Dispatches from the fight against homelessness and AIDS
Posted by Mikola De Roo , January 25, 2017
Photo credit: Alison Marino.
Washington, DC—Along with some 500,000 people from all over the country, on Saturday, January 21, over 130 Housing Works community members—staff, clients, volunteers, and supporters—traveled to D.C. in solidarity and in the spirit of #RADICALINCLUSION for the Women’s March on Washington, toughing out a long but energizing and empowering day.
By virtue of our collective physical presence, our spirit, and the amazing things said, chanted, sung, and displayed throughout the day, we sent a strong message to the incoming administration, on Day 1, that “We, the people,” means all of us. We will not stand for a leader or an administration built on and espousing hate, lies, corruption, greed, and discrimination of seemingly every kind. We will fight a policy agenda that’s founded on those very same base ideas, and we will do what we must to protect what’s right, including individuals, institutions, initiatives, and ideas that work to improve life for people in this country. Every day and every step of the way.
This was Day 1. And it was only the beginning.
Many of us are still recovering today from the long trip and the intensity of the experience, but here are some initial observations from the event:
The Numbers in D.C. Were Historic
The D.C. March crowd size exceeded expectations, no matter what count or news source you look at. The organizers of the D.C. Women’s March got permits for an event of about 200,000. In actuality, D.C. city officials estimated that around 500,000 marchers attended. And other data suggest it may have been larger. According to the WMATA, D.C. Metro ridership was at 275,000 by 11:00am, pushing 600,000 by 4:00pm, and the total for the day, released late Saturday night by the WMATA, exceeded 1 million. Some figures and observations for points of contrast:
- The estimated number of attendees at the Inauguration on Friday was between 160,000 and 250,000.
- The WMATA in D.C. reported that January 21, 2017, was the second largest ridership they have ever had on a single day. The first largest was for President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009.
- The estimated number of attendees at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009 was 1.8 million.
- The comparison between D.C. on Friday and D.C. on Saturday was stark. As we were riding the orange line Metro from Stadium-Armory to Federal Center SW to get to the rally, a local woman next to me noted that on Friday, she and her husband each drove in the area by car, just a stone’s throw from the Mall, right around the time of new President’s swearing in. Crowding should have been at its peak at that point—and she and her husband saw no crowds and experienced no traffic at all. “You’d never have known the Inauguration was even happening,” she said.
Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, Housing Works Associate for NYC, Community Mobilization (far left), who attended the Women’s March with her family, with four generations represented. Photo credit: Valerie Reyes-Jimenez.
The Reason for Protesting Was Historic and Unprecedented
Before Saturday’s Women’s March, the largest and most comparable counter-inaugural protests in the U.S. were for Richard Nixon’s Inaugurations in 1969 and 1973 and George W. Bush’s in 2001 and 2005. The distinct differences:
- Those counter-inaugural events were small by comparison. The 1969 protest was attended by some 15,000 participants, the 1973 one by between 60,000 and 100,000, and the 2001 and 2005 protests yielded around 20,000 and 25,000, respectively. In some cases, those figures combined attendance from multiple protest events during the full Inauguration week.
- In spite of how wildly divisive and unpopular both Nixon and Bush were after being in office for a while and certainly after they each left the White House, the historical circumstances behind those four counter-inaugural gatherings were very different: The 1969 and 2001 protests had far less to do with objections to the individuals assuming office as President and were not a reaction to their characters or their full policy platforms, as unappealing as those might have been to many people for both those incoming Presidents. The 1969 and 1973 events were largely protests against the Vietnam War. The 2001 counter-inaugural protest was a response to the disputed 2000 election itself, in which Al Gore won the popular vote, the Electoral College vote results were widely contested, and the Supreme Court awarded Florida’s electoral votes to George W. Bush, in a 5–4 vote that brought him to victory. And in 2005, the protest that ushered in Bush’s second term was largely due to opposition to the war in Iraq.
By contrast, Saturday’s D.C rally and march were far larger—more than twice the size of the four counter-inaugural protest cited above combined. The event was also a reaction to the candidate himself—his conduct, values, and viewpoints, as well as the entirety of his extreme campaign platform and what it embodies. That collective national opposition and outrage gathered steam as soon as Hillary Clinton conceded the election and all before the President-Elect assumed the Presidency and did anything and only gained rapid momentum in the weeks before the Inauguration with each successive Cabinet appointment, with candidates who are unqualified, incompetent, laden with conflicts of interest, openly hell-bent on dismantling the federal departments they would purportedly be leading, or all of the above.
Photos from the march, taken by many from our group of 130+ Housing Works community members, can be viewed online here or in the slideshow below.
The March Was Peaceful, With Few to No Arrests
Peace and non-violence are hard to argue with, but the corresponding lack of arrests proved equal parts reassuring and upsetting.
One Housing Works attendee observed during the long ride home that despite the show of numbers and the chatter we’d been hearing prior to the March about possible baiting or violence by aggressive counter-protesters, the police and security presence on hand all day in the streets of D.C. felt remarkably light, astonishing for any type of political gathering of this size. Whatever security presence was on hand, it felt laid-back enough to not be noticeable most of the time and when it was visible at all, it seemed benign, helpful, and utilitarian in nature, focused around public safety issues (e.g., directing march traffic). The official reports about the lack of arrests seem to back that anecdotal impression up: Although Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, Housing Works Associate for NYC, Community Mobilization, and one of our bus captains for the day, overheard someone in the D.C. Metro at the end of the day saying that a few arrests had taken place in the area (and it’s still notable to have so few in a crowd of at least 500,000), according to the D.C. Homeland Security Director, the Women’s March in D.C. yielded zero arrests.
Those two points—the peace and the lack of arrests—cut both ways.
On the one hand, the peaceful tenor of the March was a relief to those who anticipated possible aggressive escalations and outbursts of violence—especially after reports of violence from the day before, on Inauguration Day in D.C, which included officers in riot gear using tear gas, and the arrests of hundreds of protesters.
On the other hand, the absence of arrests on Saturday was also an indicator of broader racial disparities and racial profiling. In the March’s aftermath, a number of activists, journalists, and writers have pointed out that race, as always, was a factor in how Women’s March attendees—a mixed crowd, to be sure, but certainly with a huge, visible white contingent—were perceived and treated by police and security. Numerous critics have noted, accurately so, that from the 1960s Civil-Rights era to today, peaceful gatherings led by and attended largely by people of color, especially women of color, have often been met with open, unwarranted hostility and aggression by police and military, with officers arriving in visible numbers on the scene already clad in riot gear, poised from the get-go with batons, tear gas, firehoses, tasers, and the like. For recent examples, we need look no further than any number of Black Lives Matter protests and the Standing Rock protests.
All this to say, as always in America, even on a relatively good day, race matters, and racial disparities and inequities are in play.
We Had a Lot of Company—Nationally and Internationally
As has now been widely reported, participants in the Women’s March on Washington were far from alone on January 21.
The collective number of people who attended sister Women’s Marches in at least 500 other cities in the U.S. and also in hundreds of other cities and jurisdictions worldwide makes the Women’s March the single biggest one-day protest in U.S. history.
One source, basing its number on data being compiled by a UConn professor, estimates that collectively, between 3.2 million and 5.2 million people turned out for Women’s March events on Saturday, January 21, and other news sources in the days since then have placed the number closer to high end of the spectrum at around 5 million.
Whatever the exact numbers, marches were held on every continent on the globe. Over 400,000 people, including a sizable Housing Works contingent, marched and rallied in New York City, over 250,000 marched in Chicago, between 400,000 and 750,000 gathered in Los Angeles, and on and on. People gathered and marched and rallied in small, rural areas as well as urban centers, including 30 people from the remote coastal town of Paradise Bay in Antarctica and 5 individuals on Isla Mujeres off the eastern coast of Mexico. The numbers from Paradise Bay and Isla Mujeres become more astonishing and illustrative when you consider the broader context: The Antarctic continent is largely uninhabitable and has only about 135 permanent residents, plus the people from other continents/countries who live in research facilities on and off throughout the year, around 1,000 people in winter and 5,000 in summer (which peaks right around now, January–February). Isla Mujeres, accessible from the mainland only by ferry, is only 4.3 miles long, less than a mile wide, and inhabited by roughly 12,600.
Activists who have been working for social justice and fighting the good fight of protest and civil disobedience for decades remarked that they’d never seen or felt anything like the Women’s March event before. As my friend Eric Epstein, a long-time LGBT activist who was at the March with fellow comrades from ACT UP, put it, perhaps part of the reason it felt and was different from other worthwhile fights and marches is because “we know we’re not just right, we’re in the majority.”
Dan Rather wrote recently, “These are not normal times.” The Women’s March was heartening to everyone there because its collective emotional tenor was exactly the opposite of what we’ve seen embodied in the speeches and behavior of our new President, dating back to the beginnings of his bid for the Presidency in June 2015 through the racist and discriminatory rhetoric and proposed policies of his campaign platform over nearly 18 months, including all of the near-daily scandals about the candidate that broke in the final months before Election Day, right through to his first week in office. Our new President behaves like a belligerent bully driven by ego and power who, even according to his own aides, meets disagreement and dissent with unchecked tantrums, attacks, vitriol, and rage.
By contrast, the organic spirit of the Women’s March felt like the antidote to the toxicity coming from the White House that we are now seeing, hearing, and reading about every day now. The March combined righteous indignation and fierceness with jubilation and elation. It demonstrated that outrage and optimism are not mutually exclusive, that courage, fear, and hope do not cancel each other out, and that a real activist movement for justice can be full of firm anger, strength, bravery, fear, intelligence, hope, empathy, grief, peacefulness, humor, and joy—all at the same time. It was a reminder of what authentic strength and leadership can look and feel like, especially when we begin with a foundation of mutual kindness and respect and work together.
The ability to hold onto and reflect the full range of human emotion is a strength of humanity and effective activism, not a weakness. The March was organic, living proof of what Gloria Steinem said in a November 2015 interview. Asked about movements and how to create change and get the desired results without burning out, Steinem said, “…if you have a movement that is running, running, running, you’ll get an end that is running, running, running. If you have a movement that has time for jokes and poetry and love, you’ll have that in the end. So you have to build it in along the way. You can’t kill people to save the village.”
The Housing Works community was a part of a mass call for positive change this past weekend, and we’re in the fight for the long haul. If you’re not already plugged into these ways you can stay updated on Housing Works Advocacy events, calls-to-action, and other ways to support our efforts, please check them out:
- To learn more about our advocacy efforts, sign up for our weekly AIDS Issues Update blog and check out www.housingworks.org/advocate.
- Stay current on the Housing Works advocacy agenda and on upcoming events and opportunities to mobilize with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
- Support our advocacy work on behalf of people of color, LGBT people, and other marginalized communities and donate to Housing Works today!
Based on the news from the past five days alone, we’re in for a long, hard fight. We’re going to need to keep the momentum from Saturday’s March going, and we’ll all need to give and receive ongoing support from all of our allies in order to keep going.
Since the Inauguration, a mere six days into his Presidency, the man who came to power under a highly suspicious and corrupt election process, with the stroke of a pen, has been wreaking catastrophic future havoc over women’s bodies, public health, free speech and the freedom of the press, civil rights, science and our scientific community, our national lands, and our environment and climate—and that incomplete list of attacks on the bedrocks of democracy, justice, and human rights grows every hour.
We have a lot of work to do, and Housing Works is dedicated to showing up for the fights that need to be fought on an ongoing basis. It’s no accident that since last Friday, we’ve rallied in New York City and Washington, D.C. twice apiece, as well as in Albany and Philadelphia.
We hope more of you will join our efforts in the days and months to come. It’s time for each and every one of us to find daily ways to step up, show up, speak out, and saddle up. We’re in this fight together and we’re making history. And this is only the beginning.
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Photo credit: Alicia Johnson.
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