It felt good to see so many people swarming Westlake Park on Sunday night to protest the executive order banning travel from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. It felt better to be among the crowd.
The scene was familiar, especially because memories of the Inauguration Day marches in Seattle and around the world are still so fresh (it had only been nine abysmal, long-ass days), and just the day before, thousands of people had spontaneously protested at airports around the country.
It was also familiar because, in visual terms, large-scale peaceful demonstrations and rallies all look the same from a distance. The lens of history captures these moments as variations on a rousing theme. The fact that many of those images involve violent suppression only makes them more powerful. Evidently, some people can see pictures of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, Azadi Square, Caracas, Wenceslas Square, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Burntollet Bridge, Standing Rock, Stonewall, the Olympic medalist podium in Mexico City, or even the 49ers sidelines and not feel stirred. I'm not one of them.
Even so, following the more aggressive demonstrations at Sea-Tac Airport the previous day, the rally at Westlake was not likely to be one for the ages. It was one for the moment.
Thousands of people were there—published "estimates" range between 8,000 and 11,000. They carried signs that varied in cleverness and novelty. They chanted familiar syncopated chants ("No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!"). The chants would die away after a few seconds, then others would start up. There were speakers on a dais in the park, but unless you had arrived very early, there was no chance of getting close enough to hear them. Their voices would occasionally inspire big waves of cheering that traveled back through the huge crowd and dissipated, like all waves.
In a way, it hardly mattered what the speakers—who included Representative Pramila Jayapal, Governor Jay Inslee, Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib, and Mayor Ed Murray—were saying. Because everyone knew what they were saying. Because it was what we were all saying: We oppose this order, in principle and in practice. The president is acting against our wishes, violating our convictions, trespassing against the rights of Americans. And we are America.
That "we" (it's the same one that's usually followed by "the people") is not an easy word for some of us. Many of us, and for many reasons. For some, the matter of marginalization makes "we" sound not only inapt but insulting. For others—for me, let's say—insulated by the accident of birth into the protections of the same racial prerogatives enjoyed and abused by the people we oppose, "we" has long been accompanied by ironic distance, complicated by a generalized yearning to belong, but interrupted always by an acute ambition to stand apart and a perverse refusal (or sometimes failure) to join in.
You hardly need to be a social anthropologist to unpack the comforting myths that attend this kind of stance, or the damage it has wrought. My relationship to protests has always been theoretical, removed. Even when I have been physically present, even when I have been fully on board with the cause, I never really participated. I was always shielded by a sense of detachment, observation, and, though I try to suppress it, reflexive judgment—of the grammar, spelling, and language on the signs; of the generic nature of the chants; of the easy assumptions and simplistic rationale of many of the most ardent participants; of the "what good is this even doing?"
To feel this detachment melt away over the past months has been a revelation. After a lifetime of running toward the ideal of individualism, the sensation of becoming one little cell in the larger organism of resistance to Donald Trump and the contemptibility he exemplifies has been a gift.
I felt it viscerally in the Women's March after Inauguration Day, where all those people from the fractious, multifaceted left could all finally agree on one thing. I wrestled with it the night of the Milo Yiannopoulos protest at UW, where a man was shot for attempting to de-escalate violence. And I noted it at Westlake, when the energy that drove so many people to gather drifted into protest selfies and a sense of wondering what we were supposed to do next.
That's an important question to ask. But you only get to ask it if you're really there.
The "Stand with Immigrants" rally at Westlake won't go down in history. It may not be remembered by this time next year. But it felt good. And finding an active way to feel good, if only for an hour or two at a time, has never felt more important. If only because, considering how many other such actions—and more dramatic and direct ones—are certain to follow if the next three years and 51 weeks proceed the way they're bound to, we all have to keep showing up.