Beyond the empty seats filled a day earlier by President Donald Trump’s VIPs, far past the stage where celebrities and activists headlining Saturday’s Women’s March took turns delivering campaign-style speeches, a smaller gathering of protesters blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue quietly strained for a view of the White House’s South Portico.
The mass demonstrations that consumed Washington on Trump’s first full day in office were a defiant and at times wide-eyed display – an implicit rebuke to the portrait of “American carnage” that colored Trump’s grim address. Thousands of marchers, women and men, wore pink knit “pussy hats” and waved mischievous signs written over with warnings to the man whose new home they had effectively choked off from the city.
But they also arrived as tourists – and gazed on the capital’s formidable architecture with a mix of anger and awe.
For many, the march represented a first foray into pavement politics. Enraged by the new president’s remarks about women on the campaign trail – and his bragging, caught in a 2005 video, that he “grabs” women “by the pussy” – they lashed out against the administration with the passion of converts.
“This is actually my first protest,” Braydee Euliss, who drove to Washington from Muncie, Indiana, told CNN. “I’m here now because I not only stand to lose personally, but women collectively and women of color especially, stand to lose, too.”
Brittney Nesby, an Ohio native living in Washington, said Trump’s comments on the now infamous “Access Hollywood” tape had stuck with her.
“He threatened to grab me by the pussy,” Nesby said. “We came so far and look” – she stopped, gesturing to the crush of people around her – “this is the melting pot of America. You see all types of women out here fighting for their rights. That’s my message.”
Others carried theirs on pins, shirts and DIY posters. A teenage girl on the mall used crayons to sketch what would, over the course of hours, become a familiar message: “Pussy grabs back.”
Thousands wore silk screened tees proudly declaring themselves “Nasty Women” – a reference to Trump’s attack on Clinton during a presidential debate. “If I wanted government in my vagina,” one sign read, “I’d f— a senator.”
As noon passed, still less than 24 hours since Trump assumed office, word began to spread that organizers had given up on keeping a coherent march route. Overflow crowds had flooded the surrounding streets and marchers stepped over low chain link barriers to decamp under the shadow of the Washington Monument.
Streaming out of Union Station, the late comers – their trains delayed by the volume of passenger traffic – were greeted by a busking trombonist who played an American jazz gospel, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
They celebrated each other, shocked and marveling at the massive turnout and the dirty, wicked puns that colored the festivities. They asked reporters and each other about the latest crowd counts. Organizers told CNN last week they expected no fewer 250,000, but thought the number could push higher if the weather cooperated. It did. More than a million people attended “sister marches” around the country – and that’s without a verified number from Washington.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, walked west on F Street to join protesters near the White House.
“The crowd itself is the message,” she said, as smaller gathering amassed at her side, chanting her name. “Wherever (Trump) is, he’s looking at this, he’s witnessing this and he’s got to know that something is being said here today about him, that he’d better know that he can’t get away with doing some of the things that he said he’s going to do.”
Back on the lawn facing the South Lawn of the White House, Michelle Sheahan waved a poster in the direction of the Oval Office. She propped it up on a fence, for convenient viewing, and turned back to crowd.
“Women deserve equal rights, equal pay. We are half of the population and my great grandmother didn’t have the same benefits that I have and previous generations have fought for the rights that we have today,” she said.
“We can’t go backwards. I refuse to go backwards — that won’t happen.”