Portraits of protest: UC students take on Women’s March in D.C.

A portion of the 500,000-person crowd in Washington, D.C. during last Saturday’s Women’s March. Photo courtesy of Naseem Syed

Marches in various cities last week drew unprecedented crowds and sent a strong message

Sarah Hojsak


Early in the morning of Saturday, Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, Naseem Syed and Romina Kalmeijer boarded a Greyhound bus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The two Ursinus juniors were heading to the Women’s March on Washington, an event that had been in the works since Trump’s election last November.

The march drew an estimated half million people to our nation’s capital, The Guardian reported, with several million participating in similar marches in cities around the world. The official mission statement of the Women’s March emphasized the intention to stand in solidarity with marginalized communities for “the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families, recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

When Syed first heard about the march, she knew immediately that she wanted to attend. “I knew the historical significance of participating in the march because, on the one hand, ‘Women’s March on Washington’ made me think of civil rights marches and when I saw how much interest there was, I knew it was going to be something big. I wanted to demonstrate protest by being there and letting everyone know that Trump is not my president and he does not represent my country or me as an American citizen.”

“I won’t wait on the sidelines passively and not do anything about [Trump’s] misogyny, his xenophobia, and everything else he represents,” she added.

Kalmeijer first heard about the plans for the march while studying abroad in Chile last semester. After following the election from outside of the U.S. and being disappointed by the outcome, she said that the students in her program were eager to be involved when they returned home. “We looked at each other and said ‘Let’s all go.’ We were so angry and we wanted to do something.”

Also in Washington was junior Emmett Cawley, who drove to the march from Pennsylvania, motivated by his desire to show support for women and other groups represented in the protest and to oppose Trump’s rhetoric.

“Throughout Trump’s campaign his rhetoric was not wholly unfamiliar to me as a man benefiting from patriarchy and male hegemony,” Cawley said. “Because of this, I felt that . . . [Trump’s] ability to be openly sexist and spread sexually violent rhetoric and still become president is a symptom of centuries . . . of oppression of and violence against women.

“I marched for the many empowered women who helped make me the man I am today, for my future daughter, and for women of all colors and backgrounds,” Cawley explained. “I marched to fight against the struggles they have faced up until Jan. 20, 2017 and against the threat that Trump represents for this nation’s women for the years to come. I hoped not only to create change but also to experience this hopefully hugely impactful day for American ideals and politics.”

The size of the crowd in Washington was unprecedented and unexpected—the organizers had originally planned for only 200,000, according to The Washington Post. While crowd sizes may have restricted protestors’ ability to physically march from one location to another as originally intended, Syed described that the massive gathering had a powerful energy. Walking from Union Station to the National Mall, where protestors were instructed to meet, she and Kalmeijer were surrounded by crowds of people heading to the same place—many carrying signs or wearing pink hats symbolic of women’s rights. Syed carried a sign with the Simone de Beauvoir quote “All oppression creates a state of war” on one side and the words “Je suis femme” (French for “I am a woman”) on the other. Kalmeijer’s sign read “She is someone,” with the words “sister,” “daughter,” and “wife” crossed out to emphasize that women should be respected as individuals.

“There were so many people, a sea of signs,” Syed said. “You would imagine on any other day those streets would be empty and people would just be going about their everyday lives. But on [that] day at that time, there were thousands of people around us, and they were all moving toward the same goals and for the same reason—to support women, and women of color, minorities, Black Lives Matter. All of these movements came together, and we were surrounded by so much love. I’ve never been in such a crowd before.”

While many groups were represented in the march, Cawley—who carried a sign that read “Empowered women empower the people”—noted that “it wasn’t exactly the perfectly intersectional feminist march that we had in mind.”

“Many white women were marching to solve the issues white women face and often were not impressed with the speeches which preached a more intersectional [approach],” he observed, also praising the speakers who did make sure to include the importance of intersectionality in their messages.

Cawley was particularly inspired by the words of civil rights activist Tamika Mallory, who reminded the crowd that while 96 percent of black women supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, a majority of white women voted for Trump, and urged white women to recognize their position in American hegemony.

Another speaker, Pakistani-American activist Linda Sarsour, urged protestors to focus not only on the problems perpetuated by Trump and the Republican Party but also on those affecting women across the world, such as drone warfare and human rights violations in the Middle East.

“These were the speeches I hope will [be carried] in people’s minds over the next four years, especially as Trump continues unfair treatment of people of color, citizens of other countries and immigrants,” Cawley said.

While not close enough to the stage to hear many of the speeches, Syed and Kalmeijer had the experience of being among a crowd of performers in the streets, many of whom toted banners, played music and instruments, and led chants. “What was inspiring, or at least what impacted me the most, was the performers,” Syed said, noting the symbolism of many of the acts: “There were dancers on stilts, there were performers in costumes, there was someone in a Donald Trump costume with a huge head, and next to him was a crocheted uterus.” Syed also described a performance piece with roughly 40 participants that symbolized a boat, the performers chanting, “We’re all in the same boat; keep the boat afloat.”

According to Kalmeijer, the crowd was energetic throughout the day, despite long hours of standing in one place. “It was a good feeling to be in that place at that time, with people like me,” she said. “We spent hours not moving but never got bored,” noting the presence of several crowd leaders who kept the marchers engaged in various chants.

Syed returned to the common purpose that brought many of the marchers together. “The reason why everyone was there is because they empathize with what it means to be a woman in this time of discrimination, misogyny, wage gap, and other ways in which women don’t have the same rights [as men]. There’s a sense of ‘this is something I will stand for because maybe I’m not immediately experiencing it, but I am recognizing it’s something important to care about.’ I feel like that’s why everyone was there.”

She added that the idea of nonviolent resistance was inherent in the goals of the march: “We wanted to harbor love and not be hateful or violent or attack others—even if those who are counter-protestors might hold phobic views against us. Instead of giving in and engaging in violent conflict, it’s better to try to love the other. And so we really had to try to love Trump supporters, [though] it sounds so counterintuitive.”

With a sharper tone, Cawley expressed hope that the recent marches will push more people to engage in protest. “I hope that the march helped catalyze millions of previously stagnant citizens to act in the face of oppression and the nationwide struggle for freedom and justice,” he said. “I hope that the [march] empowered Americans to take control of this nation and set it on a course for justice, equality, and compassion for all citizens of the world.”

Cawley also attended a protest at Philadelphia International Airport Sunday afternoon, a response to Trump’s recent controversial executive order barring immigrants and refugees of several Muslim nations. “I suspect that a showing of millions nationwide (following Trump’s inauguration) has already had an impact on the will of the American people to resist oppression in all its forms,” he said. “From racist policing to the xenophobic and racist policies of our ruling class, it has become clear that, at large, the American people will not remain silent.”

Reflecting on the march, Kalmeijer said she is eager to participate in future protests. “It was so moving to see all these people who were just as frustrated and angry as we were … I would definitely march again.”

Looking forward, Syed expressed that she would like to see those who wish to protest step out into the streets. “If you’re really passionate about what you believe in and want to make change, then don’t [just] stay at home and watch the news: Really go out there [and] effect change in a positive and peaceful way. Don’t engage with the vitriol and the verbal attacks . . . Resist peacefully.”

And Cawley is not about to stop protesting anytime soon. “It’s going to be a busy four years for me and for many others,” he acknowledged, anticipating the continued action that will likely build as Trump’s presidency progresses.

He also noted that those who wish to take part in political action during this new administration do not necessarily have to travel to large cities to get involved, as he has done. “I encourage everybody to reach out to Ursinus’ student groups [like] GSA, SUN, FIA, UCEA, ALMA, Hillel, UC Republicans, UC Democrats, [and] Young Americans for Liberty, [whose members are] students committed to continuing these battles and who are endlessly helpful in getting others involved.”

“I think it’s a historic time. People should be following the news, [be] aware of what’s going on, and take the opportunity to become involved,” Syed said, also noting upcoming marches already being planned in support of various causes from immigration to climate change. She also stressed the importance of calling your local representatives, another simple action those who wish to see change can participate in. “We have control over who represents us, and [our representatives] should know that what [Trump] represents is not for everyone.”

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