January 23, 2017

ON MY MIND | What We Saw from the People’s Streets: Scenes from #DisruptJ20 in Washington, D.C.

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TW: Trump, misogyny, racism

We wake up at 9 am and immediately check Twitter for news of the day’s first protests. Blockades have already gone up at key entrance points around the city; Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL and other organizers have chained themselves to each other and to the ground. We sip coffee and don dark colors. We take our time putting the final touches on makeshift cardboard signs with sharpies. I debate over whether I should bring gloves or not. By 11 am, we’re out the door, headed to Union Square, where we’ve heard a march – dubbed a Festival of Resistance – is supposed to start at noon.

Entering the train station, we spot our first Trump supporters. We see policemen and other uniformed members of various armed forces, equipped with either a rifle, a pistol, pepper spray, a riot shield or all of the above. We see fellow protesters, identifiable by fuzzy pink pussy hats and/or blatant anti-Trump posters. The Trump supporters, most of them decked out in their own uniforms – trademark red hats along with more recently bought inauguration memorabilia – regard us with a sort of brazen curiosity. A group of young students carrying carefully rolled-up posters boards the train carriage adjacent to ours. We try to guess which “side” they’re on. Through the window, we glimpse the letters “UMP” and a heart. Oh.

I am struck by how empty the trains and subway stations are. I expected more people – expected that I’d have to fight my way through densely packed crowds to stay close to my friends. And it’s the same story once we emerge into daylight, onto the streets. I learn from a friend who lives here that D.C. has less than a million residents. Tomorrow, the number of protesters for the Women’s March will not only dwarf the number of Inauguration Day demonstrators but quite possibly surpass the entire residential population of the District.

As we make our way to Union Square, a man sidles up out of nowhere and asks us to stand in a line with our signs so he can take a picture. Unsure of his motive, we keep walking without giving explicit consent. He scrambles up ahead of us and takes the picture anyway, then shoves his camera in my face to show me how good it is. This will become a recurring thing for the next few hours. A few minutes later, a teenager with slicked-back hair and a pressed suit snickers as he walks by and whips out his phone. I stick my tongue out as he takes the picture.

We arrive at Union Square. The area is populated by a fairly diverse array of protesters, from bespectacled old ladies to POC workers’ organizations to people dressed in polar bear costumes to people operating giant puppets. The Festival part of Festival of Resistance seems to have been taken seriously. Out of the blue, someone announces that Donald Trump was sworn in 12 minutes ago. I check my phone – 12:12 pm – it’s true. We don’t really have a chance to let the news sink in; moments later, the march begins.

The Festival of Resistance takes us through several neighborhoods. Gradually I find my voice amongst the mass of bodies moving down Massachusetts Avenue. I yell, “Fuck Trump!” for the first time today, and it feels good to let it out – even better to hear friends and strangers shout it beside me. What pundits might call mob mentality I experience as the collective empowerment and security of numbers, which is no small thing when one receives live updates of mass arrests and police violence happening throughout the city. At an intersection with a direct view of the Capitol, we participate in a die-in. As hundreds lie flat on the crowded asphalt, a woman with a megaphone tells us we should dedicate our bodies to fighting racism, militarism, climate denial, mass incarceration, xenophobia, wealth inequality and more on a global scale. After a countdown from ten, we stagger to our feet as one.

Eventually our march joins up with a blockade on I-395. Helicopters hover overhead, and I can’t help it; the constant droning fills me with subconscious dread. One helicopter swoops in alarmingly close to the freeway. I glimpse a figure in the helicopter’s open cabin holding what I initially take to be a machine gun, trained straight at us. After a split second of panic, I realize it’s actually a huge camera. Some people wave at the camera, others give it the finger. A few cover their faces with their posters. The helicopter finally peels away and the moment passes; the march proceeds down the freeway. A surprising number of drivers caught in the blockade honk in solidarity as we pass, waving enthusiastically at us. Residents of apartment buildings beside the freeway stand on their balconies, pointing and raising their fists. We continue to chant and walk. A line of Trump supporters has gathered on a bridge overlooking the freeway; they wave and point at us too, but I get the feeling it’s for a different reason.

After a final gathering under another bridge (I notice that underpasses have great acoustics for protest), the march exits the freeway. With the inauguration presumably concluded by this point, a monochromatic – duo-chromatic at best – sea of Trump supporters happens to be there to greet us as we return to the streets. This is where I witness my first real confrontations between pro- and anti-Trump people. If anything, the insults that Trump supporters lob at us fill me with a sense of amazement; it really is something to come face to face with the living embodiment of a Facebook comment. “Losers!” they begin, “Grow up! Get a job! Crybabies! Stop crying! Hillary lost! Get over it!” One man stands at the corner of an intersection and rubs his nipples while gazing at us with his mouth open. It really is something to observe: someone converting the abstract theory of an alt-right Twitter account into the praxis of mock-self-titillation and/or the materialism of a t-shirt emblazoned with “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica!” – all in real time.

As we converge with the stream of Trump supporters, the march is obstructed by a tall chain-link fence blocking passage through a major intersection. Protesters and revelers alike are forced to veer left or right onto narrow sidewalks, or turn back altogether. For a moment, one of my friends pushes up against the fence, shaking it with her hands. A police officer on the other side rushes over to play good cop. “I understand ma’am, I really do. We just want to keep the protest peaceful, right? I’m sorry ma’am, I’m just doing my job.” Behind the officer stands another in combat attire, the letters ICE emblazoned on his arms and vest. My friend tries to reason with the good cop – the protest was already peaceful, and if they let us through there should be no reason for it to turn violent. Beside us, a man gestures impatiently to the same officer, his suit covered by a bright red poncho. He points to a map in his other hand. “I have to get to a gala. The Reagan gala. Can’t you just let me through?” Me, and not these people. But it’s no use. The fence stands – authorities seem intent on dissipating, derailing and destroying the march’s momentum by any means. It just so happens that the most effective way to undermine a public demonstration these days is to appropriate the language of peaceful protest and spout them back at the protesters. The tactic works; within a few minutes, the protest seems to have evaporated. My friends and I are separated from other demonstrators, isolated amongst the throngs of Trump supporters. We walk alongside neckbeards guzzling Mountain Dew, nuclear families sporting huge red and white scarves, elderly couples clutching maps and pamphlets. A train of fidgety schoolchildren wearing orange beanies passes by, conducted by women in orange shirts.

The sudden silence that descends on this section of the city – removed from the tear-gas, flash-bang grenades and broken glass that erupt from collisions between the black bloc and platoons of police in riot gear – is a vacuum, diluting air that was once heady and condensed into wisps of atmosphere too thin to breathe. A gauze lighting everything with iridescent possibility has winked out of sight, exposing a congested maze of concrete and cold steel that dictates our path through the city. We attempt, for nearly an hour, to navigate the barricades and crowds in order to locate a friend. We shuffle past huge, tan-colored military vehicles. The scene I perceive is one of militant occupation and containment, turned surrealist by the Starbucks and Panera Breads that flank the soldiers on either side of each blocked street, by the mothers who push strollers past us chatting on their cellphones as their infants toy with newly purchased commemorative t-shirts. I skirt around a group of Trump supporters and start to mumble, “Excuse me,” before defiantly swallowing my words. No one notices or cares.

We’ve stopped next to the sidewalk as we peer at our phones trying to figure out how to get to McPherson Square. A white woman struts up to us and proclaims in a loud voice, “Are you from Vietnam!? Can I take your picture!?” She raises her camera. None of us are from Vietnam, nor are any of us Vietnamese. We glance at each other uneasily. We’re sorry, we tell her, we’re busy right now. “My adopted son is from Vietnam!” No one knows what to say to that. The woman walks away.

Another moment: we’re walking behind two Trump supporters. A protester passes the opposite way, carrying a sign that reads: No Gender Justice Without Racial Justice. One of the Trump supporters snorts in disbelief. “What does that even mean? We already have racial justice!” My friend and I exchange a look.

We steer clear of evangelicals hoisting neon banners and megaphones that crackle with words of damnation and cataclysmic retribution. I can’t decide if their target audience is me, the Trump supporter next to me, or simply Jesus, sitting high in the sky observing us all.

At around 4 pm – I haven’t kept track of the time – we finally regroup with the rest of our friends at a local pizza place. We trade stories about where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we’ve felt. Everyone’s experienced the day a little differently. We’re tired, we’re pensive, but mostly, we’re relieved to have found each other relatively unharmed.

Two particularly boisterous Trump supporters – one middle aged man and his younger friend – swagger in. They invite themselves to sit at a stranger’s table and strike up a loud conversation. At one point, the words “beautiful woman” and “a shame” reach our ears. Suddenly, a woman eating quietly at a nearby table bursts out (I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Do you even know who your congressmen are? Have you ever phoned them? Sent them a letter? How can you say that the government hasn’t done shit for eight years when you haven’t done a single thing yourself in eight years?” The younger man stammers for a second, then spits out a few hasty words and laughs. I carefully avert my eyes and try to focus on my own conversation. A few minutes later, one of the other diners says in a loud voice, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to please leave us alone.” The two linger for a while longer, relishing their meal, before getting up to leave.

As they’re exiting the restaurant, one of the Trump supporters pauses in the doorway, looks straight at us, and grins. “Ni hao,” he chirps. “Xie xie.”

In that moment, words fail me once more.