If you typed “inauguration” into your web browser anytime between 2017 and 2020, you likely saw an image of a person in a neon green jacket, black winter hat and glasses screaming “Nooooooooooo!” That person was Jess, who was in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2017 to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
This “Nooooooooooo!” flew out of Jess after the oath of office, during what seemed to be a deeply painful and private moment. But what Jess didn’t know at the time was that they were being filmed by a UK media outlet. Within hours, this became the scream heard ‘round the world, the meme seen ‘round the world, and a symbol of “liberal fragility” for Trump supporters. Fearing for their safety, Jess went into a sort of hiding – on social media, and in their personal life. Four years later, Jess tells their story for the very first time.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Jess: It felt like. It felt like being on the Titanic for like being on the Titanic and being like, I know the iceberg’s coming, I know the iceberg’s coming, and oh my God, one, two, three. And we're hitting it.
Ben: We are talking to a person we’re calling Jess outside on a Spring day in March 2021. But they’re telling us about a different day. January 20th, 2017.
Jess: And it was like 5:00 a.m. or something crazy, which to me is just like that's the a**-crack of dawn. Nobody needs to get up that early.
Ben: Jess and a friend had traveled hundreds of miles to Washington D.C. specifically for this day.
Jess: So we get to D.C. like nobody's around. It's, the streets are empty. It's quiet. I have my camera with me, because when I go to events I love to take pictures. It's like I think it's actually one way that as an introvert I can like show up somewhere. That's what I've always done when I've gone to protests is take pictures.
Amory: There was a designated area just off Pennsylvania Avenue for protestors.
Jess: And my friend was like, bundle the f*** up because we're going to be out there all day and there's no place to go to warm up.
Jess: So I had on these like two layers of coats and like all this stuff and just bright green coat.
Ben: And by bright green, Jess really means neon lime green. Almost like a construction worker’s uniform, with those reflective stripes running along the arms. When you put on a jacket in the morning, it’s rare that you think this will probably be immortalized by the internet...forever.
Jess: Yeah, you really couldn't miss me, you couldn't miss me with that coat on. Turns out…. that color will forever haunt me. Hahaha.
Amory: It was approaching noon, and the street was packed with sign-toting Trump supporters, protesters, and the sounds of pomp and circumstance.
Jess: And they had these huge speakers all the way up and down the street. I mean, it felt like we were in frickin' like Nazi Germany or something. It was like, all of a sudden it was just the sound of these voices coming over everything. It was like, “you will now listen to us because we are in control.” Oh, yeah, hahaha.
Amory: But as the actual inauguration proceedings began, something started brewing within Jess.
Jess: I don't even remember honestly what it was, but it was somebody speaking. I was just like, we're so screwed, this is so bad. We're in so deep.
Ben: Missouri senator Roy Blunt kicked off the swearing-in ceremony.
Jess: Please stand for the inauguration, blah blah blah. And I just in my head, I was like, oh hell no. I was like, if there's one thing I can do right now is not stand for this motherf*****, right? So I sat down.
Martin Geissler: I first noticed Jess just a few seconds before Donald Trump was about to take the oath of office.
Amory: This is Martin Geissler.
Amory: Martin and his cameraman had been traveling around the U.S. for three or four weeks straight in the lead up to inauguration day, documenting people’s hopes and fears for a Trump presidency. And now, the day — and the moment — were here, and the emotions for some were high.
Martin: I looked about five feet to my right and there was somebody on their knees on the ground with their head in their hands.
Jess: Bearing witness to this disastrous moment, was like all I could do. So I just sat there with my eyes closed.
Martin: And it was pretty clear that this person was going to give a reaction. So I tapped my cameraman on the shoulder and just pointed down and said, look, film them. And as soon as the oath of office finished, the commentator said, “Donald J. Trump is now President of the United States.” And that was the moment.
Jess: And I just. It just came out.
Martin: That was the moment Jess let loose this kind of primal scream
Jess: That was pretty much what happened was I screamed and they caught me. S***. Hahaha.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and this is Endless Thread.
Ben: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. And right now, we’re talking about memes.
Amory: Their cultural, historical, and personal impact.
Jess: And I was like, just literally wanted to disappear.
Amory: The Scream.
Amory: March 25th, 2021: We meet Jess, who is telling their story for the first time to us, about the scream that meme’d them, four years ago.
Ben: Jess shows up in a Black Lives Matter hoodie. Their hot-pink-streaked hair coiffed up and to one side. They’re in their 40s, but they have a kind of punk rock vibe and youthful energy. They seemed comfortable, but the nerves are definitely there.
Jess: Do you have like sort of a plan of like starting with questions and like kind of leading the conversation?
Amory: Yes. Yes, we do.
Jess: Yeah. Figured.
Amory: Whether we stick to them or not is another story.
Ben: Where we meet was the furthest thing from Pennsylvania Avenue on inauguration day. We were in a woodsy, remote spot, not far from where Jess lives.
Amory: Jess is an artist living in the northeast. And there’s a reason we’re being vague about their actual name and personal details. Jess has basically been in hiding since 2017, and that moment at President Donald Trump’s inauguration that led to their screaming face being plastered across the internet.
Ben: Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Jess is not a big fan of memes.
Amory: Surprisingly, it’s not just because they became one.
Jess: Because I didn't grow up with, like, TV and stuff, I always missed the references. And actually so that's been a big thing with me, with memes is like, I don't get it.
Amory: But even when Jess doesn’t get the joke of a particular meme – which, Jess, I feel you – they get what’s fundamentally happening.
Jess: As an artist, I can appreciate taking imagery and sharing it and changing it and playing off of each other, having the images play off each other.
Ben: Which is how content gets meme-ified. Remember our group of meme experts...who we’re calling our Meme Chorus? They talked a good bit about this.
Sarah Laiola: They take off in a way that becomes replicable.
Gianluca Stringhini: So we are not talking about the same image that’s shared over and over, but it is a variation.
Joan Donovan: Great memes invite you to remix them and to add a different slogan or to change up the image.
Kenyatta Cheese: Then somebody can go and say, oh, I can make my own version. I know how to actually participate in this meme.
Jess: But I guess that a lot of them feel really lowbrow. And I don't kind of appreciate the crudeness of the quality.
Ben: Being in on the joke is one thing. Being the joke is another. A particular feeling particular meme subjects know all about. And Jess was about to learn, too. But first, they were mulling the rise of Donald Trump and what to do about it.
Jess: As a queer person, as a person in a female body, as a person in white skin, as an artist, I have wondered and struggled with, like, how do I make a difference? Because I grew up with a lot of, like, political activism around me, and I really thought for a long time that I needed to do some kind of, like, soap soapbox like. And now I think, you know, “don't you realize?!” like that kind of energy of like “don't you realize?!” And I was like, you know what? It's just not me.
Ben: So when a friend of Jess’ asked if they wanted to drive to D.C. to protest on inauguration day...
Jess: I was like, no. Let me think about that for a second...NO.
Amory: But then they thought about why they would go…
Jess: There are so many things wrong right now. Black people being shot, that I’ll go for. Like misogyny, climate change, just like all these things that we're like, OK, you know what, I don't really want to, but if I don't bring my voice and stand up for what I believe in like that is the ultimate, like, lazy white privilege.
Amory: So back to that moment on inauguration day.
Ben: There’s a sea of people standing in the protest area, listening to Donald Trump get sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. But Jess is sitting. Cross-legged on the cold, hard pavement, in their neon green jacket.
[John Roberts: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.]
[Donald Trump: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.]
Jess: And so just sitting there, it just came from that void, that wellspring of agony of the millennia of people being wronged and nobody being there to say no or them saying no and nobody listening. Right. I'm like, here's this guy that's literally like “grab ’em by the p****.” And they say, “no.” And he laughs. Like, that's who???
[Roberts: Preserve, protect, and defend. Trump: Preserve, protect, and defend. Roberts: The Constitution of the United States. Trump: The Constitution of the United States. Roberts: So help me God. Trump: So help me God. Robert: Congratulations, Mr. President.]
Jess: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Ben: But in this very moment on inauguration day 2017, this “no” that was bubbling up within Jess came out… differently.
Ben: And then, it came out again.
Amory: And again.
Jess: It felt like the Earth opened up and sent this “NO” through me, that was just like. This needs to be heard at this point on this planet.
Jess: People told me later that it was like 12 of them, I think, in a row.
Ben: By the third “no” that came pouring out of Jess, they had their arms straight out to their sides, fingers spread, as if they were giving a command.
Jess: I felt like it was some kind of spell that I was casting. It was like, I am going to just like push out this energy of “no” and be like, “you don't get to do this anymore.”
Amory: But it was just the beginning – of Trump’s presidency, and of something else that Jess never saw coming.
Jess: So what happened was I opened my eyes, and there was – what I experienced as – a sea of video cameras.
Ben: What happened next would have Jess going into hiding, in a way, for a good four years.
Amory: More, in a minute.
Ben: ITV News reporter Martin Geissler was among the scrum of cameras capturing Jess and their scream. He had been watching in awe.
Martin: It was a really profound moment because it wasn't manufactured. It came from somewhere right within this person's soul. And when you see something like that happen, you kind of take a step back and let it sink in.
Amory: But not too far of a step back, because Martin and his cameraman were rolling on the whole thing.
Amory: Jess on the ground, shaking their head, face red, mouth fully agape as they push out these “no’s” through tears. It is arresting, and if it weren’t so out loud and in a crowd, you’d think you were watching the most private moment of someone’s life.
Ben: And right after that arresting moment happened, Martin and his producer interviewed Jess briefly. Here’s what came out.
[Jess: I am so sorry. To my world. I am so sorry to my world. This is not what we want. There is so much potential, um, for beauty and for devastation in this one moment it’s just almost incomprehensible that they can exist right now. It’s just so, so close.]
Amory: Imagine having a moment like this — raw, unfiltered, messy emotion pouring out of you, to the extent that you’re not sure you’re even stringing sentences together. We’ve all had these moments. And if we’re lucky, they happen in the arms of a loved one, or alone in the shower, or basically anywhere other than in public and on camera at arguably the biggest event in the world that day.
Ben: When video producers are in the field, they often get permission from their subjects to use the footage. And by the time Martin’s producer approached to ask if they could use the footage, Jess was drained and dazed and didn’t think much of it. They didn’t know what ITV was anyway.
Jess: So I just was like, “Sure, whatever, use it,” um, really not thinking that through, like what that might mean.
Ben: What it meant, in this case, is that Jess’s scream was going up online for anyone to find.
Martin: I can't remember whether I tweeted it. Uh, I think I probably did.
Amory: And almost immediately, people found it.
Martin: We went back to the office and started the edit to put the film together for for that night's news. And I think the producer came up at some point during that and said, look, have you seen this it’s going crazy.
Jess: I get this text from somebody that I didn't know super well, you know, an acquaintance. “Oh, are you in Washington at the protest? Are you wearing a green coat?” And I was thinking. “No way he's here. He saw me.” I wrote back, you know, “Were you here?” And he didn't write back. And I was just kind of like, OK, whatever. And then somebody else, again, that I don't know super well, but that I know texted me, this was even later that same night and it was like, “Do you know that, like you’re like online?,” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” And she's like, “Yeah, like your video, the video of you.” As like and it just it just made me feel sick.
Ben: It was pretty late at this point. Jess was staying at a friend’s house in D.C., and their friend was already asleep… but Jess was starting to panic. So they went downstairs where their friend’s mom was watching TV.
Jess: And I walk in and I'm like, I need like, “Can I talk to you?” And, you know, she's somebody that had done plenty of protests in her day and whatever, and she was like, “Well, you know, it's not like it's going to be on The Washington Post. You don't need to worry.”
Amory: That is some quaint consolation right there. Although, the friend’s mom was right. It wasn’t The Washington Post Jess needed to worry about. It was the world wide web. Twitter. Facebook. Reddit. Real news sites. Fake news sites. The Scream was spreading.
Ben: The next day Jess was at the Women’s March their green jacket back on among a mess of pink hats, when they heard from another friend.
Jess: And she's like, “Already over five million people have viewed it.” And my brain is just *PEW*. Like, I can't comprehend that number. What does that even mean? Five million people have already viewed it. And what have they viewed?
Ben: Jess described the feeling of being in a coma when they screamed “NO.” So recollection that it happened maybe but they certainly hadn’t seen it. But by then, millions of other people had.
Martin: It was the moment of the day – of a massive day – and it summed up for me what a huge chunk of America was feeling that day. So I'm not I'm not surprised it went viral.
Ben: From virality it jumped into full-blown memehood. People made it their own, adding fake captions for the scream in the comments section. Things like, “Vegans when they find out they are made of meat.”
Ben: And, “Lactose intolerant people when they realize they live in the Milky Way.” A lot of this stuff is – you have to admit – kind of funny. But when your particular meme is political, people use you for their own ridicule, which can feel different from the other kinds of meme jokes.
Amory: Some Trump supporters were quick to chalk Jess’ reaction up to “liberal fragility,” including this YouTuber who added some jazzy piano and wintery clip-art to the original video.
[YouTube video: Cheer up, snowflake. Everything’s going to be alright. Brought to you by people who are tired of your bulls***.]
Ben: Traveling even further and faster, perhaps, were the GIFs and screenshots… screamshots?... of the epic “NO.”
Jess: You would look up “inauguration” and you'd see pictures of Trump and you'd see me screaming like that would be what would come up, and that blew my mind.
Amory: People made drawings of Jess’ face. They photoshopped a MAGA hat on their head. Others showed Trump embracing Jess or worse, from behind. There are endless iterations. Many of them messed up. Cruel.
Ben: Jess says they had the classic car crash reaction to the onslaught of online response. You want to look away, you should look away...
Jess: But I couldn't stop looking, it was like, oh my God, there's another meme. And I'd read all the comments and it would just be like this. I mean, some of the stuff like, I literally won't even repeat it, it’s so triggering. And I was like, yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Like, there you go. You just proved why I said all that.
Ben: Jess didn’t say much more about this feeling – of being glued to watching how something they did was being twisted, weaponized, ridiculed exponentially as it flew around the internet. Except, they said it’s really awful what people will say when making you into a meme.
Amory: There is one iteration, though, that Jess has actually come to appreciate. And fortunately, it’s the one that rose to the top to give the meme its official name in the online meme-cyclopedia Know Your Meme.
Jess: Luke Crywalker.
Ben: If you have recently resurfaced from being under an actual rock since, say, 1980, boy, do we have a doozy of a Star Wars spoiler for you...
Jess: There's the scene where Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his dad, and he screams “no” in this like way that's the way I scream “no!”
[Star Wars clip: Darth Vader: Search your feelings, you know it to be true.]
[Luke Skywalker: Noooooooo nooooooooo.]
Amory: So, of course, someone made a mash-up of the two.
Jess: And I was like, that's just freaking brilliant. I mean, it's funny, right? Because it's like totally, like, that is so Trump is like Darth Vader like. “Noooooo. That cannot be my dad. That can not be my president.” That’s impossible.
Ben: Jess also delighted in a more subtle aspect of the Luke Crywalker moniker...
Jess: They couldn't tell my gender. And I am genderqueer. Like, I'm nonbinary. And so I loved that when people were like that person or just even like thinking they were like being mean by being like, “Was it a girl? I don't know.” It's like, haha. Yeah. You don't know, do you?
Amory: A gender Jedi mind trick. But as any true Star Wars fan knows, Luke’s weakness is fear.
[Yoda: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.]
Jess: I think one of the most painful things about how it affected me personally was I didn't feel safe putting my name out there anymore.
Amory: It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be the subject of a meme that blows up. People immediately start trying to figure out who you are.
Ben: And where you are.
[YouTube video: If anybody knows where that inauguration screamer is, please post it below.]
Ben: Depending on their motivations, you might not want people to find you. But people were trying to find Jess. Doxx Jess. Maybe to do worse than had already been done.
Jess: Friends were like, take yourself off social media, like people are going to come find you and want to harass you and potentially hurt you like that was the honest like response I was getting from people that knew me and knew this was happening.
Ben: But beyond the fear of any physical harm, Jess was most worried about losing their sense of purpose and even their sense of self.
Jess: Part of the process for me was trying to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn't me. It was a person that was screaming “no.” Like it wasn't this personal identity of something about me specifically that was going viral. And because for a long time it was like, oh, like, oh my God, this is so mean or these comments are so violent. It was like I felt at all like friends and family and my therapist and people kept being like, “You need to separate yourself from that image.”
Amory: Jess wasn’t sure how to do that. For a while, they were keeping a list of all the different Scream memes they came across. They thought maybe they could turn it into some sort of work of art.
Ben: But even that felt insurmountable. Jess couldn’t use it to their advantage. It was too much. Which was obvious to the people around Jess.
Amory: We spoke to a few of Jess’ friends, and they all said some variation of the same thing: Jess became more timid, more guarded, more selective in who they spoke to and what they were willing to share. Jess didn’t reinvent themself or stop making art or become a recluse off the grid. They went into a more emotional sort of hiding. And as a result, Jess’ light just… dimmed.
Ben: Something that was pretty remarkable actually, in the age of infinite connection of the internet: The people looking for Jess couldn’t find them.
[YouTube video: But the thing is what do we know about her? She seems to have completely disappeared from the face of the planet since that one day where she rode into fame.]
Ben: This is a YouTuber still posing about Jess’s image in 2020 almost three years after their scream became a meme.
Amory: Jess has felt some regret over shying away from public view after all this, but it has nothing to do with money.
Jess: I did not feel like I had it in me. Like, literally, I didn't have the the life force, the energy in me to go head to head with anyone that wanted to come at me about this. And and I really I felt really bad about that actually for a long time was like, “Really like you basically were just given a platform.” You could be like, “Hey, that was me. And here's what I mean.” And I'm going to say this other thing and I'm going to point to this thing and I'm going to be like, rah rah rah soapbox. Right, 15 minutes. I got it. And I did nothing with it.
Ben: Jess isn’t exactly looking for a second shot at that 15 minutes. As we said, this interview with us? It’s the first one they’ve done since talking to ITV News 4 years ago in the middle of Donald Trump’s inauguration. And they’ve been asked before. It’s a big deal for Jess, and, a big step. One that Jess feels ready to take in part because of an epiphany they’ve had recently about memes.
Jess: I think that memes are interesting in that they're they're an opportunity for people to kind of project onto a shared surface. Right. Like a shared image of shared concept, like something about themselves, something about themselves that like, um. It says more about them than it says about me. And that was interesting to finally, like, register that.
Jess: I think that speaks so strongly to the flaws in our culture, it's like anyone that stands up for the underdog, anyone that stands up for themselves, anyone that like wants to speak out on something immoral, it's like, oh, let's shame them so that we don't look bad. And I think there's something at the root of all that that's just like people missing access to their own power. It's like if you don't have access to your own “NO” or your own power and you try to take away other people's and their “no,” or their “yes,” whatever it is and their power, it's like that's dark.
Amory: There’s another side to this, though. Because a few months before we sat down with Jess, almost exactly four years after they became a meme, ridiculed for the way they “accessed their NO” in protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration, we saw a kind of mirror image – much more violent and distorted – come into view.
Ben: Pro-Trump protestors, many of them armed, some of them displaying the imagery of white supremacy, stormed the U.S. Capitol and looted the building, causing destruction of property and committing acts that are currently being prosecuted as assault and conspiracy. Testimony in court has revealed how rioters beat and maced police officers and shouted death threats at officers. Things like, “Kill him with his own gun.” Some are calling these acts of treason. Whatever you call it, it’s a far cry from Jess’s scream – which was in some ways a scream of resignation – not a violent resistance to a new regime. Jess’s scream didn’t hurt anyone. But yet again, this intense political moment, where one large group became the IN group and another group felt like it became the OUT group – and was not happy about it – resulted in memes.
Amory: And again, some of those memes inspired uninvited all-out searchers to find the subjects of them. In some cases, the meme images were used to arrest people. Prosecute them.
Ben: There are parallels here, even if it’s hard to compare an armed attack on the capitol to Jess screaming “NOOOOO.”
Amory: What is worth thinking about is how you can become a meme while trying to find some agency in the midst of a real or perceived attack on your personal freedom.
Ben: And whoever you are, whatever you believe, when you become a meme, you become a little less human in the eyes of people seeing the meme – which only drives the wedge between differing political ideologies deeper.
Martin: This conversation has made me think more about this story than I have done at any moment in the last five years. I mean, tell me about Jess. You know, how is Jess after all of this. And what impact did it have on her? Because I've never had a chance to find out.
Amory: Across the pond, Martin Geissler – the journalist who captured the scream – hasn’t followed the meme and its many iterations. But he also hasn’t lost sight of the fact that it might not exist at all without him.
Martin: Yeah, it's a great ethical and moral dilemma for our industry, isn't it?
Amory: It is interesting thinking about: What responsibility do the people who maybe don’t make the memes, but who make them possible, have in their existence? Where Martin lands on this, as a journalist, is actually pretty simple.
Martin: If you're asking me if I was in the same situation again tomorrow, would I do the same thing? Yeah, I would. I would hate it ever to be used as an opportunity to tell people to sanitize and to think carefully about situations like that and perhaps hold back from including footage like that, because the wickeder elements online might change it, manipulate to use it to their advantage because, you know, down the end of that road is the end of our industry. It's not a good place to go.
Amory: Martin was doing his job. Offering a window into the inauguration – unfiltered, uncensored, unsanitized. Jess had brought their camera there that day to do the same thing. They just never saw themself being in the spotlight. And neither Martin nor Jess could have imagined the consequences. But to answer Martin’s question about how Jess is doing today?
Jess: Honestly, it feels like I got in a bad accident and like my bones have healed. It's like, OK, so I might always have a slight limp around this issue, but I don't want to not do things with my life because this happened. I really, I want to move on.
Amory: The internet is moving on. Don’t believe us? Google me this: “inauguration meme.” What do you get?
Ben: You get a picture of Senator Bernie Sanders – face masked, legs crossed, hands crossed at the wrist, wearing a pair of comically oversized, handmade, adorable mittens.
[Bernie Sanders: In Vermont, uh we dress warm. We know something about the cold and we're not so concerned about good fashion, we want to keep warm.]
Ben: These are different times for Jess, too. They’re in the process of launching a business related to their art – putting themselves out there in a big way. And they’re revisiting the idea of making something out of the scream memes and the pictures they took on inauguration day.
Amory: Jess might even dust off the ol’ bright green jacket.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, pictures of Amory’s oatmeal or my breakfast sandwich? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. Call us. Yes, pick up the phone. 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We just might feature your voice memo and your suggestion on the show.
Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:
Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.
Amanda Brennanhas the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian.
Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Amory: Our series and our show is made by producers Dean Russell, Nora Saks and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson
Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Amory: Mix and Sound Design by Paul Vaitkus. Original music in this episode also by Paul Vaitkus.
Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner and Rachel Carlson.
Amory: If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.