Op-ed: Why the march that got hacked turned out to be one of the best women’s marches of all

People who attended a Women’s March at UC Berkeley turned a prank into a meaningful protest.

“WHAT DO WE DO WHEN WE’RE ATTACKED?”

“WE STAND UP AND WE FIGHT BACK!”

Of all the moments during the Women’s March in Berkeley on Saturday, those were my favorite — two small girls, maybe 6 or 7, leading several hundred adults in a chant as we made our way through the Crescent/Springer Gateway back onto campus after having marched along Bancroft and Oxford Streets.

Read the Berkeleyside article about the march. 

I had my choice of three marches to attend — one in Oakland, one in San Francisco, and one in Berkeley. Announcements for the one in Berkeley popped up late, only a few days in advance of the march. I signed up, and a day later, someone posted on the activity board, saying the march might not be legit; she’d tried to get in touch with the organizer, Sam Cox, but all the contact info turned out to be bogus. I checked in Berkeleyside, Berkeley’s online daily that does thorough and reliable reporting, and the march was listed there. I posted that on the activity board, adding that it looked like a go.

Saturday morning, minutes before I left for the march, someone named Laura posted that Sam Cox had turned into Pepe the Frog and then into Shadilay, and we’d obviously been pranked. But since many people were already on their way to the march, she’d decided to go. We could make something up on the spot, she wrote, but we wouldn’t be able to march down University, as anticipated because we had no permit.

I decided to go, too. I live only a ten-minute walk from Memorial Glade, where we were to assemble at noon. The day was cool and overcast. I saw several people as I made my way onto campus, but none of them seemed to be heading for the march. Maybe no one would show up. Maybe Laura’s post was part of the prank, I thought. But as I got closer to the Campanile, I could see people on the green in front of the Doe Library. Fewer than 200 hundred people had signed up for the march, but there were maybe twice as many there.

Berkeleyans who showed up Saturday to what turned out to be a fake protest took matters into their own hands. Photo: Cori Kesler

Laura wasn’t part of the prank. Instead, she was making her way through the crowd, explaining to those who hadn’t seen her late post that we didn’t have a permit to march through the streets. We would figure out a route on campus, she said, but first, we’d gather on the library steps for a photo.

I climbed to the top step, ending up beside a woman who said to me, as two women arrived on the step below us, that she wished she had one of the pink “pussy” hats they wore. Yes, I told her; I’d almost been tempted to revive my knitting, but I’d knit only one thing in my life, a red baby sweater for my daughter that she outgrew in a month, so that was it for me and knitting. The woman didn’t knit, either, but said she’d been making coverlets for family and friends using scraps of material joined with an embroidery stitch. It was called Sashiko, she said; it started when poor Japanese fishermen had to patch their jackets, for want of being able to afford new ones. At first, it was just colored thread used for the stitching, but then scraps of other material were used, and Sashiko was born.

Sashiko, I told myself, hoping to remember. By then everyone was on the steps, and three women who said they had nothing to do with organizing the march took turns shouting explanations and instructions. One of them said how fitting it was that we were gathered on the steps of the library, given that Trump didn’t read books. We applauded. Another shouted instructions for our route, first to Sather Gate, where we would pose for another photo, then onto Bancroft and down to Oxford, and back through the main gate there.

At some point along the way, without confessing the claustrophobia that overwhelms me on crowded public transport, I told Sashiko, as I’d come to think of her, that the march seemed perfect for me, too, so I was glad that Sam Cox, the first pseudonym of the guy who’d pranked it, had waited so long to reveal himself as Shadilay and Pepe the Frog. Sashiko had left her apartment before Laura posted about the prank, but she would have known as soon as she saw the names Shadilay and Pepe the Frog that we’d been pranked because, she told me, both were pseudonyms embraced by the alt-right. By white supremacists. Too bad for them, we agreed; pranked or no, we were raising our voices along with our fists.

We were too far back in the line to see what photos on the internet would reveal to me later: our march was being led by five young girls, maybe ten or eleven, each of whom carried a sign. Women’s Rights Are Human Rights. Love Trumps Hate. Nobody had what turned out to be my favorite sign of the day, one I saw in a Facebook post from another march: TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A WOOD, AND AMERICA TOOK THE PSYCHOPATH.

But we could see the even younger girls who led the “What do we do when we’re attacked?” chant: they were right in front of us. As we chanted in response, I could see from the smiles of other adults around me that they, too, felt heartened that the two little girls, who had no doubt witnessed their mothers’ grief and frustration after the election, were so passionate, so insistent. They really were the future, and it seemed, watching them, not only wrong but futile to despair. Their chanting ended as we got back to the library steps, and then we began chanting “Love Trumps Hate. Love Trumps Hate.”

I chanted the words as loud as I could, but did I really believe that love trumps hate? And if so, what did such a belief require of me? Since the election, I’d reposted articles from the Times, the Post, and Talking Points Memo to Facebook, adding what I thought of as my own nasty-woman comment. I’d taken but broken vows to stop posting. When I took the vows, it was mostly because I felt chastised and chastened every time I heard President Obama calling for civil discourse or Michelle Obama saying, “When they go low, we go high.” I certainly hadn’t been going high. I’d even invented several nasty-woman acrostics for Trump, and just that morning, I’d tweeted one of them, tweeted it and then deleted it, ashamed by how far it was from the Obama example. I’d wept as I watched Obama’s Farewell Address. I believed him when he said, “We weaken those ties [that bind us to one another] when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but as malevolent.” Love Trumps Hate. Love Trumps Hate. Surely that was at the heart of Obama’s message.

But what were its limits? Clearly we weren’t chanting that we could defeat Trump by loving him, even if loving him meant only that we could forgive him for his sins of hatred against people of color and immigrants, against the intelligence community and the media, against liberals, against honesty, against truth. Could we love such a sinner while hating only the sins? He was so relentless in his boasting and self-congratulation; he seemed so pathological in his narcissism; and his refusal to learn anymore than he already knew because “I’m, like, smart” put all of our lives, along with the lives of others in other countries, along with the life of the planet, at great risk.

How to do anything but hate that?

But this many women would not be denied. They would not be bamboozled into thinking that war is peace. They would not be persuaded that a drop in the crime rate is “carnage.” They would not be fooled into thinking that public education everywhere was a failure; they already knew that it was a failure only in those places where poverty so lowered the tax base that there was inadequate funding for the schools. They would not be cowed into surrendering the rights to their own bodies. GET YOUR THEOLOGY OFF MY BIOLOGY, one woman’s sign read. Among the millions of women were hundreds of thousands of men—and boys—who wouldn’t be hoodwinked, either.

Once we were all back on the library steps, the woman who’d shouted instructions got our attention, more easily this time than at the beginning because now she had a mike. She thanked Eric, a professional singer who lived nearby and had run home to get his own p.a. system. She thanked everyone for coming to this march that almost didn’t happen. She explained that we’d been pranked by someone on the alt-right, and then she laughed that we’d actually pranked him—look how many people had turned out. She wasn’t used to speaking before large groups, she said. She wasn’t a leader; she wasn’t even a citizen. She’d been in the country for twelve years and she’d decided, having whined for twelve years about wanting to go back to Canada, that she was going to become a US citizen because she wanted her daughter to see that when things get hard, you don’t run; you stand up and fight.

All of the speakers urged what I would later read Gloria Steinem had urged the marchers in Washington, to not be content with one day of marching but to ask ourselves what we could do “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow and we’re never turning back.” When the speakers began to repeat one another, I decided to walk back home. I thanked Sashiko for her company, wished her good luck in Ecuador, and left.

As I climbed the hill to my house, I thought of those Japanese fishermen, patching their jackets with sturdy stitches. I don’t have any more patience for sewing than I do for knitting. Otherwise, I’d start by making myself a sashiko coverlet, both to commemorate the day and to serve as a reminder of the work that must be done. I’d stitch in, by way of thanks for creating the march that almost wasn’t, an image of Pepe the Frog.

Lynne Knight is a Berkeley poet.