While some Elon University students were preparing for their Friday night, three friends and I quietly made our way to Durham. With nothing more than a string backpack, we psyched ourselves up for the bus ride to Washington, D.C.
Earlier that day, we frantically searched for trains, buses or carpools, anything that might be able to take us to the women’s march. Every potential ride we found had fallen through. Seats were reserved, cars filled up, prices increased — over and over the answer was, “No.” As we grew more and more disheartened, I tried to encourage my friends by telling them with certainty that, through hell or high water, we’d get there.
Eight hours and one detour later, we arrived at Union Station. By now it was three in the morning and our tired muscles were desperate for sleep. I impatiently navigated us through the station, letting my friends trail behind until we reached the main hall. Ordinary linoleum gave way to polished marble and the ceiling rose and bent into high arches trimmed with gold. Up ahead, through another arched entryway, hung an American flag, and behind it shone the Capitol building.
The grandeur of it all took my breath away, and for the first time in a long time, I was proud to be an American.
At 8 a.m., we found ourselves running on three hours of sleep and caffeine-less. Even blasting Beyonce couldn’t pull us out of our sleep-deprived rut.
We finally stepped out of the car onto the side of the highway, as close to the site of the rally as we could get since many roads had been blocked off.
As soon as we hit the streets, our exhaustion vanished and we could all feel the electricity in the air. Still blocks from the stage, we started to run. We had no map and no idea where we were going. We simply followed the direction of those around us and the voices in the distance.
We made it to the edge of the audience and realized how grossly under-prepared we were to face its magnitude. The crowd had become its own entity. People diffused to any new space that opened up, freeing a place for someone else, making the crowd seem alive.
Many were holding up homemade signs and cheering, but most were weaving their way through the horde in an attempt to hear whatever was coming through the nearest set of speakers.
To make it through the crowd, we used what we dubbed “the frat handhold” because of the similar density of the crowds that threatened to separate us. With the smallest of us in front, we gripped each other’s hands, snaked our way through the smallest of openings and limboed under signs until we’d reached the very edge of the National Mall.
It was then that we could finally hear what was being said from the stage. We heard the end of America Ferrera’s speech, and then Ashley Judd’s impassioned voice rang out, carrying the words of a 19-year-old poet whose poem “Nasty Woman” completely demolished prejudice of any kind. Her words rang in my ears, and I could feel my voice straining to make its mark in the cacophony of cheers.
At no other point in the rally did I feel more understood than when Judd read the lines, “My eyes are too busy praying to my feet hoping you don’t mistake eye contact for wanting physical contact. Half my life I have been zipping up my smile hoping you don’t think I want to unzip your jeans.” Because, ladies of Elon, how many times have you felt this at one party or another? Established hand gestures with your friends that mean, “Watch out, someone’s behind you?” How often have you quietly hoped someone wouldn’t come over, grab you and start dancing?
By the last few speakers, the crowd was itching to march. People started to follow the march’s intended path, but we all quickly realized that there were too many of us to follow the route that we planned to.
In a frenzied improvisation, D.C. natives led us down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Ellipse and the White House. More than half a million protesters filled the streets and the chanting begun. We screamed at the top of our lungs, “No fear, no hate, that’s what makes America great,” “This is what democracy looks like” and “We will not go away, welcome to your first day.” When a chant petered out, we’d conspire with the protesters around us and yell a new chant into the empty void. At the rally we listened and cheered. Now our voices could be heard.
There were people everywhere. They were gathered on the sidewalks, taking pictures, waving from windows, climbing up traffic lights and lamp posts, everywhere. I was struck by the hopefulness and positivity of it all. The sense of community, love and solidarity was one I’d never experienced before. Every single person was smiling or laughing. Though protests can turn violent, whether at the hands of the police or the people, this one didn’t. Nobody was arrested and nothing was broken or stolen. People of all ages, genders, religions and races came together and advocated for each other with hope and conviction.
The march gave me a new kind of confidence in myself as a woman and as a feminist. Now, every time I pull the shirt over my shoulders, I’m reminded of how “feminism” isn’t a dirty word. I’m reminded that believing in and supporting movements that challenge sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia isn’t something I want to hide. The fear I feel means that what I’m saying is important.
It makes people uncomfortable. It makes people question. But, most importantly, it makes people see things from another perspective. As troublesome as some of our new president’s social policies might be, I have no doubt that our country will never stop fighting for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. For each other we will fight, through hell or high water.