Katie Giarratano’s tears caught her by surprise.
She thought she might cry when President Trump was sworn in. Or when Gloria Steinem spoke. But the moment her cheeks grew wet was when she pushed her way through a crowd of strangers on Independence Avenue — a crowd so thick that it was nearly impossible to move, so full of pink hats that it looked like a morning horizon.
The speakers and celebrities were what garnered headlines, but the Women’s March on Washington will be remembered most for the numbers. Numbers that exceeded expectations and preparations and the previous day’s inauguration.
So Giarratano’s tears, which came before the program even started, were tears of relief — to see, in one place, everywhere she looked, people who felt the same way she did. Angry, scared, sad, eager to be counted.
“It’s almost overwhelming,” said the 21-year-old graduate student from Troy, N.Y.
Less than 24 hours after Trump assumed the presidency, the city of Washington was engulfed by protesters like Giarratano. Mostly women, many in pink pussyhats meant to be a symbol of solidarity, they overloaded Metro stops, chartered party planes and rode through the night in buses to participate. They passed out granola bars, safety pins and Planned Parenthood signs. They hugged strangers, took selfies and shouted to their new president “Welcome to your first day! We will not go away!”
The nation’s capital had been a vortex of cognitive dissonance all weekend. As Trump was sworn in, supporters of legalized marijuana had passed out thousands of joints in Dupont Circle. LGBT activists had danced to Rihanna’s “Work” near Vice President Pence’s Chevy Chase house, and Trump supporters had flocked to balls in tuxedos and gowns. Black-clad anarchists had shown up to smash a few windows and ignite a few trash cans — and a limousine — as the inaugural parade took place blocks away. The country’s polarized politics had converged in Washington, ushering in a weekend when two American realities clashed and coexisted and even — on very rare occasions — conversed.
The march organizers had promised to provide a megaphone for every pet cause, and in the end it drew them all.
You only had to read the signs. There were climate change believers. “Equal pay for equal work,” read the poster of a man who had come with his wife.
“My body, my choice.”
“You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you.”
“I literally have not been able to sleep for two months,” said that last sign’s creator, Nathalie Palmer, 49, of Chantilly, Va., who was hoping that the march would prove “therapeutic.” And for a lot of participants, that’s what the day was. A primal scream to echo off the walls of Washington. A collective call — to one another and to Trump — for the things they wanted: inclusivity, equal rights and their new president’s tax returns.
Giarratano, who was born to a white mother and a black father, hoped that her presence would send a message to loved ones who feel somehow less safe under a Trump administration. To other women, yes, but also to her darker-skinned friends, transitioning friends, her immigrant friends. “I want others to feel that we’re supporting them,” she said.
But the group gathered in Washington, which organizers said topped 500,000, wasn’t an unfettered love fest. As the program of speakers stretched into the third hour, many in the crowd, like penned race horses itching to run, began to chant: “Let us march!”
And resentment brewed as some marchers took off while speakers of color were still standing at the microphone.
“This whole thing is supposed to be about intersectional feminism, and they’re just walking out on speeches,” said Telfer Carpenter, 22, an equity studies major at the University of Toronto who had come in on an overnight bus. “I think the first people to leave were old white women. They left when a Muslim woman was speaking and when a Korean woman was speaking. A mark has been missed.”
From the beginning, organizers had worked to overcome initial concerns that the march would not showcase the diversity of modern feminism. And it occasionally took on the feel of a festival as fans screamed for surprise guests Alicia Keys and Madonna, who mentioned that she had thought about “blowing up the White House” before settling on love instead.
And even as the crowds occasionally tuned out speakers, they kept a keen eye out for celebrity sightings.
Katy Perry and Cher were among the celebrities at the march, but they largely went incognito in the sea of women and men who packed the original 1.5-mile route.
The event’s leaders wanted the march to be more than a group-therapy session or a fun day out. “Today is not a concert,” implored organizer Tamika Mallory. “It is not a parade. And it is not a party. Today is an act of resistance.”
For Kendra Beaver, a 60-year-old from Barrington, R.I., it was a beacon. “After the election, this was the only thing to keep my spirits up,” she said. “This was something to look forward to.”
But now, she added, “the reality sets in.”
Actually, the reality had taken hold the previous day.
“America is crying,” Giarratano said Friday as Trump began his inaugural address and rain started to fall.
But the sadness she felt on Friday gave way to ebullience on Saturday. And determination. Like the other protesters, Giarratano had come to march, but what she mostly did was stand. They stood and stood and — at the behest of their speakers — pledged to continue to stand. To organize. To call their representatives. To run for office. To not let what started there end there.
The actual march almost didn’t happen at all. Like a game of telephone, word traveled through the crowd that there were too many of them to go forward. As they dispersed, the Women’s March flowed into tributaries, streams of women and men pouring across not one of the capital’s streets but seemingly all of them. Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the same street Trump’s inaugural parade had traversed the day before, became a river of pink hats and rainbow-colored signs. “No hate! No fear!” the protesters shouted. “Immigrants are welcome here!”
As the marchers surged past Trump’s new hotel, a quartet of young white men stood silently looking on.
“Did you expect more or less?” one asked.
“Way less,” answered another, eyes wide.
Later, many marchers circled back to leave their signs in front of the Trump International Hotel, transforming it into a makeshift museum. Women stood amid the signs, which extended about five feet from the metal barricades, and with the hotel as their backdrop, took pictures while giving it the finger. All around them were messages of resistance: “My girlfriend is a nasty woman.” “Girls just want to have FUNdamental rights.” “We will defeat hate.”
Shortly before 8 p.m., 12 hours after many of them had arrived, a small band of marchers remained in the streets, escorted by a police car and still espousing their convictions to anyone who would listen.
By then, Giarratano and her friends had already tucked into a Chinatown bar where they ordered drinks, watched coverage of the march on a large-screen TV and reveled in the feeling of solidarity they had experienced. They talked about the old women who posed for a picture, asking their photographer to “make us look like heroes.” And the little girl who sat on her father’s shoulders chanting, “My body, my choice!”
But like many of the marchers, Giarratano would leave the next day. And Trump will remain.
So the question had to be asked: Will any of this make a difference? Or will the voices of the women who marched on Washington fade to static?
Giarratano, for one, believes that they won’t. Because if it’s true that there’s power in numbers, she says, then it can’t.
“I’m ready to go now,” she said. “I wasn’t ready before. But I’m ready now.”