Being History: Reflections on the Women’s March in Denver

It was cold but clear out — good weather for a march in January. My girlfriend had made some signs invoking radical political figures past: Shirley Chisholm, the Industrial Workers of the World (perhaps Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is instructive here). We had planned to park in her old neighborhood in south Boulder, in order to catch the bus to Denver before it got to the last major stop in the city. This, we thought, would increase our chances of finding a seat. We were wrong.

The lines at the bus stops stretched several yards. As we made our way to the back of one, a bus to Denver passed without stopping. Amid the friendly and excited chatter, I heard one woman lament that it was the fourth bus that had refused to stop. A text from a friend told me that the line at the downtown station — the source — had wrapped around the block and that the harried station manager was frantically demanding more buses.

Fortunately for us, other friends and colleagues were driving to Denver and they had room in their car. It seemed as though everyone had the same thought — this march will be big; parking will be a nightmare. But this widely shared thought actually made the streets and parking surprisingly clear — better than most regular Saturdays, our friend, a Denver native, informed us. As we approached a main thoroughfare to Civic Center Park where the march was to begin on foot, our colleague expressed some concern about the potential for violence (hadn’t the previous day’s protests against the inauguration in D.C. included smashed windows and the exercise of state power?). I thought of the potential for a mass shooting, a fear that ever lurks in the back of my mind, on account of Colorado’s lax gun laws.

Soon, we merged with hundreds of others on each side of the street, all flowing in the same direction. The Colorado sun had traveled high enough to warm us as we emerged from the shadows of skyscrapers. People eyed each other’s signs with approval, pointing out their favorites to their friends. My informant from Boulder’s downtown bus station caught up to us. The crowd poured off the sidewalks to fill the 16th street pedestrian mall. As we turned en masse toward the park, we came to a halt. I saw a car trying to inch its way out of a parking garage onto the street and felt sorry for the driver, surely suspended for several hours where he was. The number of marchers had overwhelmed expectations; the organizers had had no way to prepare all the streets adjacent to the park. The number of participants eventually swelled to five times expectations, becoming the fifth largest march in the country.

As it was, we never made it to the starting point proper but were funneled into the march route itself. We held our signs aloft and moved along at a comfortable pace. There was an air of pageantry to the whole affair. I felt the corners of my mouth dive in a look of disdain as people taking selfies slowed our progress. The performance of the march seemed as important as actually participating for some of these people, and sociologist David Riesman’s distinction between inner- and other-direction emerging in the 1940s came to mind.

Soon, however, I began to feel the spirit of the exercise move around and through me. Marchers in our vicinity attempted to start chants. Some took off like wildfire. I breathed them deep into my lungs and added my energy to the collective incantation as I exhaled. “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Our streets!” responded to calls of “Show me what democracy looks like!” and “Whose streets?”, respectively. For a time, an older woman with a pleasant smile and sharp eyes walked near us. From her leathery face, I pegged her as an old Boulder hippie. Her creaky voice called out “No more pussy grabbers!” and “No more rape!” But her cries were either too clunky or too uncomfortable for the crowd to pick them up.

At another point, a serious-looking couple dressed all in black walked with no signs. Were these anarchists from the Black Bloc? The man took up a forceful rendition of “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” I became a ripple, pushing the chant far from its source into the waters of the crowd. I wish I could say that my experience had been one of crescendo, from timid walk to full-throated, rallying cries. But there was a certain ebb and flow to our collective energy. Sometimes it briefly reached the heights I had imagined; at others, I simply put one foot in front of the other in silence. As we neared the completion of our circuit, our section took up perhaps my favorite chant of the day. Some of the women around us began shouting “My body, my choice!” to which the men replied “Her body, her choice!” in a dynamic that seemed well-suited to the day’s intent, the men recognizing that this was a women’s movement and our role was one of support rather than leadership.

I remembered a conservative friend of mine, John[1], writing to me eighteen months ago of his first march, for a cause over which we disagreed. He suggested the experience might be familiar to me, since “as a lefty, no offense” he naturally assumed I “go about rabble-rousing quite frequently.” Somewhat to my surprise and disappointment, upon reflection, I told him I had only marched once previously — against my native Canada’s tar sands in 2013. There were only about a hundred of us. But this event in Denver was of a different magnitude. John had described “a type of crowd dynamic that captures the whole of your being and verily propels you onward with the elixir of the mob. Invigorating yet almost frightening, and no doubt amplified by the 10,000 or so people attending.” While I don’t share his disdain for the crowd, derived from eighteenth-century elites, I certainly felt the energy he noted.

General Strike media, 1/20/2017, by Graeme Pente.

Back in my apartment that afternoon, I surveyed the news. There were moving photos from cities around the world. A friend of mine back in Canada expressed her admiration for the turnout in Denver. Then she asked me: “Do you think it will achieve something?” I told her that, from a legislative perspective, probably not. And yet, “this is still nominally a democracy, so anytime people come out in this kind of force, it will probably give lawmakers pause. Since the GOP controls the entire federal government, basically, it might fall back on the states to do more in terms of resisting federal laws and policy changes. So this ought to send a message to Colorado’s Democratic governor.”

From her question comes the pressing one: What’s next?

Baltimore activist Brittany T. Oliver of the Movement for Black Lives remained skeptical of the women’s march. But she suggested that organizing is the next step. Success demands sustained resistance.

Others agree that protest is only one tool to accompany a broader strategy of civic duty. Indeed, the organizers of the women’s march themselves have a plan to coordinate mass actions every ten days for the administration’s first one hundred.

Journalist Tina Rosenberg advocates exploiting galvanizing events, of which the inauguration would appear to be the first. She also reminds us that Trump’s electoral coalition is fragile, that “many who voted for him do not endorse some of what he advocates.” That is, there are potential allies, people whom we may sway, among our political opponents.

I think back on my Canadian friend’s question about what the march might achieve. Certainly, it needs to be but a first step, a starting point for wider, organized engagement and resistance. And, as I said to her at the time, instilling hope may be achievement enough.

[1] Out of respect for my friend’s privacy, I have changed his name.

All photos in this essay were taken by Graeme Pente.

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