Only a few times in my life have I felt like I was about to faint from being in small spaces.
I was ripping insulation out from underneath a woman’s house after a flood in Louisiana with my AmeriCorps FEMA Corps team. Army crawling, chin-deep in sewage, breathing in scratchy pink particles, narrowly avoiding huge millipedes and using the wet, sinking mud beneath me to navigate.
Only a few times in my life have I been terrified by huge crowds of people.
Keene State College was almost nationally known for their Pumpkin Festivals, until 2014 when things got out of control. It was a quaint New England family event where Main Street shut down and rows of carved pumpkins lined the downtown, but that year was different.
There were thousands of people roaming the streets and the larger than usual police presence was apparent. Some groups ripped street signs out of the ground and formed small mobs chanting, “USA! USA!” collectively down the streets, but it was that night when letting loose truly turned into wreaking havoc.
I was in the apartment of my then boyfriend watching the lines of police surround the glowing flames that radiated from a car flipped upside down. From a few floors up, a block away and behind closed windows, we could hear bottles crashing and the undecipherable shouts from the rioters. Months after it happened I could still hear them when I slept at night, I could still see the Molotov cocktails being tossed into the night sky.
At the time, I was unsure why it had affected me so deeply, after all, I was near it, but never in the thick of it. Everyone else on campus seemed to get past it relatively quickly. It was still very much the subject of conversations with teachers and students alike, but I did not notice too many who were bothered by it the way I was. Then I was probably too caught up in my own thoughts to notice anyway.
I know now why it haunted me.
It stuck deeply in my subconscious because there was no great purpose to the destruction, it was rioting for rioting sake. It was mob mentality. It was large groups of primal young people seeing how far they could go. While there should be no appropriate time for riots to take place, often it seems that something happens politically or otherwise to cause the collective behavior.
This time, I felt both.
At the Million Women March, the million women, men and children were a pointillist painting masking the streets of D.C., not a speck of gray pavement to be seen. Touching me on all sides were strangers to me, except for my mother of course. The fear coursing through me was that at any moment the ripple effect could take over and things could cease to be peaceful.
When my mother and I were initially released from the packed subway onto L’Enfant Station we found more and more crowds forming, and once the mass we were in finally made it to the station exit, there was a stand-still. The crowds kept filing in and filing in, making the surroundings increasingly more compact. The station workers were deciding how to best let the masses get through out into the masses at street level.
“There’s no way out,” someone in the crowd yelled. At this point, I was already light headed from the compact subway ride and feeling the imaginary whoosh of the train making its stops pushing through me, even after we stepped onto the stationary platform. After I heard the man’s voice yell out perhaps the worst statement you could make to a large group of people basically underground, the fear set in. All those horror movies with absurd plots about what happens when technology fails and masses of people are left to their animal instincts, came to mind. My breathing became increasingly shallowed and my head, faint.
The thing that I believe kept me from passing out was a simple mantra: “don’t fall”. I knew that if I fell I could easily get trampled as people were shuffling through as quickly as they could.
I thought of the man who was accidentally stomped to death by the herds of shoppers rushing into Walmart on Black Friday in 2008, but little did I know: this crowd was different.
“Don’t fall, don’t fall,” I focused my thoughts.
“Single file, one at a time,” a station worker shouted. He was letting us go through one by one, and at that moment I could feel the tension leave my body as people were moving and empty space around me appeared.
The relief was fleeting and would come in waves, but never truly left me. We found ourselves moving from one huddle of people to the next. I was a small dot in a sea of humanity, but outside it seemed less threatening. There was still the potential of something setting it off and creating a domino effect of disaster, but it seemed as though the crowds silently decided that it wouldn’t.
There were babies in carriages, people and families of all shapes and sizes. This had to be a peaceful movement and while it did cause anxiety in more than just myself, no fire was set and no hatred emerged.
There are few words to describe the unfamiliar feeling of at times paralyzing fear and ultimately real pride and hope I experienced January 22, 2017.
Check out my footage from the march: