To Bear Witness

This weekend, I flew to DC to attend the Women’s March on Washington. It was my first time participating in a march, protest, or political rally. The same, I think, was true for many of the men and women who attended the marches around the world.

My friend and I flew from Chicago to Baltimore on Friday morning. When we arrived at the gate, we realized that 90% of the passengers on our flight were women. We struck up a conversation with a young mom who recently started a line of fashionable breastfeeding apparel and wanted to march for her daughter and son. When we boarded the plane and the doors closed, the entire cabin cheered. We were on our way!

From Baltimore, we took a bus into DC then hopped on the Metro to my friend’s sister’s apartment in Arlington. We arrived a L’Enfant Plaza around 2pm, right after the inauguration ended, and the Metro was swamped with Trump supporters. One nice couple from Indiana helped us keep track of our bags in the press of people on the subway. Another man stood quietly next to us with a sign that read “Help Trump Stop Abortion.” At the end of the car, a group of young guys in khakis, pressed linen shirts, and white “Make America Great Again” trucker caps joked and laughed loudly.

That evening, we had dinner with a friend of a friend who works on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer. She was responsible for accompanying members of President Trump’s family throughout the day. Her insights to the political process were fascinating. It seems like there is an alternate reality in which government happens, somehow detached from the regular working world of citizens.

The following morning, the red and white Trump hats were nowhere to be seen in the city. They had been replaced with a sea of pink knit hats with pointy ears. The subway was jam-packed as early as 7am with women (and a smaller number of men) headed down to the rally point. We took the subway a few stops, then walked through downtown, basking in a happy glow. We felt comforted, supported, present.

At Starbucks, two African American female employees joked with their male colleague that “It’s women’s day today, didn’t you know?” He laughed back, pretending to cower in fear, “Oh…I know!” A tall white man passed by the cafe in a red Trump beanie, but quickly stuffed it into his hat before walking in. We chuckled. We felt, for the first time in months, that we were masters of our own destinies.

We waited by a subway station for some more of our friends to arrive, watching thousands of people stream by. They held signs of all shapes and sizes. They held flags. They held the hands of their loved ones: mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, sons, and friends. This was when I first got my camera out. I started darting into the flow of human traffic, trying to catalog the diversity of posters. This was when I started to step back from my own experience of the event, and simply bear witness to the stories around me.

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This was the first time I felt comfortable asking people if I could take their photo. The rally created an opening. Everyone was there for a reason. Our presence indicated that were (finally) willing to share those reasons. To put ourselves out there. Many photographers, professional and amateur, were shooting this event, but there were orders of magnitude more marchers than cameras. I didn’t feel like I was intruding. I felt like I was creating an opportunity for folks to do exactly what they came to do: share their story.

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Over the course of the day, we moved around to various parts of the ever-expanding staging area, and ended up about 2/3 of the way down the march route. Where we could find cell service, we checked into the Facebook and saw the flood of photos from around the world. DC was a big march, but there were comparable assemblies in LA, Chicago, NY, Seattle, and other cities. Even more inspiring, there were small spontaneous gatherings in unexpected towns. Fifty women here, a dozen there in front of the town hall, sharing their story on social media, to the digital cheers of hundreds of thousands around the world.

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By noon, it became clear that there were far too many people clogging the streets to really march. We focused on observing. It was impossible to agree with everything everyone put on a sign or t-shirt, but universal agreement was never the point. I focused on individuals and families. I felt like I could never do justice to the sheer size of the crowd. I noticed that most of my photos were of non-Hispanic white people.

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I started to seek out women of color.

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Around 1:30, we started marching towards the White House. Now, we were in the thick of it, still observing but also engaging in the protest. We clapped and stomped and chanted “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” Some broke out in song, sporadic verses of the “Star-Spangled Banner” mixed with the chorus  to “Lean on Me.”

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The march, for us, ended directly between the Washington Monument and the White House. I suspect that landmark – a towering, white emblem of the US government – has never looked as phallic as it did that day, looming over hundreds of thousands of women marching for equality and inclusion.

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A few blocks from the march, we caught an Uber back to my friends apartment, where we spent the rest of the evening decompressing and following news of the marches across the world. We delighted to see aerial photos of the crowd for the Women’s March compared to the lackluster attendance at the inauguration. My friends joked that this would really get under Trump’s thin skin. I thought he’d flip the script by taking credit for the whole thing and reiterating his yuuuuuge respect for women.

None of us thought he would simply deny the movement.

We were proven wrong on Sunday when Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave a briefing loaded with lies and fabricated numbers. He spent most of his time explaining how, despite widely circulated photographs depicting sparse attendance, Trump’s inauguration was the most viewed inauguration of all time. (Wrong!) He barely mentioned “the protesters.”

Elsewhere, Trump blamed the media for his feud with the intelligence community (False!) and reiterated the lie that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote (Sad!). Kelly Anne Conway said that the administration was using “alternative facts” which caused Twitter to collectively lose its mind, and Republicans floated an Obamacare replacement that is just Obamacare without the individual mandate (because apparently no elected Republican official has ever taken Econ 101.)

It boggles the mind.

Monday, my friend and I visited the Newseum which documents the history of news media in the US and abroad. It was an interesting experience. I was particularly captivated by the exhibits on photojournalism: stories of Pulitzer Prize wining photos, a documentary on reporters responding to 9/11, and a behind-the-scenes look at photographers documenting refugee experiences around the world. It was fascinating to see how these incredible “candid” shots first required the photographer to declare their presence, to seek and acquire the consent of the photographed, to invest time in the community. Then, they could be both present and invisible to the subject.

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Early Tuesday morning, we headed home. Already, buzz around the marches has turned critical. From participants and hopeful observers: What will you do now? Can you make this into real change? From those who felt left out or unwelcome in the marches: Why are you so hypocritical? Why didn’t you address all these flaws? My immediate desire is to respond aggressively with data and photographs and facts: I’ll tell you about fucking hypocrites. Check yourself before I set a wildfire of facts. But then I step back. I remember that there is a step between my having my experiences and sharing my resulting opinions with the world.

The missing step? Bear witness to the stories of others.

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2 thoughts on “To Bear Witness

  1. busyk says:

    I marched in DC and it’s the first time since Nov 9 that my heart hasn’t felt like it was being squeezed in a vice. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Like

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