Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Posted on Jan 23, 2017 | 0 comments

Photo by Mia Lewis

Photo by Mia Lewis

I went to the Women’s March on Washington to resist the Trump agenda, and it was glorious. From the early-morning flight from Columbus, filled with cheering, pussy-hatted women to the exuberant crowd on Independence Avenue, to the many speakers and performers, the day filled my heart with optimism and resolve. But what really got me was the signs.

So many signs! As my friends and I stood in place for almost five hours—the area was too crowded to allow actual marching—people all around us held them high.

The signs were big and little, handmade and printed, artful and raw, prosaic and wildly imaginative. From the witty to the mournful, from the profound to the profane, all around me were words on cardboard, jostling to be seen and read. “Love Trumps Hate.” “Black Lives Matter.” “We Shall Overcomb.” “There is No Planet B.” “This Pussy Bites Back.” “Oppose a Muslim Registry.” “Patriarchy is for Dicks.”

One of my favorites was carried by a 23-year-old member of my own group. Using the vernacular of youth, her sign managed to say a lot with nine letters and some punctuation: “OMG, GOP, WTF?”

She told me apologetically that she had copied a sign she saw online. She didn’t need to apologize. With so many messages to choose from, the act of selecting was in itself an act of expression.

I had my own signs, two of them, which I wore sandwich-style, front and back. I’d thought all week about what I wanted to say, contemplating whether I should focus on reproductive rights, health care, the environment racial justice, or something more broad. Did I want a message that was angry, or inspiring? Funny, or serious? My own words, or someone else’s? What would be my statement?

In the end, I composed a message that reflected my core beliefs and approach to politics. Broad-based, positive, as brief as I could make it, and just a little sly. “To Make America Greater: Peace, Love, Respect for Human Dignity…And a Little Bit of Nasty.” Perhaps a little bland in its earnestness—but reflective of who I am and what I believe.

Once I had decided, there was the foam core and markers to purchase. The question of what would fit in an overhead compartment. The selecting of colors and the careful lettering, trying to be neat and ensure readability. The nauseating smell of the ink; the stains on my fingers. The careful drawing (a female power symbol). It was a process.

I thought about that as I looked out over the sea of signs. Everyone with a sign had gone through the same process. She’d given thought to what she (or he) wanted to tell the world. Had considered and rejected messages, chosen one that fit. Worded it carefully. And now, whether her message was scrawled or decorated, she was putting it out there. Reaching it skyward through long hours of standing, arms raised, shoulders burning. Dancing it up and down to be seen. To be seen by a camera, to be seen by the President, to be seen by the Congress, to be seen by the marchers.

To be read. To be heard.

Would we be heard? Certainly, we heard each other. And those at home and in Congress who agreed with what we had to say—they heard. But would President Trump hear? Steve Bannon? Mike Pence? Paul Ryan? It seemed unlikely. There is already ample evidence out there that we hear best the messages that confirm what we already believe. Besides, there on the Mall, half a million strong, we marchers were still just a tiny fraction of Americans.

No matter. We would say what we came to say. We would put our written words out into the world as weapons against policies and forces we abhor.

This moved me.

As a writer and a journalist, I am particularly offended by the disrespect for words and their import within this new administration. Our new President chooses his words so carelessly as to render them meaningless to any thinking observer. “”Big league.” “Massive.” Talk of Mexico sending “rapists.” Talk of “thousands and thousands” of people cheering in Jersey City when the Twin Towers fell. And, of course, any words shared between men out of the presence of women should be laughed off as meaningless “locker room talk.”

Indeed, Trump and his advisors seem to select their words with the intention of demolishing trust in all words. All Trump’s references to the “dishonest media”? A press secretary who presents verifiably false statements as the truth, and a presidential advisor who then refers to those lies as “alternative facts”? The new president and his staff seem to be telling the world, “don’t believe what you read. In fact, don’t bother reading. Words can’t be trusted.”

It’s a smart approach if you are trying to disarm the press, which is our nation’s sole defense against a secretive and obfuscating government run amok. As individuals, we cannot do the research to uncover every payoff or conflict of interest, to understand each amendment buried in a piece of legislation, to trace the progress of climate change and relate it to environmental policy. For that, we depend on the press.

The press that traffics in words. Strong words. Verifiable words. Sometimes, opinionated words. Words with meanings.

Those of us who oppose the plans of this new administration will need to pay attention to the words of thoughtful and informed people and reporters in the coming months and years, and we will need to choose our own words carefully and often as we call and visit to pester our representatives in Congress and state legislatures, write letters to the editor, post on social media and speak with our friends and colleagues about things that matter.

We must make our words matter.

I looked around again at the sea of people, holding up signs. I was touched by what they represented: not only commitment and idealism, but also faith. Faith in language to express, to convince, and to increase understanding. Faith in words.

My own signs, worn against my body, could not easily be seen in such a dense crowd. I took them off, placed them back to back, and raised them high.

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