I emerged late from the subway on Saturday, a little worried I’d missed the bulk of the procession. Post-election protests have been routine in New York City since the election, but I’m not much of a marcher, so wasn’t sure what kind of a crowd to expect. I was surprised to find myself surrounded by one of the largest mass gatherings I’ve ever been in, pushing from every direction toward Trump Tower. Through the sunset, the peaceful but angry crowd never let up, just spread across the horizon.
It’s easy to dismiss the value of popular protest in an age when a demagogue can seemingly sweep into power with a single tyrannical index finger on a social media spree. Similarly, a seasoned organizer might rightly wonder how impactful a protest can be if it’s spawned from the grievances of mainstream pro-Clinton democrats, and features fuzzy pink knit-caps and a Madonna performance.
But you cannot discount the power of a global mass mobilization of millions, with countless first-time protesters spurred to distill their rage into a unified fight for their rights—whether it lasts for another four years, or for the rest of their lives. And it’s elevating to see pop superstars sharing the stage with movement veterans like Ai-jen Poo and Linda Sarsour, who cut their teeth speaking to comparatively tiny crowds in communities worlds outside the Beltway, about often ignored struggles: those of low-wage workers of color, disenfranchised native women, abused migrants, transgender students, anyone whose dignity Trumpism has assaulted—struggles that predate, and will sadly outlast, this presidential cycle by generations. The very fact that these voices momentarily seized the national stage might be the most important takeaway.
With an estimated several million protesters catalyzed worldwide by the outrage sparked by Trump’s election, the voices were too many to single out, to elevate or deride a single one. You could take all of us or none. I noticed a refreshing lack of professional signs in the crowd, perhaps a few scattered preprinted posters representing advocacy groups. More powerful was the sight of so many self-scrawled placards—maybe the first one the protester ever held, proclaiming “A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution,” or “Justice is indivisible” or the historically inflected “Our Bodies, Our Minds, Our Power.” The swell of improvisation was lyrical.
Much will be said about the dangers of so-called “leaderless movements” or about radicals potentially glomming onto the liberal establishment in panic; there will be warnings about the left being distracted by anti-Trump obsession and lured back toward a safe centrist cocoon. There will be reasonable wariness about the risks of inevitable fissures in sprawling coalitions, and perhaps another implosion of the big tent on which mainstream Democrats myopically staked their presidential hopes.
But Saturday was emphatically not about the presidency. It expressed the sheer horror that jolted millions out of political insularity, to reexamine their political engagement and ponder what to do next—which, everyone seemed to agree, cannot be limited to voting. The danger of Trumpism is that while many were quick to dismiss (or deny) the notion that it was, as Trump boasted, “a movement” he had started, it really was. It wasn’t the movement we identified with. Indeed, there couldn’t be a worse “revolution” to emerge triumphant: it aims to destroy movements we’ve come to see as integral to fostering essential social equity, and now it controls the most powerful political office in the “free world.” The Trumpocene nonetheless reflects an uprising that can’t be laughed away, a fascistic brand of “people power” that demands fresh tactics and sustained political alliances from the left in response, along with new clarity on what principles we can’t forgo when fighting for both community empowerment and the power to change who represents us on top.
But the movement that showed up on Saturday—devoted to defeating not just Trump but everything he symbolizes—starts at the bottom: the march logistics were steeped in solidarity and mutual support. In New York, union nurses provided on-site medical teams to help keep marchers safe. In D.C., the security presence was subdued; at one point an organizer called out, “Meet your sister at the stage” before an audience of hundreds of thousands, to help someone who had been separated from their companion. The combination of individual bonds and collective momentum on display spurred the march well beyond its planned boundaries; by mid-afternoon, it fanned out in every direction, without losing strength.
From the main stage in D.C., activist Janet Mock offered fittingly open-ended words: “Our approach to freedom need not be identical, but it must be intersectional and inclusive.” In my crowd in Manhattan, it seemed people had come representing all backgrounds but felt no pressure to share a common identity or agenda, assured that we were all at least standing on common ground. The climate of camaraderie was perhaps a direct reaction to the grim nihilism that had overshadowed the capital the day before. We were there to inaugurate something of our own: decidedly not post-racial, nor post-politics, nor post-feminist, but an incipient civic ethos that neither purports to overcome the past nor to overdetermine the future. It’s still a work in progress, and on this day, no one seemed to mind.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.