At 4 am on Saturday, January 21, 2017, I walk through campus with two friends, watching the last stragglers from fraternities make their way home. We are bleary-eyed and a cold mist hangs in the air—but my spirit flies above the fog, fed by two-day-old coffee and the indomitable spirit of democracy. I am about to walk, march, stride, and run for my beliefs and my voice.
My trip to the DC Women’s March started on an interfaith bus between the Penn Muslim Students Association and Penn Hillel. The bus leaders read about the Charter of Medina, written in the seventh century to protect all who live within the land of Medina. Jews, Arabs, Muslims—they were described as part of ummah, a word that in Arabic means “community.” It illuminates the purpose of the march—to stand for the interaction of all the cultures, ethnicities, and religions within and outside America’s borders. During a truck stop, all of the non-Muslim riders made a wall out of their shivering bodies on the parking lot for morning prayer—not to keep anyone out, but to protect the prayer rug from trucks.
I, as an overbearing note-taker, used bus time to scribble down interviews, gritting my teeth every time a bump shook my already illegible script.
I asked students why they came. One responded that she had initially been skeptical of the march, due to her concerns about its intersectionality. It seemed to her that “women leading the march were fighting for things white women would benefit from.” But then she paused, and continued, “But I’ve seen women at the forefront become more diverse.” She came to “observe the energy.” Another student came because he “wanted to do something.” He went on to say, “There was Vietnam, there was MLK, and I see this as our next iteration.”
But of course, after this question was hastily recorded, I thought about the point of marching. Vietnam ended; MLK revolutionized the country. I wondered if people had plans for the future.
“I do. I’m very interested in civil rights, grassroots-level work, community building. I want to see the fruits of my labors in my lifetime. I want to help people I know and get to know. I want to help, specifically, Black Muslim youth explore their identity and claim their place at a larger table.”
And throughout the day I asked people what they had done before, what else they could do. And most all said they had done something and were going to do more.
One woman at the DC hotel we stopped at responded brilliantly, her answer imprinting itself in my memory. She said, “I always was involved in my community back home. It’s important to stay involved, you know? My friend, she’s a lot more politically active than me—she said it’s not change we can believe in, but the change we make. She said it best.”
The change we make doesn’t have the ring of change we can believe in. But then, no person I can recall in recent history has the rhetorical genius of Mr. Obama. The words still ring true.
At that same hotel was a Reform Jewish prayer, with instrumental music and Hebrew words ringing through the packed hall. I was listening to the prayer and observing the magnanimity and enormousness of the event—and even as an atheist, I felt something. As we left, I took with me the belief and hope that the prayer inspired.
In my notebook next to a coffee stain, a scribble reads, “10:00: Crowd slow, massive, many women, spirit real.” People were quiet and let their numbers and solidarity speak for them.
It’s at Jefferson and 4th Street that it gets near impossible to move further. One friend starts to join in the growing number of chants. Soon we are all yelling, giddy with the messages.
(Favorite chants of the ones I have scribbled in the back of my record: “Can’t build a wall—hands too small!”; “No hate—no fear—everyone is welcome here!”; “Love, not hate, makes America great!”)
My friend climbs a forklift. A woman walks by, muttering about Mr. Trump, “He only has as much power as we give him.”
The chants continue, and I start to think about why we are standing here. Why stop? Why chant?
And then I remember that change is slow and needs a spark to ignite it. There have been many criticisms that this was a march of complaints, a march of dissent, a march of words and not actions.
However, actions for change, both against and with Trump, are already being made. More than 20,000 donations were made out to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. Rogue Twitter feeds use Mr. Trump’s largest weapon against him. Other movements also make their marches, as seen in the March for Life.
I marched for my beliefs and my voice to be heard. For too long my family had not been able, upon fear of persecution and death, to speak their minds. I marched for them. I marched for all those who have no voice.
And within this march, that included pro-life women, no matter how much I disagree with them. Many said they would stay back from the march, feeling that they were unwelcome. That, I feel, is a failure of free speech.
And as an unexpected side-note, this sign:
But the author of the cited article does bring up a valid point: too often, I felt, did the march bring up signs speaking of Trump’s nether regions. Just look to the right of “Jeb,” and you’ll see a “nope” sign.
I came to the march not to speak of who or what I disagreed with—I wanted to speak about what I believed in.
Instead, I heard chants like, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!”, as if everyone who voted for Mr. Trump was racist. Yes, his supporters seemed to overlook his clearly bigoted statements, but we’re still all one country. If we let our house become divided, we will fall.
While the majority did not vote for the current president, he is the president. Our role as the politically involved Penn students we are is to accept that and move on. We should not accept his bigoted speech, but we should accept that he is here to stay.
My mum once said, “You don’t get out of a hole by digging further, you get out by starting to climb.” And nothing speaks more truth than folksy Russian logic. We dig our nails in until we find a firm hold, and pull ourselves up. We should not linger in the past—we must spend our energy to move forward and effect change that we can believe in and hope that the country will eventually follow.
But then I return to my original awe at the march. A mobilization of more than three million people to speak out—“we are not in support of him, we want to welcome all marginalized populations”—that is political movement in and of itself.
And even since then, protests have sparked conversations across the nation. Protests at JFK, Detroit Metro Airport, and Philadelphia International Airport—among others—have helped fuel outrage and encourage backlash against Mr. Trump’s questionable executive orders. Still, the conversation cannot end at the picket signs. It must extend to all marginalized populations and turn into action. What the left must do is come up with policy ideas that will appeal to Mr. Trump’s supporters and strengthen the Democratic base.
Aside from the politics, I am not a spiritual person. I don’t know that there is a God, or gods. But I do know one thing: as my group of interfaith students moved throughout the crowd, I did feel something. I talked to strangers as if they were long-lost friends. I joined in with cheer when crowds parted to let an ambulance or police escort through, as we thanked them with cheers and applause. My belief was not in the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Guru Granth Sahib. My belief was in free speech and human unity.
On the bus back, when excitement left and exhaustion entered, I asked people what they thought.
One rider said, “I think it was amazing how many people turned out. And even more incredible was the diversity of people who turned out…and the diversity of the issues they were representing. I was honored to represent some of the people who made it possible for me to attend, especially the women in my life who couldn’t be there.”
“I thought it was the perfect way to understand the cause and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” another student more poetically said. “I stood on top a forklift and saw the meaning of love.”
*My appreciation goes out to the organizers of the Interfaith Bus to the march, to the organizers of the march, and the people who got me to Penn. Quotes were provided on the condition of anonymity.*