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July 3, 2007Last weekend I made it down to Washington D.C. for the January 20th Inaugural bash to witness first hand the transition of presidential power, and of course the demonstrations and protests that were expected to accompany it. The swearing in of George W. Bush as the 43rd President would mark the first time that the highest office in the United States would be awarded to the loser of the popular vote since Benjamin Harrison (Grover Cleveland received 95,713 more votes) in 1888. There had been two other U.S. Presidents - John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes - who managed to ascend to the most powerful political office in the nation with more votes against than for them, but neither of those men came anywhere close to losing by 543,816 votes, which is the number Al Gore beat Bush by in the 2000 election. Tangibles like facts and figures be damned, Gore had bowed to the Supreme Court's decision. George Bush and Dick Cheney would be sworn in on a Sunday.
Armed only with a still camera and an old Super 8, I drove down from Brooklyn the night before and crashed at my friend's place off of Connecticut Avenue. Neither of us were there to wreak havoc, break windows or smash the state; our aim was simply to experience the proceedings, to put our fingertips to the national pulse, and express our dissatisfaction over the handling of the election. In doing that, it didn't take long for us to find ourselves in the middle of a tumultuous political demonstration, the likes of which I've never experienced before, with protesters and Bush supporters sharing the streets.
Our first stop on the morning of the 20th was Judiciary Square, the Eastern checkpoint and the anticipated spot where many of the $50 ticket holders would be lining up to fight for a position on the Capitol lawn. When we poked our heads up out of the Metro we were greeted with the cries of "Gore Got More!" from a crowd of about 30 disgruntled Democrats who were shouting at Republicans and random button-wearing Nader supporters. We quickly moved along and then began to make our way, slowly, across town, stopping for a cup of coffee before arriving at Dupont Circle, where it was rumored that Michael Moore and a bunch of other left-leaning speakers would be gathering.
Dupont Circle was Ground Zero for the demonstrations. Much more varied and diverse (and well attended) than the protest organized by Al Sharpton down at the Supreme Court, there were all sorts of random statements being made at Dupont Circle, by every possible protest group imaginable: a bunch of environmentalists from Alaska in Superfund-type cleanup suits hoisted a flag at the fountain in a silent protest over oil spills; a couple of college kids stood trying to put over a sketch comedy piece involving the sale of a be-all, end-all, all-you-would-ever-need "Republican" tonic (like that Paul McCartney/Michael Jackson video from back in the eighties, minus the music); the expected smattering of pro-choice activists; "I'm-From Texas-and-I-Don't-Like-Bush" chanters; the Partnership For Civil Justice; the Billionaires For Bush and Gore; reps from the Justice Action Movement; NOW supporters (Patricia Ireland was one of the first speakers); placard-bearers (with slogans like "If puppets aren't allowed to march, how will we have an inauguration?"); the Naked Cowboy, who walked through the crowd wearing only his underwear, a ten-gallon hat, and a guitar; atheists with pink hair; burned out leftists from the Vietnam protest days; paranoid conspiracy theorists; those just generally disgruntled with the Supreme Court decision and the handling of the 2000 election.
Among all these voices of dissent, the unifying sound was the people's disgust with the status quo. Despite their politics, most people were there to make a showing, have their say, and witness what was happening. With perfect timing one speaker rose up to the platform and put these sentiments into words. Her name was Dorothy Haddock, a 91-year old activist who takes as her personal mission the elimination of bribery and corruption and the re-institution of campaign finance reform and active democracy by the people. Sounding off in a voice reminiscent of a 1930's-era New York progressive reformer, Haddock, or Granny D as she's know to her fans, inveighed against corruption by quoting Ben Franklin, describing the proper uses of righteous anger, and invoking the spirit of '76. At 91 years of age, she's probably the only speaker that I can think of who could get away with such idealism. When you hear her speaking, in her crackly, accented voice, you can't help but being moved on many levels by her sincerity and sense of purpose.
Granny D's speech was perhaps as appropriate as anything could have been at that moment, for it was exactly then that the day took a dramatic turn. I was standing around reading signs, ("Selected, Not Elected," "The People Have Spoken, All 5 Of them," "This Is The Only Bush That's Fit For President" next to a squiggly picture of the female genitalia, "Hail To The Thief," "American, Inc." over an inverted flag), and talking to an old coworker of mine that I just happened to run into, when the announcement was made that some people would be making their way towards the parade via 14th street.
In the most leisurely fashion, protesters and demonstrators began filing out of Dupont Circle and weaving their way through the streets to the inauguration. Parents with kids, a couple with a Doberman Pinscher draped with a sign that read "I piss on Bushes," backpack-toting college students, crunchy granola environmentalists, aging hipsters lighting joints and younger suburban protesters trying to get away from the smell - all types of demonstrators made up the chaotic mass of people taking to the streets. And the funny thing is, they were able to just walk into the middle of the street, stop traffic, and move along. I stopped to ask a photographer taking pictures, who it turned out was from the Washington Post, if the throng's migration was cool with the cops and she said she thought it was because she knew that the protesters had a permit to march. So there we were, in the middle of the streets walking along, eerily almost, without any police presence whatsoever. The only cops we ran into were the ones directing traffic. Then we got to 14th and Vermont and all that changed.
The first indication that something was up was the helicopter circling overhead, a constant that we would see and hear all day. Up on the balcony of the Marriott Hotel a guy in a Clinton mask and pinstriped prison suit waved down on the crowd holding a "Clinton Counts" sign. At Vermont and 14th a group of people were stopped in front of us and, when we moved up to the line of police, we saw that no one was allowed to either enter or leave the section of the street that the police had isolated. It was unclear at that time what the cause was for the initial halt on the procession, which was supposedly sanctioned by the District, but the police had effectively encapsulated a section of the march. At that point the crowd spilled out and started to move around this area, through the alleys on both sides, to resume the walk to the official parade route.
A block later, the police again moved into the same sort of position in what was clearly an attempt to halt the demonstration, but instead of the quiet, going-about-our-business response that they met around the corner, this time there was a standoff. I was half a block away with three friends when I saw a kid dressed in all black scale a lamppost and tie a black flag above the crowd, while below a phalanx of police officers moved into position beneath him. Immediately the police attempted to push people back onto the street and contain the group, which was at this point, just like at Dupont, made up of a varied mixture of non-violent demonstrators. Most of the people in the way of the police moved back, but a few wouldn't budge, their firm stances met by police repeated poking and jabbing at them. The standoff quickly devolved as police angrily started swinging their nightsticks and whacking kids in the face. At that point the chants of "This is what Democracy looks like," and "Let them go," started up.
From there the situation went from bad to worse. The kid was still up on the lamppost, but the cops really didn't bother with him, as they were too busy sectioning the crowd into two groups: the perceived agitators and anarchists on one side (along with anyone who happened to get caught in the middle), and the bystanders and press, who were promptly forced off the street and up onto the curb, on the other. While this was going on, small eruptions in the crowd kept occurring, with kids getting clocked each time and the intensity rising. I even got caught and pushed in with this group for a minute or two until I could show some ID and talk my way out of the crowd. As I was pushed up against a group of protesters a guy ran over and handed me a card that read, "Report police misconduct at www.justiceonline.org." I was prepared to take a baton to the head for the first amendment, but luckily it never came to that.
At this point the Billionaires For Bush and Gore decided to stroll down the street like they owned the place, walking along, top hats perched on their heads, waving cigars and flinging stoles over shoulders. They were quickly herded off the street, but for a surreal second they held the stage, faux-fat cats and women of false privilege mixing with the rabble. Among their ranks a man on stilts balanced above the crowd.
Back in the crowd across the street, the Black Bloc crew continued their civil disobedience, refusing, non-violently, to comply with the demands that came in grunts and shouts from the police. For all the criticism this group gets, for ruining public property, smashing pane glass windows at Starbucks and McDonald's, and writing anti-WTO graffiti on private and public institutions, it's quite impressive when you see them in action, no matter how much you disagree with their methods. They put themselves in completely crazy positions, commit completely dangerous actions, and they do it all for their beliefs and the hope that the world will see them on the news and be moved to take a stance.
And the press was there covering it all, snapping pictures and getting shoved aside as they waved parade passes in futility in the faces of the police guards, who were by now lined up in long rows along the curb. It's amazing though, for all this coverage, the Washington Post, of all papers, was the only publication in the mainstream press to even come close to reporting on the massive public display of disapproval in a balanced manner. They were one of the few papers to run pictures of bloodied-up protesters and full-length articles on the overwhelming presence of demonstrators along all public sections of the parade. Unfortunately, too many papers, like the New York Times, found the floats and marching bands more interesting than the thousands upon tens of thousands of people that traveled from all over the country to stand in the 30-degree rain and stand up for the right to express what they believe in.
By the time we walked away from this scene, the kid in black up on the lamppost had jumped down into the arms of the crowd, things had died down and people had cooled out to a certain extent. We still didn't know what the police were planning to do with all the protesters they had surrounded. It seemed very possible that they were waiting for buses and paddy wagons so they could make a mass arrest, like they did at last year's D.C. WTO protest (out of all those arrests there were almost no convictions). To our surprise, we found out later that only two people were arrested from among the protesters on 14th street. Apparently, the police had refined their tactics since last year's demonstrations. Unaware of any of the details at that time, we walked off towards Pennsylvania Avenue, determined to get as close as possible to the parade route.
When we got down to the checkpoint by 14th street, there were kids beating buckets and dancing and singing in drum circles, and an odd mix of disheveled, wet protesters and well-dressed Bush supporters huddling under umbrellas. We waited for only about 20 minutes or so, in the middle of a big crowd, before we made it to the front line where policemen were checking bags and allowing people to pass to the edge of the fenced-off parade route. Strangely enough, when it was our chance to pass, we weren't frisked at all, and the guard gave only a cursory glance inside my camera bag before letting me go by. For all the problems a few blocks away, and the police presence up there, the cops at the checkpoint were surprisingly lenient. (I know this wasn't the case for most of the other checkpoints, but considering that at this one there was the highest concentration of demonstrators, I was really surprised at how easy we got through).
Beyond that point, protesters in Caribou heads walked around by the grandstand, which we found out later was originally designated for Bush supporters (i.e., $50 ticket holders). At that time, it was already filled with demonstrators who had apparently defied the parade volunteers and occupied all the empty seats. Closer to the street, small groups of people were engaging each other in political debates of all kinds: at one spot a New Black Panther Party speaker stood surrounded by supporters in their own riot gear, spouting off some militant rhetoric, while nearby a skinny white lady argued with a big black dude about the Panther's stance on race relations in this country. Under the grandstand, activists yelled about abortion rights, the labor movement, the environment, and active democracy, all the while civilly handing the microphone to one speaker after another.
Over the next two and a half hours, we walked back and forth down the line, basically between 14th and 12th streets. What we saw was a large group of demonstrators surrounding small pockets of Republicans, most of which were sitting in the grandstands away from the general crowd. In many places the two mixed and, despite political differences, people got along standing next to each other waiting for the same event to take place. In others, there were problems. Some Bush supporters didn't feel comfortable walking through the demonstrator's section and tried to walk outside the barricade on the street side. When the cops wouldn't let them, people yelled out, "You gotta' walk over here like all the rest of us," and "We won't hurt you, we just don't like who you voted for." In general, though, people used a healthy dose of laughter and sarcasm to diffuse what could have been an even tenser situation (like when the hail started coming down and a few in the crowd started up a rising chant of "Hail To The Thief"). Through it all, the imposing and faceless mass of riot police stood a few feet away on the other side of the fence, waiting to take down any disruptors of the peace.
By the time the cars and marching bands started passing by, the protests of the demonstrators by 14th street were deafening, with people yelling and chanting slogans like "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Bush and Cheney go away." Each group that passed by got booed louder than the last, from marching bands to flag wavers, to the mounted riot police trying to move into place to intimidate the crowd. Through no fault of their own, each passing civic group served as the symbol of the looming Bush presidency, and they suffered for it.
It was in this environment that the tensions rose and rose over the next few hours. Rumor had it that Clinton was taking a long time giving his speech and that's what was preventing the Bush motorcade from passing. With rain still falling, and the skies overcast, the crowd that was gathered in the particular section within my view was a few thousand strong at least (I still haven't heard an accurate estimate of this figure, thanks to the partial media blackout of the event), and when the Bush and Cheney limos finally arrived (after a now infamous five minute pause between 12th and 13th for security precautions), the most deafening, hate-filled roar went up from the crowd and lasted until long after the Secret Service agents, trotting along at a good clip behind Bush's car, were out of view.
At that precise moment I caught a quick glimpse of the limo and the agents through a wall of dangling arms suspended in the air, and fists, and mouths twisted up while screaming, and it was an incredibly surreal viewpoint. The sound of it all mixed with the looks of fear and anger and militaristic power on the faces of the policemen and women was a moving experience, a complete contrast of two distinct viewpoints boiled down to a simple moment, steeped in tradition - the coronation day atmosphere of kings parading before their subjects, with the democratic check and balance of the mob as the backdrop. At that point I couldn't help but think of something that we had witnessed earlier in the day, at 16th and H Street, where we saw a motorcade of limos and buses roaring through the streets with a police escort as traffic halted at green lights and waited for the line of vehicles carrying dignitaries and Congressmen to pass. These same buses were the ones that were passing us in the parade all day long, and this procession was the real culmination of the day's activities, it was what we were all there for. As a matter of fact, as soon as the two limos passed, people started walking away from the parade almost immediately. The grandstands emptied, piles of signs collected in small bunches by overflowing garbage cans, and once again groups of Republican supporters found themselves starkly out of place amongst protesters walking up 14th street, with a wall of American flags to the left and the White House off in the distance.
When I went back and saw the news on television I was surprised at the pageantry and celebration that was taking place. It all seemed so anti-climactic after such a long morning, and the stands seemed relatively empty compared to what we had witnessed. Most of the protesters, who made up the bulk of the crowds, left at the same time we did, leaving few to see any of the floats or dancers or spectacles of celebration. In fact, the only time I saw any of the traditional inaugural festivities was when I went back to my friend's place and turned on the television. As it was taking place, the mainstream media was doing it's job, whitewashing the event, ambiguously mentioning the protests, beginning the official sanctioning of the Bush presidency.
Since the days after the protests, the fears of the demonstrators seem even more grounded. With the acceptance of John Ashcroft (the man who lost the Missouri governor's race to a dead man), Bush's response to the California energy crisis (namely, his proposition to drill for oil in the Alaskan North Slope, a particularly suspect solution since the company that Dick Cheney formerly represented would no doubt benefit from such actions), and the questionable new policy just signed into law giving Federal money to religious organizations, it seems like this presidency is embarking on a 100-day plan that will go down in history as a return to a new Right, a conservative cabal with an agenda not particularly representative of the interests of the general population. What the long-term effects of this will be is anyone's guess, but if this inaugural bash was any indication, one of the results of the Bush presidency may be a much-needed galvanization of opposition in the Left, and a general awareness among people of all political bents that involvement, now more than ever, is necessary, and crucial, for the future of this democratic state.
BONUS: Quicktime films, courtesy of Scott Fitzgerald
.: Black Panthers speak out [here]
.: Protesters at DuPont Circle [here]
.: Protest collage [here]
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