Arun Sood: On the streets of DC I saw both the toxicity of Trump's America and the incredible unity of women

Journalist and academic Arun Sood gives a first-hand account of President Trump's inauguration in Washington DC, and the following day's Women's March

Washington DC: Friday 20 January 20 2017. Presidential inauguration.

A GROUP of 'International Revolutionary Workers Party' members scramble up Columbus Fountain. Shouts crackle through loudspeakers, signs rise, and enthusiastic leaders declare resistance to capitalism, racism, Trumpism as well as establishment Democrats. 

Behind them, just past a line of vendors selling 'Make America Great' hats, an acneous teenager hoists a Neo-Nazi flag and is challenged by a circle of appalled liberals. Catching snippets of the cretin’s ideas about the Holocaust, I decide to move swiftly towards the South end of the Capitol, quietly hoping someone might put him on a watchlist.

Down Massachusetts Avenue, packs of stout bikers park up, scratch beards, smoke, tighten their Confederate bandanas, and jovially slap leather-clad backs as they amble downhill to welcome in their new commander-in-chief. 

Down Massachusetts Avenue, packs of stout bikers park up, scratch beards, smoke, tighten their Confederate bandanas, and jovially slap leather-clad backs as they amble downhill to welcome in their new commander-in-chief. 

Just around the corner, streams of anti-Trump supporters shouting "No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA" flow passionately down 7th Street towards the Capitol; while thousands of other activists – Climate Change, Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood, among others – appear to outnumber the gleeful supporters making their way to the inauguration gates.

There has, for the past few days, been an impending sense of dread among the residents of Washington DC – overwhelmingly Democratic and 50 per cent African-American – about the increasing number of Red Caps bobbing about the city in the lead up to inauguration weekend. 

Many, including 62 Congressional Democrats, have left the city. Others, not in a position to take flight from life and work so easily, choose to steer clear of the carnival downtown, partly due to fear of simmering tensions.

Whether comprised of locals or not, however, the atmosphere around Capitol Hill is far from one of unified cherry-capped celebration. Rather, the inauguration (previously a ceremonial healing of chasms formed during the election cycle) smacks of an unprecedented division that has, arguably, not been seen in American politics for several decades. 

For much of the protesting left, the symbolic and institutional reality of the new Trump administration provides a platform for bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and insularity. For much of the right, Trump’s victory is two fingers to the DC establishment, liberal elitism and political correctness. 

Just around the corner, streams of anti-Trump supporters shouting "No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA" flow passionately, while thousands of other activists – Climate Change, Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood – appear to outnumber the gleeful supporters making their way to the inauguration gates.

All of this, through a complex tapestry of factional and multi-faceted voices, is apparent throughout the day as the city radiates a venomous friction. Whether or not this is a microcosmic glimpse into a 'divided nation' is questionable. The extremes of both left and right take stage, jousting for alpha status in the Capitol fishbowl. For every volatile, masked anarchist smashing a window, there is a Confederate-clad bigot spouting hate. 

Yet, though the majority of both protestors and Trump supporters remain peaceful, the strong sense of division is blatant.

Stepping up for his inauguration speech, the newly elected president, rather than offering conciliatory tones, chooses to echo the populist, anti-establishment rhetoric of his campaign by proclaiming the transfer "of power from Washington DC" to "struggling families across our land"; which is met with rapturous applause in the downtown bar I have ventured into, located just minutes from the White House.

Glasses clink, military-capped men yelp, beer flows; while others wince and cower, presumably because – for all his fantastic rhetoric – Trump’s cabinet picks have included billionaires and Wall Street moguls such as Steve Mnuchin and Rex Tillerson.

In one of the most divisive, harrowing, and deeply cloaked passages, Trump, echoing aviator-cum-national hero Charles Lindbergh, vows to put "America First" with "American hands" and "American labour". The message is met with even louder yelps and clinks from a large swathe of camo-capped ex military types standing at the bar. 

The extremes of both left and right take stage, jousting for alpha status in the Capitol fishbowl. For every volatile, masked anarchist smashing a window, there is a Confederate-clad bigot spouting hate. 

I don’t enjoy watching their celebrations, but also try to temper ill-feeling towards the group – all white men – for enjoying their day peacefully, and exercising their rights. 

Rather, it’s their celebrity commander, and his neo-fascist undertones that induce a sense of nausea in me, as I watch him, now officially at the helm of a superpower, continue to manipulate people and their votes by nurturing xenophobia through ill-thought, fiery rhetoric that passes over as patriotism.

Heading outside for air, I exit past a group of jubilant red-capped bikers, before spotting a swarm of of balaclava-clad anarchists fast approaching. Thankfully, the two groups pass without confrontation. There is hope. 

I walk uptown to calmer streets, away from the circus, and rustle around in my pockets to find the crumpled remnants of socialist flyers, anti-fascist event listings and methods of resistance to upcoming policy change. I feel heavy, so save them for later.

Whether or not the American nation is truly divided remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that divergent, opposing, factions have been galvanised to new precedents. 

With the Women’s March on Washington fast approaching the next day, I head home to rest.

Washington DC: Saturday 21 January 2017. Women’s March.

I squeeze into a packed DC metro and tuck myself between a young family, cooing female couple, and three women wearing the hijab. All of them, each with their own signs, slogans and agendas, flash wide smiles. 

Limbs tucked, bodies tensed, there is little room to move but the atmosphere is positively electric with chatter amplifying as the train pulls into Union Station, where two lines of bobbing pink 'pussyhats' escalate up to Massachusetts Avenue, headed for the Capitol grounds.

I meet up with four friends – two women, two men – at the Columbus Fountain and, after exchanging hugs and sign compliments, we reflect on the positivity felt flowing through the main transport veins of the city. 

Down Independence Avenue, the streets are packed with specks of colourful signs that stretch all the way down to the horizon of the Potomac. I am, for want of a better word, awestruck. 

Making our way across the Capitol, a line of imperial black stormtroopers – riot-clad police – march sternly past, as one of my friends urges them to "be nice, be bice!". Whether this is an early show of force or a response to the previous day’s tensions is unclear, but, thankfully, they are not needed. Reaching the high Capitol vantage point, we get our first glimpse down Independence Avenue. The DC Women’s March on Washington, initially a singular, grassroots, post-election protest, now a globally relevant, cross-continental movement, was projected, on 20 January 20, to attract up to 222,000 people who had RSVP’d online, but in the preceding days, questions were floating around DC with regards to how many people would actually show up. 

People wondered whether it would be inclusive, and, especially after the toxic atmosphere of the inauguration, whether it would manage to surpass deep-rooted societal divides.

Down Independence Avenue, the streets are packed with specks of colourful signs that stretch all the way down to the horizon of the Potomac. I am, for want of a better word, awestruck. 

It’s the first indication of a huge turnout, a historical moment, and one of cohesion through its unification of women, men, and children who feel collectively threatened by regressive policies (and rhetoric) towards women's rights, immigration rights, workers' rights, LGBT rights, health care rights, racial justice and climate change, among others. 

The rainbow of signs, which lap gently in unison through the streets like a mass living organism, reflect the diversity of protestors, and range from the serious to the comic: "Keep Your Tiny Hands of My Titties"/"Not Usually a Sign Guy but Geez"/"Intersectional Feminsim"/"Respect Women of Colour"/"We Need a Leader Not a Creepy Tweeter".

Approaching 6th Street, between the National Mall and Smithsonian Castle, the sludge of people slumps to a halt – it’s too packed too move. We burrow towards an elevated fence, sheepishly apologising all the way but are met with frequent smiles, back pats and, in my case, a couple of kind, encouraging remarks from women: "Thanks for showing up brother, it takes us all"; "We are all on the same team here".

We scramble up a wire fence, onto a ledge that affords a panoramic view of the mass organism, sprawling across different directions in all its energetic glory. On the big screens, speakers - Madonna, Scarlett Johansson and Cecile Richards, among others - proclaim the importance of the day. 

The empowered crowds respond, and are "Ready to March!". Yet, a gradual sense of uncertainty seeps in when it becomes apparent that the proposed route to the Washington Monument is gridlocked. Phone signals crash, and whispers that the Washington Post have declared the march as too big to move begin to circulate.

Standing aloft the elevated ledge, the people penned below me, growing slightly weary, begin to ask "Where is this going? Should we try to move somewhere?" A sense of confusion sets in. A tearful, disorientated passer-by is welcomed onto the ledge beside me, and the scenes are, admittedly, increasingly overwhelming. Yet, tellingly, there is a pervasive sense of compassion, caregiving, communication and, despite being packed in like tinned produce, empathy and understanding throughout the crowds. 

There is no aggravation, and any frustrations or queries are talked out with careful tact. My male friend remarks: "It’s because it’s the Women’s March. Better communicators, less testosterone, constructive energy and much less aggro."

Some two hours later, as the mass organism stretches and gradually moves towards the Washington Monument, I reflect on whether there is something in my friend’s hypothesis, wondering if – despite the mix of men, women, and children – a feminine energy, whether literally or symbolically, is an influencing factor on the day.

As dusk falls, we march behind a giant Declaration of Independence held aloft by women. Getting a phone signal for the first time all day, I receive a text from a female friend asking what it is like to be a man at a Women’s March. 

I reply: "Hard to explain. I've never experienced a crowd of so many people with so constructive an anger. It was quite beautiful, and I’m not sure it's a coincidence. In a sentence – it’s been a reminder of how much we need women as friends, allies, leaders, peers, bosses, and more."

I’m unsure if my reply makes any sense, casts generalisations, is analytically sound or is merely a nonsensical and euphoric attempt to explain the effects of a day I am struggling to process but will always remember.

Inevitably, as we head home, conversation turns to the effectiveness of mass demonstrations on policy and actual change. We conclude that, regardless, a monumental transnational dialogue has been sparked today - and that is, surely, a very positive and progressive step.

Pictures courtesy of Mobilus In Mobili and Garen M.

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