Activism as endurance test: Alaskans march on DC

Protestors at the foot of Capitol Hill before the rally started. Photos by Liz Ruskin.

In addition to the thousands who marched in Alaska the day after President Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of Alaskans also flew across the country to participate in the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. Estimates put it as one of the largest protests in the capital’s history. One Juneau protester learned that being in it was a bit of an endurance test.

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By 9 a.m., it was clear turnout was much larger than the 200,000 expected.

“The crowds are really big, which is great, but we’re advising people then to go down this side street a block or two. You’ll have an easier time getting into the rally,” a woman in a reflective vest shouted as thousands of protesters streamed down the Capitol grounds, onto the National Mall.

Another helpful shouter was at the next street: “It’s bottle-necked here. Go straight. Go straight.”

Libby Bakalar, an attorney, mom and blogger, came with friends from Juneau and Ketchikan. They’d planned to meet a larger group of Alaskans at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. That didn’t happen.

Libby Bakalar, of Juneau, right, spent the day with friend-of-friend Missy O’Keeffe, left.

“Yeah I tried to beckon the rest of our crew back here but I think they kind of got swept away in that zone,” Bakalar said. She and a friend each paid $800 for their airline tickets, with the help of a “companion fare” discount. Through social media organizing, she’d heard as many as 600 Alaskan women had come to Washington to march.

Bakalar ended up spending most of the day hemmed in between two museums along the National Mall. It was packed, wall-to-wall. Bakalar wore a vinyl banner that covered her front, shoulder to knee.

“It says, ‘We’re from Alaska, and we can see Russia from the White House,’” Bakalar said.

Joannah Bryan still has family in Sitka. She came from San Francisco to march in Washington.

Just then a protester dressed as Wonder Woman approached, drawn by the word “Alaska.”

“My name is Joannah,” she said, reaching out from her cape for a hug. “I’m from Sitka!”

That’s how it was all day long. People would see the Alaska sign and reveal their own connections to Alaska, or just thank Bakalar for coming from so far.

As Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Madonna, Ashley Judd and Alicia Keys rallied the pink-hatted masses, Bakalar said she’s sympathetic to Trump fans who feel the economy has left them behind.

“I think they’re getting conned,” Bakalar said. “And I think they’re going to find that out the hard way, unfortunately. I think they’re problems are extremely real and serious, and he’s just not the answer to those problems. He’s presenting easy solutions to things that don’t have easy solutions.”

Bakalar spent most of the day with her new friend Missy O’Keeffe, from New Jersey. They both started the morning with their mutual friend Kerri Willoughby, of Juneau. But they lost Kerri early, and, with so many people flooding the Mall, cell phones barely worked. O’Keeffe finally got word that Kerri and others might be near them.

Diane McBride and her daughter, Shannon McBride-Morin, both from Homer, marched in Washington with the Alaska flag.

“They said they’re on the other side of the Jumbotron, and Kerri’s in a tree,” O’Keeffe said.

“In a tree?” Bakalar asked. She looked up. But there were lots of trees, and lots of protesters sitting high in their branches. They couldn’t find Kerri.

At another point, Bakalar learned that one of her law school friends had somehow found a large group of Alaskans. They were just on the other side of the nearest museum.

She steeled herself to plunge through the crowd.

“I think I’m going to try and find the Alaska people,” she told O’Keeffe.

“Our Alaskan people?” O’Keeffe asked.

“No, the other ones,” Bakalar said.

They held hands and squeezed through the crowd. They made it about 20 feet.

“Abort. Abort. We can’t do it,” Bakalar said.

So they stayed roughly in place. By hour four, the rally was dragging on, and they hadn’t marched. They were chilled, the crush of the crowd made Bakalar edgy and nature’s call was growing urgent.

“I wish I were wearing a diaper,” Bakalar said.

Then word came that the intended march route was already jammed with people, all the way to the White House. Still, Bakalar’s spirits lifted whenever people responded to her banner. She posed for dozens of pictures.

“Did you guys really come from Alaska?” a Minnesotan asked. “Is that not the most awesome thing ever? I saw your sign and I just had to say thank you for coming.”

Libby Bakalar, left, eventually found her mom at the march.

She met two women from Akron who had boarded a bus at 1:00 that morning to get to the march, and they were departing before sunset. She met a family that had driven from Chicago.

The crowd grew restless, demanding the rally end and the walk begin. Eventually, the human dam broke. It was more flood than march, with people going every which way. Bakalar (after visiting a portable toilet) found not only her Alaska friends but her parents, who had come from New York to protest.

Holly Handler, of Juneau, said whatever the discomforts, being part of the crowd was kind of the point.

“I wanted to be around people who had the same sense of reality that I do, and just to know that we’re not alone and to be part of the numbers, to be counted,” Handler said.

The end of day reunion included Leslie Jackson, left, from Ketchikan. Also Holly Handler (middle, holding banner) and Kerri Willoughby, right, both from Juneau.



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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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