We Will Be Heard
January 20th. For me, the day begins at 9:00 AM, on the Metro. It is quiet, in spite of the packed subway trains. We all exchanges nervous glances – eyes to eyes, eyes to shirts, hats, buttons, pins, signs. We are the emblems we wear. The train stops at Dupont Circle, where I take my leave.
The DCMJ is holding a marijuana protest, and everyone seems to be there – pro and anti-Trump alike. Things are still quiet – the day has not yet reached its fever peak. I take my place at the end of a miles-long line, covered under a gentle blanket of smoke. I find myself standing next to two girls – a young couple from Orlando, Florida – in town for the Women’s March. Carly and Shea. They are shy, and quiet. But, after just a few minutes of conversation, they find the courage to lay themselves bare before strangers. They tell us that they were regulars at the Pulse nightclub. That it was the first place they had ever felt safe. That they are scared because the people who were supposed to be listening to them weren’t. That they are afraid no one will hear them.
Shortly thereafter, they leave the line before they reach distribution. Maybe they weren’t yet 21, and didn’t want to experience the awkward interaction of being turned away. Or perhaps they were satisfied by the thought that, maybe, someone had heard them – even if it was just a small group of people, in line for some weed. As one of those people, I can tell you this:
They had been heard.
I leave as well, and accidentally take the wrong Metro – I should’ve known, it is empty, sans two black men. One speaks with intensity, talking about Malcolm X. The other is silently hunched over – uncomfortable in the political conversation, but still listening. The speaker talks of his ideological transition from silent observer to X-ian protester. He, too, is afraid. This is a dangerous position for an American black man to take. But he speaks proud and undeterred, even in the presence of myself – a white stranger. “I’ll let you go,” he says, smiling, as his one audience member gets off at their stop.
He had been heard.
It is now almost 11:00 AM. I find the right train, and travel to the checkpoint outside of the Navy Memorial to visit the ANSWER protest. The time for political fervor is fast approaching, and the crowd shows it. Signs and chants – “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A!” – fill the street. A business has pasted their windows with a single word: “RESIST.” The few Trump supporters here do not take kindly to their surroundings. Two middle-aged white men behind me begin to loudly spew anti-Semitic remarks. “Idiot Jews. Do they think God will listen to them because they fast? Like they’re some new messiah?” Three younger men, about my age, howl like dogs – “AROOOOO,” literally – at chanting protesters. They are excited by the prospect of shouting someone down. They take a snapchat, shaking and convulsing with overconfidence, but even their aggression cannot overcome the crowd’s conviction. Four young black men put down some speakers, and a dance party begins. People are laughing and cheering. The two middle-aged men grumble, quietly, and the howling dogs lose their voice.
I begin to walk back to the Metro, and as I do, I see a black man with a personal video camera following a leaving Trump supporter. The man with the camera maintains a distance of about 20-30 yards from his target, shouting, “NO ROOM FOR HATRED AND BIGOTRY IN THIS WORLD, MOTHERFUCKER!” I think of the X-ian man on the Metro, and how he would have enjoyed seeing this.
I am two blocks away now, and I can still hear the protesters – the dancers, the chanters, and the man with the camera. I leave satisfied, knowing that they will be heard.
The time is 12:30, and I am on my way to DisruptJ20. I want to see these violent anarchists we had been warned about. Imagine my surprise when I come upon a sight almost identical to the one I had just seen. The same chants, the same signs, the same peoples. There is even a small 5-piece marching band, complete with surrounding dance party. I see love. After some time, the march begins, and that is how I find myself on the corner of 12th and L, at 1:45, staring down a blockade of police.
I hear screams and feel the crowd surge. Everyone is running. Immediately there is a FSSSS, FSSSS, as two canisters launch into the air, polluting it with bright pink tear gas. I can taste it, acrid, in the back of my throat. 30 seconds more, and then, BOOM, BOOM. BOOM BOOM BOOM. These are not flashbangs – there is no accompanying light. These are riot grenades, filled with plastic-coated steel balls. I watch protesters, who – just moments before – had been singing and dancing through the streets, run for their lives and safety. They are confused; one man runs by me, crying – “Why are they doing this??” No one I talk to can answer this question. Some assume that they were provoked. Others – front-liners – vehemently deny this. No one knows why this started, only that it did. The cycle of detainment and dispersion – pepper spray, flashbang/riot grenade, advance – continues for the next for 30-45 minutes. This is all part of protocol – they are herding those they cannot incapacitate. A police helicopter circles above, providing aerial intel. I see men and women – young and old – flashbanged in the streets of the city. I see people’s frightened eyes – red and puffy from either tears, pepper spray, or both. I see two young women (my God, even younger than me) wearing matching American flag spandex, holding each other, tear past me, sobbing, “we have to get out of here!”
It is terrifying.
But, later – once the police have abandoned their assault, I see hope spring anew on the corner of 13th and K. A man – eyes still puffy – smiles and greets his friends with a hug. Protesters and bystanders alike caring for the people injured by police weaponry. And I even see those two young women in their American flag spandex – still scared, still holding one another – return to the crowd of protesters, in spite their fear.
And I become convinced that nothing will silence this crowd. Not the riot squads. Not the police van that shows up, and nearly runs down a line of protesters. Not the bad press they are sure to be slandered with.
No matter what, they will be heard.
I leave hopeful, but still worried. This was one day. What would the next day bring?
And then I awoke on the 21st to see something more encouraging than I could have ever hoped for. I saw the streets engorged with people – thousands of them. I’m sure you saw them too. How could you not? I saw people who were scared, and panicked, and shook, but who chose to march all the same. And I wondered how many of those people were among the number I had seen the previous day. Would I see Carly and Shea? The man from the subway? A pair in American Flag spandex? I felt so grateful to the all those I had seen on the 20th – who, despite their fear, chose to overwhelmed this city with their love and protests.
And I felt joy – for they were most certainly heard.
In my 22 years of life in the district, I have never seen anything like what occurred in those inaugural streets. I saw so much, heard so many, and met such greatness in those few days. After watching the events of that weekend, I know – deep in my heart – that Washington D.C. will become a monument to triumph over fear. And it will not be alone.
That’s the point, however. This cannot be a movement of isolation. We must lift up all another, and never leave anyone behind. So when you raise your sign about healthcare, remember the women who are disproportionately the victims of a sexist health care system. Wear a hat for them. And when you wear your pink pussy hat, remember the trans women who don’t define their gender by their genitals. Hold a sign for them. And when you wave your “Feminism is Transfeminism” poster-board, remember the black women who pioneered feminist activism. Chant a chant for them. There are so many others I could mention – you know who they are. Be a voice with them. Never stop including. Never stop educating. Never stop fighting. Do these things,
And we will be heard.