Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Many attendees of the Women’s March viewed the demonstrations as a jumping-off point; others saw them as the continuation of decades of work. Here, some of them share their stories.
The morning after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, two very different groups of Americans crossed paths in Washington, D.C.—supporters of the new administration who’d attended the inaugural events on Friday, and those who were arriving in droves to protest it at the Women’s March on Saturday.
In a gift shop a few blocks from the White House, 11-year-old Ava East from Mississippi was twirling commemorative keychains around her fingers. It was her first time in D.C., she told me; she’d come with her grandparents and her cousin to see Trump sworn in to the highest office in the land. The shop was full of browsers considering buttons, bubble gum with Trump’s face on it, and red porcelain solo cups bearing the new President’s campaign catchphrase. East settled on a more somber tchotchke: a matte silver keychain imprinted with the façade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Women’s March wasn’t slated to start for a few hours, but the early arrivals were already assembling. Outside, I trailed a few dozen people ambling past threadbare bleachers draped with flags, and the Washington Monument, cloaked with fog. They were largely quiet as they strolled toward the National Mall, signs swinging near their ankles.
Vanessa Roberts was already pumped up. “This has been a great week,” said the 57-year-old, who had made the trip from Columbus, Georgia, on Wednesday. She’d spent the previous weekend back home, at celebrations commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; there was a prayer breakfast; her daughter performed in a skit. Since landing in D.C., she had attended the inauguration, toured the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, and paid a visit to her representative’s office. Roberts said the march was just one component of her civic engagement. Her overarching mission is “to know what’s going on, and be a part of it,” she told me. “I can’t do it if I’m not informed.”
As we approached the Mall, Roberts peeled off toward a stage set up for speakers. On the corner, a National Park Service ranger passed out maps.
By noon or so, maps would be unnecessary: Crowds choked the streets surrounding the mall. For hours, the blocks were so densely packed that people near me, close to the Freer Gallery, began nervously tittering that maybe no one would be able to walk anywhere at all. The crowd did eventually surge forward, and kept at it for hours. The protest route was hard to miss: Chants were audible from blocks away; now, signs were aloft, popping against the gray sky.
The throngs of marchers were going to bat for a litany of causes, championing reproductive rights, intersectional feminism, climate protections, and more. Many celebrated peaceful protest and long-unfolding civic engagement as a hallmark of democracy itself. ("PUBLIC CERVIX ANNOUNCEMENT," one sign declared. "ACTIVISM IS NOT TEMPORARY.")
Like East, many demonstrators were looking for something to bring home. Not necessarily t-shirts or buttons—though those were in ample supply. Many were looking for souvenirs that couldn’t be bagged at a gift shop: action items to add to a to-do list. The sheer size of Saturday demonstrations, both in D.C. and in the sister marches that flooded streets in 500 cities across the country, crackled with an energy that could be hard to bottle or funnel toward specific action. And, as other observers have noted, popular protests do not always bring on the change their participants desire.
“It will be years before it is clear whether Saturday’s demonstrations were the start of a paradigm-shifting political movement or the equivalent of a mass therapy session,” wrote Mark Z. Barabak in the Los Angeles Times. At the D.C. rally, some speakers touched on this question about what comes next; organizers issued a new guide to civic actions people can take to voice concerns to their representatives.
In a speech frequently interrupted by cheers, filmmaker and activist Michael Moore called on attendees to run for office. No one was off the hook. “Shy people, run for precinct delegate,” he shouted. “You only have to go to the county convention once a year!” He bellowed the number to call to connect with federal representatives; chants of “202-225-3121” washed back for blocks.
Over the past week, CityLab spoke with scores of people who headed to D.C. for the march. We wanted to know whether this call to civic engagement had resonated—and what they envisioned doing in their home communities when they returned. Click on the map below to read their stories.
You can add your voice to the conversation, too. If this weekend’s marches spurred you to action, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Krutika Pathi, Laura Bliss, and Gracie McKenzie contributed reporting to this story.