Cold Feet, Warm Hearts: Reflection on Women’s March

Editor’s Note: OLB invited poet and activist Margaret Rozga to reflect on her experience in DC at the women’s march, which she attended with her daughter, Christine Groppi. The following is her account of the march, among other points of resistance and solidarity that fill her life.

photo by Joe Brusky, Overpass Light Brigade

As a small group assembled for a recent Overpass Light Brigade action, I took up two letters, P and O.  Perfect!  PO.  POed, exactly what I’d been feeling since November. The anger fueled a desire for action, and gathering with others at the Ring Street pedestrian overpass provided the outlet I needed.  It pulled me out of the sinking feeling, the isolating grief, I also felt.

Trump’s electoral college election threatened to bury all I had long worked for.  Since 1965, when I volunteered to work on a Southern Christian Leadership voter registration project in Alabama, my commitment to social and racial justice has continually grown.  On some level I must have thought that in my old age I’d be able to sit back and enjoy the more equitable, inclusive, fair-minded, and just world that civil rights volunteers of the 1960s had envisioned and advanced.

Yes, such was my dream.  The November election was a rude awakening.

Outside in the cold January wind, the PO I held in my hands were central letters in that evening’s OLB message: TRUMPOCALYPSE.  This president pushes toward a mindless apocalyptic finality.  What does he think he’ll drink, what will he breathe, when his dismantling of government safeguards like Environmental Protection Agency means all our water is polluted, all the air toxic?

Soon that evening more people arrived.  I handed the O to one of them. We talked. She said her first OLB experience was in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock, an issue particularly important to her as an indigenous person.  When she arrived at that #NoDAPL event, she expected to find all native people and was surprised to find many other people as well.  This time, she found out about the action at the last minute.  Without stopping to eat her dinner or change her clothes or shoes, she put on her coat, got in the car with her friends, and came to participate.

I looked down at her feet.  She was wearing sandals.  Except for a few thin straps, her feet were bare.  She never complained about cold feet, not once in the hour we spelled our message for the freeway traffic streaming below us.

Cold feet.  Yes, I know about those, too, the cold feet that keep you from getting out and finding those who will buoy your spirit and give you courage.

photo by Christine Groppi

When my daughter Christine asked me to go with her to the Women’s March in Washington DC, I hesitated.  I remembered one Vietnam War protest in DC where the local host greeted the crowd, saying, “Welcome to Washington for the thousandth time.” I remembered some recent demonstrations in DC did not draw enough people to have an impact.

I remembered other mass demonstrations, the one in Miami at the 1972 Republican Convention, where police shot tear gas in massive amounts into the crowd of demonstrators causing utter confusion in the streets not only among those of us there to protest President Nixon’s war policies but among elderly Miami residents and even some tourists who were caught unprepared.  The memory of that chaos gave me cold feet.

Then I also remembered a highlighted sidebar in a Miami newspaper article the morning after the arraignment of activists who were arrested.  (I wasn’t one of the arrested). The judge said as one young woman appeared before him, “Melissa, it’s not up to you to save the world. Next case.”

I knew then and still believe that judge was wrong. Yes, it is up to Melissa, not Melissa alone, of course.  It’s up to Melissa and me and her friends and mine.  It’s up to each and all of us.  Now it’s also up to people who weren’t even born in 1972. Fortunately, they seem not to be bothered with cold feet at all.

Yes, of course, Christine. I’ll go with you to the Women’s March.  Her request proved a great gift.

On the Women’s March, even on the way, my yes was amply rewarded.  Action is the answer to that sinking feeling of grief and despair.  Social justice action connects you with others who share your commitment to the common good.  That’s ever a source of strength.

At our first rest stop at a service plaza in Indiana, we overheard one worker in the food court say to another, “More people going to Washington for the march.”  Her co-worker replied, “I wish we could go.”

By the time we stopped again in Ohio, the service plaza was lively with women, many wearing pink hats.  I didn’t know why.  My daughter took me aside to explain. “Pussy hats.” The women’s rest rooms from here on all were crowded.  No one complained.  We held doors for each other.  We smiled.  We knew where we all were going. We were in separate vehicles, but we now knew we had each other.  If we had any doubt, all doubt was erased when we waited in long lines that Friday night to exit the Pennsylvania Turnpike and turn south toward DC.

As we headed downtown the next day, a major radio station announced over and over the list of Metro Stations where there was no more parking.  Fortunately Christine knew of a public park about a mile from the Vienna station.  We walked from there to the station.  The train we caught could not stop at L’Enfant Plaza, our destination, because it was so packed with people there was no room to discharge more passengers.

At the next stop, we got off the train and walked toward the rally. We watched Angela Davis and the Indigo Girls within a tight press of people at one of the Jumbo-trons set up in the street.  Sally saw a sign she liked, “Girls Just Wanna have FUNdamental Human Rights.”  Christine asked if she could take a photo.  The person holding the sign said, “If you like it, take it.” Sally was thrilled.

photo by Christine Groppi

When the march started, it didn’t matter what group we followed.  All the streets headed toward the White House were full of people on the march.  We passed the Trump Hotel.  About a half dozen guards stood in the doorway, fidgety, obviously nervous in view of a crowd that could easily have overpowered them, but no such thing was our intent.

Periodically a cheer would go up among a segment of marchers.  I wondered what they were cheering.  “We must not have the app,” Sally said.  If there was some cell phone coordination, even having the app wouldn’t have helped.  None of us were able to get a signal.

After the march, we found a place to sit down and have coffee while we waited for 7:00 p.m. and the Split This Rock Poetry Open Mic where I was scheduled to read.  Crowds were dispersing. Already work crews had bagged up the mounds of garbage that overflowed trash containers.  While I admired the efficiency, it also depressed me.  It signaled a return to normal, a normal that would not be like anything I wanted to call normal.  I didn’t want all these beautiful, kind, and concerned people to go their separate ways.

The Split This Rock event brought people together again. People and good words, words with power.  After the reading, everyone helped put chairs away.  Most lingered.  It was as if all of us felt the same thing. With each other, we had strength.

That point was brought home again and again on the turnpike, as we now headed west.  Though in our separate automobiles, each time we stopped, we were community again.  At one service plaza with a Panera in its food court, the lines were so long that employees struggled to keep up. They couldn’t make bagels, or soup, or salad or sandwiches fast enough.  The line moved slowly.  Someone among all these participants in the march, maybe some brilliant organizer, maybe some ordinary person, had an idea: let’s keep it going.  The crowd became a group.  The line became a rally.  The buzz of separate conversations became chant and song.  The idea went live. The March continues.

Even through Indiana, when the traffic thinned and rest stops were fewer, we met two women going in the building as we were coming out.  None of us were wearing pink hats. “Were you,” they began.  “Yes,” we said.

Back at home, events and calls to action multiply.  We are the majority.  It was true when I cast my ballot.  It remains true.  I see its truth when a poetry reading becomes another rally, when a local pub is filled to overflowing at an ACLU fund-raiser, when my neighbor asks to see my DC photos, when someone in my t’ai chi class asks, “How was it?” I hear its truth as the cars streaming along I-43 honk in agreement with the OLB message, TRUMPOCALYPSE.

I still feel grief, and I don’t want to deny that feeling.  I also hope.  To hope is a verb of action. Hope for the days ahead comes from acting creatively. I put my senators’ phone numbers in my phone and call every day. I help plan events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fair housing marches in Milwaukee. We are going to need local actions and a surge of attention to the issues that a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development like Ben Carson promises to neglect.  I continue to write. I’m backing Tony Evers for re-election as Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, particularly important these days when public schools are threatened. I also go to events where I’ll find a cure for cold feet: the heart-warming presence of people gathered to affirm the values of democracy and inclusivity I hold dear.

photo by Overpass Light Brigade