NASTY WOMEN OF THE NORTH
Let’s agree for the moment: women know how to make things. We make beds, we make babies, we make history. We make trouble, we make do, we make up. These days we’re making hats. The pink pussyhat twists Donald Trump’s insult into a punning 3D format. It’s a political statement that’s quintessentially anti-corporate. You can’t buy one at H&M. You have to remember how to knit, or crochet, or find a friend who will make you one. Those pink hats are a super-personal commitment to stay nasty. (And in case you’ve forgotten: “Such a nasty woman” is what Donald Trump said about Hillary when she trounced him in the debates.)
It’s the night of Friday, January 20, 2017. My friend Chelsea and I sit next to each other on a big red bus, knitting furiously. We’re in a group of nearly sixty women, on our way from Toronto to the Women’s March in Washington. Naomi Campbell drew us together. She’s a producer for Luminato, and the bus is full of artists – directors, actresses, artists, dancers, and producers, a dusting of daughters, and a sub-group of teachers from Guelph. It’s 11 PM and we’ve arrived at the border. Before we spill out of the bus to face passport control, someone says, “Hide your hats!”, and we do. The day before, a carload of Canadians headed for Washington was denied entry at the Quebec-U.S. border, and Naomi has a Plan B if anyone is turned back.
United States border guards have wide-ranging powers and I’m hoping my pearl necklace serves as conservative camouflage. Most of the burly immigration officers stand laughing behind their counters, but I get a guy who looks royally pissed off.
“How are you tonight?” I smile, handing him my passport.
He grunts. “Horrific.”
He glares at me. “Because I’ve got to allow all these foreigners. To cross our border. To go to a march. Which is none of their business.”
I keep the smile going, doing my best Kelly-Anne Conway imitation. “Washington is a wonderful city.”
He rolls his eyes. “What are you going there for anyway? This march is for American women. What are you marching for?… Women’s rights?!” He makes ‘women’s rights’ sound like ‘haircuts for poodles’.
I take a deep breath. “They’re our sisters,” I say.
“Sisters!” He shoves my passport back and waves me off. He’s hostile and outnumbered – for now. His colleagues obviously don’t care whether the march is our business or not.
Back on the bus, Chelsea and I put the final stitches on another two hats.
We pull into Washington at 9 AM. Bleary-eyed and caffeine-starved, we organize our stuff on the sidewalk in front of a hotel. We unfurl the biggest banner, the one with a pink maple leaf and big pink letters saying Nasty Women of the North. A man in golden cowboy boots asks us to pose for a photo. Then he chuckles as he climbs into a taxi. He’s a Trump supporter. “Sorry for your loss,” he brays.
“Sorry for your loss.” I lunge towards him.
Someone grabs my arm. “Don’t engage!” Naomi warns me. Oh right, the ACLU posted warnings about how to deal with provocations. I’ve got their legal hotline number scrawled in Sharpie on my skin.
Without caffeine, I’m going to screw up this don’t-respond-to-hecklers thing.
“I’m so hungry,” my friend Tori moans.
“Me too. Two eggs over easy with bacon,” Chelsea says.
“And hash fries,” I chime in. “To keep us going for the day.”
The Woolly Mammoth theatre has invited us Canadians to use their space as a meeting point. It’s blocks away from the main event. Speeches start at 10 AM; the march is scheduled for 1 PM. I imagine we’ll catch our breath, use the washroom, have a nosh, then join the rally. But the theatre is bursting with excited protesters. The line-ups for the bathroom are endless. The roar of the rally is around the corner. Who cares about breakfast? Volunteers hand out apples. The apples are good.
(During the rest of the day and into the evening, I never see a single food truck; a single coffee vendor, water bottle shill, or fancy juice messiah. Backpacks were verboten, and we were grateful for every piece of chocolate and crumbled granola bar stashed in our pockets.)
On the sidewalk outside the theatre, a Latin American woman wearing an animal mask thinks our group makes a pretty picture. Thanks to Heather Nicol’s art direction, we have an ample supply of pink flags to wave and floor-length pink mumus to wear, and we happily brandish our signs. Canadian Women in Solidarity. My Pussy My Rules. Patriarchy is for Dicks. Take your Broken Heart Make it into Art. For Peace, Love, Unity and Respect. Bullies make Bad Lovers. Don’t Agonize – Organize.
The pink flags generate an energy field as we plunge into the rally and march straight into a bottleneck; we change direction, get mashed into another dead end, then another, with faint glimmers of Jumbotron screens at a frustrating distance. There are always thousands of people between us and the screens, and there are no loudspeakers anywhere. There are no signs, no marshals. There are instructions online, but it’s hard to log on. Garbled voices rise from somewhere, followed by distant shouts of approval, and everyone joins in, though no one knows why. It feels good to shout. We’re riding a tidal wave of positive passion, generated by anger, fuelled by hope. Fear is displaced by determination. Who cares about speeches? We’ll read them on the internet, later.
“Everyone! Make sure you have a buddy and don’t lose them in the crowd!” Naomi shouts.
I lose mine almost immediately. “Where are u?” I text Chelsea, but there’s no reply. The network is overloaded. Help, I’m drowning! So many people; too many people.
Thank goodness for our flags. Led by a tall and wonderful teenager who shows the way, we bob and weave our way through the crowds and catch our breath in a large, open space. It’s the Mall. The Women’s March was not allowed to officially use this fabled area, where Martin Luther King spoke to thousands of protestors, fighting for civil rights, more than fifty years ago. It’s why Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem and Linda Sarsour make their pronouncements on tight city blocks which massive groups cannot attend. On the Mall, we’ve joined thousands of people like us, those who have given up on the speeches and are improvising, sharing their protests. We arrange our banners and hit our stride, a mini –parade with dancer Andrea Nann at our helm; pink flags waving, we march, we chant, we sing and get others to sing along: Super callous fascist racist sexist braggadocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious..
“Oh my god, look! They’re from Canada!” We’ re not just marchers anymore, we’re visitors from another planet, a legendary place called Canada. People grab their phones; we stop and pose for these like-minded paparazzi. Cheryl Strayed posts us on her Instagram. “All the way from Canada!” – as if Toronto were farther away than, say, Minneapolis. Even though marchers have poured in from across the United States, the fact that Nasty Women have come from the North, from their largest neighbour, moves these Americans to their core. Our solidarity is worth more than all of Trump’s gold. It s a sign of how deep the exceptionalism goes; a sign of how beleaguered and isolated these American women feel. “We’re so ashamed,” people say to us all day, “so ashamed.”
One o’clock rolls around, the official starting time for the march. Then one-thirty. The crowd gets restive, and spontaneously, all across the enormous field, people assemble into marching formations, though no one really knows where they’re going. There is a collective impatience, an unspoken decision to Let’s Go. Soon we find ourselves jammed into a long alley bordered by high fences, like trapped cattle. Is someone coming with prods? Is this what kettling feels like? There are street lights up ahead, changing from red to green, from green to red, but nothing happens. It’s like being stuck in Toronto traffic, the Gardiner at its worst. Roars come from around the corner, and the crowd squeezes tighter, like tic tacs in a fist.
“Forward,” someone shouts.
“Forward,” we chime in. But nothing moves. A ripple, and the massive crowd turns around to shuffle in the opposite direction. It feels all wrong, like we’re doomed. The fences are so tall; the passage so narrow. Thank goodness, some independent, spiky souls bash a fence aside and we tumble out into the opened space like spilled milk. We lunge up the broad stone steps of the Museum of the American Indian; we take a breather. Some of us climb up onto a ledge and see Angela Davis speaking on a Jumbotron.
Then phones come alive, with texts from the official Women’s March. The march is cancelled! There were far more people than expected, and the speeches haven’t even finished.
Thanks for coming.
Oh well, it was fun anyway.
By now it’s close to 3PM. The bus doesn’t leave for Toronto until late at night. Maybe now I can find a warm meal, or take in some Washington sights. I split off from my nasty friends and go rogue. For a few happy minutes, I make easy progress until suddenly the giant creature starts moving. Is everyone going home? I’m part of a mild-mannered stampede towards a narrow channel. Now I’m being squeezed, not exactly pushed, definitely not shoved, but I’m bobbing on a thick current and I mustn’t fight it. It’s like being threaded through a needle’s eye. I try not to bump into the woman next to me. One of her legs is in a fibreglass boot up to her knee and she’s propped it up on a scooter. Is she crazy? What is she doing here? “Make room please!” a man begs and somehow the crowd shrinks back to make a pocket of emptiness. He helps his partner come through, a very pale woman guarding her big pregnant bump. I pass by people on crutches, elderly women in wheelchairs. They just damn well wanted to be there. It would be so easy to give in to road rage, to succumb to claustrophobia. But all day I never hear a single angry word, unless it’s against Trump. The march is governed by generosity.
At last, I’ve ducked past and “sorry, sorry, I’m sorry” cleared my way past thousands of people, and I hit the sidewalks. Whew, it’s nice to walk free for a bit. I head towards the Washington Monument. I have no real plans. Then I turn a corner and – shock, horror – there’s the Trump International Hotel. It’s like running into Frankenstein. The massive, coiffed building embodies everything the March is fighting today. A lone security guy stands behind a chain fence, eyeing us warily. Fellow marchers pose in front of him for selfies. I boo, but the big boos are yet to come. (Later a friend asks me whether people stormed the building. No, and I doubt the thought occurs to anyone. Neither does egg-throwing or tomato-tossing. This is an assertive-not-aggressive sort of crowd.)
Up ahead is Pennsylvania Avenue. The street is teeming with an ocean of hats and signs. “What’s going on?” I ask someone.
“It’s the march,” they reply.
Wha-a-a-? “I thought it was cancelled.”
No one can stop this march. It has a life of its own.
I scramble atop a bench in front of the Trump hotel for a better view. I’ve never seen anything like this, thousands and thousands and thousands of people pouring down the street, and they never stop coming. It’s an extraordinary civic engagement. A surprisingly large percentage of the marchers are male – perhaps a third? The signs range from sombre to hilarious. Beaver State Grabs Back – Oregon! Coat hangers paired with the slogan Never Again. Posters of Putin as a devil and Trump as a puppet. Twinkle twinkle little czar Putin put you where you are. Giant black boxing gloves with ‘Women of Utah’ written on them. Science matters. Refugees welcome. Black Lives Matter.
Actually, what happened to Black Lives Matter? The waves of faces are mostly white. As others have discussed across social media, the March was surprisingly monochrome. Given that the Women’s March program foregrounded their support for intersectional feminism, making a priority of protesting police brutality and mass incarceration, I expected to march behind large groups of black women, Muslim women, Latina and Asian women, but they are few and far between.
There’s a smiling, young Somali woman standing right behind me on the bench, with a wispy pink hijab and stylish blue glasses. She’s wearing one of two hijabs I see all day. I’m glad to see people carrying placards reminding everyone that 53% of white women voted for Trump. Here on Pennsylvania Avenue are the other 47%. But overall, the absence of women of colour is painful.
Maybe they felt unsafe? I also expected to run gauntlets of hecklers. One acquaintance stayed away because she feared the ‘rednecks from Alabama.’ Yet apart from a smattering of woeful fetus photos from some anti-abortionists, the hatemongers have stayed way. I have a hankie in my purse, in case of tear gas. But the police are noticeably absent, too. There, near the Trump hotel, is a weak link of cops on bicycles and motorcycles. If anything, they look cowed. Who can control these numbers of people without outright violence? At one point, a line of police comes line-dancing through the crowd, running fast, each holding the shoulder of the guy in front of him, shouting “Emergency! “ Soon after, four windowless white vans part the human sea, slowly. Later, rumour has it that Trump was inside one of the vans, returning from an interfaith prayer service.
I hope he got an eyeful and an earful. Because whatever the answer is to #whyImarch, everyone rallies behind one clear feeling: “I’m against Trump.” As the marchers near my bench, wave after wave glances up and sees his name emblazoned on the front door of the hotel behind me. The crowd erupts in boos, people shaking their middle fingers, chanting,“Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“Show us your taxes! I pay mine!”
“We want a leader Not a creepy tweeter!”
“Welcome to your first day, we are not going away!”
Then this happens. A young black woman saunters jauntily along the edge of the crowd and shouts: “Show me what democracy looks like.”
The crowd replies: “This is what democracy looks like.
“Show me what a feminist looks like.”
— “This is what a feminist looks like.”
“Show me what America looks like.”
— “This is what America looks like.”
Yes, I think, this is what America looks like at its theoretical best, at least in spirit; bold, irreverent, risk-taking, welcoming. Striving for equality, inclusivity. This is the America Trump and his sixty-three million supporters want to stomp on. The resistance has begun.
I’ve experienced surveillance during visits to the Soviet Union in the past, and standing that bench, I sense a familiar prickling on the back of my neck, as if someone is watching me. And they are: I turn; so does the lovely woman with the pink hijab. White men in black suits stand in the windows of the Trump hotel, with cameras. They’re taking photos of us – her and me, the pulsing rally on the street. Marchers catch sight of the stooges and erupt into a playground singsong: Aaaaassss – hoooole, aaaasss-hole. It’s childish, but very satisfying.
I’m in a security file now, somewhere. It isn’t the first time.
Suddenly I get a text from my buddy, Chelsea. “I’m at the White House.” Then my phone battery dies. I hop off my bench, peer at my map. Right in front of the hotel, there’s a statue of Benjamin Franklin, adorned with signs from the marchers. I’m surprised Trump’s staff hasn’t whisked the signs away. Are they afraid of the crowd? Or is the statue on property outside of Trump’s jurisdiction? A woman leans across the fence, taking a picture. She agrees to email me a photo. I want a picture of the placard on the ground, the one that says Resist. And right at Benjamin’s feet, another sign, saying This is not normal.
Nothing is normal anymore. A week later, as I write up these notes, my hostile border guard has morphed into hundreds of border guards obeying an obscene ban on Muslim travellers. The protests erupting at airports across the United States have none of the festive air I witnessed in Washington. Resist. Hold on to your pussyhats.
January 29, 2017