for hours, before that call. But now was a massive tidal shift. As Kate and I were swept along, I heard the opening words of a poem by Zoe Leonard: “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president…”

The words were swallowed up by the crowd, but I could still feel them, could fill in the places I remembered from Mykki Blanco’s voice: “I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a black woman for president.”

Around us, people were moving in every direction. No one knew which way to march. Behind me, words: “I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible.”

What does 200,000 people look like? Half a million? I had no perspective. I tried to climb on top of things when I could. “I have no perspective,” I said to Kate, again and again. I periscoped my camera phone as high as I could reach it. Even another six inches might give me an answer, I thought, but it never did. People were still going in so many directions. We thought we were in the march until we saw the next street over, and the next. We’d learn later that Miriam was on another street altogether, just as packed and just as chaotic. All I could tell was that there were people everywhere I could see.

 

The march itself was kind of boring. In the moment, it was hard to believe that this was what we’d come so far to do—it seemed more like a giant people-watching experiment than political change. Now solidly into the afternoon, Kate and I could barely come up with anything to say anymore; we had been mostly reduced to pointing at signs, at the fleeting images of resistance, and trying to figure out which direction the march was actually going.

We hugged the edges, trailed behind. We were keeping an eye on her knee. But even as we felt like we were at the end, the truth was that there were still people behind us for as far as I could see. Together we made an image of unity. But like a holiday when you’re despairing, it didn’t feel like together.

As we approached the Washington Monument, the streets opened up to lawns where people had climbed atop the statues, taking photos and chanting. A group of people who appeared white were chanting Black Lives Matter. I watched them. “They’re all white,” I said, to no one in particular, and as I was trying to decide if this was solidarity or appropriation, their chants changed over to Girl! Power! Girl! Power! And then, Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like! I worried that Black Lives Matter, among white protestors, was just another trend, just another coat to wear, one that felt right. One that felt righteous.

At the rally, most of the women I saw on the stage were women of color, but most of the faces covered in the mainstream media were white.

Watching the people on top of the monument, I found myself circling again to these issues: How to act without stealing. How to speak without taking over the message. How to be both one and many. I felt, in the moment, more one than many, but after I had gone home, after I’d eaten and slept, woken up and rehydrated, after my feet were no longer sore and head was no longer cloudy, I would think back to all of these people, to these displays of difference within unity. They would come to define the march for me.

I first saw the images of the march when Kate and I were finally out of the city, in some bar in the suburbs, beer and hamburgers. The photos showed us all, together and one, a massive body of bodies, a singular agenda, to Take Down Trump. But they felt so far away from me, as though they were written in a different language. None of them articulated the message that I saw most vividly at the march: that we were all, in certain ways, complicit in each other’s pain, that admitting this unrelenting truth was central to action.

In the end, it wasn’t the images that touched me. It wasn’t the long-shot charade of agreement. It was all the moments when I saw hesitancy and uncertainty, the moments when I witnessed tension and disagreement, the ways we were always doing things wrong. And it was watching those scenes unfold adjacent to the most tender moments of cooperation and support between strangers. It was the fact that support and tension are not mutually exclusive. We showed up not only for the grace, but for the noise.

From the Washington Monument lawn, Kate and I started walking across the width of the march, the streets and streets taken over by bodies. Over and over, signs declared mothers there with daughters. Everywhere were images of a woman in a hijab, a woman leaning down to kiss another, an American Indian, with “We the People,” “We the Indivisible,” “We the Resilient,” emblazoned below their faces. Their images recalled another image: The face of a black man, the idea of hope.

 

My first language made it to the stage of the Democratic National Convention. My mom and I made little jokes about the signer, former Senator Tom Harkin, whose brother is deaf. “Even you can sign better than that!” said my mother, referencing my very rusty ASL skills. But it didn’t really matter. We liked seeing his hands, imprecise as they were. In his speech, he talked about the sign for the word “America,” a sign I’d never given much thought to before. He linked all of his fingers together and moved them in a circle, then had the audience do the same.

“It’s a beautiful sign,” he said. “Think about it. We’re all together. We’re all together.”

In fact, the sign is connected to the sign for a group of people coming together; they share the same movement, a circling in front of the body. Together. America. Like many beautiful ideas, it’s true and it isn’t. Like the march itself: We were both together and we weren’t. But maybe it’s true that we’d all, at least, come here seeking to be together. To hope that America could be something like the sign for it. We did so in ways that often exemplified our differences and ignorances. In that, it was heartbreaking. We can’t accept that idea—together—as a simple one. But if nothing else, there were many of us, physically sharing a space, reading each other’s signs and T-shirts.

“Consent is sexy fucking required.”

“Black Lives Matter.”

“I <3 Female Orgasm.”

“White Women Voted for Trump.”

“Feel Your Fucking Feelings.”

“We The People.”

“Do Unto Others.”

“I’m With Her.”

“Make America Kind Again.”

Five hundred miles away, my mother watched the images of the march. Later, she would tell me she was proud of me, and though her pride in me is reassuringly constant, this pride seemed different. It wasn’t that I had done something she couldn’t imagine doing herself, but that I had done something she’d done too, that she’d taught me to do. Not only because she had protested in her own time, not only because she had campaigned for Obama, but because she—like so many people before us—had valued dissent.

In D.C., it was getting dark and cold, and the day-long mist was beginning to feel more like a drizzle. Kate and I started to make our long way out of the city, away from the crowds. I caught a glimpse of a man on a bus wearing a pink foam lady liberty hat, a child asleep in his lap, his own head resting gently in the child’s afro.

A moment later, I saw a sign resting against a wall: “White Silence = White Consent.” In my mind, this joined the loops of phrases that circled through and through: This-is-what-demo-cracy-looks-like; White Silence = White Consent; I want a dyke for president; She taught us all how to fight; All come to look for America.

We had all come to look for America. And maybe that’s what we found. It was messy and divided; there was racial tension, gender tension; leadership was questioned from the start, and the message—in its thoughtful composition—was delivered well after people had their own reasons for showing up.

But in the end, we got there: a father and his 14-year-old daughter; young girls yelling that boys belonged in time out, not the White House (a message I gave a bizarre amount of consideration to); gay people and trans people and disabled people; white people trying to figure out how to be better allies and people of color tolerating our attempts while paving the way. There were leaders whom almost no one could hear, there were leaders to whom almost no one listened, and there were leaders we were there to resist.

We could be a mountain, I thought: strong and sturdy. And we were a sea, so many of us, everywhere. There was an undertow. There were islands. No one seemed sure which way to go, and so we went everywhere. From inside of it, someone sang words made famous by a woman who had once changed the social landscape for gay Americans. Just keep swim-ming, just keep swim-ming. Words of a little forgetful fish, trying to figure out what to do. Just keep swim-ming, just keep swim-ming. We did.

 

 

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