Hundreds of thousands of people poured into Washington Saturday for the Women’s March, a larger-than-expected crowd determined to mount a roaring rejoinder to the inaugural gathering for Donald Trump one day earlier.

By mid-afternoon, organizers had decided the crowd was too big to formally march to the White House, although protesters were already on the move and speakers were still exhorting them to head toward the Ellipse.

“They are going to tell the crowd they can go to the Ellipse if they want, but they are not doing the normal parade route, there is too many people,” said Chris Geldart, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

The marchers, who came from around the country and sometimes slept on the couches of people they had never met before, overflowed the blocks at the east end of the National Mall. Organizers, who originally sought a permit for a gathering of 200,000, said Saturday they now expect as many as a half million participants, potentially dwarfing Friday’s inaugural crowd.

National co-chair of march: 'Unapologetically Muslim-American'

 
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Linda Sarsour, a national co-chair of the Women's March on Washington told the crowds she stood before them as an "unapologetically Muslim-American." (The Washington Post)

Similar scenes unfolded around the country. In Chicago, after a 150,000 demonstrators swamped downtown blocks, officials cancelled the march portion of the event. The Boston transit system added extra trains to accommodate tens of thousands of protesters there. Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York and Miami also drew big crowds.

In Washington, demonstrators said they wanted to take the most public possible stand against Trump, a candidate and now president whom they said routinely insults women and the issues they care about. But the gathering also provided a balm for many eager to immerse themselves in a like-minded sea of citizens who shared their anxiety and disappointment after Democrat Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency ended in defeat.

Clinton tweeted her gratitude as the rally got under way at 10 a.m., telling them: “Thanks for standing, speaking & marching for our values @womensmarch. Important as ever. I truly believe we’re always stronger together.”

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, 82, who was among the first speakers, looked out over the huge crowd and exulted, “This is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of democracy like I’ve never seen in my very long life.”

Marchers choked Metro lines. Inbound trains were packed with pink-hatted protesters, and the transit agency reported parking lots full at several stations by early in the day. By 11 a.m., Metro had clocked 275,000 transit rides. (By the same hour on Inauguration Day, 193,000 trips had been taken.)

Around the National Mall, the sound system struggled to reach everyone in the massive crowd. Marchers said far more portable toilets were needed. Some stores in the area had been stripped of poster board.

Bird's-eye view shows huge crowds marching towards White House

 
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A view from the top of the Washington Monument shows large crowds near the National Mall attending the Women's March on Washington. (The Washington Post)

“You won’t get in. We can’t move,” said one woman on the phone from an overrun spot near American Indian Museum. She advised other marchers to seek other spots along the planned route.

Though the marchers were mostly female and white, men and people of color also joined the crowd. Cynthia English, a 61-year-old Jamaican-American living in Florida, said she wanted the new president to know that women will be fighting during his presidency to ensure that the country and laws treat them equally. She was with her daughter and marching for her two granddaughters in that hope that no future president feels comfortable making lewd comments about women.

“I don’t want this to happen to them 20 years from now, so I am making my mark now,” English said. “Why are we the ones that bring people into this world, and we are treated the worst? We should be treated with respect.”

The crowd was buoyant, even joyous. Many held up signs — “I Am Very Upset!” and “Love Trumps Hate” and “Bridges Not Walls” — while others took videos of the moment on their cell phones. Every few minutes, a rolling roar swept over them, echoing through the concrete concourse. D.C. police said they had made no march-related arrests, compared to more than 200 when protesters created choas in downtown Washington.

Judith Snyder-Wagner was among them. The 67-year-old former fundraising consultant said she has sensed a shift in the rural, blue-collar community near Canton, Ohio, where she lives with her wife, Joy. A neighbor mowed a piece of grass along their property line and put up a Trump sign facing their home. Someone recently drove through the neighborhood flying a Confederate flag.

“We’ve been afraid,” Judith Snyder-Wagner said, her voice quavering. She was limping up the sidewalk on Independence Avenue. She has had both her knee and hip replaced, and she held a cane in one hand and a poster in the other. “We just feel like we’re going to lose our civil rights.”

The couple boarded a bus at 1 a.m. Saturday in Ohio and will head home less than 24 hours later. “We needed to feel inspired,” Joy Snyder-Wagner said, looking around. “And we do.”

Trump’s election was the wake up call that progressives needed, said Erin Edlow, 28, the membership director of the Virginia Beach Young Democrats. She was in town with her sister to demonstrate her support for LGBT and immigrant rights.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” she said.

The march has turned into the weekend’s star-studded event, with celebrities including Janelle Monáe, Scarlett Johansson and Ashley Judd making appearances. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) introduced herself as a proud “chick mayor” and implored the Republican majority in Congress to stop meddling in the District’s local lawmaking.

Activist filmmaker Michael Moore ripped The Washington Post in half, noting the headline “Trump Takes Power” and declaring “I don’t think so.” Actress America Ferrera declared that “our new president is waging a war” on the values that define the country with “a credo of hate fear and suspicion of one another.”

“It’s been a heart-rending time to be both a woman and an immigrant,” said Ferrera, whose parents are from Honduras. “Our dignity, our character, our rights have been under attack.”

“But the president is not America,” she said. “We are America.”

The demonstration’s organizers have embraced an imperiled liberal agenda, in sharp contrast to much of what Trump laid out for his presidency. The platform calls for ending violence against women, workers’ rights, reproductive rights, environmental justice, immigrant rights and more.

But a group of anti-abortion women also came, beseeching the larger march to recognize their variety of feminism. Whether or not to include the conservative viewpoint sparked controversy in the days before the march. Anti-abortion women said they have been excluded.

Siobhan Rooney, 32, drove from Philadelphia this morning to march for women’s rights. For her that includes the rights of their unborn children.

“We are in the same page on so many issues. It’s just this one issue,”she said.

With a golden retriever service dog, Fargo, by her side, U.S. Army veteran Khai Willson walked toward the marchers with a sign in her hand: “I served for better than this.”

Willson said she is well positioned to influence Trump supporters who might be otherwise difficult to persuade: She’s white, middle class and a veteran.

“I have a lot of privilege,” said Willson, now a freelance copywriter. “I have to use that to engage with people.”

John Fisher, a 34-year-old locksmith from Grand Rapids, Mich., drove more than nine hours with his wife Kara Eagle.

I’m here to support my wife,” said Fischer. “I don’t care who you are, women impact your life and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have the same rights as men.”

steve.hendrix@washpost.com