When the Peace Ball begins at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Barack Obama has 16 hours left in his presidency.
The event, hosted by Busboys and Poets, was planned before the outcome of the election was known. So it was unintentional, the contrast of this museum with this incoming president. But the coincidence works in the Peace Ball’s favor. There is no denying the sensation that comes from being in this place. It is hard to be passive here. It is hard to be complacent. It is hard to not be stunned by our nation’s capacity for cruelty. But it is also hard not to be inspired. It is hard not to feel ten thousand things at once.
There is quite possibly no other building in D.C. that so fully encapsulates the extremes of the American experience. Slavery in the basement. The presidency three floors above. Innumerable lifetimes in between.
Tonight, the place is ringed with open bars and crowded with guests, many of whom the soon-to-be-sworn-in Trump would likely assume lived in crime-ridden hellholes, decked out in dazzling black tie.
Vicky More, here with her partner, has lived in D.C. for nearly a decade. She sees the election outcome as a springboard for action within her own life. “I believe in doing something in my own community,” she says. She’s thought about doing Big Brothers Big Sisters for a long time. “And now, I think I will.”
She talks with her colleagues at the office about how upset they all are. She is tired of talking. “Now, what are we going to do?”
“I know I need to do something, even if it’s just changing the hearts and minds of people I touch in my life,” she said.
More cited President Obama’s remarks from his last press conference: “In my core, I believe America will be okay.”
“I really feel that way.”
Sonya Renee Taylor, activist and poet, takes the stage first. Her glittery dress catches the light and scatters it like a disco ball. “We are gathered here this evening to reaffirm the spirit of justice,” she says. “To remind everyone around us that we will not be silent in the face of fascism and oppression. We will turn out and turn up for justice and equality.”
She gives the crowd an assignment: “Love each other tonight… I want you to make human connections this evening, because that’s how we are going to survive what’s about to go down.”
Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal follows. He addresses the attendees as his “fellow activists, artists, and peacemakers” and lists the successes everyone in the room can celebrate: Health care, marriage equality, the prevention of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the freedom of Chelsea Manning. He quotes Langston Hughes: “Let American be America again.”
“Look around this room,” he says. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Alice Walker calls in to say: “May the Trump years find us at our most creative.”
Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) takes the microphone to remind us that “love is an action verb. It demands sacrifice and struggle… When you break down patriotism, it is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love all of your men and women.”
“On the eve of a time where a man who preached hate all through his election is coming up,” Booker says. “We have no choice but to match that hate with love.”
Melissa Harris-Perry invokes Maya Angelou, to correct some misconceptions. “Maya Angelou was not nice. She wasn’t soft and she wasn’t sweet… She said, ‘I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.’”
Naomi Klein calls Trump’s ascent to the Oval “not a peaceful transition of a power. It is a corporate coup d’état.”
Eve Ensler will only call him “Predator-in-Chief.”
Esperanza Spalding, voice cool as water, is accompanied by Howard University’s premier choir, Afro Blue.
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Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wears a sparkling gold dress and assures the room that there is “no place I would rather be than with the freedom fighters and rabble rousers — the people who make things happen.”
“I refuse to go backwards,” she says. “For me, I’m going to spend every waking minute fighting to make sure we don’t go backward building the democracy that we deserve.”
“Are y’all with me?”
Victoria Rittinger came in from Houston for the Women’s March; Jody Roll traveled all the way from Tuscon, Arizona. They’re visiting Lisa Fitzpatrick, who lives in D.C., and all three wound up with tickets to the Peace Ball. Rittinger says, “I thought, what a great way to celebrate, without celebrating the — ” she pauses. “The events.”
She looks around the room. “This felt like the only right thing to do.”
On their way in, they passed a small group of young people walking in the opposite direction. Some of the guys had on “those red baseball hats,” Fitzpatrick said, but it was one of the women who yelled out, “You’re a nasty woman!” as she went by.
“We said, why don’t you walk in the March with us?” says Roll. “And she said, ‘I’m not a nasty woman.’”
Rittinger cuts in. “I’m a nasty woman.”
The women estimated that this group of Trump supporters were on the younger side, in their twenties and thirties. And they were particularly disheartened to see women among the men, supporting Trump and heckling strangers.
“What makes me sad is, they don’t think this applies to them,” says Rittinger. “And what we are marching for applies to them.”
The night before she came to D.C., Rittinger was at a Pantsuit Republic meeting in Houston. (For all the talk about Hillary Clinton being a flawed, unlikable candidate who ran a flawed, unlikable campaign, her branding sure seems to have had a lot of staying power.)
Rittinger spoke about “the pussy remark, and what that means to me as a rape survivor. Women in the room were nodding their heads.”
Coming to the Peace Ball, Rittinger says, “is more of being around people that feel the same way as you. It’s comforting. And we are still a force to be reckoned with. We lost this battle, but we haven’t lost the war.”
Van Jones, who was perhaps the first person on live television to articulate exactly what he saw unfolding on election night while other broadcasters scrambled in their shock — “This was a whitelash against a changing country” — steps onstage to introduce Angela Davis.
As he hypes arguably the most iconic guest in the flesh here tonight, a man in glitter eyeshadow darts through the crowd. He asks, “Are you going to the Women’s March?” and doles out pink pussy hats in ziplock bags.
Davis takes the stage, takes in the space. “Is this not the place to be at this moment?” she asks, and a roar goes up in the room.
“Inauguration is happening tomorrow, but this is a people’s inauguration. This is an inauguration of the resistance to come,” she says. “Let us say that the next 1,460 days — and he will not be in office any longer and hopefully not that long — those days will constitute a rising tide of resistance. Resistance to this last gasp of a dying white male supremacy.”
Just hours ago, the Hill reported that Trump plans to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.” Now, Davis is saying, “We need art, we need music, we need poetry. We’ve witnessed some amazing examples of creativity on this stage… and now you are about to witness a performance by one who will help us to produce the anthems of our resistance.”
And the evening inches close to midnight, Solange comes onstage and sings: Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.