The Women’s Marches on January 21st drew 2.9 million people onto the streets of America, the biggest protests in US history. Ali Mau was MC of the Auckland sister march and writes about what it meant to her.
10am Saturday, Customs St
I’ve never marched before. I’ve written and spoken in public about causes dear to my heart, donated my time to raise money for child poverty, cancer awareness, family violence, refugee, rainbow, and other efforts; but the idea of ‘making a fuss in the street’ makes the English half of me shrink in horror. Now I’m drinking coffee in a downtown breakfast place and watching a steady stream of women, men and children pour through the doors looking for caffeine before they walk together up Queen St. Apart from the odd tourist couple gazing in wonder at how totally pumped Aucklanders are on an unremarkable Saturday morning, it’s obvious we’re all here for the same thing. The place is fizzing.
I grew up in a family of purist journalists; I’m third generation. In our house the concept of the unbiased reporter was sacrosanct, and it took me a more than a decade in the business before I could even bring myself to vote. I hadn’t yet landed in New Zealand at the time of Springbok Tour (although I know full well which side I’d have picked.) Most of the more recent marches have been too tied to partisan politics to tempt me onto the street. I’m no Sue Bradford by any stretch and I was dead against the sit-in outside John Key’s family home a couple of years back.
The Women’s March, however, was enough to change my mind from the first piece I read about it weeks ago. The organisers of the Washington “mother” march were making it absolutely clear this was not about partisan politics; not about the legitimacy or otherwise of the incoming President (although we all have our reckons about that one, don’t we Vladimir?)
It was about human rights. Simple. And you’d have to have had your eyes and ears taped over for the last 12 months to miss seeing that the rights of women, immigrants, people of colour, and LGBTQI people are under attack. I’m not sure some men fully realise that a lot of women have taken this very personally; it feels as though we’ve been forced a step backwards in a struggle that’s been inching ahead, albeit way too slowly, for many years. No question then – on with the comfy shoes.
Half an hour ago, fellow speaker Lizzie Marvelly and I took a peek through the window at the US Consulate across the road and saw maybe a hundred assembled on the footpath. Twenty minutes later there’s more than five times that number. There are heaps of men and boys too, which makes me smile like an idiot. They’re still coming, from parking buildings and from Britomart station, waving placards. There’s the odd unflattering Trump reference (nothing we haven’t all thought before) but most of the slogans talk of love, acceptance, empowerment.
10:45: Queen St
By the time we take off, rounding the corner onto Auckland’s main drag more than a thousand people are following, with more joining the tail every minute. In place of chanting there’s a wonderful samba drum band right at the front giving the march a Mardi Gras feel. We’re supposed to stick to the footpath, but the crowd is too big and spills onto Queen Street. This worries the organisers, but there’s no aggro at all. Cars heading straight toward us find their path blocked and pull over, the drivers getting out to take pictures and wave. There’s nothing but grins all around from shoppers, tourists, weekend workers.
Weirdly, there’s not a police officer in sight. Queen St is blocked, traffic at a standstill, but not a single cop.
11:30: Rally, Myers Park
Someone I know well but wouldn’t expect to see at a demonstration comes over for a chat; he does a bit of consulting for the Police and is here to observe. Where are they though? A police presence was considered but decided against, because women are safe, he says. I could take that the wrong way. Women can be fierce too for f***’s sake. But I’m going to take it as a compliment. Women have organised a march where there’s no need, no room for, and not even any suggestion of violence, and the cops know it. I’m happy with that. I tell the organisers and their reaction’s the same.
As MC I’m first to the microphone to address the massive crowd, now several thousand strong according to my police insider. I’m just so proud of them all, sitting in the January sun, showing their daughters and sons what equality should sound and feel like. The placards are clever and funny in their hundreds. I explain the focus on people over politics, and the need for us all to look at this day as a starting point, not a result. I steal a quote from Duncan Green: “The thing about protests is that it’s never the end. If it’s the end, then you failed. It’s what comes after the protests.”
Politics commentator and US citizen Tracey Barnett speaks movingly about the Obama inauguration in 2009 and about the importance of keeping our hearts and arms open to refugees. Labour MP Jacinda Ardern makes the relevance of the movement to Kiwi women very clear; Dr Pani Farvid talks about the differences and similarities that tie us all together as humans. Lizzie Marvelly gives the knock-out speech of the afternoon, directly to all the young people in the crowd, appealing to them to take us forward. All speak about the strength of women, and the need to do more.
We squish everyone together at the end for a massive selfie, a direct request from the Women’s March on Washington’s Global organising committee. There will be 30 straight hours of marches right around the world, but New Zealand has been the first.
We stay for a while at end chatting to marchers and I’m approached by at least a dozen US citizens; a group of early twenties women on a working holiday, a middle aged man here on business, a couple enjoying their first ever holiday in New Zealand. They’re all feeling the pull of separation from their families; all say they would have marched in their own cities. They were all grateful that New Zealand – so far away! – cared enough to show solidarity and give them drums, banners and positivity on a day when they felt so far from home.
They thank me, but I’m just a bit player. The New Zealand march was pulled together by four American expats. Thank you Cindy Buell, Erin Ejygin, Lisa Dyson and Melissa Ferguson for giving thousands around the country a chance to join. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Ali Mau is a broadcaster for RadioLive 100.6FM. She will host RadioLive Drive 3pm-6pm weekdays from Monday January 30.
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