My good friend Mike invited me to go the Women’s March on Washington with him. He was getting a van and he had a place to stay in DC. I turned him down. Even though I believe in the protest, I explained, being in protests is hard for me. I get anxious in the crowd and duck out early.
Mike pushed back, on phone and in email. This is important, he said. Nothing bad is going to happen to you, and we need people out there. I agreed. Nonetheless, when I have marched in protests before, no matter how cathartic or important they are, eventually my stomach knots up, my mind races so I can’t think straight, I start walking faster to avoid the people around me, and I jump out before I lose it. I told him I wasn’t going. I also resolved to get to the bottom of what was upsetting me and show up as 100% Michael at the sister march in NYC.
Step one: what’s going on inside?
I journaled about what comes up for me when I protest, without judging or censoring what came out on the page. I learned I am afraid of:
- Wasting my time. I’m just bouncing around on the street and getting written off as a rabble while the power brokers carry on. I’d actually contribute more to the world by spending the time on my projects.
- Being absorbed. That moment when the crowd starts to chant together and I do it reflexively, without knowing if I believe in what they’re saying or not. What if I put myself behind something I actually don’t believe in?
- And a cousin of that: Getting in trouble. What if I follow the crowd into doing something illegal or dangerous and get arrested?
- And next up: being a shitty liberal. You’re scared of getting arrested, Wilson? You don’t deserve to be out protesting. You might as well drink a fucking latte and play video games while people lose their health insurance and the ice caps melt and schools fall apart and the world becomes a fascist police state you…et cetera…
- Which is subsidiary to: looking stupid in general. Not only will I stumble over my privilege, I’ll betray that I don’t know all the issues, and the crowd will laugh me down or beat me up.
So that accounts for the anxiety.
Step two: what do I need?
First off, I wanted to know that marches can actually make a difference. Well, yes, I affirmed after seconds of googling. The women’s suffrage marches; the civil rights marches; the Vietnam protests…in “Why Some Protests Succeed While Others Fail,” New York Magazine surveys the history of protests and concludes: go march, then continue with other sustained organizing, and you have a chance.
What about holding on to my sense of freedom and self-worth at the protest, rather than veering into fear?
I stewed on that one for a while. But in the week leading up to the protest, I reached out to friends for conversations. We talked a lot about different policy questions and people in government, and about the bigger picture of rising populism. I also came out with my fears, and asked my friends to help me think through how I wanted to approach the protests. As those conversations developed, a number of us planned to march together.
On Friday, Trump gave his inaugural address. It chilled me. He said, “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.” This did not make me feel united. I felt goaded to get in on his team before he decides I’m an enemy. “America First?” I immediately resented him for the threat to fall in line.
I was hungrier than ever to understand what the hell had happened to get Trump here, what policies he and his cabinet actually stand to put in place, what impacts his team will have, and what alternatives exist.
I also felt a familiar desire to know it all so that I wouldn’t get caught flat footed at the protest…out-flanked, say, by teacher’s union members who knew more about DeVos than me, or policy nerds who knew more about Russia and Rex Tillerson. I heard myself spinning these anxieties and I knew this was silly, because my friends would be around me and they wouldn’t care. In fact, over dinner on Thursday, we agreed that empathy, dialogue, and faith are more important for making the country work than any one piece of policy. Still, government policy is where feelings and wills become concrete conditions for daily life; for example, individual police officers and their departments make fatal choices, and their development is what will save lives, but Federal programs set boundaries for their operations all across the country. So why not exploit my mania for knowing and study how the machine turns?
I cleared the rest of the afternoon and read. I was embarrassed to see that I had been confusing Al Sharpton with Al Franken. That’s what I get for trying to be the smartest person at the protest. I learned about each of the cabinet appointees, on The Atlantic’s Cabinet Tracker. Did you know that Elaine Chao, the shoe-in for the head of transportation, is married to leading Senate republican Mitch McConnell? I did not. I do now. I confirmed that I believe in charter schools in principle, but DeVos is scary because of her conflicts of interest, track record of low regulation, and anti-lgbtq ties. And so on, and so on.
By the next morning, I had a list of ten points about Trump’s administration that I reject. I wrote those on one side of my protest sign.
On the other side of my sign, I wanted a more emotional and interpretive message. I thought about inscribing a labyrinth in an outline of a map of the US, with peace at the center. I wanted to emphasize that truly fulfilling on the American experiment requires citizens to deliberately and meditatively consider, or “walk,” the massively divergent experiences of people around the country. After Trump’s speech, though, that message felt too subtle. Instead, I drew Trump Tower like a Lord of the Rings battlement, drew Mount Doom smoldering in the background, and captioned it DOWN WITH SAURON.
Step Three: march
On Saturday, we waded through crowds toward our meeting spot and discovered we couldn’t get there, because First Avenue was blocked off and glutted with marchers. We wrestled with the overburdened cell phone network and eventually got all nine of our little clan together, amidst hundreds of thousands of other protesters.
I was digging it. Rather than feeling anxious, I loved seeing all the brilliant signs and speculating about how we were going to jam ourselves onto 5th avenue. Police were around, but relaxed and calm. Musicians embedded nearby drifted between traditional Jewish songs, pop melodies, and protest anthems.
First Avenue was so full of us that organizers directed my clump down a cross street, off of the protest route. I was shocked to see us spill from the sidewalk into the street and utterly fill it, marooning cars, busses, trash trucks, and cabs with our bodies. I felt anxious for a moment that we were going to get arrested for blocking traffic. I squeezed Mert and relaxed. I also saw a cop taking a selfie with an MTA bus driver. So everything was fine.
Magical scenes continued. A stranded stuck truck driver grinned like a maniac DJ and blasted his horn for us to dance to. A man got up on his taxi to gyrate. Little girls flashed “girl power” shirts with their mom and dad. Protesters poured out of a parking garage next to us, as if they were coming out of the ground. Chants rose up, from the familiar—THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE—to the fabulous—WE WANT A LEADER, NOT A CREEPY TWEETER. I was delighted to join in.
Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, “[The Women’s March] was funereal in purpose but decidedly celebratory in tone. The march, in pretty much every way including the most literal, opposed the inaugural ceremony that had taken place the day before…The Women’s March was an installation ceremony of a sort—not of a new president, but of the political resistance to him.”
I was thrilled to be a part of this counter-inauguration. If I was anxious about being smart enough that afternoon, I didn’t notice.
To show up full-throated at a protest, I need:
- Passion for the cause
- Fluency with the issues
- Friends I love around me
To do my part in the movement, I will:
- Stay informed
- Donate to social justice organizations
- Call and write my senators and my representative
- And continue making art and dialogue about the twisted notions of masculinity that make us need a women’s march in the first place, and which Trump exploited to rise.·
What about coaching? As I wrote in a recent post, I’m willing to “go there” and call out the sociological issues at hand. I also know that, like me, everyone has their individual psychologies that are more complicated than their place in society. I coach my clients like I coached myself through this process: respect yourself and your fears, dare to pursue what you need, and never settle for less than the world you want to live in.