Vashti Bandy sipped her coffee, cleared her throat, clenched her fists, and readied her lungs. Five people had showed up to scream at the sky outside City Hall, and she was going to outscream them all.
That's what the Facebook event, organized by the local progressive group Philly UP, had advertised: "Scream Helplessly at the Sky" to mark the election of President Trump a year ago. Participants were to gather outside City Hall and let loose after a year of health-care fights, travel bans, various threats to defund the city, congressional hearings that doubled as soap operas, and late-night tweets threatening nuclear war. The event was billed as a cathartic release. A primal scream. And, organizers said Wednesday night, mostly a joke.
Still, about 700 people had signed up online to attend, enough that news crews showed up — and Philly's Young Republicans, with earplugs to protect passers-by from the howling. (A safe space, if you will.)
But by Wednesday night, everyone at City Hall — progressives and conservatives alike — seemed pleasantly surprised to see anyone there at all.
"This is actually hysterical," said Bandy, an organizer with Philly UP and a regular attendee at its flagship protest: the Tuesdays with Toomey gatherings outside Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's Center City office. "We have more of an audience than we have screamers."
The Young Republicans, who had issued a news release earlier in the day decrying the idea of screaming without actually getting anything done, were ready with camera phones, Trump buttons, and the aforementioned earplugs.
The screamers took their positions. The Young Republicans, about two dozen strong, whipped out their phones.
Bandy took a deep breath and let out a sustained, blood-curdling shriek.
"Come on! You can do better than that!" yelled the Young Republicans. (Several more screams followed, after a few stragglers arrived and realized they'd missed the main event.)
Afterward, Bandy, grinning, thanked everyone on the sidewalk for coming. She'd honed her lungs at karaoke nights around the city, she said, and the scream really had felt cathartic. But a year into Trump's America, she was feeling better about national politics than she had in a long time. The night before, Democrats had scored wins in elections around the country — sweeping to gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey on explicitly anti-Trump platforms.
"People were woken up by these elections, and instead of screaming in the streets, they got out and voted," she said. "It's kind of amazing."
On the other side of City Hall, the activist group Refuse Fascism, which organized protests around the country last weekend, held a small, separate protest, shouting into megaphones: "No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA."
Organizer Samantha Goldman, a kindergarten teacher, said the group hoped to eventually inspire millions into the streets, like the crowds that marched after Trump's inauguration. Several dozen police officers monitored the protest from bikes.
"We don't want to scream helplessly at the sky," Goldman said. "We want to scream like a pack of wolves" that can eventually bring down the administration.
The Young Republicans, on their way out, said they were riding high on a year of Trump and unconcerned by the Democratic gains. Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner, they said, was always going to win in Philadelphia, and in Virginia, Trump-endorsed Ed Gillespie, who lost a tight gubernatorial race, didn't adequately embrace the president's agenda.
As the small crowd dispersed, a passerby stopped to see what was going on. He glanced at the protest signs and the earplugs, took a long, considered breath, and opened his mouth.