On January 21st, I participated in the Women’s March on Washington. It was my first ever time attending a protest. I marched for women’s rights and to make a statement that women have powerful voices that should be respected and listened to.In the past, I have often felt uncomfortable about protesting. I would think, “What will the repercussions be? What if it’s unsafe? Will someone from work find out?” In addition, I often feel like it isn’t my place to protest because the issue often does not directly affect my life. After this past weekend, I have realized that these are excuses, and terrible excuses at that. They are my attempt to talk myself out of participating in an issue that I am uncomfortable about even though I believe the cause is just.
The protest was an amazing experience. There were so many people that we marched up Pennsylvania Avenue instead of the originally planned route on Independence. So much of my time was spent chanting, talking to new people, marveling at how many people had shown up, and looking at all the signs and what people wore to express why they were marching. Everyone I met was happy to be at the event; the atmosphere was buoyant and powerful. When my mother managed to text me information from the news because we could not hear very much from the rally, many people around me turned to listen and they cheered when I read out that “across the country every major city is just filled with thousands and thousands of protesters.” It was 1:45pm and few of us knew anything about the protests around the world.
Attending a huge peaceful protest on the National Mall was an incredible experience and definitely an item to check off my DC bucket list. Unlike the weekend before when I saw the National Park Service setting up for the Inauguration Weekend events, I got to experience the power of an event of that magnitude on the Mall. I have spent the Fourth of July on the Mall and can say there is a great sense of camaraderie when you are surrounded by tens of thousands of people, but this was different. I felt like being under the Washington Monument, within sight of both the Capitol and the White House, meant that people and decision makers had to pay attention. Perhaps, being in a place where so many protests have gone before lent even more weight to our message(s).
Speaking to an acquaintance about the protest, He questioned the “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like” chant. Partially because every protest movement from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter uses the chant. And partially because he questioned whether protesting is really a form of democracy. Yes, it is. The ability to gather with others who feel similarly to you in a public space, say what you feel, and not receive repercussions for speaking out is a huge part of democracy. There is a great article by The Atlantic that looks into the use of public space for democratic protest as well as suppression. In particular, the article points out that urban design for political purposes began in the 1800s with Paris. The creation of wider streets was in part to allow large groups of soldiers to pass through and to make it harder for revolutionaries to barricade the streets. The massive scale of some squares around the world can actually act as an anti-public space and suppress public expression.
However, the National Mall does not suffer this fate. Instead, it’s design fosters the public experience of large gatherings. It is a welcoming area with grass, trees, and impressive buildings. By all the facts that you look at, the Mall is a massive space. Even without including the space occupied by the museums or the memorials around the edge, the Mall is 1.9 miles long between the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and the width of it’s open space is 656 feet wide. People are almost always flowing through because of the memorials and museums that surround it and the area provides long stretches of space for people taking walks and working out. It is also very conducive for large gatherings of people, including protests.
Was it designed this way on purpose? Probably not. Instead, it was part of the City Beautiful movement that resulted from the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. However, it is one of the main attractions when people come to Washington, DC and its proximity to the White House and Capitol Building make it ideally situated for political activism as well as patriotic events.
The National Mall is often called “America’s Front Yard” and I believe it is a fitting nickname for such a grand space. While it is not private and it invites people from all walks of life to gather in its lawns, it is malleable and spontaneous. It is a space for celebrations, concerts, sports leagues, learning, art, and protests. While a few of these activities require permits, this space is transformable into whatever we need it to be. This past Saturday, we needed it to play a role it has done successfully so many times in the past and it rose to the challenge. The next day, it went back to it’s normal routine just like the rest rest of us, changed by the event, and welcomed visitors with open arms.