By Mytheli Sreenivas
It’s been only a week since I joined the Women’s March, but already it feels like so long ago.
My first taste of the Women’s March in Washington DC was not at the National Mall, but at the Franconia-Springfield metro station in Virginia. Thousands of marchers were already gathered in the morning drizzle when I arrived there with three generations of my South Asian American family — my aunt, my cousin, my partner, and my two daughters.
While waiting to board a train, I met a special education teacher from Virginia, travelling on her own to her first protest. “People asked me why I was doing this, and I thought I should have a specific issue, a real reason. And I thought about it, and I’m here because of immigration.” She had come to the US from Guatemala as a child, and wanted to keep the doors open to others. As we kept talking on the two-hour line, she decided there were many other reasons too: Her work as a teacher in a public school, her commitments to children with disabilities and to those with undocumented parents, her husband’s experiences as an African-American in the military… Even though she had never protested before, she was ready to stand alone (if need be) and speak out.
We finally made it inside the station to buy tickets, and I met a fellow Ohioan on the march. She was from Toledo, she said at first, but when she learned I was from Columbus, she got more specific. “I’m an hour from Lima,” she said, “it’s pretty rural where I’m from.” She had studied the history of the women’s movement, and was there with her daughter to continue the struggle. “It’s not about blue states [states that support the Democratic party] and red states [Republican states],” she said. There were people from her mostly white rural community around Lima who needed to hear her story of protest, and she was going to share it with them.
Conversations continued on our packed train. Marchers shared updates about the growing size of the crowd, and we tried to figure out how to get to the mall when so many stations — L’Enfant Plaza, Smithsonian, Capital South — seemed closed due to crowds. As we made way for new arrivals to board the train, I marvelled at the goodwill. As a woman of colour, I don’t think I’ve felt this way since the election, and maybe not since 9/11. I know this wasn’t everyone’s experience, but it was mine. Squeezed on that train, wedged between the subway doors on one side and my daughter on the other, I wished I could find more such spaces of dialogue, cooperation, exchange.
We finally made it to the march, and joined crowds marching and chanting. “I love you all,” yelled an African-American firefighter from Baltimore, and his spirit was infectious. “We love you back,” someone responded. A young white woman walked alongside me briefly, pushing a toddler in a stroller. “I love my two mommies,” someone had written on the stroller. And at that moment, I loved her two mommies too.
Later, my family rested alongside the march route to watch protesters file past. We were trying to be mindful of the youngest and oldest among us, and by this point we had been standing or walking for six hours. But I’m so glad we stopped when we did, because I got to meet an enthusiastic woman with a sign, “Muslim women: Rocking the Vote since 622 AD.” It references the completion of Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, I think but I am not sure.While the historian in me paused, I loved the sheer audacity of such a claim. Women have been resisting patriarchy for a very long time, that is for sure. The woman beside her carried a sign in English and Arabic, “Not a whore, not a saint, but a woman claiming equal rights.” As she walked past, I saw the back of her sign, “I wrote this in English so you wouldn’t be afraid.” I loved the audacity of this sign too, and its unabashed calling out of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. Moments later, I cheered on “Cherokee women for peace,” and “Women of North Carolina: Keeping the All in Y’all.”
Many, many marchers paused to high-five my daughter, whose sign proclaimed, “I am Girl: Hear me Roar.” My eyes locked in with one woman, carrying a sign which said, “Mothers for Reproductive Justice: We March for Our Daughters.” She pointed to my sign, “No Human Being is Illegal,” and gave me a thumbs-up. I too was marching for my daughters, and no one’s daughters — or mothers, sisters, brothers, or fathers — were illegal. I hugged my girls close, and felt the joy of being in this space, with all these generations of my immigrant family, standing together.
Not all of the march was so inclusive. We saw police cars, sirens blaring, driving at a dangerously high speed through a street crowded with marchers. People, young and old, were forced to move quickly to the side. But they soon refilled the gap left by the police cars. “Whose streets? Our streets!” they yelled. And “Black Lives Matter!” I don’t know whether the thousands of people around me had ever said these words before. Maybe many — most — had never been to a Black Lives Matter protest. But if this brief moment brought them insight into the routine police violence and harassment, which is the daily reality for so many, then maybe this was the first time — but not the last — that they would find power in that call to action.
After the march, the overcrowded train back to Franconia-Springfield was quieter. We were all tired and hungry, and I was grateful when someone offered my aunt a place to sit. She sat beside a young white woman from South Carolina, with my daughter on her lap, and they talked about next steps. “We need some actionable items,” said my aunt, “we need to do something next.” And then she proceeded to recount her experiences with the police cars on the march. Listening to her speak of her shock and anger about what we had witnessed, I realised that for my aunt, who had maybe never been to a protest before, the world was looking a little different now than it had that same morning.
When I eventually found a seat on the train, it was next to a Guatemalan-American woman from Virginia. She had been in this country for just a few years, and she talked of the many Central Americans who lived in her Virginia suburb. She was marching for them, she said, and she had written all their names on her T-shirt.
The next morning, we began the drive back to Ohio. Along the highway, I saw other cars filled with protesters — pink hats and signs in evidence. We didn’t have pink hats, but my partner and I wondered whether we could prop up our signs in a way that identified our car to fellow protesters. But then we had a cautionary moment. We had long since left the march, and perhaps rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia might not be so welcoming to our insistence that no human being is illegal. Especially not when we were ‘Driving While Brown’, and so why take the risk? Maybe we needed to return to reality. So our car remained anonymous, and nothing identified us as protesters.
Hours later, eager to stretch our legs, we parked at a rest stop along the highway in West Virginia. Inside, I met yet a group of white women steel workers who had marched. We identified them by the pink hats, but these were not hand-knitted. They were professionally made, and had the logo of the United Steel Workers. “We marched in DC too!” my daughter called out to them. They were as thrilled to meet us as we were to see them. They had marched alongside fellow union members from rural West Virginia. “It’s so important that the whole country be welcoming to everyone. Not just Morgantown (home of West Virginia University), but small towns and rural areas too.” They had marched in support of that vision, and hearing their words, I felt a spirit of radical inclusion. You are part of us, I heard them saying, and my heart echoed their words back, you all are part of me. Keeping the all in y’all.
Returning from the march, I keep thinking of this spirit of radical inclusion. I know that not everyone felt so included, and that racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, or ableism that has shaped American feminisms — as they have shaped American society — have not disappeared. There is much work to be done, so that we can truly stand behind all our sisters, and not just our “cis-ters.” So that we can translate the good spirits of one day into the hard work of struggle and resistance ahead. So that that we can find “actionable items,” as my aunt says, around which to organise.
Now, just over one week since the march, we continue to speak out, speak back, and organise ourselves. We’ve had no choice. The President’s executive orders banning immigrants and refugees sparked protests in cities and in airports across the United States this weekend. Joining fellow demonstrators at the Columbus airport, my daughters’ voices mingled with nearly a thousand others, “No Hate, No Fear, Immigrants and Refugees are Welcome Here!” And, “First they came for Muslims, and we said No!” We stood alongside our immigrant and refugee neighbours, from Somalia, Central America, Iraq, India, Pakistan. We stood with pink hat-wearing protesters, who reminded us that the spirit of resistance at the Women’s March could continue.
These are anxious times for many of us, especially for those whose visa status leaves them most vulnerable. These are anxious times for women like my aunt, who wonders whether now — after 46 years in this country — she should carry identification with her when she steps out of her home. Yet, these are also hopeful times, as millions stand together against these efforts to divide us. No one said this work would be easy. Coalition and solidarity require taking risks. But these are risks I am willing to take. Are you?
Mytheli Sreenivas is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University