What the #Resistance Taught Me

Yes, it could feel performative. But protest during the Trump years provided me with the civic training to undo the damage.

Four years ago, I packed a small bag and prepared to captain a charter bus from my home in Ohio to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March. I don’t knit and didn’t have one of the pink hats that so many women were wearing that day. I felt the hats acknowledged sexual assault but also somehow made light of it in a way I couldn’t quite articulate at the time. I wasn’t one among the many who made their worried hands busy, knot by knot, trying to symbolize the affront to women’s bodies that Trump’s callous words and actions epitomized.

Along with my portable phone charger I packed vague notions of righteousness. Our country is better than this, I thought. She should have been president. I also shoved in small, personal fears and zipped them away. With my small voice, I’d have to shout over a busload of mobilized women, giving directions about where to meet, how to get to the march, and how they could get back on the bus home. The pull of that very small duty compelled me to stand up that day, be heard over the din, and manage a pocket of the impending chaos.

We spilled into streets jammed with people, all of us craning to see speakers like Gloria Steinem. A few feet away, a mother muttered “okay, okay,” as she scooped up her panicking kid who was smashed by the sea of legs. The crowd swallowed their gap.

As we marched, shouting “YES YES, FREE PRESS,” I had only a loose sense of the threat Donald Trump’s aspersions posed to reporters. I felt the power in my throat, calling out against what seemed to be a philosophical affront to truth, and a growing distrust of those who spend their days sorting fact from falsehood.

I certainly did not understand that in just a few years’ time our country would be divided over what constitutes reality. I did not fathom that our narratives would become so fragmented by social media algorithms and conspiratorial “prophecies.” I couldn’t imagine that at the end of four long years a self-made shaman would join with white supremacists and militia members to attempt a siege on the Capitol after an instigation by Donald Trump and members of Congress.

I didn’t anticipate how future iterations of the Women’s March would splinter, or how many white suburban women—so plentiful that day—would support Trump for reelection, and would keep following him even after the pandemic closed our schools, erased jobs, killed so many.

I felt an awareness that history’s unseen eyes were on us. I imagine that’s how the insurrectionists felt too. At the march, there was still a lightness, a sense that whatever lay ahead, that we could #resist, together.

People paused to grin for selfies. I stopped to buy a commemorative T-shirt from a street vendor.

Memories of the Women’s March leave me ambivalent. In some ways, it felt like it was done for show. “Ho, ho, hey, hey. We will not go away. Welcome to your first day,” the crowd chanted around me. The sheer number of people was stirring in ways I hadn’t experienced before—not in spottily attended demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, or protests outside the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre’s press conference after the Sandy Hook mass shooting. This felt bigger, more global.

As alone as I often felt during the pandemic, I now recognize how that first injection of togetherness bolstered many women’s activism over the Trump years. For me, the march itself did less to prepare me for the years ahead than did the simple tasks of the day—grabbing people’s cellphone numbers, taking head counts to make sure we didn’t leave anyone at the rest stops, keeping everyone comfortable.

Without my very mundane role on the bus, where I was forced to ask people to pay attention to me and listen, I’m not sure I would have later run for local office twice and become a leader in my community. I hated standing up and asking for attention, but I got a thrill out of the small portion of care I could offer the people around me who were scared and hurting.

I imagine that one day my grandchildren might see photos of the march and ask about it. My own children, who’ve schlepped more door hangers and attended more city meetings than most adults do in a lifetime, will have vague memories of the years mom took an oath to uphold the Constitution and our small city’s charter.

We must not forget how much work it took to get to here, how many people went back home and spent these years pounding local sidewalks.

But I’m more likely to remember walking the center aisle of a bus, repeating myself, seat by seat, to make sure people could hear me ask if they were too warm, if they needed a bathroom break. I’ll remember the hellish pandemic summer when my own workdays were subsumed by calls and texts as my neighbors confronted the reality of systemic racial injustice in our country, as I tried to figure out the right way to support them, and sometimes failed mightily, but kept trying. I learned. I grew because of and for them. I had set out to march, mostly not knowing what else to do, worried over how policies I care about might be undone. I wanted to be one of many, and ended up being the one many came to for help.

There have been so many marches over these four years: women’s marches, climate marches, marches for Black Lives, and marches against gun violence. Trump’s January 6 rally on the National Mall was a sort of play on these protests, as through a mirror darkly, warping justice into violence, truth by lies.

We must not forget how much work it took to get to here, how many people went back home and spent these years pounding local sidewalks, serving their neighbors while the vacuum of leadership at the top was causing such harm. The dramatic Senate win in Georgia — on the shoulders of so many Black women organizers — demonstrated by how fine a sliver so much effort just secured victory.

Now, exhausted, we’re asked to braid together something resembling a united country. President Biden began his term with a series of executive orders, quickly undoing what he could of Trump’s polices. The concert and pomp echoed celebrations of more normal times. But unchecked, the pandemic is ravaging us. Trump’s leviathan still runs freely throughout our civil spaces. The ties that bind are perilously frayed.

Yes, the hats, the T-shirts, the hashtags, the signs and symbols of #resistance were sometimes performative. It could be annoying and minimizing to see people working so hard to signal they care about the right things. But all those signals sustained an American identity that maintained its independence from Trump’s politics of cruelty and harm.

My comfort as we enter this next stage in American history is a hope that memory of this time has been seared into enough of us. That civic participation, once a passive activity — an “I voted” sticker, a slogan, a hat — has been reshaped, forged into a solid, solemn duty to continue the work.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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