They joined thousands of other women, men and children to rally round issues ranging from women's rights to racial equality and LGBTQ acceptance.
The plan on Saturday morning, the day of the women’s march, was for everyone from the bus – all 40 riders – to meet at L’Enfant Plaza at 9:15. The plaza is also a Metro station stop, and that day it was a popular one. The march’s start time wasn’t until 1 p.m., but the national organizers had told attending groups to expect speeches beforehand. As it turned out, about half of the Milwaukee group actually made it to the plaza. The Metro stations and train cars were so packed with marchers that walking seemed the only reliable option. I managed to meet up with Kevin Miyazaki, former staff photographer for this magazine, and his partner Marilu Knode, but it wasn’t easy. While waiting for the rest of the Milwaukeeans we watched hundreds of march-goers stream out from the Metro station’s doors, all checking out their fellow marchers’ signage for cheeky word play or profound messaging.
By 10 a.m., about half of the Milwaukeeans had reunited at the plaza station. They practiced unfurling their banner and posed for group pictures. They chatted with others from Wisconsin or the city, identified in the crowd by the Penzey’s heart pin, Niki Johnson and Christian Westphal’s sign bearing the slogan “Tear us down/We rise,” or the occasional Packers hat.
One of those was Bethany Sanchez*, a board member and the immediate past Chair of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (an official sponsor of the march). “I’m here to support humankind, particularly the rights of women, but really all humans and to make sure people are treated in a dignified, equal, caring, compassionate way – on all levels of their lives,” she said.
Wisconsinites Lisa Gehrke and her daughter Chelsea Gerrits were motivated by Trump’s election. “We’re here because we really believe in women’s rights and the movement, and resisting the negative culture change of Donald Trump. And everything that’s happening that he’s doing that’s going to take away our rights,” Gehrke said. Republican lawmakers and Trump supporters, Gehrke said, “need to know that we’re here, we’re not going to back down and we are in the majority. Donald Trump wasn’t elected by a majority in America and we cannot let them forget that.”
“I think his example is unacceptable and I want to show that we won’t stand for a message like that,” her daughter Gerrits said.
The original bus group then began following the hordes of other marchers, making their way to National Mall. Energy was high as they walked with their signs, banners and megaphones, and eventually they found the rally portion, and stationed themselves near a leaf-barren tree near Independence Avenue and between L’Enfant Plaza Southwest and Ninth Street. Their location was about four long city blocks from the rally stage, where countless speakers and a few celebrities would hold forth. Not far from the Milwaukee group were a few protesters carrying signs on tall poles that said “GAY: Got Aids Yet?,” “Abortion is Murder,” and “BLM are racist thugs.” From my vantage point, the marchers and protesters coexisted without disturbance.
The Milwaukeeans settled into their spot – by this I mean they secured enough standing room to move their arms – just in time to hear Gloria Steinem take the mic. Michael Moore followed shortly after. He gave the marchers a to-do list that included calling their state and local representatives daily, but his speech was cut off by Ashley Judd, who delivered a fiery, twangy rendition of a poem written by a 19-year-old in Tennessee. Three hours and tens of speakers laters, the walking portion of the march still had not begun. The speakers discussed topics that touched on a number of women’s rights issues – equal pay, abortion, paid maternity leave – in addition to racial equality, and acceptance of LGBTQ people. Their rhetoric, which sometimes occasioned tears, generally mirrored the diverse array of signs and chants that floated through the crowd.
Then the Milwaukee group and the couple thousand people in their general vicinity began to get restless. Legs were stiff, the cool air had chilled their arms, and with no easy way to find bathrooms or water, discomfort was setting in. Chants of “let us march” followed speeches instead of cheers. Despite this, the group expressed their amazement at the size of the event. “It’s fabulous,” said organizer Megan Holbrook, “It’s exactly what I knew women would do to protest this administration.”
Pamela Potter-Billings, who maintained the group’s sugar intake with Altoids, said while she came to the march with no expectations, she felt “invigorated and inspired” by the rally speeches and sizable crowd.
Around 2 p.m., Alicia Keys roused the crowd with a short speech and a performance of her song “Girl On Fire,” and soon after, Janelle Monae, the singer and actress, performed a version of her song “Hell You Talmbout” with mothers – like Trayvon Martin’s and Eric Garner’s – of black men and teens killed by police. Dontre Hamilton’s mother chimed in for the song’s verse about her son, whose name was followed by “say his name.” It was a chant Monae had practiced with the crowd.
Shortly after Angela Davis’ speech that had reminded the crowd that “history cannot be deleted like web pages,” the Milwaukee group, and many of those around them, started moving toward the march route. They were going to march whether or not they had the official go-ahead to do so. They, and thousands of others, began snaking through those still listening to the speeches, the group in motion slowly swelling as it moved toward Constitution Avenue, where the march was to supposed to take place. The walking energized everyone, and as chants spread from group to group, the Milwaukeeans used their set of megaphones to rally others. As that group, now in a mass of thousands, walked down 14th Street past the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, they joined in chanting “black lives matter.”
It was nearing 4 p.m. at this point, and the Milwaukeeans had been totally absorbed into the moving organism of marchers. Organizer Barbara Velez talked about what Holbrook’s group, The Next Four Years – Milwaukee, had planned to do to continue the momentum started by the march. Velez liked the idea of encouraging the group’s members to call their elected officials. But for now, there wasn’t much time before the Milwaukeeans had to return to their hotels to gather their belongings before meeting the bus, which would take them back to Milwaukee overnight.
Sydney Rohde, 10, was one of the children on the bus and came to the march with her mother Christine Larson. Sydney, who maintained impressive composure throughout the long day, had brought a sign that read “I’m little but fierce,” and she would hold it while practicing her best scowl. “It’s crazy,” she said of the thousands of marchers. “It’s very cool.”
Hours later, the Milwaukeeans arrived back at the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, where they’d departed from roughly 50 hours before. “Groggy but buoyant,” Miyazaki described the mood, before snapping one last group shot that depicts their banners and signs held as high as they had been the day before.
*This post has been updated to reflect Bethany Sanchez’s correct affiliation. We regret the error.