Taking to the streets for New York City’s Trump protests.
Photo: Dustin Kirkpatrick.
On Sunday evening, after four days of involuntarily clenching so badly that my jaw had started to ache too much to fully open, I dosed myself with painkillers and melatonin and finally got a full night of sleep. No bad dreams, only blackness. New York City has hummed with tension since the election—most people I know feel as though we’re in a nightmare we can’t wake from. The best I’ve been able to do so far is start at square one every day when I get up: turn on the kettle, read the headlines, jot a sentence in my diary, and remember to take a jacket on my way out the door.
The protests that have roared up Fifth Avenue frightened me when they began last Wednesday evening; the pictures I saw on Twitter and Instagram captured a version of a city too unwieldy for me to comprehend. I flipped through countless posts of protesters’ faces, indistinct except for their anger. Their crudely made signs were chilling in their simplicity: FUCK TRUMP. I appreciated my peers’ passion and readiness to action, but I was still too numb to be moved. What was the point? Trump won the election fairly. Weren’t we flouting President Obama’s call to “go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens”? Weren’t we behaving like the faceless mob we’d spent this entire campaign decrying? These, and many other questions, rattled me. So on Saturday morning, I did what I am inclined to do when I don’t understand something: I grabbed a notebook and headed for the crowds.
Just outside the farmer’s market at Union Square stood two women holding a sign on which they’d markered FREE HUGS in bright colors. They asked if I wanted one and though normally I am reticent about physical affection, I embraced them both. They had attended every protest that week and said they felt that, since the rallies on Wednesday, the mood had become less angry and more focused—protesters had had time to process the election and were beginning to come up with solutions. “We have a right to peaceful protest and assembly,” one said, “but as soon as it becomes violent, we lose everything we’ve worked for.”
Breezes carried the scent of eucalyptus through the air. Nearby, the farmers looked disgruntled, standing behind their stalls with their arms crossed. It was barely noon. “This is a huge disruption to a small-business day,” one said, scowling. They’d only been warned that morning about the rally, and protesters darted by without noticing the baskets of orange squash and sprays of kale. “They’re completely oblivious about the fact that they’re completely in the way,” one farmer said. “It’s a complete contradiction. I guarantee you only two percent of them voted.” Many were contemplating closing for the day, though they’d only been open for a few hours.
Signs passed as we spoke: SHE WON THE POPULAR VOTE; HIDE YOUR KIDS, HIDE YOUR WIFE CAUSE TRUMP’S RAPING EVERYBODY; NOT MY PRESIDENT; a headshot of Trump pasted next to the words BOY, BYE.
As I walked, zigzagging through the crowds, I spoke to just about anyone who made eye contact with me. At some point, I realized that it wasn’t solely the act of reporting and writing I enjoyed, but the excuse to speak to people during this time of unrest and the privilege of helping them feel they were being heard. I used to fear reporting—it’s difficult to interpret another person’s thoughts and perspective onto the page—but today, I understood the power of taking down another person’s words. I felt how important it was just to listen. I suppose I hadn’t realized until then the extent to which I had spent the entire presidential campaign in front of a laptop, reading curated opinions of friends and strangers as they typed into the ether. I’d forgotten that listening is an active act. It is a relationship.
On Fifth Avenue, the marchers walked briskly and the atmosphere was cheerful, the autumn sun lit the protesters’ faces. Cheers passed through the crowd in waves; I could hear them bubbling forward: “We reject the President-elect.” “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
I’m an ardent walker—I clear at least six miles every day, going to and from work—but falling in step with people who fill the avenue as far as the horizon is a different experience. First, there’s the visceral solidarity of it all, a reminder you’re not alone in your depleted pacing, in your relentless anxiety. But there’s also the reminder of the city’s blessed diversity. Demographic representation is one thing—I was heartened to see people of color, Spanish speakers, elderly couples, drag queens—but a stubborn individuality was even more apparent, oddly enough, in the disposition of their walks, how one might slump forward or stride gracefully, whether she weaved impatiently through the crowd or locked arms with someone to keep time.
At one point, I looked to my right and realized I’d fallen in step with a tall, elegant man in striped white pants and a long, white cotton robe. His face and his handsome shock of blond hair were unmistakable.
“Reverend Billy!” I called to him.
The Reverend, if you don’t know him, is a New York City fixture—he preaches the good word of anticonsumerism with his Stop Shopping Choir and the Not Buying It Band. They’ve supported grassroots uprisings for years—Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. They’ve even traveled outside of state lines to protest mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
We marched for a while together and chatted about the election. Billy was somber but managed to eke out a few jokes. He said he never thought he’d see the day that an angry, blond Elvis impersonator would be our president. “But that’s me!” he said, chuckling. “Well not the president part, but everything else.”
Marchers stopped to take his picture and shake his hand as we walked. “You know, we have to rethink our relationship with narrative,” he said. “I’ve been watching Trump and watching his ability to manipulate language. We need to discover a new way of speaking to each other that is more intimate. We need, like, the relationship equivalent of a CSA.”
He resignedly gestured to street signs and bored passerby on the side of the street as we chatted, pointing out glossy storefronts as evidence of a neighborhood that had become devoid of community intimacy—places that have become vapid, in his words. Before I moved on to chat with other marchers, he pointed out a pile of fresh asphalt on the side of the street, then smiled at me, wearily.
“You know, we’re rehumanizing this avenue, just by walking on it.”
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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