Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, January 22, 2017

PIERRE AT THE BATTLE OF BORODINO

All of you will have seen the pictures and read the stories of the extraordinary world-wide outpouring of opposition to Trump.  There has never been anything remotely like this in the history of the United States – not the Viet Nam era war protests, not the Million Man March on Washington, not the inauguration of Barack Obama [which was bigger in D. C. but not nation-wide.]  I was there, and my aim in this post is to give you a worms-eye view of the Washington March.  I was just one old man wandering, like Pierre at the Battle of Borodino, in and out of the crowds in one small area of the event.  I spent only about two hours at the festivities, and I never was able to get close enough to the reviewing stand to see or hear any of the speakers.  I leave it to television to tell you about that.

It began for me at 5:00 a.m. when I left for the airport.  RDU airport was not jammed, and I easily made my way through security [because I am over 75 I can leave my shoes on] and to the gate.  As I sat there, people gathered for the flight to DC.  Virtually all of those at the gate were women, many carrying rolled up signs and a few wearing the signature bit of protest clothing – a red knitted hat in the shape of a cat – a so-called pussy hat [and yes, the double entendre was intentional, as many of the signs at the protest made clear.]  The flight was full, with maybe four men total, and I received pats of approval from young women and grandmothers for my presence.  I was asked whether this was my first political action, and I allowed as how not quite, my first big protest having been a Cuba Protest Rally at Harvard fifty-four years ago.

After breakfast at Washington National Airport, I made my way to the Metro, expecting crowds.  Not a bit of it.  There was no problem buying a day pass, and the train was mostly empty.  “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe the predictions have been a bit overblown.”  Two stops later, masses of people got on, and pretty soon, the train was so jammed that people were sitting on the laps of strangers.  One lady carrying crutches declined the offer of my seat because she was so jammed in that she could not move the five feet to accept.

When we got to Federal Center SW, the closest stop to the rallying point of the march, the train slowed but did not stop.  The platform at the station was so jammed with people on their way to the march that it looked as though you had to make a reservation to go up the escalator.  At the next stop, Capitol South, we were allowed off the train, and surged toward the escalator.
I followed the crowd from the Metro in the direction of Independence and 3rd St. SW, trying to reach ground zero.  When I got up to C Street, which runs east-west a block south of the Mall, I turned and looked to my right.  C Street rises gently as it goes east, and as far as I could see, perhaps a mile or more, the street was completely filled with people all walking west toward the protest site.  They moved slowly, like a great river, fed by tributaries right and left.  Where were they coming from?  I had no idea, but it occurred to me that these might be the folks who had arrived by bus, since the parking place for the buses was RFK Stadium, about two miles due east of the Capitol.  Permits had been granted for 1800 buses, I read.  At 50 people a bus, that would be 90,000 marchers.

I walked alongside the marchers, who were joined at every street corner by more people coming from the Metro stations, or maybe just on foot.  The crowd was mostly women, but with a pretty good sprinkling of men – some young with their partners, some older with their daughters and wives, a few old like me.  The crowd was a sea of pink knitted caps.  People carried hand-made signs and printed signs, some calling on Trump to keep his tiny hands off their pussies.  One tall, slender blonde young woman dressed in a diaphanous white gown, with a white scarf tied around her eyes like a blindfold, stood on a marble stanchion and posed as Justice [no scales, alas], while people took her picture.  Long lines had formed at each of the Porta-toilets, and the event even sported the inevitable doomsayer with big sign and portable speaker calling on all present to repent.  Every now and then, a spontaneous high-pitched shout would start and roll back along the march up C Street.  The atmosphere was festive, casual, cheerful, despite the message of the signs, which was militant in the extreme.

As the C Street marchers moved steadily, relentlessly forward, they encountered a blockade at 3rd Street SW.  As best I could tell, that was the back of the reviewing stand, on the other side of which the BIG NAMES were speaking.  “Where on earth are they going to go?” I wondered, with tens of thousands coming behind them.  Then I saw that as each line of marchers reached the barricade, it split right and left and fed around it, presumably to reassemble in the Mall and on Independence Avenue.

I was too timid to thrust myself into the line of march and make my way to the other side, so I simply stood on the sidewalk and watched.  One young woman wearing a bright red wig, suddenly started squealing with excitement and waving her arms wildly.  When I asked her what had happened, she said, in a kind of ecstasy, “I just saw Cher!”  After a long while, I started back to the Metro station for the trip to the airport, and when I walked another block south, I discovered that tens of thousands of other folks were there as well, walking west.  The entire even was not so much a gathering or a march as a migration, as if all of Washington D. C. had decided to be pick up stakes and move to a new city.

All day, I had been calling my wife, my sister [who lives in DC] and my sons to reassure them that I was all right, but of course there was nothing to worry about.  It was the most peaceful gathering possible. 


When I got home, I turned on the television and only then learned of the size of the worldwide demonstrations.  As I listened to commentators talk about the Washington march, the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, LA, Paris and London marches, a small voice inside me said, very quietly, “I was there.”  

I felt quite spontaneously and unjustifiably proud.

11 comments:

DML said...

I have to admit, at one point during the march, I wondered where you were!

My friend and I tried to join the rally from the North side of the Mall. We abandoned the Metro at Chinatown because it was so crowded and the stops were being delayed a lot by the crowded platforms. As we approached the American Indian Museum on the Mall side we eventually couldn't go forward because of the crowd, and within about 20 minutes, we couldn't move anywhere because the crowd had filled in all around us. It was shoulder to shoulder people everywhere. There were people in trees giving people advice as to where we could find some more space, and we eventually were able to head back toward the Washington Monument, and the crowds thinned out as you moved that direction. At one point, we joined a Mardi Gras style parade, with the band wearing matching jumpsuits to look like a wall.

We ended up on 14th and Constitution (by the new African American Museum). People were marching down those streets and converging at that intersection on their way to the White House. We stood there for an hour on a raised concrete barricade, watching this massive river of humanity slowly grinding forward. There was no end in sight when we finally decided to get on the Metro home before it became too crowded there.

It was very easy to meet and talk to people, and we met people from all over the country.

My friend is a DC native and he said he's never seen anything like this before in the city, and I'm happy to hear from Prof. Wolff's long view that there's never been anything quite like this in the country before.

I wrote in a comment earlier on this blog that I was sad when I learned that a lot of my friends didn't plan on going (I live in the DC suburbs). Looking on Facebook after the march, it looks like literally every person I know that lives here went to the march (or at least one representative from the household). One friend was packing boxes to move out of her house, and when she saw the crowds on C-Span, she grabbed her kids and went. She said that she knew she would regret it if she didn't.

I was at Obama's 2009 inauguration, and it was more people, but in some ways this felt bigger, it took over many streets in a way that the inauguration didn't. Very few people could see the rally, so as Prof. Wolff aptly put it, it felt less like a march or rally, and more like a new city being created: a friendly, chaotic, and determined city.

I felt elated and uplifted, but also sad that this was needed, and later that night, even a little depressed, knowing that this is barely the beginning.

David said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for your account of the gathering in (or "migration" to) Washington D.C. It was moving, and some of the details reminded me of the march in Seattle: the festive, cheerful attitude, the immense crowd, the pink pussyhats.

The march in Seattle was far larger than the one against the Iraq war in 2003, and I'm told that it was quite different in size and character than the demonstrations against the WTO in 1999 (I was living overseas at the time). I knew it would be large, and I thought I was being clever when I suggested we meet up early at 9:00 am at a friend's house near the beginning of the march at Judkins Park. The idea was that we could take a bus before they began to fill up. Ha. When we walked out to the bus stop at 9:15, there was a stream of people heading toward the march. The buses rolled by every ten minutes, each one packed and steamy. Thus the march began. We walked for about an hour, and by the time we arrived, the park, which forms kind of a large bowl, was stuffed with people, the majority of them women, many with pink pussyhats, many with creative, ironic, militant signs. Our little group--my wife, two of her friends and I in my own pink hat--stayed at the rim of the bowl and watched the crowd gather.

At 10:30, a round of speeches began, and at 11:00 we set off. It didn't take long before the crowds of people, streaming in from all directions, ground to a halt. It became not so much a march as a shuffle. And yet, we all remained cheerful, hopeful even, and some of my most vivid memories were of being stuck in that crowd. Nearby churches broadcasted music in the streets. (I remember a lovely organ rendition of "Yesterday.") When we passed a bakery, there was a sudden smell of pastries, and the crowed "ooohed." Then, against all predictions, the sun came out, and a cheer rose from the crowed as we spotted two bald eagles circling the procession. Only in Seattle, I thought.

At some point all the tributaries merged into one, and we finally, after almost two hours of shuffling, began to walk at a steady pace. I spotted, at different times, four students and their families. For a while I spoke with one of our school's lunchroom staff, a cashier who, it turns out, has a philosophy degree. Seattle, as anyone who has been there knows, is hilly, and at various points along the way we could view a crowd of marchers extending in both directions as far as we could see. When the march reached the downtown area, about four blocks from the waterfront, there were so many people that many of us abandoned the official march route, and a couple parallel marches formed, both heading in the direction of Seattle Center, with its iconic Space Needle. When we finally arrived at the Center, we been shuffling and walking for 3 1/2 hours. The crowds were so immense that we called it a day and caught a packed bus back up to our friend's house.

We later heard on the radio that long after the first marchers arrived at the Center, the last marchers left Judkins park. The entire march route was packed with people for hours, and the last marchers only arrived at the Center at 4:30 or five 1/2 hours later. The march route, I'm told, was only 3.6 miles long.

I don't know what this march accomplished politically, but I feel energized and hopeful. This is just the beginning of a long struggle, but what a beginning! No one I know thinks that the march is the end of it. We all know we have a lot of work to do. But it helps to know something of the magnitude of people who are ready to fight this thing. I talked to a number of first-time marchers, young and old, and all of us, veterans and first-timers alike, understand that this march, inspiring as it was, is not the end of it.

Matt said...

I went to the Philadelphia march with my wife. The regional rain train we took in is usually almost empty on a Saturday, but was packed with people - standing room only - and there were reports of delays on other lines because of high ridership. The march seemed very well attended. I have no good eye for estimating crowds, but the numbers I have seen - more than 30,000 - seem plausible, given the density and length of the crowd. It was a pretty mixed group of people, though not as diverse as Philadelphia in general. I guess that's not a surprise, but slightly disappointing. There was a lot of energy. Of course, Philadelphia voted heavily against Trump, and doesn't elect many Republicans at all, but it's still important.

I was in some ways more encouraged by my youngest sister's report from Boise, Idaho. She, her daughter, my sister in-law (who is a young staffer for the Idaho Democratic party) and her daughter went to the march at the capital building in Boise. They said there were about 5,000 people, which seems like a very good amount for Boise (especially given that there are only about 300K people in the whole extended "metro" area, and about 130K in Boise itself), and it was snowing and fairly cold. At one point Idaho had some good Democratic governors, some liberal members of congress, and even one of the great liberal senators (Frank Church.) Perhaps something can change there.

Jerry Fresia said...

Bravo! Well done.

Daniel Groll said...

Just a short report from the march in St Paul. We gathered about .75 miles from the Capitol building (the end of the march) expecting to start walking at about at 11am. We didn't move for about 1.5 hours. It was for the best possible reason: the organizers had anticipated 20k attendees. The final estimate from the St Paul police was 100k. It was fabulous.

Jordan said...

I went to the march in South Bend, Ind. There haven't been any serious estimates of the crowd size, though I have heard 2,000, which seems plausible to me given my experience. It might have been more than that, but it certainly wasn't much less. SB is about 100k, 300k in the metro area. The Boise turnout is probably more noteworthy, but getting 2,000 people out in South Bend is a big deal. It helps that we have a young, up and coming, and inspiring mayor -- Pete Buttigieg, who's running for DNC chair -- to help organize and to give a great speech. Here's a little taste, all I could find on Youtube -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqlMslvxdaE


It was a wonderful experience. Like you, what struck me were the overwhelming good spirits of the crowd. There were a few dissenters walking around the downtown area, yelling out "Trump!" and calling us "crybabies," but they didn't cause any disruption simply because it was impossible to take them the least bit seriously. We weren't crying; we were smiling and yelling and exulting in how close we all felt to one another. At one point, we walked by a middle-aged man with his young daughter, holding a sign calling us "delicate flowers." Perhaps I was projecting, but I thought the girl looked as if she'd much rather join the delicate flowers -- after all, we were much happier, much louder, and were wearing far more pink. Anyway, the whole thing was incredibly encouraging.

Karl Young said...

Thanks for the report from the ground in DC. Despite so many naysayers talking about how meaningless these protests are the spirit for the rally and march in San Francisco was great. Despite the difficulties of braving the most dysfunctional public transportation system in the world and the challenging weather there was a great turnout (I'll leave it to others to duke it out over "actual" numbers). As an indication of the spirit, there was one point during the march in which a significant downpour combined with a pretty fierce crosswind to wreak havoc on marchers and signs; someone yelled "stay focused !"; drenched, and with a big laugh we happily soldiered on.

Ed Barreras said...

I wanted badly to go to the D.C. march, but alas circumstances prevented it. However I did make it to the Los Angeles one. I do not have any stories of braving an overtaxed public transport system (yes, such does exist in LA), but because of that, perhaps, my vantage point was somewhat unique.

A friend of mine lives in a quite luxurious building that sits across the street from City Hall, which was the destination for the march. So on Friday night I drove to his place, parked in guest parking, and spent the night. The next morning, after waking up late, I plopped down on the couch with my coffee and croissant. I had planned to join up with a group of friends who were coming from across the city (the friend who lives in the building was traveling), so until they contacted me it would be just another lazy Saturday, save for the swarm of helicopters buzzing overhead.

I turned the TV on to CNN and immediately saw the breathless reporting on the size of the marches nationwide. This was a major story! Eventually they showed the aerial shots of LA. The park in front of City Hall (not visible from my side of the building) was packed to capacity, and throngs of people were snaking around the surrounding buildings, filling the streets. The police estimated the crowd at 100 thousand, but I think it must have been much larger. The organizers put the number at 750 K! So who knows?

In any case, I texted one of my friends and asked if they were nearby. He "Lol"ed, meaning, I assumed, that they were stuck somewhere in the barely moving masses. So I got dress, grabbed my sign, and went downstairs to add my meager flesh to the major story that I had just tuned into on the TV.

Tom Cathcart said...

Well done, my friend and mentor, and everyone else as well. I was prevented from going to NYC by an acute bronchitis, so I spent the entire day watching it on TV. It was thrilling, and I was unable to turn off the set. I was proud that my former church, First Presbyterian in Greenwich Village, sent a bus to DC and another contingent to the NYC march. I don't think this will fizzle. Hopefully, once again, women are going to lead us out of the darkness.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I was not able to attend, but a friend of mine went with her eight year old budding revolutionary daughter. I was very pleased to hear that march attendance was 100K!

Jerry Dworkin said...


The Chicago march was fantastic. Estimated at 250,000 ( 9,000 in Trump's alternative
arithmetic) by the Chicago Tribune. The crowd was so large at the rally that the march
was officially called off but it turned into an informal procession through the entire
loop. It was entirely peaceful and there was very little police presence. The weather
was glorious--in the 50's and sunny. The signs were hand-made and inventive. Best sign
prize goes to "Don't forget to turn your clock back 300 years."