Only five weeks have passed since one of the most significant protest events ever to have graced Washington DC’s National Mall. Already it seems like it happened millennia ago. Which, of course, is all part of the President Pennywise strategy, a tactic honed during the campaign. Start each day with some new outrage against decency and pretty soon people will not only have trouble recalling the past, they won’t want to. They will voluntarily give up the act of memory because it is too confusing and painful.
But I’ve been thinking about the Women’s March again recently and, contra the Pennywise strategy, found myself recalling something I’d forgotten. That my experience of that day was intimately connected with the fact that in among everything else that was going on, it was for me also a biking event.
We the People
Most experienced urban bike commuters know something that few car drivers know (or are willing to admit to themselves): the fastest way to get around a large urban space is usually by bike. That is likely to be even more the case when your urban area is taken over by a massive public protest.
I began to have an inkling a few days out from the January 21 Women’s March that it was likely to be larger, maybe much larger, than the couple hundred thousand for which the organizers had planned. I started hearing stories of people who had been planning to host a couple of people at their house, now suddenly being faced with hosting half a dozen people or more. The number of bus permits issued skyrocketed, soon exceeding the number issued for inauguration day (aka Our National Day of Shame) itself. Metro had announced it would open early but it was still clear that public transportation would be stretched and might even grind to a complete halt. Walking the several miles into the city was always an option and I was staggered to the see the number of people doing this. But it was already going to be a long day on our feet, so biking seemed like the sensible option. Using the local BikeShare was a possibility but we figured that all our local stations would be cleaned out early. In the end, therefore, we opted to ride our own bikes in and stash them at a convenient location outside the immediate protest zone.
It was an amazing experience. Biking over the bridge we passed streams of people walking. We wove our way carefully through the throngs, shouting out a cheerful hello and being greeted with equally cheerful responses. People were in a good mood. Once we got into the city, many of the streets had already been closed, and we were riding on streets that are usually choked with aggressive DC drivers who don’t much care who they kill as long as they can get to work two minutes faster. Now, the streets were choked with pedestrians, couples, families, large groups of out-of-towners experimentally hefting their signs. It was chilly but not freezing. The air was electric but with a strange party atmosphere, something that seemed to grow and become a new kind of energy as people began to look around and realize that this was a lot of people. A LOT of people. The cellular network slowed to a crawl. You could text, occasionally.
After stashing the bikes we made our way to the mall. We couldn’t even get near the actually rally site, which was behind the Native American museum. So we wandered for a bit (which is to say we shuffled our way through densely packed groups of people until we were able to find a moment of clear space) just to take in some of the sights and sounds. We moved off the mall to get a bite to eat and then came back prior to the time that had been advertised as the start of the actual march.
In the wake of the march some people became sidetracked debating whether it was the biggest march on the Mall or only the second or third biggest. That didn’t really matter. It was fucking huge, is all you needed to know (although, of course, to Pennywise and his minions, safe in their world of alternative facts, it was in fact made up of only two people and a three-legged dog and all the other people were photoshopped in by evil fake CNN). And the number is even more amazing given the short time over which the event came together and the fact that it didn’t have anything like the money thrown at it that Pennywise’s inaugural did. It is almost impossible to convey the feeling of being surrounded by that many people; and it is primarily a feeling, a pressure on your skin from voices, and movement, and the strange rippling feel of something happening far away making its steady way through you, an insistent current. Everywhere you turned you could see someone stopping and looking around them with a sense of wonder.
But the march contained a few lessons for the resistance movement in the US, not all of which I’m confident will be learned. The rally and speeches started at 10, and the march was supposed to start at 1. We stationed ourselves at a high point in the middle of the mall where we could see down one of the streets, catching a distant glimpse of a Jumbotron. One o’clock came and went. One-fifteen. One-thirty. Every so often my partner would look over at the Jumbotron and announce “still talking.”
This, unf0rtunately, is vintage American Progressivism in this day and age (I almost said American Left, but as we all know there is no such thing, however much Republicans want to conjure this up as a spectre. About as far left as things get in the US would constitute a pasty, anemic centrism anywhere else in the world). This was announced as a march. And most accepted definitions of that word connote movement. But what do Progressives do? Spend four hours talking you to death.
The story of the day, the event, was not the blather up on the stage directed at approximately the 50,000 people who could actually hear anything (it wasn’t really directed at them, of course, but at the cameras). It was the 500,000 people gathered there. No one is going to remember much of what was said up on that stage. They are going to remember that at least half a million people came together on short notice to stand up for the dignity of women and the inevitable degradation women will suffer as we slide into a totalitarian regime led by a serial sexual harasser. Yes, it is nice that celebrities wanted to be a part of this but I personally didn’t care what Scarlett Johannson had to say. Moreover, given the fact that most of the people couldn’t hear anything at all to do with the stuff happening on the stage (and most people could access only fragments of rumors on their mobile devices) clearly other people didn’t care either. In other words, most people didn’t need to have a hip-hop performance or a speech about “empowerment” as a reason to be there.
I want to repeat again that this was a low-budget effort. So perhaps organizers could be forgiven for not having the means at their disposal to distribute the rally widely across the mall via TV and/or sound. But it was as if they didn’t even seem to realize what was going on beyond the buildings that blocked their view of the mall. It emerged later that the organizers realized they had vastly under-estimated the crowd and revoked their own march permit. But there was no attempt to communicate or organize anything beyond the stage.
Therefore, sensibly, at some point, some part of the crowd said “fuck it” and began marching themselves. This was apparently happening in little pockets all over the place and those gradually grew into a big pocket. I heard a couple of women near us with a kid in a stroller say simply “let’s get this thing started” and move off. We joined something that wasn’t so much a march as an organized ooze that gradually worked its way down the mall and up to the Ellipse where it began to break into smaller groups. Some people continued on to boo and hiss at the Pennywise Pavilion. We made our way to the White House where we thought briefly about breaking out the full moon but settled for a hearty “fuck you” in the general direction of the hive of scum and villainy. Some people just reunited on the Ellipse and began to chant, party, or simply talk.
We made our way back to our bikes through streets choked with marchers, most of them streets where the march had never been designed to go. Traffic was backed up, police were everywhere.
The Long Ride
It took forever to bike home, but I didn’t mind. The police were trying to get the traffic situation under control, so I ran into a couple of roads that had been barriered off just moments before. At one point I halted to zip up my jacket and a van pulled up and began disgorging a seemingly impossible number of police. Your image when I say that might be of grim-faced riot-gear clad military types. But they were just regular police. They were joking, talking with passersby, providing directions to nearest metro stations and the like. As I gradually made my way to the backside of the mall, I saw the same tableau everywhere: a police cruiser parked at an intersection, a couple of officers leaning casually against the hood, sometimes having their picture taken with the protesters. The ground was littered with debris: signs, lots of pink gloves and hats, trashbags. People were wandering through the middle of huge traffic intersections with a kind of dazed look on their face. It was like the aftermath of a rock concert. Without all the vomiting.
And that is one of the most important things to remember about the Women’s March. It was an event that was completely out-of-control. Organizers essentially abdicated their responsibility; the march went where it went and people did what they did. And there was not one single arrest. In contrast to the highly organized destruction of the day before (I think it is written into the Anarchist Charter somewhere that if more than six of you gather together you have to smash up a Starbucks, which has always seemed weird to me; if I think of my list of Multinationals Who Are Destroying the World, Starbucks doesn’t even make the top 20; maybe anarchists are just pissed that pumpkin scones are not a year round thing, and I can understand that) there was a festive atmosphere to the day. The police seemed to feel that as well and became caught up in it. The power of anarchy is not organized violence. It is disorganized celebration.
Inevitably, of course, after the march Progressives started doing all those other things they do. There were the complaints (telegraphed well in advance of the march) that it was Too White. That simply testifies to the extraordinarily narrow racial categories adhered to by some in the US. What that statement really means is that there were not enough Obviously Black People in the march. But as I marched I looked around and I saw people of all different skin hues that you could name, the fact of which testified to the glorious mongrel ethnic mixture that is what has made the US great and what is now under threat by Pennywise and his fellow white supremacists. Many of those people would probably have described themselves as “white” on a census form. But if you could see beyond a polarized spectrum consisting only of meringue and ebony, you would have noticed that the picture of “who we are” is a lot more complicated.
Then there was all the other silliness. People complaining that all the vulval imagery was unwelcoming to some people. That there was too much pink. And, most hypocritically of all, that the march didn’t really achieve anything (I say hypocritically because I heard this voiced most often from self-styled “radicals” whose sole contribution to meaningful political change over the last 20 years has been to bring the beret briefly back into vogue).
The most important fact of the women’s march is its most basic: its visibility. And when people sneeringly dismiss the march for not having done anything they are missing the way in which this event helped to radicalize and mobilize huge numbers of people who never thought of themselves as activists or, indeed, feminists (The Post led its coverage of the march with the story of a woman from Pennsylvania, a life-long Republican, demographically the kind of person who we’ve been told ad nauseum is a lock for Trump, gradually realizing that she might have common cause with feminists and taking a political action for the first time in her life).
But “mere” visibility has assumed a heightened importance in the current political climate given the fact that the Pennywise regime inhabits an alternative reality which can only be sustained by denying everything that normal people accept as a fact. That might sound like extravagant political over-statement but we are dealing with a President who even denies the weather. Even though it was grey and raining at the time he took the oath of office, Pennywise is apparently convinced that at that very moment the clouds parted, God dropped his trousers, bent over and took a giant golden shit on the new president. As Dana Milbank notes, this is not born out by weather data, or the experience of other people who were there, but none of this matters. Because reality for this president is not what happened, it is what he feels ought to have happened. Once you understand that single fact, you understand almost every statement he has ever made. It is also why people in the rest of the world need to be very, very afraid.
Visibility matters even more because denial of reality is catching. In the wake of the inauguration two political scientists surveyed a pool of voters. They showed them two photos. One was a picture of the packed mall at Obama’s inauguration, and the other was of the half empty mall at Pennywise’s event. Not surprisingly, when they asked which photo belonged to which inauguration, supporters of Pennywise overwhelmingly identified the one with more people as belonging to Pennywise’s event. This, the researchers noted, is hardly surprising. You would expect a measure of confirmation bias. This is also an example of what is known as “expressive responding,” where people knowingly give false answers to questions (one reason among many for why the election polls were so far off). People are going to be aware that comparing photos of inaugurations is politicized at the moment, so they vote in accordance with their political expression.
Where this study becomes really interesting however, is that when researchers asked a second question–which image has more people in it–a substantial proportion of Pennywise voters (15%) said that the image with visibly fewer people in it actually had more people in it. With clear empirical evidence in front of them, those Pennywise supporters were prepared to deny reality.
This is enormously significant. In the climactic scene of Orwell’s 1984 O’Brien needed to employ a sustained period of sensory deprivation coupled with physical and emotional torture to distort Winston’s sense of reality sufficiently that Winston would see the number of fingers O’Brien told him he was holding up. With a substantial number of his supporters Pennywise has achieved that trick with no coercion at all. He tells them what to see, and that is what they see.
Fortunately, we don’t need to worry about how many fingers Pennywise is holding up. We only need to hold up one in response.