Last Saturday morning, Grand Central Station in New York City was packed. Every few minutes, trains would disgorge passengers into the Grand Concourse and rush off to fetch more. Usually, a diverse bunch, that day, the commuters comprised largely of only one sort. You could spot her from a mile away: dressed in comfortable boots, a light backpack over a heavy jacket, or, with a small family in tow, clutching protest signs, that, for the moment, faced downwards.
The largest demonstration of solidarity in American history, the Women’s March on Washington, held on President Donald J Trump’s first day in office, became a call for human rights and was supported by sister marches across all 50 states. Americans marched for reproductive rights, sexual identity rights, climate change, civil rights, freer immigration laws, values that they feel have been threatened by the new government.
The march made all kinds of history. Crowd experts estimate a total of three million people (almost the number of votes that lost President Trump the popular vote) attended the march in the US. Another million attended the global marches that happened around the world. Many different marginalised sections of the society — blacks, browns, immigrants, Muslims, queer — came together in large numbers at the rallies that also saw protestors as young as two years old.
Protests have been an important part of American politics whether it was the march for Equal Rights Amendment in the 1978, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963 or the Women Suffrage Procession of 1913. But this year, a significant number of American parents made the brave decision of including their children in the turbulent politics of the country.
Heather M Hemler Kennedy, 47, who attended the Women’s March on Maryland with her 16-year-old daughter, Caitlin, says, “In the past I’ve seen parents take their children to the polls to show them how the process works, but that was pretty much the extent of it. I think women especially got their children more involved this time because they believed this was going to be a historic election. We were going to be electing our first female president. Of course, the focus changed rapidly to having to protect our children and the future of our country.” Kennedy’s daughter attends a private Catholic school with a large number of Trump supporters. Every time she voices a contrarian opinion, she gets shot down. “Our kids are growing up in a country that tells them it’s okay to bully someone else. So as a terrified parent, the decision to take our kids to such marches is not a brave one, but a necessary one,” says Kennedy.
Abby Cheatham Wright, mother of two, who grew up in Georgia, says, that in her Republican family, politics was mostly the domain of adults. “I was raised to never speak politics, money or religion with anyone. It was rude. But things have changed.” In the course of the long election campaign, whether it was watching the debates or the speeches at the conventions, politics became a family affair.
Megan Dombi-Leis, who home-schools her five-year-old, says that in the weeks leading up to the election, she discussed race, gender, and inequality. Together, they read picture books about women’s strikes at textile factories, the suffrage movement and watched a video of a girl growing up during the Civil Rights Movement.
While most of the protests were peaceful and children-friendly, in many cities such as New York and Washington DC, Americans pushed back at the abuse that the election campaign had initiated. Posters were held high, catchphrases such as “Fu** Trump”, or “Abort Trump” were seen on them. A woman held up a large poster of outstretched legs which read, “Pussy Grabs Back”. There was a small army of young girls with blue hats that read, “The Future is Female.” A family held up the sign, “Yuge Mistake.” There was, also, the phrase made popular, “Not My President.”
Exposing children to such strong and harsh vocabulary at a tender age could not have been easy. Lauren Liss Johnson, 37, who travelled with her six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son from Chicago to Washington for the march, says she knew that she would have to deal with this issue soon.“My daughter’s friend, also six years old, came to the protest with us. She’s a voracious reader and loudly read a sign that said ‘What the fu**’. So that was a discussion we had to have. We spoke about people being frustrated and why asking for inclusion and respect shouldn’t be considered radical.” Her daughter carried a poster that read, “Future Nasty Woman.”
The children who marched held up signs, many of which were hilarious. “I Vote in 8 Years,” one girl’s poster read. A boy carried a poster that read, “Girls are fast.” A picture that went viral was of a toddler and a sign that read, “I (heart) naps but I stay woke”. A popular one spotted in New York was, “Girls just wanna have fundamental rights.” A two-year-old had a simple message, “Mr Trump be nicer.” When someone sang, “Show me how democracy looks like,” they chanted back, “This is how democracy looks like!”
Neuroscientist Marian Mellen’s daughter, Lulu, two, was probably too young to go to the march. But Mellen, 34, who is based out of New York, took her nonetheless. “By the end of Trump’s presidential period, she will be six and she will begin to understand everything that is going on. I want her to witness support for and from women early in her life.” Mellen was concerned about exposing her daughter to vulgarity. “But I feel kind of fearless. I prefer for her to hear and see how people react to vulgarity even when this means exposing her to the actual vulgarity. Worrying about children picking up the wrong words is secondary. We’ll work on that later,” she says.
In the course of the march, while millions of Americans found happiness and solidarity in a divided nation, parents found hope. After her Republican parents disapproved of her taking their granddaughter to the march, Johnson was touched by the support from strangers. “We didn’t march to fight against Republicans. So it’s hard when that is seen as a Democrats vs Republican light. No one wins that fight and I am not interested in it. Political affiliation pales in comparison to character and humanity,” she says.
Amruta Lakhe is a student at the Columbia School of Journalism, New York.