On Monday, roughly one thousand young people shut down a busy D.C. intersection. Most were college students, including a few dozen from Swarthmore, and many were missing classes. Held exactly a year before the 2016 presidential election, the march aimed to put race, immigration, and climate on the political agenda.
But what seemed to matter more than the message was the people who were there to say it. The march’s organizers tried to make a statement: that a coalition across affinity groups and causes is possible. Organizers included climate groups 350.org and Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, racial justice group Million Hoodies Project, and immigration group United We Dream.
“It’s a major step forward for our movements, for millennial movements, to link up in this way,” said Mountain Justice member Stephen O’Hanlon ‘17.
While the march’s leaders were diverse, the march itself was less so.
Most of the supporting organizations listed on the group’s web site are climate groups, which tend to be largely white. These groups also handled much of the march’s logistics.
“It’s explainable why the population was so white,” said Min Cheng ‘18, who attended the march. “A lot of environmental justice groups are predominantly white, and those were the groups that really brought people.”
At the end of the day, interviewed participants were happy with the march and its inclusivity. The day before, however, the mood had seemed much less certain. On Sunday afternoon, a training session saw doubts about inclusion come to the surface during a brief, but heated exchange between facilitators and participants. Many left the session doubting the integrity of the march.
On Sunday morning, that training session was still hours away, and the second of two buses drove along the road towards Washington, D.C., half-full of Swarthmore students, including myself.
On the bus with us was Zach Lamberty ‘18, who was skipping three classes for the march. A divestment supporter who participated in last Spring’s pro-divestment sit-in, he wasn’t too worried about missing class.
“It’s a little stressful, […] but this is what college is about – doing activism and making the world better,” he said.
Cheng was on the bus as well. A supporter of Mountain Justice and divestment, she said she was most passionate about racial justice.
“That’s what really speaks most to my heart,” Cheng said. “But of course it’s connected to environmental and immigrant justice, too.”
Aside from wanting the march to get media attention and make an impact, Cheng hoped for personal fulfillment as well.
“I just want to go out there and feel happy,” Cheng said.
Not everyone on the bus was a Mountain Justice supporter. William Colgan ‘19, didn’t even think divestment was a very effective strategy for change. Colgan said he considers himself an activist, but not the “shouting” type, adding that small, deliberate changes are be the best way to achieve change.
“You start with yourself and see what you can do,” Colgan said.
Still, he thought marching was a worthy cause and looked forward to the next day. We had heard that the police might arrest some marchers, but this didn’t worry Colgan that much.
“I think that’d be pretty cool, actually. Like, why not?” He said, adding: “Seeing in the paper that a hundred students got arrested at this intersection – that helps your cause a little bit.”
He was unsure about whether blocking traffic was justified, however.
“It’s one way to get media attention, but at the same time when you make people really annoyed at you,” he said.
At the front of the bus sad Andrés Cordero ‘16. Unlike Lamberty, Cheng, and Colgan, he came on the trip less as an activist than as an observer.
“I study anthropology, so I think it’s really important to witness those drives for change. […] I think you gotta see what’s happening and then see if it resonates with you,” Cordero said.
The bus ride wore on with a tedium that suggested none of the chanting and excitement of the following day. Most people slept or listened to music; an empty Gatorade bottle floated around in the bus’s unflushable toilet.
“We’re all sleeping, but soon, soon,” Cheng said.
Around 1:30 p.m., the bus arrived in Washington D.C. We got out and joined other Swarthmore students, who had gotten there on an earlier bus. Together, the Swarthmore group entered Hilton Crystal City, where a mandatory training session was about to be held. Excitement about the march was in the air.
“I’m excited. It’s gonna be really nice just to be in a really big area with all people that I love. I think [the march]’ll be nice,” Céline Anderson ‘19 said before the session.
The march’s organizers held the training session in a large conference room. It began with a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament to break the ice. Eventually, a white organizer took the stage and warned fellow white participants to be aware of their privilege. As he spoke, people started raising their hands, asking for clarification, and accusing the speaker of not being inclusive enough. One participant asked why nobody was speaking to people of color in the audience. These exchanges took up but a few minutes, but left a sour taste in many attendees’ mouths.
“None of the facilitators really represented who I am, no one represented me, and I feel like the concerns of black and brown bodies weren’t really addressed [in the training session],” Tiauna Lewis ‘19 said.
A lawyer who supported the march then explained participants’ legal rights in case of arrest, though he stressed that arrest was unlikely. If someone did get arrested, the lawyer or one of his colleagues would defend them for free.
The training’s leaders said that the march would block three adjacent intersections near the White House. They said the march was legally permitted, but that the permit didn’t include blocking intersections. Based on how they felt about being arrested, participants could choose one of the intersections, and then take on higher- or lower-risk roles within each. Chalking on the street, for instance, carried a higher risk of arrest than chanting on the sidewalk.
Once the session ended, organizers convened a special session for people of color to talk about the grievances that came up during training. Still, many left the hotel with a sense of unease.
“It was just like people of color were left out of the room and they were, in a sense, left out of the action,” said Linsdey Halvorson, a member of Fossil Free American University.
Lewis felt that Mountain Justice could’ve done more to encourage minority students to come to the march.
“I think that there wasn’t adequate recruitment of minority students and affinity groups in general,” Lewis said, though adding: “Given the time and the space that they were given, I think they did a decent job.”
In response, Mountain Justice’s Sophia Zaia ’18 said that the group did all they could to reach a wide range of students. She said that they contacted SASS, SASA, SAO, and other groups individually, and also made sure “to provide food, lodging and transportation so that there would be no financial barriers to participation.”
After the training, most Swarthmore students went to a church that provided space to sleep on the floor. Those who went described it as a positive experience.
“Sleeping in the church was really great. […] It was especially nice to get to know other Swarthmore students who I don’t interact with on a day to day basis – a warm, communal experience,” Anderson said.
Lamberty also enjoyed the stay, though he noted that he “didn’t get the best sleep in [his] life.”
Miles away from the church, another group of march participants filed into a spacious room in an American University (AU) student center. They were members of Fossil Free American University, getting together to call and message interested AU students to make sure that they would come to the march.
Halvorson, who felt that people of color had been excluded from the training, nevertheless led the meeting with enthusiasm. She passed around Oreos and encouraged reluctant members of the group to make calls, and then make them again.
“We do the double-dial, so people usually pick up a lot if you call them a second time. It was pretty wild, we got a lot of people that we didn’t know before out,” Halvorson said afterwards.
The next morning, around 8 a.m., participants convened in Franklin Square. For about an hour, hundreds of students walked about the square, waiting for the opening rally to start.
“People have been just standing and talking, being cold. But I think it’ll pick up,” Colgan said as he waited.
Waiting in the square, some participants still felt uncertain about the march because the previous day’s training had made them question the march’s inclusivity.
“To be completely honest, I’m still completely wishy-washy about this whole thing. […] I hope today can be different,” Lewis said, recalling the training session.
The opening rally assuaged some of these fears. The speakers, who spoke on a stage, represented a variety of causes and racial backgrounds, and each made a point of connecting their cause to a larger struggle.
“Everyone at the rally that spoke was really inspiring and moved me to tears,” Cheng said.
Then, the march began.
Organizers led marchers into a street. As the chanting marchers followed, many passersby stopped to observe, take pictures, or even join in the chanting for a few moments.
Police officers stayed at a distance, blocking and redirecting traffic so that the marchers never directly confronted moving cars. At some point between the training and the march, organizers had scrapped the three-intersection plan in favor of converging on a single intersection. Organizers could not immediately be reached for comment on why this change happened.
As the march stopped at the intersection and occupied it, police officers helped block traffic, which included two buses, and looked on from a distance when participants chalked messages on the pavement. It was clear that there would be no arrests that day.
Motorists who were now stuck in place were less patient, however. Several times during the brief standoff between cars and marchers, a chorus of car horns threatened to drown out the protest. In response, the marchers intensified their chanting.
“Every time [the cars] beep, you’ve got a couple of these [protesters] in particular getting very animated and angry. I’m imagining most of these [motorists] are working-class folks trying to get to work,” said a held-up commuter who wished to stay anonymous. She said this was the first time something like this had happened to her.
In another car, James Perry waited for a chance to get out of the jam and to work.
“I don’t mind if it’s for something, I’m just trying to get the f**k out,” Perry said.
This disruption was precisely the point. The march’s leaders had explained that the goal of blocking traffic was to create conflict, and “shut down business-as-usual” to call attention to the march’s three issues: climate, immigrant, and racial justice.
After about half and hour of waiting, the cars and buses managed to turn around and leave the intersection. Colgan, who had previously felt apprehensive about disrupting traffic, felt good about how the march was going.
“It’s going pretty well, I’m losing my voice, a lot of shouting. […] we’re definitely getting noticed,” he said at the intersection.
Looking back a few days later, Colgan felt that the march might not have been as disruptive as it had aimed to be.
“The police just redirected traffic around us. It almost felt like a ‘curated’ form of civil disobedience,” he said over e-mail.
Generally, students seemed happy with the march. Lewis, who had been worried about the protest’s inclusivity in the morning, left D.C. feeling good about the experience.
“I’m happy with the representation that’s been present, much happier than I was yesterday. […] I have learned that it is possible to have a multi-purpose march, if you wanna call it that,” she said.
Other students agreed.
“Considering Sunday’s events, the march was a lot more successful and united than I expected it to be. I was really glad that in the end everyone was able to bring to light the causes they wanted to promote,” Anderson said, though adding: “In terms of size, it was a little smaller than I expected.”
Cheng, who had hoped to feel happy in the march, said she accomplished that goal.
“I thought it was really energizing. I did [feel happy],” she said.
O’Hanlon echoed this satisfaction, adding that Mountain Justice hopes to capitalize on the march’s energy.
“We’re hoping to bring some of this energy back to campus,” he said.
After two hours of chanting, dancing, chalking, and painting, the march went back to Franklin Square. There, some of the speakers from the opening rally spoke again.
“Today is just the beginning, right?” Varshini Prakash asked, and her audience cheered wildly. “Today is just the beginning, because bringing together our movements is hard, it’s painful, and it’s beautiful, and it’s messy,” she said. “Like the human condition.”
The rally ended, and the speakers walked off the stage. For a few minutes, most marchers stayed in the square; a pro-Palestine group that had joined the march near the White House took this opportunity to ascend the stage.
“Racism is a crime, from Ferguson to Palestine,” they chanted while waving a Palestinian flag. This chant had already occurred a few times in the march, and much of the crowd chanted enthusiastically along, though some seemed uncomfortable.
While the marchers were out occupying the intersection, a row of food trucks had arrived at Franklin Square. Now, as the newly returned crowd started to disperse, the truck vendors looked on, no doubt wondering whether these activists might make for good customers.