My Women’s March: Volunteering

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This is a guest post from friend of the blog Kerry Ellis (second yellow vest on the right, at the bottom).

Kerry says:

The Oakland Women’s March was the first political march (as opposed to, for example, a Gay Pride Parade) that I’ve ever attended. I volunteered to help because they asked, but also because I knew that it would be easier for me to have something to do. Crowds are difficult for me, and having something else to focus on, like a task would take my mind off of how crowded it was, as well as protecting me a little from being pressed by the people. I’m glad I did, because it motivated me to get there on the day. It was important to me to be there, to show solidarity with all those whose rights are threatened by the new administration.

I arrived at Harrison Park in Oakland shortly after 8 AM as instructed for pre-briefing. About 20 of us were there, and the numbers kept growing as the morning went on. We were instructed to find a buddy, and I met and paired up with Colleen. As we waited we chatted and mingled.

We got checked in, and received our vests. Around 9:45 AM, the briefing started. We went over the route and use of the walkie talkies. Colleen and I agreed that if possible, we would prefer to be in the front of the march. After all the radios were checked out, we were selected with the group at the front, as we had hoped. There were over 100 Peace Ambassadors, probably not as many as 200, which had been the goal, based on an estimated crowd of 20,000. We waited again as the other groups were briefed and set off for their assigned posts. We looked around at the increasingly crowded park, looked at the signs and chatted with nearby people.

Sometime around 10:30 AM, we set off into the crowd. Then we realized that not only was the park crowded, but the surrounding streets were full as well. Everyone was very polite as a line of ~40 Peace Ambassadors tried to make our way three blocks over to the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). At one point, a chant of “let them through” got going. Many people thanked us as we passed; some clapped or cheered.

When we got to OMCA, we turned around and formed a chain to clear the street back one block. We hooked up with the leading banner and moved its carriers back to OMCA, where they would officially start. Stephan (I never got his full name) had us in a chain in a semicircle to make way for the leading banner through the onlookers. Our job was to clear the way without letting the press into the circle. There were some fits and starts, with the Peace Ambassadors going faster than the banner, during which time Colleen and I, near the banner, were getting stretched pretty badly.

As we were getting started, someone in the crowd protested that “it should be a woman in charge”, obviously thinking that Stephen was in charge because he had the bullhorn. In fact, Mika, who was walking in front of the banner, was the leader; Stephan was deferring decisions to her. But, it felt like a misstep to some.   In any case, that was the closest thing I heard to disagreement all day.

Stephan was clearly very experienced. From a logistical point of view, this was a challenging march, including construction issues, a tight turn that required angling the banner, and a number of other obstacles. He prepped us for each of them, and we had little trouble negotiating them. Occasionally we did halt and the Peace Ambassadors were instructed to kneel down so the crowd and press could get photos. This may have confusing for some marchers behind, but I think it helped keep the peace. About the time that we took the turn onto Broadway we heard the estimate of 60.000 people. Looking behind us, all we could see was a sea of people, and everyone cheered.

When we finally got to Frank Ogawa Plaza (known to Oakland activists as Oscar Grant Plaza), our instructions were to lead the banner and the marchers as far into the park as possible, in order to make room for the tens of thousands following behind. Stephan and a small group stayed at the turn to direct traffic. A smaller group, including Colleen and me, stayed with the banner. At some point, I ended up leading the banner into the amphitheater myself, with Colleen following behind the banner. We got the banner cariers onto the stage and headed back to find the other Peace Ambassadors.

Once we found them, were paired with another team and instructed to mingle. We ended up stationing ourselves between a stairway and ramp, endeavoring to keep the crowd moving onto the lawn and keep the stairs and ramp clear. We mostly succeeded. This was great for me as I was for much of that time between the rails and could lean, thus getting off my knee and feet, which cause me trouble if I over use them. I could also see the crowd and I saw the rappelling dancers on City Hall, which was a treat.

Everyone was very polite and receptive to our requests not to block traffic. More people thanked us as they passed by and a few people stopped to ask questions. I didn’t look at the time, but I think we got to the Plaza around noon, and the march went on until at least 2:00 PM, with a constant stream of people coming into the plaza from multiple entry points. We chatted, enjoyed the signs, and the people watching and the positive atmosphere.

The only time we were called away from our stairway was when we heard a report of people under the ancient oak tree. We were closest, so we headed over there. The crowd was thinner then, at least in comparison to earlier, and it had just sprinkled, so it’s no surprise people had taken refuge under the tree. Children were climbing the tree as well as people hanging out under it. We asked them to leave and everyone was agreeable, at least to me. Colleen said she got some pushback from one person, but Stephan and his crew arrived shortly after we did, and the tree area was cleared quickly.

We went back to the stairs for a short while. About 3:00, the organizers said that we could start checking out. So I left the park at about 3:15 PM.

Heading home, the BART station was crowded, but not jammed. I got on the first train heading my way and in fact got a seat. A few people were standing, but it was not overcrowded. Around that time trains heading for San Francisco were probably quite full as the late-afternoon rally there was just beginning.

There were as many different motivations for showing up on Saturday as there were people there, but I think the uniting principle was to make a statement that we will not be silent. I was honored to be a part of the march, especially since it was such a supportive, polite and peaceful crowd. My first protest march was an altogether positive experience.

What’s next for me? Get involved, stay involved. I’ll be attending a crime prevention meeting in my neighborhood this week. In early February I will be attending the East Oakland Collective’s A Seat At The Table: Oakland Boards and Commissions Info Night to find out more about what vacancies there are and how to apply for one it I am interested and suited to.