My wife and I had planned on walking together in the Women’s March this past Saturday. But pressing family issues came up on Friday, she had to cancel, so at the last minute, I signed up to be a marshall at the march, a “peace ambassador,” and I arrived at at Madison Park in Oakland early Saturday morning, where I got an orientation and a neon yellow vest.
The park was still pretty sleepy at 8 a.m. Elderly Chinese were doing tai chi and badminton volleys on the west side of the park, and on the east side, a dozen or two volunteers were gathering and chatting. The sky was overcast, but there was no rain, and the sun peeked through now and then.
We all teamed up with buddies and one member of each team got a radio, and then we went over the route and various contingency plans. They divided us into groups by where we were standing and I ended up as one of three dozen or so volunteers whose job it was to create a wedge in front of the lead banner, clearing the center of the street for the march and creating enough space in front for photo ops.
This proved to be more complicated than I imagined. By the time we left the park, shortly after 10 a.m., the streets were so packed with people, we had to clear a path before the march could start.
At 9th and Oak Street, about 30 to 40 of us peace ambassadors held hands, formed a V-shaped wedge, and walked north on Oak Street, gently herding people from the center of the street to the sides. We walked about two blocks, trying to hold the space behind us as we moved forward. Then about half of us turned around, and went most of the way back, to where the folks holding the lead banner had set up, across four lanes of Oak Street. A man named Stefan with a megaphone was directing us — it felt like a military operation even though we were marching for peace.
(One fellow marshall noted, that of course, we had to have a man with a megaphone giving orders at the front of a women’s march. But he knew what he was doing, and the vast majority of the marshals in the front and the people behind the lead banner were women.)
Later on Saturday, someone shared a CNN video on Facebook of marches throughout the county, and there I was in the upper left corner of a clip from Oakland. With my fanny pack and bald spot on the top of my head. You can see the space we created in front of the banner.
Here it is from further above. See that empty space behind the wedge.
And here’s what the lead banner looked like from the front. (Photo by James Lerager.)
We started marching. We were directed to slow down, speed up, and now and then to stop and kneel, so photographers could get a better photo. “If only,” someone quipped, “someone was documenting this amazing march.” If only.
One of my buddies, Lily, was at the apex of the wedge for most of the march. I shouted over to her at one point, “Hey, Lily, I bet you weren’t expecting you’d be leading the march.” She shook her head and smiled.
I was on her left, about three or four people away, walking sideways for much of the march, holding hands with Jane, my other buddy, a few feet ahead of me on my right, and a man whose name I never learned a few feet behind me on my left. Sometimes both my arms were being pulled, in opposite directions. We didn’t always stay in formation, but the wedge worked the way it was supposed to. I had never given much thought to how to manage a march. It was harder than I expected, especially with crowds in the tens of thousands. We heard estimates ranging from 60,000 to 100,000. I was in no position to assess the size of the crowd, other than it was larger than organizers expected. And everyone was peaceful.
The energy, the camaraderie, the creativity, the love was palpable. It felt as much like a celebration as a protest, though of course, the signs were defiant.
Some of my favorites.
“Girls just want to have fun-damental rights.”
“You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you.”
“The future is female.”
“We are the wall.”
“I would not want to be the guy who pissed all these women off.”
A wonderful day. A wonderful march. I’m so grateful I stumbled into the opportunity to lead it. Sort of.
I’m going to treat this experience as if it’s a metaphor for something. Now I just need to figure out what it is.
Thanks to all the hard-working folks who organized the march. Now we start the really hard work.
If you haven’t already gorged on march photos, here are more from the Oakland march, courtesy of James Lerager.