Standing Still

The movement began in stillness

“Be still and know that I am God. – Psalm 46:10

This powerful quote comes to mind sometimes. And it always gives me a sense of peace.

It’s a gentle command, imploring us to pause, be calm and pay attention.

When I reflect on the Women’s March on Washington last weekend, I’m struck by the flurry of excitement and activity that ironically culminated in hundreds of thousands of people standing still. Together.

There was so much passion leading up to the event. I personally met women from Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and California who commuted by plane, train, bus and car to participate in this historic gathering. Some were even motivated to travel from Canada and other countries.

The positive energy was palpable on the MARC train line from Odenton, Md., to Union Station. Marchers could be clearly identified by their pink pointed “cat” hats and homemade signs with catchy slogans scrawled across them in colored marker.

It’s amazing, but for all of the signs, only a scarce few contained duplicate messages. They were largely unique, but linked by a common thread – support for the groups of people and rights marginalized or called into question during the 2016 presidential election cycle. “Black lives matter;” “Men of quality do not fear equality;” “Hate won’t make America great;” “End voter suppression;” “Love trumps hate;” “Tiny hands, Yuge mistake;” “Save Melania;” “Women’s rights are human rights;” “We the People;” “Ours is a country of immigrants;” and “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”

Carrie Fisher’s alter ego, Princess Leia, was there in spades. Her untimely death occurred at a time when we are desperately in need of strong female role models. Superheroes even. Her image and dedication to the “resistance” was emblazoned across countless signs, and aligned with endless messages. It’s safe to say she won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Spontaneous conversations were cropping up among giddy, like-minded strangers who seemed thrilled to meet each other. There were even more people, signs and hats as I drew closer to Union Station. The turnout was overwhelming. Despite the crowds, I easily found my friend Kate within minutes of arriving. She had boarded a bus out of New York at 2 a.m. because tickets for trains to D.C. were sold out.

We moved swiftly, with purpose, following the buoyant crowd up the escalator and outside. As we got closer to the march, we passed the U.S. Capitol. People were snapping selfies just outside of where the 45th President of the United States was sworn in the previous day. The rows of white folding chairs were still in place. A woman we met who had volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Scranton, Pa. took a photo of Kate and I holding our protest signs.

We arrived just before 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, January 21, 2017, when the speeches were supposed to begin. Entering unknowingly from behind the stage, we found the space thick with happy dissenters. I didn’t know a protest could be so positive and uplifting. But it was. And I felt encouraged by the sheer number of people who came out, like us.

Managing to edge a little bit closer to the right side of the stage, we saw Gloria Steinem when she emerged to cheers and applause, wearing a distinctive red scarf. We settled into a small pocket of space to listen to the speakers. And stood in that general area for several hours.

We were standing up for our rights. Praying for them, in a way. In the form of speeches, calling for the dignified treatment of immigrants and Muslim Americans. Voicing concerns for women’s, civil, voter and gay rights; the future of healthcare and the environment. And through our vibrant signs, which echoed similar sentiments.

Although, for the first hour and a half or so, the sound system was off. And we could barely make out the messages coming from the stage.

So we took to our phones to communicate, which is what we do now. But the cell service was terrible. And we tried in vain to upload and tag our photos. We wanted people to know we were at THE women’s march in D.C. And were completely oblivious to the tremendous outpouring of people at the sister marches across the country and worldwide. We would later learn that it may have been the most extensive, coordinated protest in American history.

We had no choice but to stand still, and take it all in. Some of us proudly pushed our signs upwards for maximum visibility. There was nowhere to go but up. Or hugged them closely to our chests to conserve on limited personal space. And eventually, the voices onstage became audible to the masses.

Some had celebrity status, like Michael Moore, Ashley Judd and Scarlett Johansson. Others like Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, were veteran activists and marchers. And there were a few new faces, too. Who felt compelled, like the rest of us, to be in D.C. that day, and speak out about the disturbing new world order.

I think the organizers were overwhelmed by the A-list speakers. And didn’t want their contribution or star power to go to waste. So they built them all into the schedule, along with a few musical performers. The crowd erupted with enthusiasm when Alicia Keys predictably performed “Girl on Fire.” We WERE fired up. And we wanted to move.

Our backs were aching and we were restless. Part of the crowd started chanting an outcry for the march to begin. Just a few more speakers, and acts, they announced from the stage. We attempted to move through the crowd for an out. But we were stuck. With each other. And maybe this was by design. So that we could reflect on the messages, in the stillness. And come up with a plan. Together.

Eventually, the organizers shared that the march route was filled with participants. When my cell service finally resumed, a text message from my husband revealed that an estimated 500,000 people had shown up for the event. My face started to tingle as I processed the magnitude of the crowd in my midst. It was incredible – more than double the expected 200,000 participants! It was Brexit times five, to coin a phrase.

Later, when I was privy to the bird’s eye view photos, I nearly burst with pride. And I was humbled by the stunning display of humanity at the sister marches in the streets of New York, California, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris and beyond.

It seems fitting that the efforts for advancing the rights of an oppressed or disenfranchised group of people are often called a “movement.” It’s natural to want to move away from or avoid uncomfortable, undesirable or painful circumstances. These instincts can be very good, and prompt us to get out of a bad marriage, for example. Or to leave a company or country under new, dubious leadership.

Given this tendency, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Canada trended as a search term the night our new president claimed his shocking victory over his experienced opponent. I admit that fleeing the country has crossed my mind more than once since the election.

But when we eliminate leaving or moving as an option, we are forced to confront difficult issues and problems head on. And that’s when some of the best solutions can come to light. To some, it may have looked like we weren’t doing anything. But we were reigniting the women’s movement and many other movements when we stood still at Independence Avenue on January 21.

We didn’t get to “march” at the Women’s March on Washington, like we expected. But we DID receive our marching orders and initiation. And now it’s time to move. With conviction.

There are so many causes. And we can all do our part, using our natural talents and abilities, to advance the ones most important to us. We are just getting started.

judy thomas