Environmental Politics, Social Justice

Hanging Out at the Mall

Observations in the rain, waiting for Washington, DC’s March for Science to begin.

Music emanating from behind a low hill by the bottlenecked security gate shifted to a more rhythmic beat. The masses gathering inside and outside the fence began to wiggle and bounce, plugging into the band onstage a couple hundred meters away. Just what we needed after milling about in the driving rain for several hours, some dance music!

It was Earth Day, April 22, and locals thanked Mother Earth for blessing their drought-plagued Washington, D.C. with copious moisture. Crimson and purple azaleas everywhere brightened the gray streets.

The challenge for all of us staging for the March for Science, however, was to keep our enthusiasm dry enough to chant, roar, and ultimately to march en masse down the National Mall to the Capitol steps. Fortunately, science had taught us about hypothermia and how to prevent it; my wife, Ronda, and I walked in small circles eating bagels and apples. She was bummed that her smartphone was wet and dead, but then a stranger gave her his umbrella and made her smile.

Some people huddled under a grove of trees awaiting friends trying to squeeze through the security hourglass. We chatted and measured time to the pulse of the weather. A quarter hour of downpour popped open thousands of umbrellas, subsiding briefly to a few precious minutes of blowing mist. Umbrellas collapsed and protest signs appeared like cherry blossoms. Then it rained pitchforks again on a river of umbrellas. A young man slipped in the mud, his hand-made sign already smeared indecipherable. Another hour passed. It was hard to converse amid the racket of rain and commercial jets roaring into the sky from Reagan National, banking away from the nearby Wash­ington Monument.

So this is what democracy looks like.

Riding the Metro downtown from our hotel in Virginia that morning, I marveled at the speed and efficiency of this showcase subway system. I remembered advocating for light rail in Salt Lake City in a 1980s CATALYST article, and to me, the D.C. Metro represented the realization of an electrified dream. Where would the Metro be without science? Where would we be?

Earth Day on the Mall began with teach-ins at 8 a.m., followed by a rally with Jon Batiste among the performers, and featured speakers headed by Bill Nye. He would tell us that “our lives are in every way improved by having clean water, reliable electricity and access to electronic global information.” The actual march was slated for 2 p.m., giving a continuous stream of protestors hours to pour in from all directions of the city, transforming the Mall and surrounding streets into a giant human ocean. Resistance.org later estimated the crowd size at 40,000.

Thirty years ago I was a veteran of anti-war and environmental demonstrations, mostly in Utah, but I’d never seen more than a couple thousand people at a protest march. I’d never demonstrated in a national park. The last time I visited D.C. was with my family in the 1960s. I was eight or nine.

Ingenious costumes and clever protest signs enlivened the enthusiastic but rain-soaked masses. Dr. Who waited patiently in a security line, and then a small dinosaur walked by. One of my favorite signs was a simple, hand-lettered placard carried by a young woman: I Get Wet for Science.

Others read:

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Precipitate.

Got Plague? Me Neither. Thank Science.

The Ocean is Rising and So Are We.

One man wore a waterproofed sheet of paper duct taped to the back of his raincoat: Trump I got my Ion You.

Our Utah friend, Bea, who works in the medical field, finally cleared security. Bea grew up in Brigham City and her father had been a rocket scientist who worked at Thiokol. She huddled under an umbrella to check her smartphone, reporting that the weather was sunny and warm in Salt Lake City. We wondered if we should have stayed home for the local march. But we felt compelled to be here.

In over 600 communities throughout the country and around the world, many like Bea and Ronda were moved to their first political activism during the March for Science. We were med techs and lab workers, research scientists, students, writers and nerds come to praise the benefits of science and to warn the President that proposed budget cuts to the EPA and other federal agencies were unacceptable.

Across the street from us stood the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture where films and photos graphically relived the bloody attacks on American civil rights marchers in the 1960s. That humbling memory made my soggy shoes seem insignificant.

I walked over to see a strategically located electronic board showing the action on stage. Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American astronaut who spent “11 glorious days” aboard the International Space Station in 2006, spoke briefly.

“Our blue planet is so beautiful in the dark background of the universe,” Ansari said. “We have [but] one home, a very fragile home that we need to protect and it takes all of us to protect it.”

Punching through the walls of rain, an authoritative voice then boomed over the crowd. “Galileo called!” claimed the speaker. “He can’t believe that we still have to march for science.”

The rain never relented. The umbrellas were up again, but so were the signs. Protestors warmed up their lungs by howling in waves that rolled through the streets. Ronda, Bea and I were part of a throng packing 14th Street NW, anxious to merge with the main group of marchers finally walking down Constitution Avenue. I found myself choked up by it all — the commitment and beauty of the crowd, the barely controlled outrage of so many everyday citizens, their nearly infinite patience.

Quick as a spark, the masses in front of us surged forward and began to march. An umbrella tipped behind me pouring water down the back of my neck. Then a windy blast dried my eyes and I could see it all more clearly. A woman’s powerful voice bellowed and we took up her chant, advancing down Constitution toward the Capitol.

“This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

Marlin Stum is a journalist and nature writer who, long ago, was a regular contributor to CATALYST.

We welcome him back.