MILWAUKEE — On the first day of President Donald Trump's term in office, 110 individuals from all over Wisconsin gathered at a dilapidated parking lot here to begin a 14-hour pilgrimage to the nation’s capital.
Most on the trip had never met each other yet some introduced themselves with tight hugs as they filled two large commercial buses bound for the Women’s March on Washington, a large-scale event born in the aftermath of a highly inflammatory presidential election. More than 200,000 demonstrators — including those on this overnight bus and over 1,000 others like it — were expected in D.C., according to organizers.
The women and handful of men carried handmade protest signs and overnight bags in preparation for a whirlwind 24 hour trip to the capital. Several women in the group wore pink knitted caps, homemade symbols known as "pussy hats" intended as rebukes of Trump for lewd comments he made in 2005. "You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy," he said of women at the time.
“Let's see him get his hands on this," shouted one woman while pointing to her cap.
They had been preparing for weeks for an unprecedented demonstration on Trump’s first full day in office. They discussed plans on the group's Facebook page, coordinating outfits with people they'd never met.
As the bus began its long journey, the passengers settled into their narrow seats and began asking each other why they came.
“I just couldn’t tolerate it anymore,” said Bambi Grajek-Specter, a 60-year-old grandmother sitting toward the front of the bus. “The election brought us up close to some ugly truths but this is one way I can do something, one way I can speak up.” She marched once before — in an anti-nuclear protest in 1978.
Much of the bus was filled with grandmothers like Grajek-Specter, women whose political convictions awakened after a long period of dormancy.
“This whole election jolted us out of our sleepwalking,” she said.
Martha Davis, one of the organizers of the Wisconsin caravan, grew up in the South during the 1960s and still harbors regret that she missed demonstrating during the civil rights era.“ I did nothing during that time. This was all going on around me and I didn’t make the connection,” she said. “But now as an adult, I feel a more heightened sense of responsibility to speak up.”
Trump "mocked my family when he mocked that disabled reporter.”
Rebecca El, a 25 year-old public school teacher, sat in the back of the bus holding a copy of a “Righteous Mind,” a book on the moral psychology of politics that she bought the day after the election. She plans to get through it on the bus. “It’s helping me make sense of why people went that way,” she said, referring to voters who supported Trump. “He went after so many people and no one cared. Why?”
In response to that quandary, El is marching in solidarity with the thousands of others in Washington, D.C.
As the night went on, lights dim and conversations turned toward what motivated people to make the long trip.
“He mocked my family when he mocked that disabled reporter,” said Cathy Gordon, 57, whose 8-year-old granddaughter suffers from muscular dystrophy.
Ed DeGroot, 62, was one of two men on one bus. “I’m here for my two daughters who are gay," he said. "Women’s rights are very important to me.”
Melanie Bohl, a former director for Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin, was driven by reproductive rights. “We will have to go back to using coat hangers for abortions, which I will not stand for,” she said. “We cannot be [moving] backwards.” Her seatmate placed a hand on hers in an offer of support.
“I’m here for my two daughters who are gay. Women’s rights are very important to me.”
Galvanizing for the movement appeared therapeutic for these demonstrators from Wisconsin. A common purpose seemed to bring them closer as they shared how they have been impacted by Trump and his proposed policies. It reminds them why they are enduring an uncomfortable bus ride in the middle of the night.
“It's cathartic to surround myself with others who are just as concerned about the country’s future as I am," said Amy White, a mother of two young children who stayed home with her husband. "I know I had to do this."
The decision to make this journey wasn't as easy for everyone. In its initial stages, the Women's March faced backlash for not including minority women and voices.
Sabrina Robins initially decided against getting involved.
"As an African-American woman, historically the feminist movement has history of not including or representing voices of black women or their platforms," she said.
As the march quickly responded and rebranded, one of the local organizers reached out and assured Robins she would be represented. It was then that she came on board. Nonetheless, she was only one of the few minority women on the bus.
"I had a real concern with the slogan 'Make America Great Again,'" she said referring to Trump’s campaign slogan. “America has never been great for people like me and, instead, he should have said 'Make America greater for us all.'”
Like Robins, none of the individuals on this bus from Milwaukee are under any delusion that their protest or efforts will evoke any apology or transformative moment from the new administration.
“I know its naive to think this will change anyone’s thinking,” said White. “But no one can deny the sheer numbers that will be out there.”