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23 Jan 2017

The counter-inauguration - Voices from Calcutta in flood of women who marched to warn Trump

Sushovan Sircar, TT, Washington, 22 January 2017: Hundreds of thousands of women flooded the streets as an unparalleled wave of “counter-inauguration” rolled in Washington and several other capitals on Saturday, a day after the inauguration of Donald Trump’s presidency. Organisers said the protests against Trump’s campaign rhetoric and misogynistic behaviour drew nearly 5 million across the world, far surpassing expectations.

Taken aback, commentators scrambled to find a parallel. Ellen Fitzpatrick, the author of The Highest Glass Ceiling that tells the story of three remarkable women who set their sights on the American presidency, told The New York Times that perhaps the most apt analogy was to the 1913 suffragists’ march on Washington, timed to coincide with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson.

Led by the renowned suffragist Alice Paul, it featured a lawyer, Inez Milholland, riding a white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue, with 24 floats, nine marching bands and luminaries like Helen Keller. The women were hooted and jeered at and roughed up by police, prompting congressional hearings and generating public sympathy. They won the vote seven years later.

On Sunday morning, Trump acknowledged the demonstrations on Twitter, first with a swipe and then with a conciliatory statement. “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly,” the President tweeted.

A little later, he added: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views.”

The centrepiece of the protests was the Women’s March on Washington. Watching from the sidelines, a Calcuttan picked out several fellow Calcuttans, including one who was reminded of the Durga Puja crowds back home. His report follows:

Washington, Jan. 22: Washington DC experienced on Saturday what Calcutta has witnessed for decades. If the ocean of heads swarming through downtown DC gave Durga Puja crowds a run for their money, the relentless anti-Donald Trump chants recalled the anti-America sloganeering Calcutta has seen from the days of Richard Nixon to those of George W. Bush.
Over 100 protests and demonstrations had enveloped the US capital since the early hours of Friday, when Trump took his oath as President. They culminated in the Women's March on Saturday, which, by the time it ended, had enough people to fill the Eden Gardens seven times over.
Washington DC, a usually placid city of 6.5 lakh people, grand monuments and museums, transformed into a carnival of civil disobedience as hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets to register a roaring rejoinder to Trump's inauguration.
The Telegraph was on ground zero on both days and walked alongside the crowds to observe the anatomy of many an American protest. Satirical slogans and witty banners raised more than a dozen issues, from women's and minorities' rights to climate change and the "politics of hate". A look at a few of them:#
Women's March
• Crowd count: About 5 lakh
• When: Saturday, 10am to 5pm
• Distance from White House: 2km
One rarely has a problem finding a seat in the Washington metro even during rush hour. On Saturday, many people on the platforms had to pass up a couple of trains as early as 8am before succeeding in boarding one and head for the National Mall.
All the roads, buses and trains seemed to lead to Independence Avenue as people from across the country thronged the site where Trump's inauguration had been held 24 hours earlier.
Several estimates suggested that the mall witnessed more people at Saturday's protest than at the inauguration on Friday. The Washington metro's official Twitter handle announced that it had ferried 275,000 people till 11am on Saturday, compared to 193,000 lakh on Friday.
Rukmini Banerjee, 28, a DC resident since 2012, couldn't recall another day like this.
"Today's march felt like a sort of homecoming for me. My home in Calcutta is next to the Tridhara Sammilani pandal, and making my way through this crowd today reminded me of the crowds I had to jostle through to get home during the Pujas," said the Deshapriya Park girl who works for an international non-profit.
Begun as a Facebook post just after the election results were announced in November, the event drew celebrities from Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson to feminist icon Gloria Steinem and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Many among the crowd, the majority of whom were women, turned up in pink woollen caps -- a symbol of resistance against Trump's perceived misogyny.
Sandie, 73, had flown across the country from California to join the march with her 37-year-old niece.
"I couldn't with a clear conscience sit at home and so I just had to be here. The importance of the protest is that it shows we are the majority. He is the President but not my President," the Los Angeles resident said.
She carried a banner that read "Nasty woman against Trump" --- an allusion to Trump's "nasty woman" comment against Hillary Clinton.
Around 2pm, as the performances and speeches drew to a close, the crowds spilled onto the lawns of the National Mall and the streets surrounding the Capitol. They spread out in various directions, a sea of colourful banners and pink caps choking the roads and pavements and bringing traffic to a halt.
Festival of Resistance
Crowd count: 8,000 to 10,000
When: Friday, 12pm to 3pm
Distance from White House: 300 metres
On Friday afternoon, while Trump was taking his oath of presidency, 16-year-old Adriana Klika was holding up a sign less than 1km away that read: "A woman's place is in the revolution."
Adriana and her sisters Lantheg, 14, and Mary-Troy, 17, were outside the Union Station --- Washington's bus-and-train terminus. They had arrived from Nashville, Tennessee, to march in the protests.
They were part of a 10,000-strong crowd that made its way through residential neighbourhoods, state highway bridges and the streets of downtown DC to McPherson Square Park, barely 300 metres from Trump's official residence.
"We are the future generation and even though we couldn't vote this time, we want to be part of a change towards a better America. We feel being passive is accepting injustice," said Adriana.
Halfway through the march, as the crowd reached an intersection, the leaders asked the protesters to halt and sit or lie down on the street.
After a two-minute, silent sit-in, the protesters rose again, chanting: "Rise up for the people of the world, for the people of the world rise up."
As the crowd entered the downtown area, hundreds of Trump supporters wearing their red "Make America Great Again" caps stood by the pavement, jeering. The marchers retaliated with slogans such as "Say it loud and say it clear/ Refugees are welcome here" and "No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA".
"The question is, how do we speed up the politicisation of the masses in time to stop Trump from deregulating the financial sector and hurtling us into more wars?" said Jeremy Mohler, a writer and activist who viewed the massive protests as a "revival of the Leftist voice in America".
Oscar-winning filmmaker Moore, whose 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 took a critical look at George W. Bush's war on terror, addressed the protesters, who ended their march at the park with a call to "defeat Trump through satire".
"I want to see Trump implode from the constant ridicule day after day," Moore said.
The Inaugural #Trump420
Crowd count: 6,000 to 8,000
When: Friday, 10am to noon
Distance from White House: 1.3km
Perhaps the most interesting protest took place in the heart of DC's famous Dupont Circle, where an organisation campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana handed out some 8,000 pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes to a patiently queuing crowd.
The organisers described their demonstration as a peaceful act of civil disobedience. The most popular code for marijuana in the US is "420".
Twenty-six US states and DC have legalised marijuana in some form -- medical, recreational, commercial.
While DC legalised marijuana consumption for recreation in May 2015 through the Ballot Initiative 71, it is still illegal in the capital to sell the stuff. One can, however, legally gift or carry up to 56 grams of marijuana in DC.
The organisers used the gift rule to hand out the joints to the gathered crowds, who lit up soon after as a sign of protest.
"We are at a pivotal time in history and a move to crack down on marijuana is regressive. This government has dealt a blow in the face to gay rights as well to people like me," said Shea Callanan, 24, who had travelled from Orlando, Florida.
Not everyone failed to notice that the long queue had formed by the side of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
"We are today standing right next to Gandhi himself who taught us civil disobedience," said Byron Grant, who works for an economic think tank in DC.

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