Those who wouldn’t ever join a protest march eye such activities cynically—what purpose does it serve? What do you hope to gain?
Let’s get this out of the way up front. I march for me. Not that I’ve done it in years, but marching again now, I recall that it’s never motivated by a belief that it will change anything. Except myself.
I only inconvenience myself, put myself at risk and under scrutiny because finally I cannot not do something, and this is the largest something I can manage. If I couldn’t march, I’d do something else, but for those who can, it’s a powerful personal action that simultaneously links you with many others in a very basic and heartening way.
The empowerment that comes from a group action is an instant, albeit temporary, cure for the profound feelings of loss, fear and disempowerment that arise when you watch your country slipping into something unrecognizable. You feel helpless to stop it, and this is one way to stand up for the country you believe in.
I came of age in the ‘80s and felt alienated by Reagan’s America. I still felt a rush of pride whenever the anthem played, but when saying the pledge was made a litmus test of patriotism, invoking the right to abstain felt like the bigger patriotic act.
Many times when protesting I was told, “For someone who doesn’t believe in this country you sure are taking advantage of it.” Yes, I will exercise my rights because I believe that they are more than words on paper and politically expedient sound bites. And no, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in my country—quite the opposite.
I watched Obama’s farewell address and found myself scribbling down his quotes. I realized more fully than ever before how proud to be an American he made me. It may not be all downhill from here, but I’m guessing those feelings peaked with him.
Of course I’m sad that he’s leaving, and profoundly anxious about our future. But I’m also pausing to be grateful that he gave me my country in a fuller way than I’ve ever experienced. If not for him, I doubt I’d be on this march. I would have continued to detach from a country that only sporadically communicates a vision that resonates with me, that embodies my highest beliefs. Obama nailed that.
Organizations are only as good as the people in them. Seems obvious, but I was slow to learn this. I didn’t realize I was bestowing a moral consciousness on an organization until I felt betrayed by one. When you parse out the individuals making the decisions, you can more accurately assign accountability. It’s in those individuals’ interest to disappear into the shadow of the organization, so they can be hard to see. But the mission that you always believed in is probably still there, waiting to be revived by someone like you.
I apply the same logic to my country. The people making the decisions have changed, but they don’t get to take my country away. The vision they cast is not one I have to accept. I’m not just going to walk away; I’m going to walk forward and toward a tighter embrace of what I do believe in.
There are actions harder than marching: living a good life, being a model of your beliefs, continuing to reach out and have the hard conversations in a civil way. I suck at that last part. This is the least I can do.
This march will be physically harder than anything I did when I was 25 years younger. But one good thing about being older is that although I’m more aware and anxious about all the things that could go wrong, I also don’t care as much. Older age can make you free in that regard and I need every advantage I can get.
I looked at my scribbled quotes from Obama’s speech. I decided to make one into a button to wear on the march. The template for political buttons already had the American flag waving into the middle of the button. I could have removed it. But then I realized that keeping the flag is the whole point.
“Our democracy is threatened when we take it for granted… Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.” (President Barack Obama, Farewell Address)