When she was a kid, Juanita Ocampo wanted to go to Washington. She dreamt of visiting the Smithsonian and taking in the history.
In January, she got her chance. But museums weren’t her priority.
Growing up in Minneapolis, Juanita had a rough childhood. Sexually abused and confused, by her teen years she was coping with drugs and alcohol and doing everything she could to escape. Destructive and depressed, she mostly blamed herself. As a 19-year-old, she finally began to deal with her past and to understand where to go from there.
After Donald Trump won the election, Ocampo had the overwhelming feeling that she needed to finally see the capital. She was uncomfortable with the way Trump treated and spoke of women, but she didn’t know what she could do about it. When she heard about the Women’s March on Washington, Juanita booked her ticket.
The day before the march, Ocampo took a walk around the city, knowing she would find at least one anti-Trump protest. Shouts of “Hey ho, Donald Trump has got to go” caught her attention. She joined the group as they held signs, played instruments, and blocked traffic. Drivers stopped to record with their phones or pump their fists in solidarity.
Ocampo says she was in the second row of protesters when the group reached a police line. As the crowd shouted for the police to let them pass, people began to get restless. A protester in front of her threw something at the police. The next thing she felt was an intense burning in her eyes and sounds of commotion.
She'd been pepper-sprayed.
Unable to move and trying to regain her vision, she was pushed by police and ordered to move back.
The burning in her face and eyes continued as she moved away from the crowd, desperate to find the medical tent she had seen a few blocks back. She was treated with a liquid designed to stop the burning, but instead made it worse.
Only later did she learn that others had been sprayed too, including a child, a disabled person, and an elderly Native woman she'd walked behind.
The next day, as she walked with over a million other women, Ocampo finally felt like she had a voice. Where she used to feel inadequate, she felt empowered. Instead of allowing men to take advantage of her, she knew she would be able defend herself.
In the aftermath, people have criticized protesters for leaving their signs all over the city’s monuments. For Juanita, they are a message from women to our legislators, the president, and to little girls all over the country, stating very clearly: “We were here.”
When she gets back to Minnesota, Ocampo will continue to fight for the rights of women, LGBTQ, immigrants, and minorities, even if it’s not easy.
“I’d be willing to get sprayed all over again if it means regaining the sense of empowerment and dignity that I felt in D.C.,” Ocampo says.