I rarely rally. I was born in 1959, too young to protest the war in Vietnam, although my brother was draft-aged. Marching for Soviet Jewry was popular in the 1970s and even in the 80s. But I don’t recall participating. Hands Across America was a feel-good rally in 1986 designed to lift spirits and eradicate homelessness and poverty. Hardly controversial, I eagerly held hands with friends and strangers on a bright sunny day in Highland Park. As a breast cancer survivor, I felt it was my duty to raise money and walk in various fund raisers throughout New Jersey. Again, who would object? I always had some guilt, however, believing that other diseases and cancers, equally and possibly more deadly, were not getting the world-wide ‘pink’ attention.
But, participating in the Women’s March on Washington felt different to me. Raised in a liberal Democratic home where my father took a keen interest in politics and had our two televisions on different channels in our den on election night, I was bathed in left-leaning values. Yet, I was not fascinated by politics nor history as my father would have liked. I never felt well-versed in governmental issues and was fairly ignorant about financial and foreign affairs. I know where I stand on abortion and civil rights. I am adamant about the greater need for gun-control laws. I feel for the undocumented, illegal immigrants who want better lives for their families. I believe our country should welcome refugees who face dire circumstances in their homelands. And I know climate change is real.
When Donald Trump threw his name in the ring to run for president, I, like so many others, thought it was a publicity stunt. I never viewed him as a man who cared about the direction of our country. He was focused on building his empire, being admired for his wealth and power, and passing his legacy on to his children.
Never knowing his political views, my first introduction to his beliefs was his speech about building a wall and perceiving many illegal Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. His performance seemed so outrageous, I thought for sure others would agree and his candidacy would quickly lose steam. He seemed like a Crazy Eddie, or a Morton Downey Jr., or an Andrew Dice Clay. Shocking, yes. But who would take them seriously?
As election night unfolded, it seemed plenty of people were ready for an ‘in your face’ president who cared little about who he offended or whose rights were being challenged. A man who had never run for school board was elected to the highest office in the country. Now what? The reaction on Facebook was swift and furious. Article after article was being shared, heated arguments were played out between friends who differed in their reactions to the unbelievable news. Within 24 hours, the plan for the Women’s March on Washington was born and thousands signed on. Jen Harmon, of East Brunswick, organized one, then two buses to transport us to the event, with a long waiting list for a third. I feared in the weeks leading to the march, momentum would be lost and complacency would set in. Fortunately, neither happened. ATCNJ (Action Together Central New Jersey) was formed where women were organized with a full agenda for how to respond effectively to a new administration which was not focused on social justice and human rights.
The day after listening to an inaugural speech which proclaimed that my president had been ‘ignoring’ me and we would now put ‘America first,’ a concept antithetical to everything I have been taught by my mother and my rabbi, I was galvanized to meet my fellow marchers at 5:30 a.m. to board the bus to this historic march. My bus mates shared moving stories of what compelled them to join our group. We were comprised of immigrants who have felt marginalized, victims of violence, parents with special needs children, women who feared for the loss of reproductive rights for their daughters, and those who wanted to be examples for their children for how to combat fear and advocate for ourselves.
Arriving in RFK Stadium to a sea of chartered buses and people dressed in pink and purple ‘pussy’ hats, we made the walk to the Capitol, greeted and cheered along the way by police officers and D.C. citizens who seemed thrilled we were there. But, I didn’t just see women. There were marchers of every gender and identity, ethnicity, age, and race. They were furious and joyful, and carried creative signs that were clever, angry, hilarious and profane. I held onto my ‘bus buddies’ as we made our way through a tremendous, yet warm and friendly crowd who shared their outrage over a leader who did not in any way represent their beliefs. We were able to see Madonna on the jumbotron, an icon of my era, encouraging us all as she sang Express Yourself. We talked about how we imagined President Trump would respond to this unprecedented display of opposition. How would he spin our dissent? Would he hear any of what we were trying to say or would we fuel his anger? Would we ruin his moment of feeling like the best, the most popular, and the most powerful?
While we took pictures and posted them to Facebook and Instagram, we saw that marches were going on all over the country and the world. While D.C. boasted the most marchers, record breaking crowds were reported in every important city. The questions I continued to ask: How did he win this election? Did voters stay home? And, what can we do now?
The overwhelming message I heard was this is Day 1. We cannot rally and return to our everyday lives and routines. I need to become an active member of ATCNJ, despite my past reluctance to be involved in formal political activities. My voice and my efforts matter.
Although I never feared I would die when I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, I did know that I needed an experienced, smart, competent and compassionate doctor with an equally qualified team to cure me. Plus, I needed to do everything possible to take care of myself and surround myself with loving, supportive family and friends. Now we face a threat to the health and well-being of our country. Together, with strong, intelligent and caring citizens, I have faith we can fight for a positive future. I owe this to my children. January 21, 2017 showed me that I am not alone. My late father is watching. The world is behind us.
Paula Kaplan-Reiss, Ph. D., a resident of East Brunswick, has been a licensed psychologist in the state of New Jersey for 30 years. She has a private practice in North Brunswick. She also serves as a part-time faculty member of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in the Doctor of Ministry program. She wrote The Year I Lost My Breasts… and Got Some New Ones, A Breast Cancer Blog. She has also been published in the New Jersey Jewish News, and More.com. She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and received her doctorate from Ohio University.