The Music of Democracy

The Music of Democracy
A group of Norfolk protesters, including Whitney, Susan Mariner, columnist Tom Robotham, Virginia Poet Laureate Tim Seibles, and Debra Sewe marched on Washington

By Tom Robotham


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.


The day after the Women’s March on Washington, a man I know was asked by a mutual friend why he’d gone.

“For my daughter,” he said.

Fair enough. I went for my daughter as well. And my girlfriend. But I also went for my son, my friends—male and female—and countless, good-hearted people whom I’ve never met. Finally, I went for myself. In part, I was looking out for my own interests.

The event was billed as a march for women, and so it was. The majority of signs I saw expressed defense of women’s rights. But there were also plenty of signs proclaiming support for the civil rights of blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBT community. I am not part of any of these groups. So what do I mean when I say I went in part because I was looking out for my own interests?

Three things.

First, I am part of a group Trump has targeted. Two groups, in fact: I am a journalist and a college professor. Given Trump’s hostility toward academia and the press, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he instructs his puppets in Congress to pass something comparable to the Sedition Act of 1918, which forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government.

Second, I believe that it is in my interest to do what I can to protect the air I breathe, the water I drink and the globe I inhabit. It is in my interest as well to fight for affordable healthcare, and tax policies that don’t place an undue burden on me while letting billionaires off the hook.

What I mean most of all, however, is that civil rights, understood properly, is a universal concern. I fight for the rights of oppressed groups, not only because I care about them but because if they are not safe I am not safe. Once we as a society accept the targeting of specific groups, we accept the potential targeting of anyone for any reason.

The most striking feature of the Women’s March was that for half a million people—not to mention millions more who marched in other cities—this seemed to be the binding spirit: We’re all in this together.

MY COMPANIONS AND I departed for the march on a bus, sponsored by the Friends of Women’s Studies at ODU, at 5:30 a.m and arrived at RFK Stadium about 4 hours later. From the moment we left the parking lot and stepped on to East Capitol Street I was struck by the positive energy. Initially, we were walking toward the Capitol with hundreds of other people whose buses had just arrived from other cities. The bus next to us had just rolled in from Detroit.

After a half a mile or so, the crowd had swelled thousands. As we made our way up the street, which was lined with attractive brownstones, we noticed black and white yard signs on more than half the front lawns, each emblazoned with a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” read one. “We must accept finite disappointment,” read another, “but not lose infinite hope.”

The latter was especially relevant to the day’s gathering. Since the election, hope has been in short supply for millions of Americans—and Trump supporters have been sneering contemptuously at liberal “snowflakes” who feel devastated by the outcome.

“We accepted Obama’s election,” many Trumpsters proclaimed on my Facebook feed.

That is a lie, of course—or at least a gross overstatement. While some may have, many others did not—least of all Trump himself, who tried relentlessly to discredit President Obama by insisting that he hadn’t been born in the United States.

Moreover, even if they had accepted Obama, it is a false equivalency. Obama never threatened to take away anyone’s civil rights—not even those of gun owners. He never encouraged violence against protestors at his rallies. He never mocked anyone in the manner that Trump did—and if his critics hurt his feelings, he never Tweeted about it at 3 a.m. Trump scares the shit out of people because he is demonstrably hateful, remarkably arrogant, and exceedingly thin-skinned. Not a good combination of traits for a president at a time of global instability. It’s understandable, therefore, that many Americans would feel both terrified and hopeless.

With this hopelessness in mind, I had feared that the March would be a disappointment in one way or another—that the turnout might be poor, for instance, or that it would be populated mostly by upper-middle class white women accompanied by a few dutiful husbands and boyfriends.

But by 11 a.m., the crowd was already enormous—and it reflected all the demographic diversity of the country itself: men and women of all ages, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. These identities were in many cases reflected in the signs people were carrying, which ranged from “Love Trumps Hate,” to “Trump Can Kiss My Brown Latino Ass,” to “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off of My Uterus.”

Uteruses were especially well represented, and early on we even saw a giant one—made of crocheted fabric, four feet high—moving through the crowd on someone’s shoulders.

Later on I learned that some people watching on television were appalled by the language on some of the signs, not to mention the giant uteruses, and concluded that it wasn’t “family friendly.” The crowd, however, included thousands of children and adolescents, and not a single parent I saw seemed to be embarrassed or uncomfortable.

If I felt a tinge of discomfort it was only because of the massiveness of the gathering, which at times made me claustrophobic. If anyone had panicked for any reason—a brawl, a gunshot, a burst of tear gas—the ensuing stampede would have been deadly.

It quickly became apparent, however, that there would be no such disruption. Gentleness and civility ruled the day, so much so that I never even encountered an expression of mild irritation as people crisscrossed each other’s paths. It was by far the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in my life, and yet I’d never felt safer.


EVERYONE SEEMED TO FEEL SAFE. At one point my friends and I saw two women without shirts—and without breasts. Both had had double mastectomies—their scars were quite visible—and were shirtless to demonstrate that they were not ashamed. They also wanted to call attention to the cost—$70,000 per operation—which means that if the Affordable Care is gutted, many women may die.

The march itself—which was to follow the rally—was supposed to start at 1 p.m., but the hour came and went, and nothing seemed to be happening, other than more milling around and waving of signs. In the distance we could hear spontaneous cheers erupting, presumably in response to speakers, but the crowd was so thick that there was no way we could get close enough to see or hear those on stage.

By 3, my friends and I were thinking that the rally might soon dissipate—then, as we turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, we noticed that the march had begun in earnest. Given that the turnout was more than twice the size of what the organizers had anticipated, it was understandable that it did not unfold on schedule—and quite remarkable that a march ever happened at all.

I’m taller than the average person, but after we had gone a few blocks, I could see no end to the hordes in either direction. As we marched, people broke out in chants of various kinds, and occasionally in song. At one point I joined a chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” the great anthem of the ‘60s Civil Rights movement.

Police officers and National Guardsmen were stationed along the route to keep order, but they had little to do. Later, as people made their way back to the buses, officers urged people to stay on the sidewalks. Some barked the orders rather gruffly, but most said, “please,” and more than a few said, “Thank you for coming.” One National Guardsmen even agreed happily to have his picture taken with some protestors. Two police officers, meanwhile, were spotted wearing pink, crocheted “pussy hats” (with cat ears)—the signature fashion statement of the day for many people.

I did watch the speeches on YouTube the next day and was struck by two: CNN’s Van Jones, who reiterated his insistence that only a “love army” can conquer Trump, and actress America Ferrerra, who called for “common decency,” and “justice for all.”

The calls for unity were the most encouraging of the day. In recent years, it seems to me, the left has been too fragmented, as various factions rally behind specific causes—women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, environmental protection, and so on—but often fail to see and articulate an overarching cause. The rise of Trump, it seems, has bound people together behind a commitment to civil rights, pure and simple—without exception.

That sort of holistic view, however, is not at odds with a focus on a specific cause in accordance with the priorities of one threatened group or another. On the contrary, this is the nature of harmony—a combination of different melodic lines running simultaneously in counterpoint.


WHAT UNFOLDED ON JANUARY 21, in other words, was the music of democracy, in contrast to the strident discord that has come from Trump and his tone-deaf minions.

The question that remains is, what now?

In spite of the warm afterglow that I felt the next day, I worried that this would turn out to be yet another flash in the pan from the left. The marchers could pat themselves on the back and return to their everyday lives.

Over the last three weeks, however, I have felt a renewed sense of hope that this won’t happen. Countless protests erupted again, for example, after Trump’s immigration restrictions, which have nothing whatever to do with national security and everything to do with scapegoating as a way of riling up his base and stirring more fear and divisiveness. Divide and conquer is a time-tested strategy.

Even before the immigration order, more people than ever seemed to be calling their elected representatives to express concern over one cabinet nomination or another, or some policy that Trump is threatening to advance. I had always wondered if such calls make a difference, but I have been told by people in the know, including an aide to Senator Warner, that they do have an impact.

The challenge before us now is to sustain the momentum. It is not too early to be thinking about the mid-term Congressional elections, which will be our next shot at keeping Trump in check.

But we must not allow ourselves to think only about Washington. This November, for example, Virginians will elect a new governor. It is crucial for those of us who recognize the urgency of the times to go to the polls, of course, but also to get active in a campaign to preserve some kind of progressive vision in the state house as a counterweight to reactionary forces.

We must remain active on a local level as well, attending town halls, civic-league meetings and city council meetings whenever possible. Our focus right now, understandably, is on Trump’s recklessness, but the old saying, “all politics is local,” remains as true as ever.

These are dark times, indeed—the worst of times in many ways, at least for as long as I’ve been alive. But as I reflect on the Women’s March and subsequent surges of activism, it occurs to me that they may turn out to be the best of times—a period that 10 or 20 years from now we can look back upon as a moment in history when the spirit of democracy and social justice was renewed.