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Women’s March is ‘transformative’

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Last weekend, Cloquet’s Barbara Birkeland had a “transformative” experience.

The retired Zion Lutheran pastor boarded a bus in St. Paul Friday at 1 p.m. with her 12-year-old granddaughter Maggie, rode all night and arrived in Washington D.C. at 10 a.m. the next morning for the Women’s March on Washington. They marched 10 miles over the next 10 hours straight, departing at 8 p.m. to return to St. Paul.

They joined about 2,000 other buses. Birkeland said the D.C. police estimated the turnout at 1.2 million, versus the 250,000 people they had expected. Other estimates place the number at closer to 500,000.

“I’m in my 74th year and I don’t believe I’ve ever had an experience like this,” Birkeland said. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place. At one point we stood for an hour and a half, unable to move because there were so many people ahead or behind.”

Birkeland said the march participants were very positive overall and well behaved. She was amazed by the lack of litter. Although there were overflowing garbage cans, people carefully stacked their refuse next to the garbage cans rather than throwing it in the gutter.

“I never saw any resistance, violence, anger,” she said. “I never saw anything but total joy.”

Plus a sea of pink-colored “pussy” hats with cat ears, worn by many women and men, a movement inspired by now-President Trump’s 2005 comments about grabbing women by their genitals.

One of the men wearing a pussy hat was Wrenshall’s Sandy Dugan; Birkeland and Maggie “buddied up” with Dugan throughout the day after meeting him on the bus. There were people of all ages on the march, Birkeland said, from babies in arms to people in wheelchairs and others using walkers.

“The sense of justice and kindness was beyond anything I ever expected,” Birkeland said. Local residents were very welcoming, she added. Churches and schools opened their doors for bathrooms and chairs. The locals would stand on their brownstone steps and welcome them. There were no searches and no interference from police.

The chants were overwhelmingly positive, she said, explaining that one of the most common was: “Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like.”

“We would do it call-and-response,” Birkeland said.

She added that the only place she went where there was a more negative chant was within four blocks of the new Trump hotel. That chant, she said, was “Shame, shame, shame.”

“The crowd roar could deafen you,” she said. “I’ve never heard anything like it. It would start in a wave, about four blocks away, and you could hear it coming. Then it would go through where you called on to chant, then move on.

“It was monumental, and for me, life changing,” she said. “My granddaughter is already an activist, but for her to be part of this, I think, wrapped her in democracy in a way that she never experienced.”

A strong supporter of Hillary Clinton in the November election, Birkeland said when people asked her who she was marching for, she would show them the pile of silver bangles on her arm, each one representing someone or some group she was marching for.

She marched for Hillary, she said, her grandchildren, people with disabilities like her brother, the elderly, the young, and for those who are not allowed to vote.

“The list went on,” she said.

Birkeland said she talked with recently retired KBJR anchor Michelle Lee — who sat two seats ahead of her on the bus — about what she wants to do now.

“I want to remind women that we are not silenced, but we will be silenced if we don’t vote,” she said. “I think my passion is going to be trying to encourage voting on everything. Because I’m convinced that the level of county commissioner, school board, that’s where the power starts. So that will be one thing that comes out of this for me.

She is also hoping that more women will run for public office, at all levels.

“As elections have become so malicious, people have decided ‘I don’t need that in my life,’” she said. “It may take time to evolve because the toxicity is so high, but I think it will happen.”

Although it was a “women’s march,” Birkeland said they estimated the crowd was close to 25 percent men, of all ages. And that was wonderful too, she said.

“I had such hope from marching with so many people,” she said. “This is going to change lives on every end. I was in college in the ’60s, and couldn’t march. It took this long for me to have the wherewithal, the time and the finances, to march. So don’t ever say that evolution won’t make change.”