As you may have heard on the news, this past Saturday, millions of people in cities, towns, and countries around the globe gathered for the Women’s March, organized to protest the presidency of Donald Trump and the hateful rhetoric that paved his way to power. Although crowd sizes are often difficult to estimate, I have seen from various sources that the overall turnout worldwide was somewhere between 3.3 and 5 million people, whereas Trump’s inauguration only drew a couple hundred thousand at best.
I was at the one in Boston. You would not have been able to keep me away under any circumstances, but the weather could not have been more beautiful. Unseasonably warm (proof, as someone joked, that climate change is real), the overcast gloom gave way to a brilliantly blue sky as we stood on the Boston Common, which quickly became so crowded I could not see an end to the sea of people. The crowd seemed never-ending, full of thoughtful, peaceful dissenters. Many had signs with phrases more clever than I could have devised. There was a stage set up, but it was so far away its speakers cast a distant echo that although audible, revealed a startling truth: they did not plan for this many people. Later news reports said the organizers planned for a crowd size of 25 thousand. We exceeded that by about 100 thousand.
When the march started, there were so many people we couldn’t move for well over an hour.
I was with a group of acquaintances. A few of them, complaining about the close quarters and inability to sit down, eventually broke away and tried to exit without getting to the entrance to the march, which went down Beacon and Arlington Streets, looped around a couple blocks of Comm Ave, and ended on Boylston Street. I said goodbye to them and told them I understood, but inwardly, I chuckled. I have become a pro at waiting. A couple hours to reach a march seemed like child’s play. I would have crawled down that street if I had to.
Because of this schism in the group and the sheer packed nature of the crowd, I wound up separated from the one genuine friend I had been with. Due to the number of people in a small area, our cell phones stopped getting reception. Essentially, I was alone, but of course I really wasn’t. For the most part, people were patient and courteous, and we were eager to march and show support. Waiting gave me a chance to reflect. I stared at the sky and thought about why I was there.
I was there for Dzhokhar.
Well, I was there for a lot of people. I was also there for myself. But I was there for Dzhokhar first, and without him I’m not sure I would have gone. Too many times in the past I’ve been afraid to show support for such things, not for fear of retribution, but humiliation. Like a timid student trying to speak up in a silent classroom, I wondered: what if no one listens? What if no one understands? And, much worse, what if no one cares?
Until recently, I have spent my life struggling with my voice, which is perhaps an unexpected predicament for a writer, but maybe also an essential one: we grapple with the need to communicate, but the inherent act of writing implies we have something important to say. And what if we don’t? What if we fail to connect, and go on suffering silently?
Directly after the bombing and Dzhokhar’s arrest, I struggled with this the worst. Never before had I experienced so many people saying one thing — he’s guilty, he’s a monster, he deserves it — while I thought the opposite. When I tried to say something to the contrary, I was swiftly and profoundly ridiculed. The city became awash in “Boston Strong” paraphernalia, and every time I spied it stickered to a bus or emblazoned on someone’s shirt, the implication was unmistakeable: This is the truth we choose to believe. It’s us or them. Pick your side and choose wisely, because you’re outnumbered.
So I closed my mouth and kept it shut for two years, until it became unbearable. After the trial, I vowed: never again. But what good was one voice in a void?
Shortly after the death sentence verdict in May 2015, I went to a writer’s conference. I was still struggling with the emotional aftermath of the experience, trying to get a handle on what I had witnessed and to some degree inherited, as someone who was there and dared to write about it. The accomplished non-fiction writer Richard Hoffman was our writer-in-residence. He wrote a memoir about his experience of sexual abuse that eventually led to the arrest of the perpetrator, who was still preying on boys in his community. At the conference, Hoffman gave an inspiring talk about daring to speak the truth. The line that struck me the most was: “If it’s not petty, you owe silence to no one.”
I truncated the line and taped it to the mirror in my room, so every day when I look at myself, I see it: You owe silence to no one. I have been reading it for a year and a half. I have been steeling myself, and I have been speaking.
As I stood on the Boston Common, I studied the line of old brownstones that have stood there for hundreds of years, witnessing revolutions of days past. As I did, I heard the speakers on the stage (including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, and Mayor Marty Walsh) espouse the values I’ve been fighting for: embracing immigrants, loving Muslims, fixing our broken criminal justice system, and not keeping quiet. With every cheer that rose in the crowd, I was heartened. They might not specifically have known it, but 125 thousand people were showing support for Dzhokhar. Gone was the us-versus-them mentality in the ham-fisted Boston Strong rhetoric that always rubbed me the wrong way. I felt if I had been able to take the stage and explain what had happened, everyone would be willing to listen. I realized that since I spend so much time staring directly into my city’s darkest days, I had forgotten how beautiful Boston could be.
If you study events like terrorism or other disasters, you find yourself always considering the worst case scenario. As we stood on the Common, too squished to move, with nary an event coordinator or police officer in sight, I thought of the danger in a crowd this large. A side effect of analyzing case documents and transcripts is that I know a bit too much about the construction of a pressure cooker bomb than most people would be comfortable with, and I thought of how the prosecution harped on the fact that the most damage would be inflicted in a tightly packed area. The event emails advised no one bring backpacks, but the sheer quantity of people ensured that this was not a rule that could possibly be enforced. If ISIS or a disgruntled person had wanted to strike, we were ripe for the picking.
Yet I was not afraid. Whether it was the spirit of the occasion or simple math — we vastly outnumbered any would-be attacker — or both, I’m not entirely sure, but my experience in the largest crowd of my life, with our exit essentially blocked for well over an hour, was not one of fear. I was filled with patience and peace, although jokes were cracked from time to time. Once we made it to the street, the mood lifted to jovial. People were able to march and chant, wave signs and cheer the rest of us on from the sidewalks or buildings. I saw people of all ages, colors, genders, and religions. Workers in trucks honked horns and maids from the Four Seasons waved to us from the hotel windows.
I was inspired. For the first time in nearly four years, I felt like I was with this city instead of against it. While the Trump administration threatens to be an uncertain and tumultuous time, not just in America, but in global history, I am hopeful. Despite Trump’s inaugural address, in which he painted a picture of “American carnage” and burning “inner-cities,” I saw not just my inner city but cities around the nation full of vibrant and diverse people, standing in peaceful resistance to his falsehoods. On Friday, I was most troubled by this line from his speech: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones. And unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” I wondered whether those from Muslim countries would look upon that line as disparagingly as I had, with its thinly veiled reference to the “civilized” world as the western and Christian one. The line drawn in the sand seemed grimly clear.
But on Saturday, I saw Muslim women in pink hijabs, marching proudly with their non-Muslim neighbors, who held signs high with a drawing of a woman covering with an American flag. We the people are greater than fear was its caption.
As we marched, Trump addressed the intelligence community at the CIA headquarters and objectively made a fool of himself. He stood in front of a memorial wall honoring agents killed in the line of duty and bragged about the crowd sizes at his inauguration instead of taking pains to mend a massive rift he created himself by complaining that the intelligence community had allowed unverified rumors about his ties with the Russian government leak to the press. According to an article in the New Yorker:
[Ryan] Crocker, who was among the last to see [Robert] Ames and the local C.I.A. team [who were memorialized on the wall] alive in Beirut, was “appalled” by Trump’s comments. “Whatever his intentions, it was horrible,” Crocker, who went on to serve as the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, told me. “As he stood there talking about how great Trump is, I kept looking at the wall behind him—as I’m sure everyone in the room was, too. He has no understanding of the world and what is going on. It was really ugly.”
While I sometimes criticize US counterterrorism policy, my study into the field has shown me that it is vast, complicated and challenging — so much so that it is easy for even seasoned professionals to make mistakes. That said, I would never disrespect intelligence officers who lost their lives while doing their jobs. My hope, honestly, is to one day meet counterterrorism agencies halfway, to help them implement practices that are more effective and less discriminatory, but that requires years more study. In his appearance to the CIA, Trump’s complete disregard for the difficult nature of the work could not have been more apparent:
John MacGaffin, another thirty-year veteran who rose to become the No. 2 in the C.I.A. directorate for clandestine espionage, said that Trump’s appearance should have been a “slam dunk,” calming deep unease within the intelligence community about the new President. According to MacGaffin, Trump should have talked about the mutual reliance between the White House and the C.I.A. in dealing with global crises and acknowledged those who had given their lives doing just that.
“What self-centered, irrational decision process got him to this travesty?” MacGaffin told me. “Most importantly, how will that process serve us when the issues he must address are dangerous and incredibly complex? This is scary stuff!”
While I agree, I take this as a good sign. This, along with the amazing turnout at the marches, prove that it’s not just one particular special interest group on high alert. I think that on the whole, the American people are awake. They are ready to listen. They are ready to fight. They are not going to be fooled by Bush era excuses that did so much damage the first time around. The wounds are too recent, the lessons too fresh. As an older gentleman jubilantly urged us from the sidelines in the final stretch of the march, “Keep doing this, keep coming out. This is what the sixties was like!”
There have already been some criticisms that the turnout of the Women’s March might be a flash in the pan, a trend that dies out like the Occupy Wall Street protests that fizzled back in 2011. I doubt that. I think this is not a moment, but a movement, as it has been said. We’re mobilizing, united, and speaking out. The marches in Boston and around the world were a demonstration of that. So if you marched, thank you. If you’re reading this, thank you. Never doubt the power of your words, your voice, and your actions.
I would like to think Dzhokhar would have been at the march if he could. Until the day comes that he can walk on his own, I will continue to be there in his stead.