What I Saw at the Atlanta March

This is what democracy looks like

Politics Features John Lewis
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What I Saw at the Atlanta March

I joined sixty thousand of my closest friends on Saturday and participated in the Atlanta March For Social Justice and Women. John Lewis was there with us. The rain earlier in the day caused a fair amount of alarm: the downpour was beastly. It scaled back its assault after noon, and I headed downtown with a friend.

The march would begin at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, right next to the World of Coca-Cola and the equally important World of Underwater Monsters, which normal people call the Georgia Aquarium. It had been a wet day, after all, full of loudish sky-booms and grim thunderhead forebodings. Would the populace of the Peach City show up?

NO FINER PLACE FOR SURE, DOWNTOWN

We stomped over to the intersection of Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Lovejoy Street. I realized, for the first time, that this was going to be an official Big Deal. The sidewalks were filled with people—enough space to walk, but you were forced to dodge a clever sign or expertly-chosen costume every five feet. The overwhelming hue of the crowd was pink—knitted hats with cat ears—intermingled with neon colors on the signs and plain colors in the outfits. Down the street from me, half the length of a football field, was the start of the march, a line of people twenty feet wide. They were carrying a large banner.

Everyone was waiting for the go-ahead; the order to march had not arrived. I couldn’t see very far beyond the front—but the buildup behind the vanguard seemed massive. An ambient noise-o-meter would’ve had its needle interposed between “Fourth of July Picnic” and “The largest food court in the universe.” The marchers’ plan was to go to the Georgia State Capitol: down Centennial and then hang an eighty-degree turn left at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The entire affair was organized to the nines; nay, beyond that, to the tens and twelves. People in day-to-day street wear were kitted out in neon yellow worker vests and light blue ballcaps. If you’ve ever organized a large party, or a camping trip, or a squad to TP someone’s house, or run a street team meeting for a college radio station, or, really, any other sizable project involving many moving human parts, you have some idea of size, scale, and constant low-level stress that obtains when trying to keep together a people’s march.

Everything must happen at the right time; the right people must move together as one. Most of all, there must be no harm done to anyone or anything on the march. Such a blemish could cast a negative light on all marchers, and by extension, the Women’s March as a whole. You can imagine the sitting President using such an occasion, if it arrives, to fire off a tweet like “Violence and anger during crooked protest marches! Sad!” To coordinate the nationwide motion of millions of human bodies and their multitudinous passions in a commodious, peaceful, effective, and politically satisfying way isn’t easy.

While the front marchers were waiting for the order to move, a marching band came around the corner and walked smack into the sign-holding head of the crowd. There were a few minutes of disjointed scrambling so the people at the front could move back up front, after incorporating the brass section into their numbers. At one point, voices in the crowd called for “Fugees:” “If you’re a Fugee, come to the front.” I was confused: were Pras, Wyclef, and Lauryn among us? A line of teenagers passed to my left: I noticed they wore matching shirts, which read “Refugee” on the front.

Twenty minutes in, the crowd stood restless. We’d moved from the intersection of Lovejoy St and Centennial to the crossroad of Ivan Allen and Centennial, right on the northeast corner of Olympic Park. Occasionally, other people with signs hectored those of us near the front to start the march, but nobody bit: patience was called for. Without John Lewis there, the march would lose a great amount of its symbolic weight. Congressman Hank Johnson arrived, shaking hands, and took up his place at the head of the line, wearing a brown hat which was part beret, part newsy cap. No word about Lewis. We kept waiting.

Then, behind me, a cluster of men began to move forward through the packed throng, a grape pushing its way through a straw. Voices cried “Let him through!” Lewis had arrived. A guy with a trombone was eight people ahead of me; he played the “Charge” fanfare every five minutes or so. Then a whistle blew; the trombone went to town: the great march had begun. and the crowd took a single step forward. It was on.

WE ARE LEGION

Some of you reading this have never been in a protest march. Perhaps you’ve been in a public space where an event was happening. There are certain context clues our society provides to even the most oblivious bystander that Serious Business is about to arrive.

The big two hints, universally, are 1) the presence of expensive cameras or clusters of people taking pictures with their phones, and 2) the presence of the police. In other words, the Spectacle and the State are always on the scene when big deals occur; they are the smoke in this equation, usually indicating fire. When they are present, newsworthy events follow. That’s the scenery for a march. Even a small one.

What did the March feel like? I cannot emphasize enough the ambient feelings of good-fellowship, well-being, a calm that hovered over the entire proceeding, even in the middle of hundreds of conversations, dialogues, and moving feet. Being part of a vast sea of humanity reminds the marcher of her own personhood and how dependent it is on everybody else; the line about no man being an island is not merely cliché, but is reduced to a self-evident problem of arithmetic.

As a wise man once wrote, you must be an optimist to be a reformer, you must view backwards and oppressive habits as stupid and ridiculous. Outside of the crowd, women were fighting for their rights on every front, but inside this collective, the dignity of women was never in dispute, as if the truth of equality had been carved on the face of the moon and the side of a mountain. To deny that women were equal to men was to deny gravity or the necessity of air. It wasn’t a question of winning; the battle had already been won, the truth already known. What was needed was to make the rest of the world see it, and change their habits to recognize that truth.

We walked, sometimes fast, usually slow, at least until we passed the CNN building; our pace picked up at Philips Arena. An unbelievable calm and Zen easiness have settled over me. It was a movable picnic. “This is what democracy looks like,” the crowd chanted, and they were right: if a net had swooped down from sky and captured a city-block-length of the marchers, it would have given a fair demographic sample of the American population (allowing, of course, for the absence of Trump voters in the crowd).

We only got a sense of the scale of the march when we got to the part of Centennial Drive where the road rises high in the air over train tracks, and you can look back into downtown. It was a staggering vista; we were links in a moving human chain which went back as far as I could see.

People everywhere. People on the bridge and by the half-finished stadium, people on the streets and people on the sidewalks; people of every race, age, nationality, creed; the young and old and shy and bold all equally affected. People in wheelchairs and on foot, some on bikes; young couples, old couples, just friends; the rich and poor, the unemployed and the business-owner, the capitalist and the black bloc marching together, a massive human river of solidarity which stretched back and back, beyond the line of my sight, numbering sixty thousand hearts. Now a chant goes up: “No drones! No drones!” How it felt to be part of that huge, moving human tide. It was the feeling a wave must get when it borrows its strength from the sea.

Above my head, the helicopters were circling constantly; two are visible at any given time. Are they news choppers? Police eyes-in-the-sky? Unknown. Nobody knows. Either is probable.

Past the Fulton County Courthouse, and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There’s a cloud of smoke, or steam, coming up from a building caddy-corner to where I stand: did we do something? Was one of our number too easy with a lighter? Did someone set fire where fire shouldn’t go? No, it’s just the usual steam escaping from the Department of Agriculture and its next-door neighbor, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

And finally, here it is, glinting now in full sight, towering over us, the golden dome of the Georgia State Capitol; we will eventually learn that his Honor the Governor Nathan Deal will not be in attendance, along with an entire regrettable host of curiously absent elected personages, but what of it? We are here and it is now. Just southeast of the Capitol, across the street, is Liberty Plaza. Many us were able to get inside the park area before they closed the gates. Congressman Lewis spoke, and it was as wonderful as you’d imagine. Nobody had expected this turnout. Nobody.

WHAT GOES ON

Two scholars, Chenoweth and Pressman, adding up all the marchers nationwide, arrived at a grand total of 3.3 million, which may make the Women’s March the largest collective political demonstrations in American history. The organizers estimated the total global turnout at 4.7 million.

The Women’s Marches happened everywhere, in surprising and sundry places. In 2014, the scholars Tausanovitch and Warshaw published a roll of the most conservative cities in American Political Science Review. I compared that list to march statistics, and noticed that Oklahoma City had 12,000 marchers, and Colorado Springs featured 7,000. I was also surprised at Jacksonville (2-3,000), Omaha (12-14,000), and Tulsa (1,000).

No wonder the Orangeman’s skin was thinner than usual. The discontent with the new administration was both wide and deep, a reserve of churning water below the slick oil spill. My hometown of Lubbock, Texas, a conservative place, had 350-400 people show up. Lilly, Pennsylvania, a town of 944, had four. A thousand people showed up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; ten thousand in Ithaca, New York.

Those are the numbers. But that does not explain the subjective reality of what happened. The truth is, marching with others in a good cause is balm not just to politics or the nation, but to one’s soul. A church which walks. What the marcher feels is not merely the sense of belonging, or of cohesion with vast numbers of people. Nor is it just about the emotion that what you’re doing is good and right and true. Another factor comes into play when you march with thousands and thousands of your fellow citizens.

Many postmodern Americans consume politics as just that, consumers. Unfortunately, due to an oligarchic funding structure, a diminished public sphere, a perpetual level of disenchantment, and an elitist view of politics, great swathes of the Americans electorate treat the processes of politics as if they were sports franchises: they cheer or boo as they feel appropriate, but the victories of the home team are treated as distant happenings: we have an emotional investment, but feel there’s no way to change the process.

We live in an age where human beings are atomized; solidarity is difficult in a country where the populace moves around. Social capital is diminished by economic injustice, and communities fragment. We forget how strong we are together.

Protest marches are a reminder that the feeling of powerlessness is an illusion, a web of a make-believe. In every march, no matter what the cause, the crowd realizes the power it has, has always had; power which cannot be removed or checked by any government, just forgotten. It is the job of protest marches to banish forgetfulness. A Reddit commenter, ninemiletree, noticed this:

Marches are undeniable, unavoidable evidence of the strength of a (usually) political view. There is a primal power evoked in seeing a mass of hundreds of thousands of bodies united in a location, especially a public location, for a single cause. … For a hundred thousand people to leave their homes and stand somewhere public, uncomfortably, for hours upon hours, [is] an extremely powerful visual. ... A politician’s job is to create order among a people. The optics of a huge march stand in blatant contradiction to their purpose. The more people march through the street, disrupting order, creating and obvious and physical manifestation of discontent, the more the politicians are forced to respond; and the more even their supporters begin to lose faith in them. If a government cannot maintain order, then they have failed their primary function, and removing them and unseating them, or making them cave to the will of the protesters, is that much easier.

For a new administration, flush with the pride of victory and ripe in its power, this is a grievous calamity.

Hume wrote that “Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.” Force, he noted, was always on the side of the governed; it was a question of numbers.

At the end of the day, Hume wrote, “the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” When we think of the government as legitimate, we consent to obey its laws, believing they are our laws. This is why so much money is spent on public relations and talking heads; for what could happen if the people realized their power? What happens if the crowd turns?

Politics is a profession dedicated to that single question. In the next several months, we will see the working out of that proposition. What, indeed, will happen?