Columnist Marianne Gambaro: Marching ‘For Truth, Justice, and the American Way’

  • These are among the estimated 500,000 people who attended the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21. KEVIN GUTTING

  • COURTESY MARIANNE GAMBARO  COURTESY MARIANNE GAMBARO

Published: 1/31/2017 8:58:50 PM

Friends asked why I was participating in the Women’s March and I realize now there was no sound-bite answer. Here, on the other side of that day, I think it can best be answered by describing the experience itself.

I was a little disappointed that there was no band, not even a kazoo, as we pulled into the dark parking lot on East Pleasant Street in Amherst to get the bus about 11:30 p.m. Jan. 20. There were three or four cars with partners handing over coolers and backpacks, and telling women to have fun or be safe, before a quick kiss and then driving off into the midnight darkness.

Two women who had volunteered to be “bus captains” greeted me warmly and signed me in. Women of all ages and several men were on board. The bus itself was modern enough – comfortable seat, big windows, charging outlet. As I would learn later, it was much better than some of the vehicles marchers had traveled in from much farther away like the group from somewhere in the Midwest who borrowed their high school hockey team’s bus (“They weren’t playing this weekend.”)

The parking lots at RFK Stadium were a virtual sea of buses. I carefully memorized our location (Lot 7) and bus No. (9072 or was it 27?) and headed through the tunnel past people handing out free granola bars and hawking knockoff rally T-shirts. We had been told no backpacks on the Mall, unless they were transparent. Purse size was also restricted. Amazing how much I got into that little fanny pack.

As we headed through the tunnel and up East Capitol Street, we passed many townhouses with lawn signs with inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, several of which flew rainbow flags. Residents shouted encouragement, many assuring us they would be joining us soon.

Police officers and National Guard along the way — men and women alike — encouraged us, thanked us, or simply gave us a thumbs up. At each intersection, rally volunteers greeted and thanked us, answered questions and kept us moving in the right direction, redirecting us to other streets to minimize congestion.

Arriving on the Mall, my rally buddy insisted on getting as close to the stage as possible, overriding my instinct to find a quiet corner away from the crowd (nice fantasy!) so I found myself sandwiched between the National Museum of the American Indian and the stage in a vast can of human sardines – women and men of all ages, some with kids, from throughout the country.

Despite the crowd, graciousness and courtesy predominated. People greeted one another, helped take photos, shared water and snacks, offered a seat on a balustrade to the elderly, and were just generally aware of and accommodating to one another.

And we talked to one another: An elderly Mennonite couple from Baltimore who had been life-long activists and had done service in places I could barely spell. Vermonters still sporting their Bernie stickers. A woman from Georgia who had never been involved in politics until her young daughter encouraged her to go to a Hillary rally, who now found herself chairing her county Democratic committee. A woman from Florida who was grateful to her congresswomen for holding a welcome breakfast for her contingent that morning before the march. People from Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey. Nearby, a group from Hawaii got a shout-out from the stage. All other 49 states were also represented, including a bus from Alaska which made our eight-hour trip seem like an eighth-grade outing.

Admittedly, the program was far too long, but powerful, with speakers representing every aspect of the incredibly inclusive manifesto the Women’s March organizers had published. I believe it was that inclusiveness, represented by the myriad signs, that was largely responsible for the unprecedented turnout.

Among the celebrities, iconic activist warhorses Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis drew roars and tears from the crowd. Steinem shared a message from a group of marchers in Berlin: “Tell your president we tried a wall. It didn’t work.”

“How many? How many?” we asked. 250,000? By noon someone was saying half a million. Optimistic? Not to those of us beginning to feel like kindred sardines.

The sea of humanity was punctuated by signs – homemade on kitchen tables, not slick. Messages from the predictable “F--- Trump” and “Not My President,” others thoughtful, concerned and some with great puns. Many depicted crude drawings of the female reproductive system, including a very clever one with an elephant in the uterus and the slogan “Let’s discuss the elephant in the womb.”

Immigration. Public Education. Affordable health care for all. Reproductive rights. Climate and environmental concerns. Equality. LGBTQ rights. Freedom of speech. Dignity, respect, humanity — all the values we felt are threatened were represented in those signs and echoed in the speeches.

After three hours, the crowd began growing restless and began the march, abandoning the original approved route which would have proceeded up Constitution Avenue to the Washington Monument and then to the White House.

A group of us moved in a shuffle along 4th street past the C-SPAN van to Pennsylvania Avenue where we could finally spread out and take real steps. At each side street we passed we were joined by additional throngs coming from the Mall.

Passing the Newseum, we were encouraged by observers on the balconies supporting press freedom. A little farther up, the main entrance to Trump Tower was fenced off and a contingent of riot police stood on one corner. They needn’t have worried. Except for a few people piling their signs along the fence and sophomorically “flipping the bird” at the building, most of us simply chanted “shame” and marched on to the fence separating us from the White House (the People’s House?) by a fair distance. Starting the trek back to the bus in late afternoon I was astonished to see crowds still surging up the Mall toward the White House.

As we were dragging ourselves back to our buses exhausted and closer to our departure time than comfortable, a big cop with a voice like Barry White told us “You ladies rock!” Love that man!

Back on the bus, a red cup of chardonnay mysteriously appeared in my hand along with a plate of appetizers. Us nasty women do know how to look out for one another.

Even now I’m not sure I can effectively articulate why I marched. That answer is embodied in the people I met, the shared concerns for my fellow Americans, the frustration of having a candidate who won the popular vote by three million but lost the election.

I marched for undocumented Americans who did not come because they are afraid to leave the shadows. I marched for a friend who is a staunch advocate for freedom of the press who could not be there because she was preparing for open-heart surgery.

I marched for my rent-a-kid’s new baby, and for my 14-year-old goddaughter who proudly marched with her mother in Boston. I marched for a friend who would have been there at my side denouncing the “craziness” of this election had she not died of a brain tumor two years ago.

Perhaps my answer is as simple as the Superman quote I used on #whyImarch: “For Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” And after all, Superman was an undocumented alien, wasn’t he.

Marianne Gambaro, of Belchertown, is a poet and writer who has had careers as a journalist and in public relations.


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