The term ‘analysis paralysis’ does not do justice to the brain freeze that comes with choosing the right presidential protest sign right now. So many things to say; where does one even start? So many ways to say them; should it be a tweetable Onion headline, or a blistering battle cry? And does worrying about it too much turn a public demonstration into an exercise in making it about you? It doesn’t take long after arriving in D.C. during Donald Trump’s inauguration, though, to confirm that most people here are making it about all of us.
Unlike my wife and I, who came empty-handed, most protestors here seem to have thought long, hard, and decisively about what they wanted to say and how. Collectively, they went far beyond simple signs and hats to make something incredible. They organized and collaborated and conjured up with creative expressions that clearly articulate the sludgy stew of anger, frustration, and disbelief that characterizes this moment. But it’s something barely anyone who wasn’t there will ever find out about because this inaugural protest narrative was ultimately buried beneath another more violent one.
It was always going to be a strange day. No matter which side you’re on, there would be a lot of unfriendly opposition. Families decked out in MAGA finery would encounter coffee shop intellectuals wearing Fuck Donald Trump shirts. Protestors would cross paths with pumped up anti-immigration enthusiasts angrily parroting the language of their hero. (The word ‘loser’ is used, ironically enough, rather liberally.) When we emerge from the metro in Farragut North station, we pass a congregation of goth Satanists on the way to breakfast and end up sitting next to a family of Trump supporters. A little boy wearing a pristine inaugural ballcap sees our shirts—which do, in fact, read Fuck Donald Trump, purchased from a friend who was making them for charity—and he’s too uncomfortable to eat. We quickly and wordlessly agree to zip up our hoodies, even though the heat is turned up inside Pret.
By 11 a.m., hundreds are gathered at McPherson Square, one of the designated protest meetups. People are pissed, but they’re buzzing with energy. The crackle of loudspeakers fills the air, some from a distance, and one from the woman who is leading this group, with a call-and-response pledge.
“We’re gonna march today. All day!” she yells, and the crowd yells it back to her. “We’re not gonna get tired. We’re just getting started!” Her urgency is contagious. By the time she leads us out of McPherson Square and onto K street, everyone marching looks fired up enough to form a human wall preventing our new president from building one on the Mexican border with taxpayer money.
The signs people clutch offer insight into their motivations, and there are as many of the former as there are the latter. The ones with sad emoji and the Twitter logo represent outrage over the prospect of a president tweeting his way to war. The ones asking questions like, “If I incorporate my uterus, will you stop trying to regulate it?” take shots at the hypocrisy of a pro-life administration hell-bent on deregulation. Signs depicting the new president’s conspicuously affectionate relations with Vladimir Putin are legion. Some present Putin as a puppeteer, while others recreate Mindaugas Bonanu’s mural of the two world leaders sharing a passionate embrace. A lot of signs reiterate “Black Lives Matter,” since apparently the issue is still up for debate. One sign just reads, “Leave Trump, take the cannoli,” echoing a line from The Godfather whose popularity I have never understood, and especially not in this context. Someone is passing out those Shepard Fairey “We the People” posters featuring a Muslim woman’s face on them, and I grab one and hoist it high.
Where do protest chants come from? They arrive like a slow clap in an ‘80s comedy that may or may not catch on, but who makes up these things? Some of the ones that galvanize the marching crowd are the same ones that figured prominently into post-election protests in New York last November or variations. “No pussy-grabbing, no patriarchy, no fascist USA!” goes one, with a backdrop of a guy in a poncho playing bucket drums. One with a less complex cadence plainly states, “Donald Trump has got to go, hey hey ho ho,” which is a melody that was immortalized in the 1993 film PCU, with “Donald Trump” replaced by “This penis party.” (The context is about what you’d imagine.) Another popular one is a gender-divided two-hander where women declare, “My body, my choice!” and then men echo, “Her body, her choice!” A dude with ass-length dreadlocks punctuates every chant for at least five minutes with a Lil Jon-style “Yea-aah!”
As we float down the street, we continue to pass smirking men and women in red hats, who alternately call us “losers” or just say “Trump! Trump!” again and again, like the restaurant sequence in Being John Malkovich. Their overall vibe could be described as ghoulishly ebullient.
The first hint of what’s to come, what the day will ultimately be remembered for, is announced with a barrage of sirens. Something is happening. The police could be coming for us, stanching the flow of protest today before it truly begins. Instead, a bunch of agile men and women in head-to-toe black, with keffiyeh scarves covering their faces, run by in a panic. These turn out to be antifascist activists. They’re here today for J20, a coordinated effort to disrupt the inauguration through means that are not exactly peaceful. Seeing them flee at first and then blend in our group sends a shiver down my spine. Whatever they’ve just done, the police and anyone else paying attention must think we’ve just done that, too.
As we maneuver through the city, we absorb more groups and more forms of flair. The number of people in costumes steadily increases. There’s a polar bear holding a sign that reads “Humans can do better.” Left Shark from the 2015 Super Bowl has apparently gone all the way left, with a sign accusing Trump of not draining the swamp, but rather filling it with Wall Street sharks. A few pink, cat-eared pussy hats pop up, foreshadowing the momentous Women’s March scheduled for tomorrow. There are Guy Fawkes masks, papier-mâché Putin heads, and an unexplained vuvuzela. Heavy words are thrown lightly, like the woman pairing a Donald Trump mask with a ghost-sheetlike conical hat, the words “Yes we klan” written across it. Everybody is expressing themselves differently, although nobody can quite parse out the message of the swaying burner in a white jumpsuit, his hair in little pixie braids, banging a bongo as he marches. It’s much easier to interpret the many homemade flags flying everywhere, like the historic, bright yellow Gadsden flag, with the words beneath the rattlesnake, “Don’t tread on me,” replaced by “Don’t grab my pussy.” As we head toward Union Station, a flashing construction sign mixes in with the protest signs and urges us, “Use Caution.” At this moment in American history, it seems like we’re all a little past that, though.
We wade through the mall-like atmosphere of Union Station, chanting “Trump and Pence are fascists!” as we pass by a Sbarro and an H&M. Some of the people eating lunch on the sidelines perk up and cheer us on, while others stare daggers. Gray clouds have loomed overhead all morning, but the moment we step outside of the train station, the first drops hit. It is noon. The inauguration has officially just begun, as if taking rainfall as a cue.
A crudely defaced cardboard standee of Trump greets us at the Columbus Fountain, a bell-shaped double-basin flanked by twin American flags. Apparently, this is another designated meet spot, because protestors continue flocking in, with more and more inventive accoutrement. Suddenly, the mood moves beyond an angry funereal march with occasional puns about Putin, into something more like a purgatorial Mardi Gras. It’s as if San Diego Comic-Con had ditched its superheroes and everyone instead started cosplaying current events.
A stilt-walker with Raggedy Ann-hair holds hands with another elevated greasepainter in an Uncle Sam hat. A Trump impersonator with a Pinocchio nose stands next to the polar bear from before and addresses the crowd atop the fountain. Giant Dia de los Muertos floats mobilize what now feels more like a parade than a march, with a tank-sized gray elephant trailing behind, a sign festooned across it that reads: Racism. A brass band, all dressed in Trump-tie red, starts cranking out sad jazz. A group of 20 simulates a raging ocean by gyrating in front of a blue backdrop like inflatable wind dancers, chanting “We’re all in the same boat, keep the boat afloat.” This is the march at its peak, loud and energized and bursting with ideas; not trying to disrupt the inauguration so much as making sure those heading to or leaving it can’t ignore that we attended too, in our own way.
A guy in a white dress shirt has a message sharpied across his back: “Hello, this is an art project. Would you like to take part?” When I tell him I would, he slips me a notebook that reveals he is not allowed to talk but outlines what it entails. The Hurt Shirts Project asks participants (i.e. me) to take a sharpie and write something mean that someone has said to them (me) recently. I write “get in the oven” on his left bicep, a nod to something that I, an opinionated Jewish person on the internet, have received on a near-weekly basis since the Trump movement started gaining steam. It feels cathartic to externalize it.
The Hurt Shirts project provides a capsule version of what the inauguration protests do overall. It lets us vent, like the signs do. It brings people together in commiseration, like the random hugging that takes place all day when those signs hit a particular vein. And it shows the defiant strength of our numbers as the project creator’s shirt eventually becomes completely covered in epithets. What I saw next, though, is what ensured that very few people would ever hear about this art project or anything else I experienced today.
We walk past the smashed windows of a Starbucks and a Bank of America in downtown DC, camera crews on the sidelines, ready to go live. Maybe it wasn’t protestors, I think, naively, and the thought evaporates. Of course it was protestors; what’s known as a black bloc from one of those antifascist J20 groups. Later, they will set fire to garbage cans, and a limousine after that, filling the night sky with smoke, and there will be 200 arrests, in some cases yielding felony riot charges. Anyone will be able to point at the rubble and denounce liberal protestors altogether as demonstrably destructive. Luckily, as a counterpoint, the Women’s March on Washington the following day will bring in an estimated 500,000 pussy hat-wearing protestors, and yield not a single arrest.
The broken windows busted our spirits some, and my wife and I decide to leave for lunch. On the way, we pass a bus stop ad for a national museum, imploring passersby to “Champion Women Through the Arts.” The ad is in such stark contrast to an administration that has made it a priority to defund Planned Parenthood and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, that it seems already like a relic from a lost civilization. It’s a stark reminder of why there will be many more protests to come, long after the one scheduled for tomorrow.