On Friday, Jan. 20, Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office before a crowd best described as puny compared to the estimated 1.8 million people who attended Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The following day, the world erupted as millions of people joined demonstrations in major cities across the United States and the world to express their commitment to opposing the agenda of the man who now holds the world’s most powerful office. Some cities drew more people than were in Washington for the inauguration.
Does it matter that so many people turned out? A march in itself does not effect change. But as one marcher in Seattle observed, “It provides the foundation for action.”
Saturday’s marches energized millions of people with the assurance they are not alone. And those people affirmed our belief that the power of love can trump the power of hate. This sets the stage for future popular action in defense of the well-being of all.
How do we best characterize the spirit of these marches? Are they protests? Are they demonstrations of resistance?
I have been struck by the wisdom of the Native American tribes at Standing Rock who reject the “protestor” label. They instead call themselves “protectors”—protectors of the waters.
It seems to me that those who marched on Saturday are also best characterized as protectors. Protectors of the vulnerable, protectors of the Constitution, protectors of women’s bodies, protectors of Earth, protectors of democracy.
The difference in language, though subtle, is profound. Resistance and protest are reactions against an unjust act or regime. Protection is a positive affirmation of what we value, what we hold sacred.
When we call ourselves protectors, we cast our role as fulfilling our responsibility to the community that sustains us—not for our personal benefit, but for the benefit of all.
The indigenous protectors of Standing Rock put their lives on the line to protect the sacred waters on which we all depend. They showed us the way of nonviolence in the face of violence. And they offered us a gift—a powerful unifying frame for our activism as we move forward from Saturday’s marches.
Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the failed system that divides us into a world of winners and losers and threatens the Earth mother on which the well-being of all depends. In the bigger picture, an excessive focus on opposing him is a diversion from the deeper work at hand.
The solution is a better system—a system that protects and supports the healing and health of our Earth Mother, protects the rights and dignity of all humans, spreads the benefits of work equitably to protect the well-being of all, protects real democracy, and encourages us to stand together as protectors of each other in times of crisis.
So, the new president has brought us together. He has helped us rise as protectors of what we value. The marches he provoked enabled us to feel the strength of our numbers and our resolve. In his inaugural address, he said, “Together we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.” We—a globally inclusive “we,” united as protectors of Earth, justice, and democracy—may do just that. We will claim and shape our common human future in ways far beyond his intention or understanding.