THE BLOG

A South African At The Women's March: 'Democracy Works Different Here'

There was visible anger when tens of thousands of women marched for civil rights in the United States over the weekend.

24/01/2017 04:58 SAST | Updated 24/01/2017 04:58 SAST
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Protesters attend the Women's March to protest President Donald Trump in New York, USA on January 21, 2017. Thousands of protesters demonstrated across the US against the US President Donald Trump after Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The smell of burning tires and the grating sounds of feet that dance and shuffle.

People singing, protesting with voice and body, with anger as hot as the tires they burn.

At some point the police, already in place but at a nervous distance, form a wall of shields to push back. But the people want change and they want it at full speed. They charge forward and everyone's spirits surge, until, as often happens, it turns into a standoff between a mass of bodies and water cannons. Or shock grenades. Or rubber bullets.

More than 400,000 people are jammed into midtown New York, making their painstaking, slow way to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. They are jovial, they are smiling, they are patient, they are kind. They make you want to ask where the real New Yorkers are.

More than 400,000 people are jammed into Midtown New York, making their painstakingly slow way to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. They are jovial, they are smiling, they are patient, they are kind.

If you're used to South African protests — and there are many — it is disconcerting to see almost half a million people gather with few visible signs of fury, especially since there is a lot to be angry about.

The election of an alleged sex offender as the 45th President of the United States puts vulnerable minorities at even more risk of discrimination and violence. Plans to defund Planned Parenthood are alarming and, more worrisome, Trump and his cohorts have used rhetoric and indicated favour of policies that seriously infringe LGBTI rights, disability rights, the rights of immigrants, of workers and one of the most important ideals that the United States have built their country on: civil rights.

The implications of the new administration's plans are disturbing. But the general atmosphere of Saturday's Women's March on New York was not one of fear and bewilderment.

The implications of the new administration's plans are disturbing. But the general atmosphere of Saturday's Women's March on New York was not one of fear and bewilderment.

The marchers wait patiently between New York's avenues and streets. The posters are works of art, some painted, some hand-drawn, some will become memes and go viral. Thousands of people don pink knitted hats with cat ears. Volunteers hold up maps and gave instructions, all of which are followed. Methodical organisation and no funny business.

At the rally point, Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza near Second Avenue and 48th Street, actors Cynthia Nixon, Whoopi Goldberg and Helen Mirren stir the zeal of the marchers within earshot before a sea of people began to flow down Second Avenue to 42nd Street and west to Fifth Avenue before heading north towards Trump Tower.

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Helen Mirren speaks during the 2017 Women's March - Sister March in New York on January 21, 2017 in New York City.

The contrast between this protest and one held in Downtown Manhattan at Union Square the day after the election in November is glaring.

The crowd wasn't nearly as big. It was raining hard, it was a weeknight, and there wasn't much time to mobilise. It was a protest of raw desperation and disbelief. The thousands who gathered — long before this protest was supposed to start — were deafening in their exasperation. They cried. They howled. As the crowd grew in number, the chants rose up and echoed back as it bounced off the city's buildings. Everybody was soaked through, but it didn't matter.

They cried. They howled. As the crowd grew in number, the chants rose up and echoed back as it bounced of the city's buildings. Everybody was soaked through, but it didn't matter.

"No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!" they sang.

"The people! United! Will never be defeated!" they sang.

"Show me what democracy looks like!" / "This is what democracy looks like!" they sang.

Hours later, you heard them still. Nobody wanted to leave.

On Saturday, it seems, the singers had lost their voices. As feet grew tired and the sun started to set among the buildings, thousands of people steadily made their way back home. The subway folk had returned to their terse demeanor. Only a couple of hours earlier passengers had cheerily held doors open and there wasn't a single complaint as the train was packed far beyond comfort and definitely capacity.

"Ah, this is like our trains in India!" came a happy exclamation from someone so intimately squashed she remained unseen.

But this isn't India, nor is it South Africa. Protesting — and democracy — work differently here, even as America's decisions affects us all.

But this isn't India, nor is it South Africa. Protesting — and democracy — work differently here, even as America's decisions affects us all.

In a sense this is like the children's game "Follow the leader". To stay part of the game, you have to mimic the leader's actions. One strike and you're out.

In this reality of mimicry then, if America's leaders don't fight for and protect women's rights, human rights, minorities, why would the rest of the world? Diminishing rights, proliferation of discrimination and hate searching for more victims here, will certainly influence policymakers elsewhere.

On Sunday the streets belonged to the yellow cabs again.