A Case for Small Acts to Achieve Big Things
by Matt Kuhlman
The Women’s March on Washington couldn’t have been more triumphant after enduring such a dark couple months. On November 8th, as Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, a sickness swelled in my stomach from reality that was taking shape was coupled with bewilderment. I am never one to speak in absolutes; I always acknowledged that Trump had a very slim chance of actually getting elected as opposed to none at all, but in closely following the developments of the 2016 campaign I had perhaps gotten myself to believe in the actual impossibility of the outcome. All I could think over and over was “How could this happen?” Had the world actually gone insane? How could someone do everything so wrong and still come out on top? Were there really enough people out there with complete disregard for truth, personal integrity, and decency in politics to elect this man president?
In my attempts to make sense of what was happening I became sure of two things. The first was that I really didn’t understand the other side as well as I thought I did. During the George W. Bush years I had come to regard Republican voters with an incredulous disdain. From what I could tell they were largely a bunch of uninformed hicks that would do anything you asked as long as it was followed by a line of religious and patriotic bull. I never thought that the Republican base would unite behind Trump because he ran afoul of so many values that identified Republican voters through the 2000s. But obviously they did unite behind him, and to me the only thing that could explain his ability to gain enough support for a victory was that a very large contingency within the Republican voting bloc had become so disenfranchised that they had developed a nihilistic attitude toward our democratic institutions. They would rather vote for a human wrecking ball than anything that resembled business as usual, because business as usual had not been going well for them for a long time. These weren’t purely backwards simpletons, these were people in pain.
The second thing was that I had to be in Washington D.C. for Trump’s inauguration. I didn’t know exactly what I would do, but my first instinct was to run towards the conflict head-on. I would seek out and join a band of protestors, no matter how empty the gesture might be, or at the very least witness the grim spectacle with my own eyes. Little did I know that I would be fortunate enough to take part in a historic moment for our country, one that may be looked back on as a pivotal moment in the direction of our
Participating in the Women’s March on Washington D.C. was amazing beyond explanation, particularly after seeing the very same space during the inauguration the previous day. Where there had been clusters of Trump supporters wearing cheap, red, Chinese-manufactured hats navigating their way through a maze of security barriers, there was now elbow to elbow people as far as the eye could see down every avenue. People, normal people, reasonable people, people of all types, all came together into a celebratory mass in rejection of everything that miserable troll we elected and the political culture he drug along with him represented. Miles of streets that I easily walked the day before were rendered nearly impassable by the concentration of bodies, and everywhere was people celebrating values of all types that were integral to a progressive society. It felt like the birth of something great; a cure for the sickness that I developed on November 8th. It was an affirmation that the world had not gone crazy, we’d only let it slip out of our hands for a moment and we were determined to take control of it again.
I won’t go on at length about the march. It has already received a massive amount of coverage and will continue to live on in documentation for many years. I also won’t try to sort out and discuss the multitude of issues and concerns that brought people out. My individual perspective is far too limited to decipher a reading of the event that adequately addresses all the different components that made the day what it was. For me the most impactful moment of the march, the part I would like to focus on, actually occurred the next day on the way home.
On the drive back to Milwaukee we stopped for gas somewhere in southwestern Pennsylvania. Even if I hadn’t been so knowledgeable of the electoral map it would have been obvious that we were in the heart of Trump country. We had been bobbing through the Appalachians for miles, seeing the hilly countryside dotted by too many worn and forgotten barns and homesteads to count. Across the road from where we stopped old buildings sat crumbling, and beyond them was a few scrapped out cars, and then nothing. The appearance of two men in the parking lot told the stories of two lifetimes of working incredibly hard in order to barely get by. They were probably middle-aged but their skin and eyes were 80. The convenience store looked as if sections of it had been cobbled together as different portions of it fell apart. I found the bathroom to be a little on the gross side, and that’s saying something coming from me. It was a bleak place, but more than just in the sense that it was remote. I imagined what it would be like to live in this place, and in that projection there were no signs of hope or optimism to be had.
I noticed these things, as I’m often rather interested in analyzing my surroundings, but didn’t pay them too much mind. It really wasn’t that different from many other places I’d stopped before in Kansas and other parts of the Midwest. It was on the shabbier side, but more or less typical of off-the-beaten-path gas stations pocketed away in small, forgotten towns. Maybe I couldn’t see the optimism, but if people still lived and worked here perhaps it actually was there and I just couldn’t identify it.
When I approached the counter with a Coke and a couple candy bars I overheard the two girls working there talking about the different types of people that stop in off the Interstate, and how some of them seem to be heading either to or from such exciting places. They looked like they were in high school but, again, prematurely aged skin can make it hard to tell age. The girl that rang me up could have possibly been a particularly short woman in her mid-20s.
“Those one people said they were coming all the way from D.C. for some march” she said as she rang me up.
“Oh yeah” I chimed in. “That’s where we’re coming from too.” I didn’t elaborate because, being where we were, that might not be something to brag about, and also everyone I’d talked to for the last week or more knew exactly what I meant when I mentioned ‘the march on D.C.’ She didn’t.
“Well so… what is it?” she asked. A little bewildered by the question, and still not wanting to accidentally say something that could be found seriously offensive to her or the other people in the store, I stumbled over an explanation of how it was a reaction to the political culture that the new Trump administration represented, and among a wide range of concerns that people were marching for, this march in particular had been formed with a focus on women’s rights. But before I could find the end of it she interjected “So it’s like a protest?”
“Uh, yeah” I returned. “It was a protest.”
“Oh that’s fine” she said. “I don’t pay attention to politics or any of that stuff. I don’t vote. I’m not smart enough to understand politics so I just stay out of it.”
I tried to say something to the effect that she could certainly understand politics if she wanted to but I’m not sure if I actually got the words out. This interaction broke my heart. Just yesterday we had been among half a million people on the National Mall, so sure we were on our way toward setting things back on the right path, and here less than a four hour drive away was a girl who not only had no idea that there was a march at all, but had been convinced that she couldn’t even understand what the march was about if she had known about it. It made me feel completely powerless.
I certainly believe that the Women’s March on Washington had a measurable, lasting effect on the people involved and the people watching. There is no way you can partake in an event like that and not leave a changed person, as would be the case for someone attending a protest in Marietta, Georgia, or any other city for that matter. The actions we choose to take are dictated by us, but also affect us, continually shaping who we are. They affect those around us as well, and whenever we choose to take action on behalf of something we believe in we are actively changing the world we live in, even if in very small, subtle ways. As empowering as that thought can be, we must at the same time be aware that the sliver of the world that we occupy is often much smaller than we think, and that our ability to enact change in the world is limited by where we draw our boundaries.
When I got home I looked on the map and retraced our route and located the gas station that we stopped at. I found the address and mailed something to the girl that rang me up that day (I remember her name, but do not wish to identify her without her permission). It could end up being a rather empty gesture. She might receive the package, look at the item, shrug, and throw it away. Her boss might receive the package and throw it away without her knowing. Or it could dramatically change her life for the better. I’ll never know, because I felt that the mystery of her not knowing who sent the package might allow the object, and the message attached with it, to have a more profound impact by just showing up out of thin air. I’ll let you keep wondering what the object was, but the message with it read: Be suspicious of anyone that says you can’t do something. With enough effort, you can do anything.