On Inauguration Day 2017, I joined a small group from the School of the Art Institute’s (SAIC’s) Writing Department to participate with thousands of Chicagoans in protests near and around Trump Tower.
The event was organized by James Stewart, 32, a student in the MFA program, who emailed the department to urge participation. (Full disclosure: Stewart asked me to proofread the memo before he sent it out.) Much of the popular Democratic mood following the election has tended to be focused on theft and victimization. Stewart’s theme, in contrast, was guilt.
As in every presidential election since he turned 18, Stewart voted. On the local level, he attended several marches protesting police brutality. But given the outcome, he fell short; he doesn’t feel as though he did enough to advocate for liberal democracy during the Obama years.
“I’m still not sure I’ve completely come to terms with [a Donald Trump Presidency],” he said, reflecting later on. “But the protests did have a cathartic effect.”
We met at 4:30 p.m. in front of the school’s Lakeview building. The group was smaller than expected. There may have been several reasons for this: Some students might have been working on Friday; or maybe people just hadn’t returned from winter vacation yet. But even in our small group, a single faculty member was present: Sally Alatalo. I asked her how her break was.
“Good,” she said. “But sad. I got some advice from someone, who said, ‘Eventually, you just have to turn the radio off.’”
I could relate: I spent most of that morning in bed, to some extent fighting off the hangover from my protest sign-making party, but mostly dreading 10:45 a.m. — the time that our 45th President would be sworn in. The iPhone alerts would come about the inaugural address and the pending executive actions, and I’d read them because I had to see if it would turn out as bad as we all thought.
It’s interesting how something catastrophic can occur on a nice day. The weather was veering towards the mid-40s — more in-tune with early fall than mid-winter. And other than the protesters, there weren’t many signs on the street. A woman had a “NOT MY PRESIDENT” sign on the 35 bus, so I sat next to her. A lone “Make America Great Again” hat showed up on the Red Line, so I sat on the other side of the train.
The rally itself, though, it was uproarious. There were 150,000 people. The racial and gender demographics were diverse, and there were plenty of political groups present. Black Lives Matter, the Chicago Student Union, Justice for Palestine; people petitioning for immigration rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights; socialists; full-blown communists — all united around a cause. The sheer number of people that our new president has managed to disenfranchise with his public comments and alleged private behavior is startling.
Writing student Ian Wojcikiewicz, 27, was also aggrieved, and in many ways shared the feelings of guilt that Stewart expressed. He has three younger sisters — two of whom are lesbians. He was protesting “mostly to show support as a Chicagoan, and as a white person, and as a man.”
Wojcikiewicz majored in anti-colonial studies as an undergraduate. “Everything on my shelf is telling me that I’m responsible for destroying the world,” he said.
This automatic resignation is doubtlessly one of the motivating factors of President Trump’s victory — whether that was intentional or not. It’s also one that Wojcikiewicz rejects.
“My biggest motivation was, winning an election is not a mandate,” he said. President Trump, he thinks, is very concerned with optics. He wants to be seen as a great person in history.
“It’s important that he shouldn’t be allowed to deify himself that way,” Wojcikiewicz said.
Wojcikiewicz was also worried about the focus of the protest — that some issues being fixated on might predate Trump. For starters, he referenced voter turnout. People are upset now, because it’s fresh. “Will they be here in two years, for the midterm elections? Will they even know who the candidates are?” Wojcikiewicz wondered.
A similarly short memory might apply to executive orders. We’ve already seen several from the Trump administration concerning health care, reproductive rights, national security, and the environment. But President Barack Obama, utilizing the power of a pen and a phone, signed the most executive orders since Harry Truman.
“Either we’re holding [Trump] to a higher standard, or we just feel like he isn’t legitimate and shouldn’t be here in the first place,” Wojcikiewicz said. “Which is fine, but it might not be the most constructive way of doing things.”
The crowd was so big that the police department felt compelled to cancel the scheduled march route. This resulted in protesters being boxed in on Wabash Avenue and Upper Wacker Drive, directly in sight of Trump Tower. Remember when the biggest complaints were about that tower being an eyesore? The crowd circled around the block; the tower served as a constant reminder about why we were all there in the first place.
There was a brief breakthrough on Michigan Avenue. Alex Shapiro, a student in the MFA – Writing program, noted how a majority of the drivers who were stuck due to the march seemed supportive of protesters. “Traffic really pisses people off,” he said, ”so for folks to look past that and join the demonstration was cool.”
Shapiro, like Stewart and Wojcikiewicz, is very politically active. He’s been protesting since the Iraq War.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been compelled to march frequently in the years that have followed,” he said.
Writing student Taylor Croteau, 22, also mentioned the support of stopped traffic as a highlight. She went to both the Inauguration protest and the Women’s March in Chicago the next day, which drew an estimated 250,000 people. She felt compelled to attend both, and plans to attend to the protest about the Dakota Access Pipeline on January 27.
“The [inauguration protest] seemed the most intersectional; I oppose more than one thing,” she said.
Identifying as radically liberal (a sentiment shared with the other members of the protest group), she ticked off Trump’s suspension of social media and women’s rights as issues that were of great concern to her. Trump is the cumulation of a lot of problems.
“Things that were already issues are just going to be blown out of the water now,” Croteau said.
There was a near-unanimous feeling of the stakes being raised with regards to making art.
“Historically, artists and writers have been an important contingent in fighting authoritarians,” Stewart said, adding that the purpose of art is to increase empathy, and that it’s within our interests to push back against a president who seemingly has none. (Or, at the very least, a selective empathy.)
“We’re certainly going to have a harder time making a living!” Shapiro said. “But I suppose that isn’t particularly unique under this administration.” He feels artists and writers will show more urgency in questioning the goals and capability of their work.
Croteau agreed that there is “some level of obligation,” but stressed the need for artistic objectivity.
“I don’t make ‘political art,’” Wojcikiewicz said. Still, after Trump’s electoral victory he expressed wanting to tear up all the work he’d done prior, for fear that it might not be big enough to match events.
What might be required by the moment is a simple reversion, with fresh eyes, back to the story, and the singularity of the moment. Both Croteau and Wojcikiewicz cited a group of eighth grade girls interviewing them for a podcast as a highlight.
“They seemed really interested in what it meant to be there,” Wojcikiewicz said. “And in what leadership means,” he added.