By CAROLYN MILAZZO MURPHY
It’s 6:35 p.m., and I just hopped on a charter bus after spending the day at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. I’m freezing, and so is everyone else. It feels like we just came in from a blizzard. In Siberia.
Our bus driver is 35 minutes late, leaving us shivering in the shadow of the Washington Monument. We hug each other to stay warm. We sing “The Wheels On the Bus.” Toward the end, our fearless leader Cindy Boynton leads us in the Hokey Pokey. Hey, desperate times.
We get to our right leg in when the bus pulls up, and we storm it. We can’t get in fast enough. We must be the last protesters to leave town. We’ve never seen so many charter buses that weren’t ours in our life.
It’s the kind of bone-chilling cold that won’t leave. I can’t get warm. Every bone and joint in my body aches, and I can’t get my sneakers back on. I’m tired, but can’t sleep. Remind me why I signed up for this again.
Just kidding. I’m here because of the Women’s Movement, something greater than myself. I’m unhappy with this country and its direction under President Trump. I’m here because I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and now I’m even wearing a button proclaiming it on my purple ski jacket.
I’m here because I have a 17-year-old daughter and nieces whom I adore, and I want to show them I’m not afraid to stand up – or even chant – to fight for what’s right. I’ve been silent and complacent for too long. At 60, it’s my first protest march. What took me so long?
The day – or should I say night? – begins at 1:45 a.m. when we board the bus in New Haven. An hour into the ride, I’m still trying to find a comfortable sleeping position. I’m grateful to have two seats to myself, but still. This is awful.
What made me think I’d sleep on the bus? The last time I was on a bus I was in college and could sleep anywhere. I finally notch a few fitful hours, but give up at the Delaware line and spring for a Starbucks’ Grande at 5:30 a.m. Ready or not, here we come.
When we pull up at 7:45 a.m. in front of the Washington Monument, the woman behind me cracks an eyelid and says, “I need to find a Dunkin’ Donuts ASAP.” When I tell her that we’ll need to get off the bus and kill time before the 10 a.m. rally in Freedom Square, she cringes.
“You mean the bus isn’t staying here?” she asks. “That’s not really something I want to hear.”
No one in our group of 34 – I’m number 11 – wants to kill time, but we’re upbeat and pumped. Most of us don’t know each other, but we become fast friends and even snag a huge table at a coffee shop. Score!
Though this year’s march is panned for disorganization and division among women’s groups, protesters in pussy hats and carrying signs with clever slogans converge on Freedom Square. What we lack in organization and numbers we make up in creativity and endurance. At 4 p.m., about 100 protesters are still in the square, holding hands singing and dancing in circles.
Everything and anything is protest sign fodder: The Wall. Women’s reproductive rights. The ERA. Mueller. Trump’s tweets. Trump’s tiny hands. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman at the center of the Kavanaugh hearings.
But my favorite’s a handmade sign in black Sharpie: “UGH, Where do I even start?”
And then the miracle: NOW leaders ask members of the Connecticut NOW chapter to carry an historic banner advocating the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment during the march. Cindy told us about the banner, but we had no idea we’d get the chance to hold or carry it. It’s thrilling being so up close and personal to history.
The giant green banner was last unfurled during a protest march in 1977 – a year after I graduated from high school. Do I want to be part of history carrying one of the wooden poles supporting it during the march? You betcha.
As we march the banner through the streets, I feel like one of those Chinese dragon dancers. With one exception: the Chinese dancers work in unison and appear to know what they’re doing. Getting everyone to hold a gigantic banner at the right height and width is harder than it looks. And other groups with banners are cutting in front of us, trying to steal our thunder.
It’s hard staying in step and keeping the banner level and readable. It’s difficult to keep the poles at the same height. It’s challenging to maintain our positions as pole holders because others want our poles.
A lot of other people want to be part of history, and repeatedly offer to take the poles. My buddy Barbara Paight even loses her spot when a woman takes her pole and gives Barbara her protest signs to carry. Barbara isn’t happy, but doesn’t know what to say.
“What are you doing?” I ask Barbara, a former co-worker I met 30 years ago at my first newspaper job. “Just tell her that you’re going to hold the banner because your friends are doing it. Get your pole back woman.”
Barbara is much calmer and generous than I am, even giving me a cozy hand-knit scarf from around her neck as we wait for the bus. But she wants to hold the banner, and I’m proud when she stands up for herself.
“Look, my friends are carrying the banner so I’m doing it too,” she says. “You can take over for me in a little while.”
The woman gives Barbara the pole, instead running interference for her as we work through the crowd. The banner grabs its share of attention from march participants, who crane their necks to read it and snap photos of us hoisting it skyward. But ultimately, all good things must end, particularly during a march with more stops than starts.
“Anyone want to carry this banner?” I ask after about 90 minutes. A woman takes my place, and soon Barbara, her friend Dom and I get to the outskirts to capture the scene. How many people are here? Maybe 100,000. Nothing like the 2017 march when more than 1 million people showed up, but a good crowd of true believers.
We arrive back in New Haven around 1:15 a.m., and I head for my car caked in snow and ice. I forgot my ice scraper, and am convinced I’ll be sitting here for 20 minutes while the car thaws, but I turn on the wipers and it’s just slush.
No one else is on the road, and I follow a plow that clears the way home for me.
Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is a freelance writer and contributor to the Connecticut chapter of NOW’s blog.