2017 v 2021: How to Protest at Capitol Hill Without Becoming A Mob

A first-person eyewitness account of a massive march on Capitol Hill during Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. 

Published
Opinion
6 min read
Donald Trump’s four-year presidency has been bookended by two massive congregations of angry people at Capitol Hill in Washington. One against Trump becoming president and the other against his losing the elections.
i

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music famously sang “The hills are alive with the sound of music”. The unofficial anthem of Washington DC, a hotbed of political protests, has been “Capitol Hill is alive with the sound of protests”.

Donald Trump’s four-year presidency has been bookended by two massive congregations of angry people at Capitol Hill in Washington. One against Trump becoming president and the other against his electoral defeat.

Why then, did the protest on 6 January devolve into an ugly riot scene? What are actual intense protests in the US capital like? Why haven’t they spiralled into attempted coups against formers presidents like the one on Wednesday?

I had the opportunity to walk in three different protests during Trump’s 2017 inauguration in Washington DC. One of them was at least three times the crowd on 7 January. Why then, did the one in 2021 turn violent, anarchic and an active attempt at subverting democracy while the one in 2017 stayed its course as an angry but peaceful protest? Let’s take a look at what I had witnessed and why.

A protestor at Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. 
A protestor at Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. 
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

Capitol 2017 vs Capitol 2021

Washington DC, a usually placid city of 6.5 lakh people, grand monuments and museums, transformed into a carnival of civil disobedience as hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets to register a roaring rejoinder to Trump's inauguration.

However, as the capital of the United States of America, it also comes alive as the protest central to social, political, cultural issues of the day’s government. Be it the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the American war on Vietnam in the 1970s or US’ invasion of Iraq in 2002, the city has witnessed hundreds of intense protests.

The march on Washington in 2017, in this tradition of protesting as part of a participatory democracy, was no different. The scenes in 2021, though, cannot be described as a protest but more of a riot.

At least four people have died as the United States Capitol descended into chaos when a mob of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the building.

The assault on the Capitol was the culmination of months of divisive and escalating rhetoric around the 3 November election, with the Republican president repeatedly making false claims that the vote was rigged and urging his supporters to help him overturn his loss.

Horrific images of rioters scaling the walls of the premise, entering the chamber, stealing podiums and clashing with the police painted a picture of chaos and breakdown of law of order in the nation’s capital.

The Difference Between 2017 & 2021

Four primary differences are evident between 2017 and 2021.

One, even though lakhs gathered to denounce Trump during his inauguration, there was no attempt whatsoever to reject the outcome of the election process that certified Trump as the winner.

The acceptance that Trump had won was unanimous. The insurrection and rioting by Trump supporters were instigated by the outgoing President’s appeal to his supporters to refuse the results and prevent the electoral college votes from being counted.

Two, unlike scenes from 6 January, which were marked by an acute inability to absorb the election results, with no clear focus behind the “protests”, organisers of the 2017 protests were clear on social media that the marches were to make Trump know that lakhs were against what he stood for as President.
Protestors at Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington DC in 2017
Protestors at Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington DC in 2017
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

Three, as thousands marched along downtown DC, they were met with loud booeing and jeers by Trump supporters who were exiting the inauguration ceremony. There was provocation and abusive language towards the protesters that I was witness to, but the collective decision was not to engage violently with Trump supporters.

Four, unlike 2021, the protests in 2017 were also a carnival of biting political satire. Thousands of posters, banners and placards were held aloft as lakhs marched by the White House. They made their point as much with scathing sloganeering as with satirical posters. On 6 January, the mood appeared to be one that bayed for blood.

A protester at the Women’s March on Washington
A protester at the Women’s March on Washington
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

What Happened At Trump’s 2017 Inauguration

1. Women's March on Washington

Crowd count: About 5 lakh

What begun as a Facebook post just after the election results were announced turned into an ocean of protesting heads on 21 January. The event drew celebrities from Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson to feminist icon Gloria Steinem and filmmaker Michael Moore.

Sandie, 73, had flown across the country from California to join the march with her 37-year-old niece.

"The importance of the protest is that it shows we are the majority. He is the President but not my President," the Los Angeles resident said.

The march, led by women, drew people, including the elderly as well as toddlers from every corner of the United States. While many chanted “not my president”, unlike Trump supporters, made no attemp to storm into the White House barely a 100 metres away and throw Trump out.

I spoke with dozens of protesters who said they did not acknowledge Trump as their president but made no mention of not respecting the results of the elections.

Instead, there were speeches on the importance of organising over the next four years, keeping the pressure up on the office of the President and actively resisting attempts to polarise the masses.

2017 v 2021: How to Protest at Capitol Hill Without Becoming A Mob
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

2. Festival of Resistance

Crowd count: 10,000

On 20 January, while Trump was taking his oath of presidency, 16-year-old Adriana Klika was holding up a sign less than 1km away that read: "A woman's place is in the revolution."

Adriana and her sisters Lantheg, 14, and Mary-Troy, 17, were outside the Union Station – Washington's bus-and-train terminus. They had arrived from Nashville, Tennessee, to march in the protests.

They were part of a 10,000-strong crowd that made its way through residential neighbourhoods, state highway bridges and the streets of downtown DC to McPherson Square Park, barely 300 metres from Trump's official residence.

"We are the future generation and even though we couldn't vote this time, we want to be part of a change towards a better America. We feel being passive is accepting injustice," said Adriana.

As the crowd entered the downtown area, hundreds of Trump supporters wearing their red “Make America Great Again” caps stood by the pavement, jeering. The marchers retaliated with slogans such as “Say it loud and say it clear/ Refugees are welcome here” and “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA”.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Moore, whose 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 took a critical look at George W Bush's war on terror, addressed the protesters, who ended their march at the park with a call to "defeat Trump through satire".

"I want to see Trump implode from the constant ridicule day after day," Moore said.

Adriana and her sisters Lantheg, 14, and Mary-Troy, 17, protest outside Union Station from where they marched towards Capitol Hill.
Adriana and her sisters Lantheg, 14, and Mary-Troy, 17, protest outside Union Station from where they marched towards Capitol Hill.
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

3. The Inaugural #Trump420

Crowd count: 6,000 to 8,000

Perhaps the most interesting protest took place in the heart of DC’s famous Dupont Circle, where an organisation campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana handed out some 8,000 pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes to a patiently queuing crowd.

The organisers described their demonstration as a peaceful act of civil disobedience. The most popular code for marijuana in the US is "420".

Twenty-six US states and DC have legalised marijuana in some form – medical, recreational, commercial.

The organisers handed out free joints to the gathered crowds, who lit up soon after as a sign of protest.

"We are at a pivotal time in history and a move to crack down on marijuana is regressive. This government has dealt a blow in the face to gay rights as well to people like me," said Shea Callanan, 24, who had travelled from Orlando, Florida.

Not everyone failed to notice that the long queue had formed by the side of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

"We are today standing right next to Gandhi himself who taught us civil disobedience," said Byron Grant, who works for an economic think tank in DC.

Protesters stand in line to get their free joint at #Trump420
Protesters stand in line to get their free joint at #Trump420
(Photo: Sushovan Sircar)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!