BY RITA R. DEAN
We were approached by a woman carrying a mega-sized protest poster as we waited for the Metro on Jan. 20. She was alone, and as we gathered around the color-coded map of subway stops, she asked to join our group of five.
She was dressed in black—fashionable leather boots, an elegant calf-length wool coat, a lightweight knit top and slacks—accented with powder-blue fleece hat and gloves. I was dressed for warmth, in layer upon layer of bulky fashion rejects—a faux-suede jacket, my husband's old London Fog overcoat, an odd assortment of pants and sweat shirts, and hiking shoes.
Her name was Elga, and on the ride to Dupont Circle she explained why she was battling the crowd into downtown D.C. on this day. Sixty-one years old, she recalled her childhood in war-torn Nazi Germany, where she was the youngest of four children in a family that sought shelter in one of the only remaining homes in ravaged Dresden. They spent their days huddled on the bed, with no heat, no food. Her parents made the hard decision that they would rather give their precious ones poison than see them die of starvation.
But they were rescued. By American soldiers. Wearing white socks. Elga said she will never forget when the soldiers came through on their trucks, smiling and throwing candy and gum, but the image she remembers most clearly is that the soldiers wore white socks! (Germans never wore white socks during the muddy winter.)
Elga still retains her accent after many years in the United States. When she recalls her lost loved ones, her pain seems as fresh as long ago. She wanted me to understand why it was so important for her to be at the demonstration, fighting for voter rights.
"I cannot believe what is happening in America," she told me, her blue eyes sad in a pale, smooth face. Quietly she explained how Hitler came to power in her country: through press censorship, suppression of free speech, corruption of the courts, control of elections, and glorification of the military.
Elga described her former life as the wife of a professor, how she once taught German to American soldiers. She must now support herself with part-time work. "My family in Germany cannot believe that I do not have health insurance," she said.
She is alone now, her children grown and gone. "I can now do what I want," she said. "It is time for me to follow my heart."
When we got to Dupont Circle, we joined hundreds on the march. The contrast between the two standards of living manifested on 14th Avenue was striking. On one end were upscale embassy houses; on the other, boarded-up buildings, litter and graffiti. "My family cannot believe that there are hunger and homelessness in America," Elga said.
As we moved through this section, I glimpsed an image that will remain an indelible memory of the protest march on Inauguration Day 2001. A clergyman stood on the steps of his humble, inner-city church and blew his trumpet for us as we passed. His spirit and his melody floated over the noise of the chanting crowd, through the cold drizzle and haze. It was a gesture to cheer our way—love and encouragement for soggy, tired people.
"Have you noticed that these are mostly young people?" Elga asked. "Doesn't that make you feel good?" I looked around at the swarms of protesters. Yes, she was right on both counts.
We were roused by a familiar cheer: "What do you want?" "DEMOCRACY!" "When do you want it?" "NOW!" I looked to the left and saw a young man with a mohawk gyrating and spinning down the wet street like a warrior, his face strained and red from leading the chants. He had various body piercings and wore black. He was oddly dressed and ornamented by any middle-class American standard, but to me, he was neither scary nor offensive.
The young men of 1776 were oddly dressed as they marched through New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the snow and ice, wearing ragged summer shirts and pants. Some had only knotted rags on their bloody feet, which were gashed by the frozen mud. I thought of those men and boys, the ancestors of these young people on 14th Avenue, now marching to a different drummer.
Even before I left Greenville with our two daughters and their two college-age friends, and as we drove for 10 hours in rain and fog, as we marched for eight hours in freezing slush, I knew our voices would be crying in a wilderness of apathy, studied detachment and cold dismissal. We already understood, long before Elga pointed it out, that the march would not be on page one of tomorrow's Washington Post, or even on page two. It might possibly appear in abridged form on page three with a photo of an isolated arrest, or of a colorful character wearing only jockeys and boots, or of a blonde in flag bikini and cape.
We never got to the Supreme Court, where venerable judges preside in their black robes. We never made it to the steps of the Hall of Justice, which protects our right to vote; we were stopped by three rows of police in riot gear.
It was just as well. We felt safer—more welcome—walking back the way we came. Among friends. Among like-minded people who cherish freedom and the ideals of democracy. Amid the blessings and benedictions of the youth among us, some of whom wore long, black trench coats. And white socks.
Rita R. Dean of Greenville is a wife, mother, essayist, political bird watcher and forest conservation advocate.