Look, the weather’s nice, a beautiful, hard, gray sky. You’d almost like to pound a nail in up there and hang yourself on it. -Georg Buchner, Woyzeck
Such was the feeling on January 20, 2001 in Washington, D.C. An unpleasant day: a torrid cloudy sky, rain and sleet met thousands of protesters, police, Republicans, and the Clueless collected around the Inauguration of one President (sic) George W. Bush.
After a bleary and, true to the progressive tradition, somewhat disorganized bus ride down from New York City, crowds pushed into the D.C. Metro and began the journey to make a mark on the tainted election. During a stop for coffee at Union Station we immediately noticed the distinct style of Bush Republicans: fur coats, big hair, cowboy boots, and ten-gallon hats. Of course, the normal khaki-blue blazer combination also dominated.
In the station, workers were hanging lights and banners in preparation of one of the Inaugural balls and non-protesters looked smugly at the signs of scattered activists, many of which read “Hail the Thief,” “Not My President,” or “Daddy, Daddy, What Do I Do Now?” Conversely, beside the supportive mugs, shot-glasses, and t-shirts with The White Men on them, buttons and bumper stickers with phrases like “Liberals Make Me Sick” and “Politically Incorrect and Proud” were displayed on souvenir racks.
We walked over to the Supreme Court, where a few hundred people gathered with signs like “Selected Not Elected,” and “Bush Won By Five.” A line of riot police with long wooden batons stood in front of the empty steps of the glistening marble court building. Protesters waited for a larger march led by Al Sharpton to arrive, while empty buses suspiciously lined up, bumper to bumper, on the street, blocking our view of the Capital building and any view of the protesters as well.
Our objective was to get to one of the larger permitted protests at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street where the Inaugural Parade was going to pass by. Supposedly, there was a march near DuPont Circle, another protest outside the Justice Department, and various other gatherings. Why was there not one huge march? Why wasn’t The Mall filled in the ways we are used to seeing in archive footage of the ‘60s and ‘70s? And why was this inauguration declared a National Security Event for the first time ever, with the Secret Service taking over the security arrangements?
These questions became more poignant as we exited the Metro and headed toward Freedom Plaza. A large helicopter circled close to the tops of buildings. We could just make out a small white sign that said “Public Checkpoint” as we neared the Plaza. The checkpoint was a complete bottleneck: there were only two guys checking bags for a massive crowd of protesters mixed with some ticket-holders en route to view from the Republican side of the bleachers.
In our packed section of the crowd, two young women in Starbucks uniform stood by the checkpoint and dolled out little cups of coffee from a logo-emblazoned backpack thermos, reminding us we were protesting against an M.B.A. administration that contained the most corporate CEOs ever. One very irritated man did not notice the freebies. With a glove on a stick, the middle finger prominently pointed up, he railed, “Go back to Texas, we don’t need you here, scumbags!” A manicured GOP blond smiled at her husband and responded to the protests, declaring, “You’re just jealous.”
Once at the checkpoint, the wire-eared Secret Service hardly even checked our bags. This seemed to be part of an overall crowd control tactic that the D.C. police and many multi-agency forces had already been practicing: create bottlenecks, split up groups, make the protesters seem less conspicuous by reducing them to many small pockets and then surround them with a lot of police.
Once inside the pen, it was a sea of signs as more and more protesters filled the plaza. The crowd was mostly young and relatively racially diverse with families, ex-hippies, hipsters, punks, and b-boys in the mix. We could see the line of police, shoulder to shoulder, at the edge of Pennsylvania Avenue as we waited for the parade to start. And while we waited, people continued various chants, from staples like “Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Bush and Cheney Go Away!” and “Not My President!” to the more innovative “Oh no, Gore’s Ahead, Better Call My Brother Jeb.” And “Bush Is Late, We Know Why, He’s Got Another DUI.”
Above, on terraces festooned with red, white, and blue ribbon, Republicans with drinks-in-hand peered down, one sticking out the sign, “Yell if You Love the GOP.” This was greeted with a Bleachers-style reaction of middle fingers and a simple chant of “Jump, jump, jump.” But the fat cats continued to smile and peer down at us, characteristically disconnected from the rabble and the issues that brought us there. A few individuals in their crowd erupted in statements directed to the parade route like, “Oh My God, You’re Terrible.” No doubt, in the spirit of protesting for justice, the masses below were having fun while waiting.
Right before the parade began, riot police and SWAT officers in full armor, helmets, and masks appeared three or four deep in front of us. As marching bands and men dressed in silly costumes playing whistles passed by, people all around upped the volume of chants and yells. Signs sprouted up all over whenever the collective throng sensed President (sic) Bush might be passing. At some point, the motorcade did speed by, thought only those near the front knew exactly when. Nevertheless, for almost twenty minutes straight, the energy of protest was palpable and there was no doubt that, even in bone-chilling weather, a movement of some kind was stirring.
Chilled but enthused by determination, we got back onto the bus and pondered what this movement was. We went to make a point and thought that after all the drama that surrounded the tainted election, after all the mainstream outrage, after all the international mocking there would, of course, be some validation of this dissent from the pundits, the media, and, heck, maybe even from the new administration itself.
Back home in Brooklyn, we turned the TV on. In the sparse breaks between gushing pundits spewing platitudes, there was some mention of the protesters. CNN had a recap of the day’s events, where the voiceover said that there “were protesters” and “democracy is alive,” then duly noted that an egg was thrown at the motorcade and then—the staple for TV reporting on protests—that “a flag was burned.” I noticed at the end of the program that “AOL Time-Warner” was now responsible for this coverage. Meanwhile, a Fox News “reporter” spoke of the “hundreds or maybe a thousand” protesters whose small show of force disproved the predictions of December.
And there was President (sic) Bush, who with a blank and somewhat worried look, navigated the many appearances he needed to make. After each vague speech, full of good ol’ boy references to God and the “single nation” and his deer-in-the-headlights smirks, he seemed to walk in a daze and press the flesh as those powerful White Men shuffled him around and talked to each other.
To look back on this election is to observe an institutionalized delusion. Buchner’s Woyzeck was driven to delusion and madness by a feeling of helplessness and by feeling the brunt of an anti-compassionate world. As a fitful Woyzeck said: “Yes and No. Did No make Yes or Yes make No? I must think about that.” Unfortunately, in the U.S.A. of the new millennium, we now know that over half a million No’s did indeed end up institutionalizing a Yes.