NEW YORK — No one said it would be easy. At 4 a.m. on Lower Orchard Street on Saturday, a troop of fashion designers, artists and creatives congregated for a 20-hour round-trip journey to the Women’s March on Washington. Rallied by the arts community, they had spent hours daydreaming and preparing — charging phones and battery packs, and carefully considering the outfit in which they’d like to be documented.
The group of 45 protesters — which included designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh and gallerist Isaac Lyles — boarded a yellow school bus cheery and hopeful, traveling in the name of women’s rights. But in the course of the sojourn that followed, many came to terms with a harsher reality — the protests their generation have idealized through Sixties imagery did not occur by immaculate conception, but rather through physical grit.
The march — attended by an estimated 500,000 people — left the bus’ Millennials to reconcile the reality of protest and civil disobedience. The immediate gratification and ease-of-access to which they are culturally accustomed — particularly as New Yorkers — was not in any way reflected in Saturday’s outcome. Out of their element, some participants were left feeling glum, “purposeless,” and “disappointed.”
The day had not started out this way. Flyers for the bus — organized by Jill McLennon, an art professional and assistant to the gallerist Andrea Rosen — had made last-minute rounds on Instagram, advertised by downtown cachet-wielding accounts like Dis Magazine and the artist Chloe Wise.
As such, it drew a like-minded, fashionable crowd of various artistic professions. For many, this would be their very first major protest.
Dressed in Jacquemus, Saint Laurent and artfully weathered vintage, they convened outside a Lower East Side gallery space in the wee hours — their faces bright with anticipation and idealism. An onboard entertainment segment and icebreakers had been planned by the video artist Casey Jane Ellison. Rap music and disco tunes blared over the bus’ speakers.
With blowouts and designer duffel coats, the bus quickly filled with the heady scent of Le Labo perfume. One rider passed her tube of Glossier lip balm between seats as a friendly olive branch. Riders’ artful signs — many of which had been crafted at parties the evening prior — were gently tucked under seats. But once motored up, the bus ride’s hazards became clearer.
Forgotten aspects of educational transportation revved back into memory — the clanging of seatbelts, exhaust fume scent, little shock absorbance and even harrier temperature and humidity control.
As condensation began streaking down the bus’ windows, discomfort lulled riders into a sullen sleep through the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
At five hours in, the group was disoriented and sweaty — yet still eagerly anticipating the events to come. With 40 minutes to the Landover Metro stop — from which the group would decamp to the Capitol — Ellison groggily switched on a karaoke machine to use as a makeshift amplifier. Riders took to its microphone, introducing themselves and their rationale for attending. “I haven’t done anything like this before. I’ve never had to fight for my rights at any point in my life and for the first time now, I feel like if my presence makes any minute’s difference then I need to be there,” McLennon said of her reason for organizing the bus.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re in the center of everything in New York,” Paige Kozak, who works in social media at Marc Jacobs, told WWD of her decision to attend the D.C. protest. Artist Karolina Kubik spoke up about an antiabortion law recently introduced in her home country of Poland, telling the bus’ Americans: “I’m sorry it happens to you, but it happens to the whole planet.” Ellison announced: “This isn’t new, this is reality, this is where we’ve been coming to.”
The bus soon rolled into Landover in tandem with the luxury Coach bus fleet retained by Audrey Gelman’s women’s club The Wing. There was no fairy dust transforming the riders into a renegade force as they stepped out onto metro-D.C. pavement. The physical reality of protest set in, amid light rain, colder-than-expected weather conditions and mass crowding.
The metro doors slid closed, chugging along to Capitol Hill. The little art-bus-that-could became a small token, flooded by an overwhelming mass of women from all walks of life.
Up the steep escalator and onto the street, the bus riders began to look around in confusion — their gusto dissipating. “So I guess we just walk around now?” said one. “Yeah, I guess that’s what protesting is,” sheepishly said another.
Chants called by older protesters were echoed for brief rounds en route to the National Mall, petering out soon thereafter. Politeness overpowered aggression.
Crowded conditions had left the original march route impassable. Those newer to the protest game felt the demonstration lacked the direction and structure they needed to satiate their political desires. Frustration at the multihour rally on the National Mall grew rife, with participants desperate to take to the streets to voice their opinion. But while exasperated, the crowd’s Millennials did not appear to take initiative.
“I think we didn’t have opportunity to demonstrate. I felt like that was kind of taken away with all the focus on speeches and concert – you kind of lose steam and that kept us really subdued. It almost feel like we got swindled a little bit,” said painter Sophie-Alexia de Lotbinière, on the return ride to New York, where riders’ original eagerness had been replaced by slumped postures and exhaustion.
Added Nassir Zadeh: “I thought it would be a little more emotional. I feel like the vibe was positive — we were there to show solidarity and we were united but energetically it wasn’t what I expected…it was a little anticlimactic. It’s a lot to ask to get up so early and go so far and then be on your feet — unless the energy is going to keep you going. I would rather have more energy to do something locally.”
Said DJ and W magazine contributor Gillian Sagansky: “I didn’t feel any control today — I felt like a hamster in a cage. It was peaceful which was wonderful, but it’s not going to get anyone’s attention — the numbers, yes. That’s it though.”
Added Lotbinière: “I was expecting to see many more young people and didn’t, so that goes to show the outreach needs to be done. I think the older generations have been in situations where they’ve had to protest their civil rights. I think this new generation doesn’t really know how to speak up or how to direct their voice — they don’t have the training or the experience.”
Upon returning to New York, similar sentiment was texted amongst close friends. Some first-time protesters felt ill-equipped and too timid to execute the objectives they had in mind. Said designer Amy Hunt, an experienced protester: “Protesting is physical, it’s work. My friend said yesterday, ‘If I’m not sweating I’m not protesting right.’ You have to make your own journey and feel fulfilled by what you are doing.”
But the youth had not traveled so far to have nothing to show for it. In the hours after the protest, Millennials took to Instagram — doing what they do best. While in closed circles they may admit to feeling exasperated and ill-prepared, their protest imagery would present a different message. Those carefully considered outfits accomplished what they had hoped, flanked by aesthetic signs, grim stares and flattering filters. Their political show, while virtual, had just begun.