As I boarded the 3:45 a.m. bus, sign and protein bars in tow, I felt as if I was embarking on a covert mission. It was dark and quiet — as dark and as quiet as New York City can be — and my classmates were buzzing excitedly, despite their drowsiness. The bus pulled away from Barnard College, and I watched the lights of the George Washington Bridge, fuzzy through the fog, disappear behind us before falling asleep.
We arrived in Washington at 9 a.m., an hour before the rally was due to start. I awoke as we were pulling into the bus parking area, and looked out the window to see a massive crowd snaking its way towards what I presumed to be the starting point of the March. The sight of what I estimated to be over one thousand women, men, and even small children, many wearing vibrant pussyhats, brought me immediately and uncontrollably to tears.
We gathered our signs and congregated in the parking lot briefly before joining the procession. Before long, we were surrounded by other marchers of every demographic. As we walked through the Capitol Hill residential neighborhood of D.C., we came across people sitting in their yards who cheered us on as we passed. One mother sat with her small daughter with a sign that read, ‘Kisses for Marchers,’ and another family passed out cups of lemonade and water. Even passing cars honked their support and waved out of windows at us.
We reached a standstill when we came to the Capitol building. Police ushered marchers off the streets to allow cars to pass, producing a sort of bottleneck effect as thousands of people attempted to walk on the sidewalks. The spirit of the march was already in full force, however, and even without walking, the crowd chanted slogans like “We will not go away, welcome to your first day!” and “My body, my choice!”
Finally, we broke through the deadlock and started down Independence Avenue, chanting and waving our signs. When we reached the bottom of a hilly stretch of the road, I turned to look back up the street and was shocked to witness the sheer vastness of the crowd behind me. Thousands of marchers, so many that they appeared as an ocean of pink dots rather than as individuals, paraded down the hill with signs and shouts. My friends and I exchanged incredulous looks and continued on our way, holding onto each other to avoid being separated in the crowd.
The marchers gathered for the rally across the street from the Museum of the American Indian. The crowd was too large for everyone to see the guest speakers, but screens and microphones magnified their voices. I was most struck by the words of poet Aja Monet, who recited her poem “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter.” She also spoke about how powerful language is, and how it was by abusing this power that Trump won the election. There were a great number of other notable speakers, including Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, Angela Davis, acclaimed activist, Sophie Cruz, 6-year-old immigrants rights activist, and artists Alicia Keys and Janelle Monae.
After the rally, the crowd was impatient to begin marching. Slowly but surely, we made our way back to the starting point and began marching in earnest. The energy was electrifying, managing to walk the delicate line between peaceful and powerful, restrained and impassioned. Between the protestors there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to be respectful and kind to one another. While the number of groups represented was diverse in every way — age, race, gender, sexuality, and perspective — I did not witness any hostility or even tension. On the contrary, the unifying cause of the March seemed to be enough to link together the estimated 500,000 protestors that gathered in Washington, not to mention the millions worldwide who marched in over 600 sister marches.
As we marched through the streets of Washington, the Capitol building and the Washington Monument in the background, my friend, who was in Washington for the first time, pointed out how bizarre and incredible it was to see these monuments she had read about and seen in pictures. These stark white buildings, which were supposed to represent the highest authority and symbolize the will of the people, now struck a sharp and sinister contrast behind the colorful signs and hats of the marchers.
We continued past police officers who, instead of looking disapproving, seemed instead as if they were trying to hold back smiles. I wondered if they had wives, sisters, daughters, or friends who were marching, or if perhaps they wanted to be marching themselves.
As the end of the day drew near, my friends and I began the long walk back to the buses. We passed security guards who thanked us, smiling, for coming. Finally, we sank gratefully into our seats, legs very tired from a full day of walking. I turned on my phone to an onslaught of notifications from news outlets and social media, all reporting on the Women’s Marches around the country. Headlines screamed things like “Half a Million Descend on Capital City for Women’s March on Washington in Mass Rejection of Donald Trump,” and more showed aerial footage of marches from all over the country and the world. Turnout for every sister march, as well as the March on Washington, far exceeded any expectations, to the point that the marching portion of certain events had to be rerouted or, in some cases, canceled, due to the sheer masses of people in attendance.
I took this in, half disbelieving, half believing with a certainty that surprised even me. In the crowd, I had been able to discern that there were thousands, but had not been able to grasp just how many thousands. Now, with videos and estimations on the rise, I could see clearly the vastness of the crowds. News outlets called it the largest protest in U.S. history.
More than that, my Facebook and Instagram feeds were crowded with photos of the March taken by my friends not only in Washington, but also in New York, L.A., Chicago, Woodstock, and Paris. The universality and solidarity of the March struck me fully as my own experience and those of my friends began to sink in. I knew that one day of protest wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, to make the changes we all wished to see. To accomplish our goals we would have to keep protesting, keep advocating for ourselves and for each other, for days and weeks and maybe even years to come. But for the moment, it felt like a beautiful, incomparable beginning.