People in the crowd didn't even know their march had been officially "canceled."
The announcement came down around 11 that warm Saturday morning—the gathering had grown so large that there was nowhere to march, police said. But the throngs had gathered around Grant Park for the rally preceding the Women's March on Chicago, decked in pink "pussy" hats and wielding glittery signs, and they were not going to disperse quietly. Marchers of all genders and colors spilled east of Michigan and meandered north toward Trump Tower, the songs of Chance the Rapper blasting in between chants of "this is what democracy looks like!" The el trains rolled by in regular intervals, drawing a cheer each time as CTA riders pressed bright-pink signs against the windows.
This week, before the crowd estimates for the Woman's March on Chicago were revised upward from 20,000 to 50,000 and, finally, the official count of 250,000, Chicago interviewed several marchers—away from the roar of the crowd—to see how their lives led them to Columbus Drive this weekend.
“I’m marching to create space for brown women, to share my art, and celebrate my connection to indigenous people.”
Naomi Martinez was rallying on the streets when Donald Trump canceled his March 2016 rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I don’t believe in that, ‘let’s give him a chance,’” she says. “He seems like a dictator.”
At her home art studio in Berwyn, the night before the march in Chicago, she began painting her sign. It read, “Mujer, Indígena, Luchadora,” or “Woman, Indigenous, Fighter” in English. She says, “We are a country of many languages and that’s why I made my sign in Spanish.”
Martinez, who was born in Texas and moved to Logan Square when she was six years old, planned to attend the march with other members of Mujeres Mutantes, a female artist collective whose work centers on gender, race, justice, sexuality, and "indigeneity." Martinez uses her painting, doll making, and other works to speak out against issues like cuts to public education budgets, anti-indigenous violence, and violence against women (among her main gripes against Trump—he “embodies rape culture”).
“I’m going as a woman, as a trabajadora [worker]. I’m going as someone that cares about community and not for building exclusivity,” she says.
Martinez says her heart was “so full” from seeing the huge turnout of people on Saturday. She was surprised to not see more signs about Standing Rock or indigenous women, but she did hear chants about Black Lives Matter—and, she saw men standing in solidarity.
“The role of men in this is to support our causes and stand beside us,” she says. “We should all be feminists, really, right?”
Chicago police phoned Ann Scholhamer just before 11 a.m. Saturday, asking her to leave the Columbus Drive stage to meet at their command center.
“I arrived and the police said, Michigan Avenue is flooded with marchers. Wabash is flooded with marchers. State Street is flooded with marchers. Grant Park was at capacity. They asked me, ‘What should we do?’” says Scholhamer, one of three co-chairs organizing the Chicago event. That’s when she realized the march would be canceled—even though the quarter of a million attendees gathered downtown took to the streets regardless.
Scholhamer says she is most proud of how people came together. “I’m getting chills thinking about it. All these people just wanted to help with absolutely anything. There isn’t one person who was a part of this event that I knew before eight weeks ago,” she says.
Chicago’s march, one of the largest in the U.S., was inspired by despondent Facebook posts after the election, she says. Though news had spread about the D.C. march, Scholhamer and her two co-organizers knew many women in Chicago couldn’t travel, so they decided to create their own. “Now it is [about] creating a network around the planet. Every city is different,” she says, adding that the Chicago march grew out of “Midwestern values.”
She was happy to bring together organizations to ensure the event would be representative of Chicago’s diverse community.
“We had a lot of people who felt privilege and a lot of people that felt marginalized, and they came together. Be it Black Lives Matter, racial justice, women’s reproductive rights, we saw the beginning of a movement Saturday,” she says.
On the eve of the Women’s March on Chicago, Rafael Cervantes was busy: he sat at his dining table putting the final touches on his sign and enjoying a snack before heading to the Friday evening protest.
Cervantes, a longtime Latin American solidarity activist, says that in order to fight the Trump presidency, likeminded groups should build coalitions. “The country is divided,” he says. “I saw it as divided the moment I came to this country.
He urged men, especially Latinos, to participate: “Men have to understand that this is march for justice and [women’s] rights, and that alone is enough of a reason to support,” he says.
Cervantes wanted organizers of the march to center the issue of women’s labor, especially to fight discrimination and abuse in the workplace, which he believes is “epitomized by Trump.” But he found the diversity of homemade protest signs on Saturday heartening. “Everyone has their own short slogan or anecdote,” he says. “You’d have to do 500 interviews to get a sense of the diversity of motivations for marching.”
The chant declaring, “no hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here” was especially important to him. In his neighborhood, Mexican groups don’t feel welcome, he explains—but more visibility for Latinos during public demonstrations could make it easier to confront anti-immigrant sentiment. And the racial diversity in the crowd gave him strength, to see so many people coming together.
“It seems International Women’s Day was moved forward by a couple of months,” he says.
A liberal Christian with “a rural American heart and a Chicago mind,” Jennifer Crawford-Alvares says she was inspired to march for vulnerable people—refugees, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and others threatened by the new administration. This weekend she invited friends and new online acquaintances to a pre-march prayer breakfast, where orange juice and coffee flowed and attendees offered “popcorn prayers” blessing the day’s marchers to be the light in a dark time of American politics.
She also marched against rape culture, which she believes Trump has supported through his behavior and words. Crawford-Alvares says she was once roofied and raped, and stayed quiet about it for ten years. It was the love of her husband, an Indian immigrant, that encouraged her to talk about her experience for the first time.
As a mother to a three-month-old biracial daughter she sees the Women’s March as not only a call-to-action against rape culture, but as a fight for human rights. Surrounded by a sea of marchers near Jackson and State, Jennifer held her daughter to her chest to breastfeed while her husband stood by her side.
“I know today our voices will not be unheard, we will not be silenced. Trump promised us yesterday in his inauguration speech that ‘we all bleed red.' If he really believes that he will recognize us and the truth of today,” she says.
Almost every letter started off the same. “Dear Donald Trump, My name is ‘X’, I'm from the South Side of Chicago,” says Wisam Fillo, a civics teacher at Johnson College Prep in Englewood.
Almost all her students started the letters with expressions of love and pride for the South Side. “Growing up I never felt the sense of community I see in my students,” says Wisam, a northern Virginia native. “Community is something I learned here in Chicago.”
While reading their letters, addressed to a president who has called for more “stop and frisk” and “tough police tactics” in Chicago, Wisam grappled with whether she would attend the Women’s March.
“Deep down I wanted to go, but when you hear concerns over feminist solidarity, you feel stuck as a biracial woman. I wondered, will I support an event that doesn’t lead to people showing up at events for people of color in the future?” she says.
In the end, Wisam says she would have felt like a fraud if she didn’t attend after encouraging her own students to stand up for their communities: “To me, the march symbolized my stand against this administration for my black and brown students, my black Muslim mom, my gay friends, the working class, women, and people.”
She says the march will not go down in history for numbers alone but for its undeniably soft and kind energy. “To be in a crowd of thousands of people smiling and admiring each others’ signs, high fiving each other, honestly it is uplifting,” she says.
Next time she will encourage her students to rally, too. “Physically placing yourself somewhere where people who don't look like you are saying the same things as you makes you feel different and purposeful. They need that,” she says.
Happy and proud—that’s how high school senior Sophia Orsello says she felt riding in the buses Alderman Joe Moore provided for marchers heading downtown from the Far North Side. Clutching homemade posters with rainbow block letters, Sophia was the third-generation marcher in her family: she came with her mom, Jenni Singer Orsello, and 80-year-old grandma was marching in Florida.
Sophia was her mom’s support for the day, a role of choice, not obligation. “This is my first march and I don’t know if I will go to another soon, but my mom probably will,” she says as the two take a break in the south garden of the Art Institute.
Sophia says Trump’s objectification of women was hard on her mom, who is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. For Jenni, her daughter Sophia represents hope. “My daughter responded to all of his comments and his harassment that women my age have heard a thousand times from a thousand assholes, with a ‘nah.’ To me, that is measurable progress from my generation,” the elder woman says.
Jenni, a grade school social worker, is marching to protect immigrant, refugee, and undocumented rights. “I heard second graders in the hallway asking one another, ‘Are you legal? Will your family have to leave? Are you going to stay here or go back?’ As children they can’t distinguish between who is legal and illegal, and what it means to have parents from Pakistan or Mexico,” she says, recounting how fear has seeped into the school. She says she’s also heard young children threatening to sexually assault classmates, using words that Trump has said. “The bad in our society makes it down to our youth,” she says.
When Sophia Loris and Victoria Nunez met online, they were 1,300 miles apart. Nunez was in a bad situation and not able to transition—Loris offered to help.
“Sophia was like, I’m moving you to Chicago with me, and the first time I ever met her in person was when she was in the airport picking me up,” remembers Nunez.
“We really didn’t know each other but I came from similar situation, and I felt like I wanted to help her,” Loris says, jokingly adding: “She’s ok, I guess.”
The two found a sisterhood in Chicago, a city that has become sanctuary for trans women. “If you are attacked, there is someone you can always run to on the streets,” Nunez says.
Both Loris and Nunez had doubts about the inclusivity of the Women’s March on Chicago, since trans female identity is often erased from cis female rallies, they say. The plethora of “pussy” hats and genitalia-related signs didn’t help. “An issue in spaces like this is that marchers equate womanhood with genitals, but there are a lot of trans men with vaginas. There are a lot of trans women with penises. What’s hard in spaces like this is that you are not thought of or considered,” Nunez explains.
But they were surprised by the support they received on Saturday. Older women surprised Victoria and Sophia with hugs. One grabbed Sophia quickly and said, “I’m so happy that you have that sign. You couldn’t have done that 10 years ago.” It was a welcoming experience, and though they doubt the march will produce change, they want to show up for the next.
“You do what you got to do to survive the next four years, and if we need one of these every year, half year, every month to get through and feel better, let’s do it. Even if doesn’t change anything, at least we can feel better together,” Nunez says.
For Nat Shannon-Hutchison, Saturday's march was about bodies as diverse as Chicago itself resisting fascism, racism, hatred, and fear—and speaking truth to power. It’s a lesson learned from Shannon-Hutchison’s grandmother, who would take her grandchild along to community organizing events.
“To me, days like today are just part of life and being a good citizen,” Shannon-Hutchison says while standing just east of the Adams and Wabash Inner Loop station. As each el car passes overhead, passengers wave and press their hands against the glass, provoking a roar of cheering from thousands marching below.
It’s also a day about family. “My wife and her sister made posters. My brother-in-law and his son are here so today is all about being together. You know, I was depressed with the inauguration, this march is the kind of thing we need to do to get strong again,” Shannon-Hutchison says.
The nonprofit worker who is fighting to end homelessness is no stranger to protests; Shannon-Hutchison has marched for African American, women’s, queer and marriage rights, though today is about diversity and inclusivity, and just being present: “I think a lot of times people in positions of power like our new president feel that they can do whatever they want to do.”
A group of young marchers with arms locked streams past, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” Shannon-Hutchison says with a smile, “This. This is what I love.”