The man walked a half-step slower than most of the couple of thousand marchers on North Broad Street, aided by the cane he clutched in his left hand, and you might say he looked a tad out of place in his fedora and dapper suit — except that no one really looked out of place at a massive march Wednesday where the pink-haired and nose-ringed walked side by side with gray-haired vets of Vietnam protests.
Indeed, Jonathan Wheeler, a 73-year-old lawyer who lives and works in Center City, acknowledged that he hadn't protested much since the 1960s, but said the outrages of the last week — the surfacing of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Virginia, the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, and President Trump's "both sides" responses — made it imperative to be here, at the march dubbed "Philly Is Charlottesville."
"I thought this was important. I think it's time for people to stand up for what they believe in," said Wheeler, who said he was appalled to see such blatant racism and anti-Semitism after America had elected its first black president nine years ago. "This is the only way that a citizen can effectively present his views and challenge authority — and speak truth to power."
A couple of blocks away, 24-year-old Kiara Malcom — who recently moved to Philadelphia from a small Indiana town that voted heavily for Trump and now works in an organic market — said that this was her first protest, but that just like Wheeler, she felt she had to be here.
"It was the white supremacy, that fact that they feel like they can come out and show their faces so bluntly, it made me angry," she said, holding aloft a tall sign that read, "You Are the Ones Who Are Out of Step With Our Society."
There have been a slew of protests since Trump's surprise election victory in November, but Wednesday night's fairly impromptu throng that marched about 10 blocks down North Broad — several thousand protesters who became America's top trending topic on Twitter — felt differently. The issues at stake — wide-open white supremacy and neo-Nazism, and a president who seemed to be on that side — appeared even more urgent and existential. The general mood was: Do you believe that in 2017 we're dealing with this … baloney.
There's a popular meme that's been making the rounds since Trump's election, and it's accelerated since the horrific events in Charlottesville last weekend. It's that if you've ever wondered what you would have done during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, or the Holocaust, or during the civil rights era or Vietnam War protests…. that whatever you're doing now is what you would have done then.
The people on North Broad thought this was what they had to be doing right now.
While big, left-leaning protest marches tend to bring back memories of the 1960s, the weekend images of marchers in Charlottesville carrying Nazi flags and reviving the Hitler-era chant of "Blood and soil" meant that thoughts of the 1930s and '40s were never far from the surface, from the cardboard signs like "When We Said Never Again We Meant Never F-ing Again" to the opening speech by Rabbi Eli Freedman in front of his Congregation Rodeph Shalom temple on North Broad. He held up a "Juden" badge of the type Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany.
"This symbol does not feel so far away," said Freedman, addressing the marchers from the back of a flatbed truck as he recounted how neo-Nazis had marched past services at a Charlottesville temple last Saturday chanting "Sieg heil!" "And sadly, anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate are not confined to the South," he added, noting the desecration of a Jewish cemetery and vandalism at Philadelphia synagogues since November.
The "Never Again" mode of reaction has only intensified with Trump's appalling behavior over the last five days — in which the world has looked on with horror while the man in the Job Formerly Known as Leader of the Free World has refused to take a firm stand against neo-Nazis and white supremacists, creating a massive moral crater at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Call what's happening right now "a time for choosing" (and yes, that was also the name of a speech by Ronald Reagan). When the leader of our country is OK with intolerance and hatred, silence equals complicity. Conversely, morality demands action — speaking out, at a minimum, or, better yet, lacing up your marching boots. As Springsteen sang not so long ago, "This old town's been rousted, which side you on?"
The "Philly Is Charlottesville" march was the local flowering of what felt on Wednesday like a national tipping point. One by one, America's captains of industry — who played footsie with Team Trump in the hope of massive tax cuts and other goodies from the GOP's pro-business grab bag — have jumped ship, killing off the president's advisory councils and raising the bigger question of whether Trump can survive without corporate America standing behind him. The baby steps of GOP congressional resistance — mostly feckless statements that condemn racism and intolerance but make no reference to Trump — may turn into a mad dash once representatives realize their big donors would rather deal with No. 46, a President Mike Pence.
The inevitable yet rapid, Berlin Wall-esque collapse of Trump's moral authority, if not his seven-month-old presidency, has created a moment that on one level is unrelentingly depressing — and yet it also suggests a moment when any and all things are possible. That radical positive thinking was not far under the radar at the march — the notion that everyday citizens should channel their disgust over the graphic images of Nazi and Confederate flags, and see the day-to-day realities of Pennsylvania's unfair school funding or police "stop-and-frisk" tactics in black neighborhoods in a new tiki-torchlit light.
While a parade of speakers from rabbis and imams to union leaders and immigration activists decried neo-Nazism and our current president, some of the most impassioned words were for a $15 living wage, for the rights of the transgender, or to boost funding for Philadelphia's police advisory board that reviews officer misconduct. The crowd roared as it heard from Javier Flores, who's been living inside the Arch Street Methodist Church, where the rally concluded, for the last nine months to avoid deportation. "We need to keep fighting not only for ourselves but for the generations behind us," Flores said through an interpreter.
America's crisis of leadership under Trump is both a scary time and a revolutionary time. It reminds me of a comment that a conservative Berkeley, Calif., city councilman named John DeBonis said at the height of campus unrest, as captured in the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties:
"Don't ever say that we're going into a revolution," he said. "We're in a revolution. Now the question is who is going to win it."