I wasn’t the only one who arrived at the parking lot on Fremont Street between Ninth and 10th Downtown for the January 21st Women’s March not fully appreciating what I was in for. As a reporter, it’s my job to observe and document, but the crowd’s steady swell caught everyone’s eye, started every conversation.
Battle Born Progress executive director Annette Magnus (right) took a break from shouting instructions for arriving participants into a microphone (“Welcome to the Women’s March! Stay out of the street until it begins!”) long enough to take two questions: What turnout were organizers expecting? “A couple thousand,” she said, narrowly avoiding being hit in the head by a pink sign resting on the shoulder of a nearby woman. And, how many did Magnus think had assembled in the parking lot? “A couple thousand?”
Not even close. As the last marchers finally made their way out of the lot around noon, they filled the march route end to end — from Fremont to Las Vegas Boulevard, and the northbound lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard to the Lloyd George Federal Courthouse at Clark Avenue, about a half-mile total — and some had already begun to congregate on the courthouse plaza. I asked two Metro officers who were watching the tail-end of the procession down Fremont how many people they thought had gone by: 10,000-15,000, they estimated. They’d been expecting one-fifth that number.
So it went around the world. Awe gripped social media audiences all weekend as photos streamed in showing sister events with much larger-than-expected crowds, from 470,000 in Washington, D.C., and 750,000 in L.A., to “several hundred thousand” in Paris and even 30 in Antarctica. Nearly 650 marchers braved bad weather in Tokyo while those in the U.S. capitol were still tucked snugly in their beds; the snowball was already rolling.
At the Fremont Street parking lot, march participants basked in the wonder of their apathetic community awakening. Fellow citizens, off the couch, showing solidarity in the streets! For our daughters! Our disabled and immigrant and LGBTQ sisters and brothers! Ourselves! So infectious was their enthusiasm that I found it difficult, at times, to maintain journalistic remove.
Backlashers seemed caught off guard, too. Social media posts asked, “What is this march about?” “What do these women want? We live in the freest country in the world!” Equal rights activists wondered where all these women were when Black Lives Matter needed their support. Democrats wondered where they were November 8. Trans women felt excluded by the march’s cis-oriented language. Sex workers took umbrage at Gloria Steinem’s remarks about their industry’s role in female oppression. God-fearing feminists recoiled in horror from Madonna’s F-bomb-laden fantasy of blowing up the White House.
In Las Vegas, I was astonished by the civility, the elation, the warm, gooey goodness of it all. “Do not protest! Do not engage with protesters! This is a peaceful march!” Magnus admonished the crowd as it set out from the parking lot. “We’re here to love each other!”
“We’re here to acknowledge one another, to really hold onto one another and bind each other together for today,” co-organizer Deborah Harris (right) told me. “We need to understand each other, have open minds and hearts and have each other’s backs. We have to be accountable not only to each other, but also to persons that we’ve placed in positions of power.”
The people I interviewed seemed to have gotten the message. The main reasons they gave for being there would be hard for anyone reasonable to indict.
“We just want to make sure our voice is heard and our rights are protected,” said Alicia Alvarado (left below, with two friends), an eastern Californian who came here for the march.
“We’re here to make a statement about what we really feel about women’s rights. … I think healthcare is incredibly important; specifically, women’s healthcare,” said Charlotte, North Carolina, resident Gay Stevens-Fragale, who sought out the local march during her Vegas vacation.
“We need to come together and be an inclusive community, and the rhetoric I heard during the election not only hurt me, it also hurt my daughter,” said Velvet Davidson, from Henderson (below, with husband Tim and daughter Peyton).
“I want (my 18-month-old daughter) to experience nothing but love and equality for her future,” said Gina Cozzolino, of Las Vegas. “I feel that’s something that is currently not being shown by our leaders. I want her to be able to go to school and not experience hate or bullying or mass shootings.”
That’s not to say the event was devoid of invective. One group carried a papier-mâché effigy of President Donald Trump dangling at the end of a pole. There was the occasional “Dump Trump” sign. Even the march’s unofficial uniform — fuzzy pink caps with cat ears, dubbed “pussy hats” in response to a leaked interview in which Trump described taking advantage of star-struck women by grabbing their genitals — was an implied rebuke of the president.
But the overriding positivity was also reflected in the signs. Forward-looking imperatives such as, “Hear our voice!” “Trust women!” and “Keep your laws off my (silhouette of cat)!” were far more common than election-rehashing insults like, “It’s the misogyny, stupid!”
Even more remarkable: There was no counter-protest to speak of. I spotted one guy holding a “Make America Great Again” sign. That’s it.
In the ensuing five days, thoughtful debate about the Women’s March predictably devolved into partisan bickering. Liberals point to Trump’s stream of executive orders this week as evidence of an assault on civil rights, the fear of which brought demonstrators together to begin with. Conservatives complain that the new administration isn’t being given a fair shake, that marchers have poisoned the presidential well before letting Trump show what good he may do.
As I’ve processed the reactions from right and left, I keep coming back to the numbers. That a couple (few?) million people took to streets around the globe is undeniable. That’s a lot of concerned, determined humans. That’s some power.
Perhaps the greatest surprise from the Women’s March is still in store. It would come if the organizers could achieve their implicit goal of transcending partisan politics and giving a voice to every woman, “regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.” The 10 actions for 100 days campaign that the national organization has launched leaves it to local groups and individuals to choose their own cause — the important thing is that they speak up.
If nothing else, a president with record-low approval ratings has been put on notice that the electorate is watching and listening. And at least half that electorate, the female half, now has a movement to join if he, or any other elected official, lets them down. The question is: If that happens, can this movement be the place they'll all turn to?