This is What It Looks Like

I saw an article a couple of days ago about the post-election aftermath in which it mentioned a guy who was participating in a protest in New York City. His sign read (something to the effect of): “I’m not usually a sign guy, but WTF.”

My sentiments exactly.

When my boyfriend called me on the early evening of Thursday, Nov. 10—two days after the carnival sideshow that was the campaign season this year came to its culmination, after which a large percentage of us slid into a new reality and I spent those forty-eight hours unable to stop crying—and he told me he’d seen on the news that a protest was gathering in downtown Denver, I hung up, ran to my car, and went.

It had been many years since I’d taken part in any organized group display of opinion. There was the time I’d spontaneously joined the Native American drum circle in college with half of my sociology class. I think I also signed various petitions on various issues back then with furious aplomb. But as life carried me forward and my priorities changed, I didn’t think I had it in me anymore. There was my career to worry about, my rent to pay, my vacations to plan.

And yet, apparently I did very much have it in me.

Fifteen minutes after getting the call, I parked my car across from the Justice Center and started walking. I was by myself, carrying only my car keys, my phone, and my driver’s license, lest some proverbial shit go down and I, or my body, needed to be identified. (My boyfriend: “Be safe. Don’t get arrested.”) I walked past homeless people sleeping in corners. I walked past security guards going home for the night. I would never have walked alone on dark city streets before, but somehow in that moment I wasn’t afraid.

I made it to the City & County Building, then across Civic Center Park to the State Capitol, where all was quiet and mostly deserted. For a moment I had a sinking feeling that the news had been wrong, that my boyfriend had misunderstood, that if there was a protest happening at all, it was maybe five or ten people wandering about without aim. The deep cynicism that most of the time lies dormant in me reared up.

And then, crossing 15th Street toward the 16th Street Mall—a long, open-air stretch of tourist shops, bars, and restaurants that runs through the middle of downtown Denver—I spotted a few people carrying signs. They seemed to be heading somewhere with urgency. I ran up to them, fell into step, and asked, “Are you part of the protest?” They said yes and they were trying to find it. We headed to the mall together: a youngish guy and a girl, a woman in business casual looking like she’d just left the office, a middle-aged couple holding hands, and me. After walking several blocks, we saw another group coming toward us from the opposite direction, also carrying signs, all of us wondering where to go. A homeless man on the corner kindly pointed and said: “That way.” We turned the corner and that’s when we saw them, a wave of people about to step out onto Speer Boulevard.

There was, indeed, a protest underway. And it was big.

As we joined in and made our collective way down Speer en route to the State Capitol, I saw in the crowd women and men. I saw black people, brown people, white people, young people, old people. I saw parents with young children and babies. I saw LGBT people wearing rainbows. I saw people walking with their bikes and skateboards. I heard people banging on drums. The majority carried signs. Some had megaphones engaging us in constant chants:

Not my president*

Show us what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Latinos: Si se puerde
Everyone else: Yes we can

Women: My body my choice
Men: Her body her choice

F**k white supremacy

And many, many other chants, including “The Apprentice sucked.” Present in any serious situation, a breath of humor. We laughed. It might have helped that there was a good amount of pot being smoked, this being Colorado and all.

We walked past medians in the middle of the street where people had also gathered, clapping and cheering us on while journalists snapped pictures. We walked past a group of Muslim women in head scarves who waved and cheered. Several people in the crowd walked over to them and shook their hands as the crowd passed by.

We were lucky to have a balmy night. Winter hadn’t yet arrived in Colorado, as it hadn’t for much of the nation. Temperatures had stubbornly stayed well above average for weeks. Walking kept us even warmer, along with the energy and camaraderie in the crowd.

I kept waiting to see opposing protest from the other side. It’s very possible there was some, though I never witnessed any firsthand. Most everyone we passed let us go without incident or showed their support in some way. When I was initially with the small group walking on the mall trying to find the protest, eight to ten squad cars sped past us, lights blaring, along with a truck filled with police in camouflage riot gear holding rifles. Having seen this type of militarized police presence only on TV when other protests throughout the country had been covered, it was sobering to see it with my own eyes just a few feet from me. But as far as I could tell, the police never made their presence felt during the actual protest, beyond directing foot and vehicle traffic so that we could make our way down the main city thoroughfares, and making a loose perimeter around the government buildings for security, I assumed. I read later that some of the police showed their support by shaking hands with the protesters.

When we got to Civic Center Park, the protest took on even more meaning. We trudged over the grass and through muddy ruts in darkness to get to the capitol building. People stumbled. There were concrete steps and sidewalks we couldn’t see. An elderly woman nearly took a nose dive when she missed a curb, but two people grabbed her and kept her upright, helping her on her way.

As we poured across Lincoln Street, the State Capitol loomed large. Behind us stretched the expanse of the park with the equally imposing City & County building at the other end. In this space, flanked by symbols of a government we’ve come to love and hate, revere and distrust with equal measure, the energy rose even higher.

A black mother with her two sons—if I had to guess, ten and thirteen years old—marched directly in front of me. The kids were brave, chins lifted, the mother holding their hands as the three of them chanted together. I began to cry. I put my hand on her back.

Gathered in front of the capitol building, the crowd stopped as more and more people made their way across the street and spread out across the front lawn and steps. The Denver Post estimated thousands of people showed up that night, with the main protest going on for about two hours and a smaller group continuing on into the night. We stood and chanted and looked around us, at everyone who had chosen to do the same thing that night, those who had to get up early and go to work the next day, those who were tired and possibly hungry, those with small children who wanted to show them what all of this was about, those who had dealt with enough strife already for any one lifetime to handle, and those who simply wanted to be there in support of everyone else because it seemed like the right thing to do.

After awhile I walked back to my car several blocks away and went home. My brother and my sister also knew where I’d been, and when they asked me how it was, the only thing I could think to say, after two days of shock and grief, was: “It was medicine.”

Our country wasn’t founded as a democracy. Not really. Those in charge didn’t want mob rule. They didn’t want the average citizen to have a voice or a vote. Those who didn’t own property couldn’t vote; neither could women; to say nothing of the slaves and native peoples whose rights, lands, and basic humanity weren’t recognized—all of which was accepted and condoned at the time.

Democracy here sprang up separately, as its own movement, as a natural progression of the multitudes thrown together and realizing they deserved more.

To think that at one point in history my voice and vote wouldn’t have counted for anything—both as a woman and as a person without property—is unconscionable. It’s even more unconscionable that some people would have it that way again.

I have no illusions about this country. Not anymore. I can’t un-know what I now know.

What I do have are two feet. And a voice. And a fire within that somehow still lives on, through all the distractions of youth, all my petty worries and concerns, all the years of indifference when, from where I stood, things hadn’t seemed so bad.

And when combined, these simple things—my feet, my voice, and my fire—means I also have power.

Democracy, always an experiment, forever faced with destruction, forever challenged by fear and angst and spiraling economic realities, forever mocked by those who deliberately aim to keep populations ignorant and confused for their own gain, is—at the end of the day—not something conferred upon us by lofty people in bits and pieces as their whims decree.

Democracy is something we give to ourselves, as our duty to each other.

And this, at least on that night, is what it looks like.

To all of you out there who believe in the experiment, keep believing. And if you can, go out there and show it.

*Depending on whichever you find more legitimate—the electoral vote or the popular vote—“not my president” conjures up different feelings and ideas. But all who chant it know exactly why they, as individuals, are chanting it. And as we know, free speech will always make someone uncomfortable.

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