A civil rights experience

Whilst we, as a department, do not endorse the individual views of members of our department, we are happy to share Shelley Harris’s account of her experiences at a recent civil rights event:

Shelley Harris

At the weekend I flew out to Washington to join the Women’s March, arriving on the evening of Trump’s inauguration. That first evening was one of the most surreal of my life. The atmosphere in DC was febrile, the city ringing constantly with sirens, the air flashing with blue light, a search helicopter hovering for hours over the city centre. Secret service men were everywhere, earpieces in place, twitchy looks to left and right as they left limos or entered buildings. In the streets, women in silk and fur and men in tuxedos formed huge queues for the inauguration balls, while tomorrow’s marchers – many of them in pussy hats – gave them the side-eye. At the bar we ended up in, protesters waited elbow-to-elbow with tourists in red MAGA hats, each throwing shade. A group of women discovered that we were visiting from the UK and proposed a toast: ‘Fuck Brexit. Fuck Trump.’

As for the march itself, it was the only time in my life I’ve been aware I was helping to make history as it happened (I know we make history constantly, but this felt like a moment!) And the astonishing thing, given that we were half a million people squeezed into a few city streets, was how peaceful and friendly it all was – not a moment of aggression and not (I’m told) a single arrest.

I met some amazing women: a young public health student from Texas who’d booked her air ticket months in advance because she thought she was going to watch the first female president being inaugurated. ‘I didn’t know what to do when Trump won,’ she told me. ‘But then they announced the march and I thought: “Oh right. This is what I booked that ticket for.”’. There were women from Connecticut wearing green ribbons for the Sandy Hooks school shooting (on Trump’s first day, he promised to get rid of gun-free zones in schools) and many, many women in their sixties who began their activism decades ago. One woman had come from Alaska for the march. ‘I’m just tired,’ she said. ‘I’m really, really tired. I thought we’d won these battles, and here we are again.’

Though the vast majority of marchers were women and girls, there were men there too, and the ones I saw were proper allies, their slogans and their behaviour very much in support of the women they came with (lots of ‘I’m with her!’ signs). All of us felt a call to action, all of us realised that marching alone won’t be enough. All of us know it’s going to get darker before it gets light again – we don’t get to sit this one out.


About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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