My wife and I both hate crowds, but Susan felt she had to go downtown to be part of history the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. What else could I do but go with her?
The Ann Arbor Women’s March was certainly historic: the Ann Arbor Police Department estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 people filled the streets. It would have been more, but some Ann Arborites joined sister marches in Ypsilanti, Detroit, Lansing, and Washington.
We stood on the stairs across the street from the Federal Building, the march’s starting point. About two out of three folks were women, many wearing pink “pussy hats.” Most looked between twenty and forty, though there were babes in arms and also many older women–one of whom carried a handwritten sign saying “Now You’ve Pissed Off Grandma!”
The march was supposed to start at two o’clock, but folks were still pouring into the streets then. DDA director Susan Pollay dashed by wearing a pink “Support Planned Parenthood” shirt. I spotted my dental hygienist carrying a sign quoting Mother Teresa: “Peace Begins With A Smile.”
Among the hundreds of other signs, some were sweet–“I’m With Her” with an arrow pointing to the Earth. Some were spicy–“This Pussy Bites Back.” And some were downright nasty–the new president depicted as a blond turd. But most were simple and heartfelt: “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights!,” “The Future is Female,” and “Love Wins.”
When it finally began half an hour late, the march followed Liberty to Main, Main to Washington, Washington to Division, Division to Liberty, Liberty to State, and State to the Diag. Every street was jammed with people as far as I could see, so progress was slow.
Spirits were high. Many folks were smiling, and lots were laughing. There were drummers and dancers and frequent chanting of “not my president” and “this is what democracy looks like.” Among the crowd I saw Recycle Ann Arbor’s Mike Garfield holding hands with his family and councilmember Kirk Westphal walking with his sons.
When we finally reached the packed Diag around three o’clock, congresswoman Debbie Dingell and state representative Donna Lasinski had already spoken and others had taken the mike. We could make out that one speaker was concerned that her foreign-born friends might be deported, but the PA system wasn’t up to the size of the crowd, and most of what she said got lost.
Our neighbor Mathieu Despard and his family were also in the crowd. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him there, but caught up later by email. Despard, who’d moved to Ann Arbor just five months earlier to join the faculty of the U-M School of Social Work, replied that he was “excited because the crowd was so big–much bigger than I expected” and “glad my 10-year-old daughter was there with my wife and I to know that her community cares about her future as a woman.”
Others voiced similar thoughts. “How could we not go?!” Garfield emailed. “We were rallying in defense of women, people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, and everyone else who’s been targeted by the new Administration for oppression and worse.”
Westphal wrote that he was there “to support women, and to show my boys the importance of being there for others. But I’m also protesting what we anticipate to be a full-on attack on women’s rights.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor emailed that he was mainly there to protest because “the cruel attacks of Trump and his supporters on women, immigrants, refugees, science, and truth itself are a deep and indelible stain on our national honor.” But he also conferred with AAPD officers at the Federal Building to make sure everything was going well.
He needn’t have worried. The AAPD’s Sgt. Patrick Maguire emails that the eight cops at the march reported “not a single issue. This was the easiest crowd I have seen in my time here. They followed directions and did anything we asked. They were also the friendliest crowd I have ever seen. Hundreds of people went out of their way to thank and shake the hands of the officers.”
Susan and I left before the rally ended to catch an early dinner downtown. We weren’t the only ones: when I emailed the Main Street Area Association’s Maura Thomson to ask how business was the day of the march, she wrote back that most members “said business was way up and much higher than a typical January Saturday. [A] coffee shop had a line out the door for 5 hours. Most importantly, a number of those responding shared that the day was filled with happy, hopeful people and that it was exhilarating!!!”
It was exhilarating for me, too–in a way I’d never imagined. I’ve lived here for forty years and worked as a classical music critic, storekeeper, and journalist, but never really felt I belonged. Lots of people don’t like critics–days after my daughter was born, the Ann Arbor News ran half a dozen letters arguing I should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail for a review I’d written–and some are no fonder of people who write about politics. In just the past few months, a local activist had sent me a list of journalistic ethics they felt I’d violated by not writing about their cause, and a politician accused me of being a puppet.
I’m sure that plenty of the 15,000 or 20,000 people Susan and I shared the day with still don’t love critics or journalists. But marching with them through the streets of downtown, I realized that what we share trumps our differences.
These are my people. I’m home at last.
Call & letters, April 2017
“I attended the Ann Arbor Women’s March, and I experienced a different timeline,” Kathleen Brown emailed after reading James Leonard’s account of the January protest (My Town, March). The crowd gathered where Leonard stood across from the Federal Building may not have started to move until later, but Brown met up with people already marching at the Ann Arbor District Library at 2:15.
Brown added that Leonard missed Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s speech not because his group arrived at the Diag late, but because he left early: “She was one of the last speakers and didn’t speak until late afternoon.”