by Vanessa Osuna — Graduate Student of Women’s History
A few weeks ago, thousands of people journeyed to Washington, D.C., to march for unity and solidarity for women’s rights and the rights of the marginalized. Since the Women’s March, the media has highlighted the possibility that D.C.’s march and the other U.S. “Sister Marches” collectively were the most well-attended protest in this country’s history. Marches all around the world resulted in more than 5 million people demonstrating on January 21, 2017. On the morning of the march, as the Sarah Lawrence bus drove away from campus, I wondered how big the crowd would be and the kinds of signs people would take. I thought of the positive messages and the clever tag lines I would read on marchers’ signs, but I didn’t think about what people would do with them after the march. Would people just throw them away? The Women’s March website provided many logistical details, including information regarding bathroom stations and medical tents, but the website did not provide information on trash disposal. It quite honestly never crossed my mind, that is, until I got to the march and I needed to throw something away.
In the aftermath of the march, popular media sites, like conservative site The Daily Wire*, were quick to show the discarded hills of trash at the Women’s March. They were referring to signs that marchers left near the Trump Hotel, the White House, and Columbia Square, to name a few covered in the media below. Popular Twitter profile @TheGOPReport tweeted a picture of a street where signs covered the sidewalk with the caption, “The mess many women left after the #WomensMarch I guess the environment or personal responsibility isn’t something they’re concerned about.” Meanwhile other sites, like Popsugar for example, called it “a temporary museum exhibit.” New York Magazine called marchers’ signs “important works of protest art.” In fact, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History tweeted the day after the march that its “political history curatorial team was out on the National Mall on both Friday and Saturday,” gathering signs. The New York Historical Society, along with other libraries and museums across the U.S., also gathered items from the Women’s March. Media coverage focused on protester signs as trash, but what about other trash? What about the garbage and waste that consists of food wrappers, dirty diapers, and empty bottles?
The National Park Service (NPS) began clean up shortly after the march. A local news report captured what NPS spokesman Mike Litterest had to say, “Our crews reported that while the trash was overflowing, the trash was at the cans,” claiming that, “participants and visitors to the Mall had been very respectful of trying to keep it clean.” Additionally, according to another station, NPS spokeswoman Emily Linroth said, “Fortunately, a lot of people, even though, the trash cans were full, have stacked the trash neatly as close to the trash cans as they could get them, so that is making our job easier.”♦ For the clean-up crew, it wasn’t a question of the type of trash that resulted from the Women’s March, rather a question of the quantity and location of the trash. How does this play into the question of “personal responsibility,” as @TheGOPReport called it?
This gnawed at my thoughts as I remembered seeing those mountains of garbage overflowing from their bins. According to NPS, the garbage wasn’t so bad because even though bins were overflowing, the garbage was still next to or near the bin. I certainly witnessed some marchers discarding their garbage randomly on the march route, but for the most part, I saw marchers throw their trash away onto the overflowing mountain of garbage at a bin. Putting aside the question of protecting the environment, what is the personal responsibility to which @TheGOPReport is referring? NPS indicates that the majority of marchers threw their garbage away, which they called “respectful.” Does that count as personal responsibility?
Anthropologist Robin Nagle wrote a book called Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Nagle dove into the world of society’s invisible workers in uniforms, whom she calls “garbage faeries.” Sanitation workers are the people who take your garbage away after you set it curbside the night before pick-up day. They are the people who make garbage disappear. Nagle didn’t just write about sanitation workers, she became one; hers is a particularly interesting perspective. In 2013, Nagle gave a TED Talk about her experience, and she encouraged us all to keep in mind that “in the flow of your days, in the flow of your lives, next time you see someone whose job is to clean up after you, take a moment to acknowledge them,” she says, “take a moment to say ‘thank you.’”
The Women’s March highlighted the issues about which people care and for which they are willing to advocate. Since then, the passion to fight for our rights has been ever heightened. The question of personal responsibility cannot be easily answered, but perhaps next time, the march/protest leaders can suggest we bring our own trash bags? Critics will call out the hypocrisy of fighting to make the invisible visible without thinking of those that clean up after us. This is why I urge us to see them right now. I invite you to think about what personal responsibility means to you in the context of waste and in the context of advocacy. I invite you to critique the critic and challenge their claims respectfully. Most importantly, I invite you to do your research to think beyond what we see so that we may engage the invisible.
♦ Quotes found within outside sources (here, local news stations WUSA and WTOP) are written in double quotes for readability.
(Vanessa’s response is the first of those we are posting about the Women’s March on Washington and Sister Marches. Each response should only be interpreted as the response of the writer and not necessarily that of the SLC Women’s History Program, all feminists, all women, all people, etc. Re/Visionist aims to be a forum for multiple feminisms and multiple perspectives on women’s history.)