By Samara Ferris
Its beginning is reminiscent of a bar joke. There is a Catholic priest, and a Unitarian preacher stands with her congregation. There’s a group of college-aged girls beside me, carrying their signs and giggling about their donned cat ears. A Hamptons-esque couple offer their just-purchased, untouched black coffees to a nearby lesbian couple after overhearing their conversation about their need of hot coffee. The women politely decline and go back to tending to their little boy who is darting between static and impatient marchers, dressed in a shiny Superman costume.
Every so often a wave of yells permeate the skies above this city; above these streets where nearly a quarter of a million people have coalesced; above this midtown intersection where the march has come to a permanent halt, all of the avenues being filled with bodies, with signs, with children grasping homemade cutouts dotted with glitter and streaks of crayon.
Three girls escape through the window of their flat— a dashing corner building with its stone façade and carved ledges—and creep onto the vast, unused balcony loaded with air conditioners, carrying a banner whose message is written in script with thick, black paint. Fingers shoot up and point to the girls, who are duct-taping the banner across the heavy pillars of the railing. Cheers emit from the mouths of onlookers, hungry for action and movement, and a sea of cameras and phones explode onto the near horizon, documenting the act.
I meet a group of people in New York, coming all the way from Oregon to become bodies on the ground, bodies showing their presence, bodies calling for new energy policy that cares for our natural habitat, that pays homage to the scientific data of climate change. Men clasp the hands of their mates, both male and female, calling for equality. There is a black woman with a rich Jamaican accent, saronged in a mass of beautiful Batik cloth who looks upon my friend and I, uniformly and perhaps even a bit saccharinely bathed in pink, and in a sweeping motion of her hand, as if blessing the entire crowd before her, issues a stanza of “God bless you’s” with her eyes pointed up toward the sunlit sky.
There are slogans worthy of million-dollar endorsements, the hilarity ensuing after each reading of them as we turn our focus and see a whole new vision of signs. No matter one’s stance on the current president, “Ikea has better cabinets” is deserving of at least a few glances and a full round of laughs, especially as one realizes how nearly impossibly true the line is, as you well know if you have ever spent three days putting together anything from Ikea, only to have it topple apart one day, collapsing upon the floor in a heap of pressed wood, breaking a stack of glasses and my favorite coffee mug on the way down. And in what seems to be a miracle of humanity, representative of this benevolent march filled with a plethora of different and confusing and beautiful and sometimes even contradictory demands and messages, no one—not one of the quarter of a million marchers—is arrested. There are no smashed windows. There is no violence. There is no irreverence so great that some body must be controlled, must be collected into the back of a gleaming NYPD car.
And with these varied messages: some encouraging energy reform, others representing the current president with a barrage of insults, caricatures of his blonde hair flowing around like a frayed cotton ball, and still others demanding affordable healthcare, immigration reform, maternity leave, access to legal and safe abortions, there seems to be a unifying thread that maintains the security of the streets, that inspires couples to offer their hot coffees, that encourages Unitarian preachers and Catholic priests, lesbian couples, and girls taking selfies in cat ears to all co-exist: the unwillingness to compromise human decency, whereby differences to not divide but instead force us to look upon our society as an extension of ourselves and our desires for health, happiness, freedom, and respect. How else can this many people wade through standstill New York traffic and sweaty, stuffed public transportation and gather together in the hundreds of thousands early in the morning on a Northern winter’s day, pregnantwith hope and anger and bitter reflections of inequality, of loss, of yearning for a better future without any violence? Without any arrests? Without any robbed registers or smashed windows? Without any abuse of the police, camped out behind roadblocks encircling Trump Tower? How else can this many diverse people coalesce without chaos and brutality if not for the overwhelming spirit of decency and uplifting humanity present in these days, at these marches, the largest protest in American history, which took place on the 21st day of the new year of 2017, in locales all around the world?
And after that renaissance of action and hope, there was the inevitable disappointment that followed. There were many men and women who criticized the march as childish and grossly naïve, as action-less, and ineffective. And these thoughts began to permeate the minds of those who did not see a tangible effect of the movement, who realized that this historic day did not have immediate, historic consequences.
Pondering the rebellions in American history, it is easy to equate a physical response given in a timely manner to a physical demand. In the general timeline of social reform washed over in a matter of sentences in textbooks, the information is there: it seems to conclude that after social outrage became at a point so large as to eclipse normal patterns of living, a movement took place. And, following the movement, society, humanity, government, whatever it may be, changed irrevocably and radically, as a direct response to a call for it to do so. But change is hard. Change is painful. Change is expensive. It is challenging and for some of us, it is more than we are willing to bear. Change is the last-ditch effort employed to mend a broken society; it is the very last thing to occur until times become so unstable that without it, we would confront monumental disaster, chaos, violence, economic hardship.
On May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas sparked massive outrage in the country over theories of racial inclusive- or exclusiveness based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation of public schools is unconstitutional, an idea that seems basic, obvious, and matter-of-fact today. And yet, it is an almost unbelievable fact that in times as recent as 2011, segregation of public schools attained through illicit gerrymandering into school districts of mostly black and mostly white sections of the town of Cleveland, Mississippi did exist, a fact which the Federal Government has fought with what legal power it can wield over the state, stating that the town has “failed to meaningfully integrate,” and thus must eliminate all separate schools in districts all together, joining them together in one large school where gerrymandering will be less successful in manipulating the inhabitants into racial segregation. Is it also unbelievable that in September of 1957—three years after the Supreme Court’s ruling of segregation of public schools as unconstitutional—The New York Times reported that in the those three years, four Southern states had shown minimal progress toward full integration while seven Southern states had shown none at all? Is it then not also a confrontation with the appalling slowness of decency and change to discover that in July 1964—a little over ten years after the ruling—after years of marches, boycotts, sit-ins, violent hate crimes, integration resistance, law suits, arrests of peaceful protesters, and racism-fueled murders, Robert F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, only then making it illegal to discriminate against anyone due to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin?
It seems absurd today that such realizations of racial equality could have met with such resistance and that change could have been so tormentingly, violently slow. Perhaps in an era when the ethics and strength of forerunners of a bygone era have brought us to a reasonably comfortable and safe state in our’s society’s existence, and when convenience has grown to such a point that immediate gratification of most needs necessitates no patience or fortitude, it is easy to forget that the treating of all humans decently was won at a very steep price over a great many years. It may be our inclination to expect change to arrive with celerity in a clean and pleasant manner, just as one would pay a bill online or trade in one’s leased car for a new one. But change is the thing that comes last. It comes with difficulty and endurance, disappointment and setbacks. It comes with an understanding of an oft-unjust world and the acknowledgement that striving for betterment is not only a possibility but a necessity. Change comes after the long, hard road has been traveled, and often, those agents fighting for change perish before they can witness the victories of their battles.
It was not a universal imperative to be in the march that came to fruition on that 21st day of the new year. There was no one message, and there was no one people. It was not a prerequisite of a progressive society to support the march, nor may it contain all of the ideals of a person’s heart and mind. One may not think that it accomplished anything at all, and at that thought, we celebrate the ability to think and speak freely in this cherished world. One may love the president or loathe him, may be pro-this or pro-that, may have been in or out of the movement, may even have thought it wasteful and entitled—a bunch of upper-east-side ladies whining—and yet one thing persists above all else: the everlasting love of humanity so great that anything less than the most equitable, just, and fair laws and customs sculpted to uplift decency and respect can be deemed acceptable. And that is the true spirit of the day, inherited through the movements of the brave people in history that have sought to make better the world they had been given, urged to rebel against injustice in their country precisely because of their love for it and their love of all humans in this great human family.