During my second year of college, I took my first ever creative writing course. My sweet professor had us check in with her at the beginning of every class, giving each student a chance to share about their week. In the class after the 2017 Women’s March in D.C., nearly every person in the room except for me and the two boys shared about attending the march. As I sat there listening to girls raving over how empowered they felt, yet how much progress there was left to do, about the energy and solidarity of the environment, about how surreal coming back to school was, I could barely swallow the judgment brewing deep inside. Sure, you Megabus’d to DC, you walked and shouted and held up a poster for a day, you bussed back with your group of twitter activists, and you hit up a bar in the city, all the while lamenting the wage gap, the anguish of being catcalled, and how c’mon it’s 2017, right? Yep, sure sounds like a fat load of good you did.
Yet, as I sat stewing, all high and mighty on my pedestal, a still small voice asked how would you know? It’s not like you were there. Thus, prodded out of my customary pride and self-righteousness, and a little bit out of loyalty to my Arab roommate, I attended my very first march the next week to protest the Muslim travel ban, which aimed to prevent many refugees from entering the U.S.
It was a chilly, grey, January day, but the mass of people surrounding me on all sides made it bearable. I saw the typical college liberals sporting beanies and wittily-worded posters bashing Trump, and older Green Party hippies with their long hair and picket signs, but what really struck me was the number of families, young working professionals, and the kinds of people that didn’t seem like they would care about politics at all, who had come out and marched. I saw a mom with a baby slung across her back and a sign held to her chest that read “We’re All Immigrants”, and I met a young man wearing a hoodie and a backpack, as if he had just Ubered from his tech company, chanting with the crowd. The majority didn’t seem like they were just there to show off their political savviness or to stick it to the Man, but rather because they genuinely sympathized with the cause.
When we walked down Market Street, I began to understand why marching together is so compelling. It’s somatic — the walking, the chanting, the carrying of the poster — such that a cause which may or may not directly affect a marcher begins to feel deeply personal as well. It’s shared — the sea of people that seeps into every street and pushes determinedly forward, the many voices in the air that vibrate with mine in one crisp chant — such that despite our separate lives, we’ve become parts of a body that functions more completely and powerfully than any one person. Marching in protest both defeats and defines the very individuality that is characteristic of America.
When I vote in the elections, which arguably has a more immediate impact, it’s just me and a list of options, walls enclosing my answer on all sides. People mill in and out, but there isn’t much eye contact or discussion, and that’s because the nature of one’s choice at the voting booth is meant to be private, and rightly so. But what’s supposed to be a personal decision feels extremely impersonal, and an action that’s supposed to have an impact feels extremely ineffective.
It’s not that one shouldn’t vote or that voting should be done publicly, but rather that there’s something to be said about democracy being performed in community. That while marches and protests, or summits and events may not immediately change policy, they do effectively mobilize individuals. They bring all kinds of people, even the ones who are so often cooped up in their homes or their cubicles, out onto the streets, where they can look at others around them, eye to eye, as if to say I see you. And you see me. And we’re not alone.
Joyce Xu is a student interested in observing human behavior through the lens of neuroscience and literature, as well as an icebreaker enthusiast.