Sam Bonwit worried over his future after learning how a hero died.
The 6-year-old read how a man shot Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, as he stood on a Memphis balcony in solidarity with a group of striking sanitation workers. Sam learned how a girl just three years older than himself was taken into custody after marching alongside Dr. King. “Are we going to get arrested?” he asked his mom, Julianne, worried as he fussed over his “No being mean” sign.
Julianne Bonwit shook her head and took his hand.
“Although we still want things to change for the better, things have changed a lot since the ’50s and ’60s,” she told her son. “Marching is one way to go about doing that and changing things this year.”
To accelerate the pace of change, Bonwit organized her kids — and 30 friends — to march down Circle Avenue last Saturday to the Blue Line, where the group caught a train into the city for the second Women’s March Chicago. Bonwit’s group joined about 300,000 activists and protestors who descended on the Loop on the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, carrying colorful signs that read “Tweet us with respect,” “Who runs the world?” “Resist fear, assist love,” and many, many more. Pink “pussyhats” dotted the crowd as Oak Parker Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley spoke on behalf of the League of Women Voters.
“The power lies at the polls; the power of the polls can change society,” Mbekeani-Wiley said, reminding participants that marching is just the beginning.
Mbekeani-Wiley said this year’s march had the same sense of unity as last year’s, but instead of feeling like a reaction to Trump’s election, this one felt more proactive, offering tangible steps they can take to promote affordable housing in Oak Park, avoid voter fatigue, and address the systemic racism that stifles society.
“Stay engaged in every election; every aspect of local and federal politics impacts our livelihood. Mobilize the vote and make sure you’re pushing every population to the polls,” she said.
Learning how she can stay involved — and feeling rejuvenated by the power of a progressive crowd — is why Bonwit felt compelled to organize a group to attend this year’s march.
Bonwit’s father, James Murphy, died two weeks before Nov. 8, 2016. Then the electoral college declared Donald Trump the 45th president of the U.S., she said, after he ran the most openly misogynistic presidential campaign in recent history and lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
Looking for a way to feel empowered, she started getting involved, attending every Forest Park District 91 Board of Education meeting she could to learn why Forest Parkers pulled their kids out of public schools. She started attending Proviso Together meetings, learning more about the neighboring communities of Maywood and Melrose Park and the local high school system. She turned her running group into a progressive advocacy organization called Running for Our Rights.
But Bonwit still felt discouraged about the way the country was progressing. Sam’s attitude wasn’t helping; the 6-year-old felt angry at Trump over his promise to build a wall separating the United States from Mexico. Combined with Trump’s vulgar comments about which immigrants were OK to stay in the U.S., Bonwit felt like she had to constantly shield Sam from the evening news.
Looking for comfort, Bonwit decided to attend Women’s March Chicago, even though some of friends of color had been complaining that they didn’t feel like the movement embraced them or their ideas.
“A lot of people just go to these marches and it’s a feel-good moment, but the real work is still to come,” she said, adding, “Forest Park can feel sometimes so separate, like we have our nice Madison Street downtown area and we want to keep it for ourselves. But there’s cool things going on in other areas, too. We need to make sure that we get out of our comfort zone and we represent not just our own privileged place of being, but other perspectives as well.”