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Monday, January 21, 2013

Mad about W.

From the Pages of History Dept.: Today’s Inauguration festivities remind me of a far less happy event, twelve years ago, which I chronicled in a Metroland cover story.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
VOTERS IN WOODVILLE, FLORIDA, were stopped by highway patrol troopers at an unauthorized checkpoint as they tried to get to the polls. In the Tampa area, voters were illegally turned away when they couldn’t produce photo IDs. As Florida’s Attorney General’s Office continues to investigate these and many other incidents, no credible explanations have been offered. In Washington, D.C., last Saturday, police threw up a roadblock to prevent protesters from finishing a march along 14th Street to a permit-sanctioned place in Freedom Plaza, along the Pennsylvania Avenue inaugural parade route. D.C. Police Lt. William Farr offered this explanation: “We had to filter out the bad guys from the good guys.” This despite the fact that a permit also had been secured by protest organizers for the parade.

Spurred by the voting irregularites in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush and pre-election issues such as campaign financing, abortion rights and the death penalty, protesters mobilized in impressive force to greet the Bush inaugural motorcade with howls of outrage – and to make their presence known throughout Washington, D.C., in a show of force that a CNN estimate put at far greater than the many thousands who clogged the streets in 1973 to protest Nixon’s inauguration and the Vietnam War.

Most impressive was the ease with which so many differently minded protest groups were able to work together, and the general politeness with which they treated the taunts of the not-nearly-so-nice Bush supporters (at least among the protesters with whom I gathered). Perhaps it was a sense of community born of the heady sense of power you get when you stroll down the middle of a street in downtown D.C. amidst like-minded folk from all over the country, here to share their outrage.

That sense of power drizzled quickly away, however, when we pulled up short at a barricade of black-clad, helmeted police brandishing riot sticks as a noisy helicopter swooped above. As a tactical move, it was primarily psychological. It deflated the spirit of the gung-ho crowd, which was forced to break into smaller groups and find alternate routes to the destination, Freedom Plaza. And it inflamed the more radical demonstrators, members of the Black Bloc, who made a name for themselves by their violent actions during the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting and whose threats of similar action put many more cops on the street than is usual for an inauguration.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And so it was back to disempowerment – the feeling we shared with voters in Florida, the sense that numbed us as the Supreme Court dodged the very law it’s supposed to uphold in order to grant executive power to a failed candidate. Black Bloc members rushed the cops and scuffled – that’s when most of the nine reported arrests took place, and gave news cameras the blood-rich photos they enjoy. (And the D.C. cops had no trouble letting those news cameras go wherever they wished.)


The path of the reformer is rarely smooth, but for those who caravanned from Albany it was especially rough. One of the four hired buses broke down outside of Baltimore at about 7 AM, and in the interest of time, those passengers were given standing room in the other three buses, nevertheless delaying their arrival until 9. (“The way back was even rougher,” said Joe Seeman of the Alliance for Democracy, who organized the trip. “We had so many breakdowns getting back that instead of returning to Albany at around 1:30 AM, as we expected, we didn’t pull in until 8:30.”)

Spirits ran high among the 200 who gathered at the Glenmont Metro station, a short ride from the inauguration events. Banners were unfurled, signs were touched up, backpacks adjusted. “I had to come,” said Lily Mercogliano, one of the more youthful activists. “Some of my friends told me about this and I knew it was my duty.” One of those friends, Megan Schmidt, nodded and added, “Bush is an idiot.”

Signs ran from the simple – Ed Atkeson and Paula Orlando sported the traditional “Hail to the Thief” placard – to the more complicatedly philosophical, such as David Hunt’s information-packed “Let’s Fix Our Dysfunctional Election Process” sign, which offered a long list of electoral sins, among them “bribery from megacorporations” and “closed and shallow debates.”

“Let’s see – the CIA director from the ’60s became President, and now his son is going into that office,” said Chuck Nasmith while riding the Metro to Dupont Circle. “Of course I came down to protest. Now we just have to wonder when Jeb [Bush] will assume the presidency.” Nasmith traveled from Rutland to ride with the Albany group.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He and many others chose Dupont Circle as a starting point because it seemed to have the most organized schedule of events, beginning with a round of speeches and songs before forming a parade to Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, but some jumped off at the Metro Center stop to get to Freedom Plaza even earlier.

Choices abounded. Those who headed to Stanton Park (near Union Station) to hear Rev. Al Sharpton speak about the disenfranchisement of black voters were led in a parade to the Supreme Court building, where Sharpton led a “shadow inauguration.” With many Green Party members adding support, the crowd there numbered at least 1,000, not counting the 50 or so Bush supporters demonstrating nearby. At the Navy Memorial, the National Organization for Women met at 11:30 AM in an event that featured a speech from director Patricia Ireland. And the radicals were invited to meet under a “Class War” banner at Pennsylvania Ave. and 14th Street.

But to understand the diversity of the day’s events, it’s best to look at the key groups who called for protests. L.A. Kauffman’s “Free Radical” column put them into five categories:

1. Black Civil Rights activists, roused by the Florida’s denial of the vote to so many African-Americans and including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

2. Angry Democrats and Independents, including many first-time protesters.

3. Direct Action Radicals, including many who fought the WTO in Seattle and who showed up at both presidential conventions last year – and who planned to protest at the inauguration no matter who won.

4. The Black Bloc, also known as the Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc, actually a coalition of many otherwise independent radical and anarchist groups.

5. International Action Center, founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark after the 1991 Gulf War, but affiliated with 40-year-old Workers World Party.

As the city’s unofficial gay and lesbian center, the Dupont Circle area has a reputation as a place that’s mercifully hipper than what surrounds it. It made for a welcoming starting point, even if city crews invaded the gathering early on to remove an effigy of Bush hanging from a tree.

Among the speakers was Doris Haddock, the famous “Granny D.,” whose coast-to-coast walk on behalf of campaign finance reform brought her national attention. She was cheered as she took to the microphone at Dupont Circle, and continued to win cheers as she spoke.

“There are many angry people in America these days,” she said, “and there are many things for them to be angry about. Anger is a normal and healthy reaction to unfairness, criminality, and injustice. As I am young enough yet to see with my own heart, let me tell you that there are sufficient injustices in the world to keep us angry all the time unless we give ourselves some freedom from anger. It is only with that freedom that we can truly improve the world. As I am old enough to have seen and felt a third of our nation’s history, let me tell you that there has always been a sufficient supply of raw deals to keep us toasty warm with rage, if we are only capable of rage instead of loving action.”

That loving action, she went on to explain, is embodied in just this kind of demonstration – and however many more it takes to clean up the system. Adam Eidinger from the Justice Action Movement, a Washington, D.C.-based group that spent the preceding week holding teach-ins and other training events, leaped to the stage next to take the first wave of marchers over to the park. “If you want to get a good space, come now,” he said. “If you want to stay for more speeches and music, there will be another parade at one o’clock.”

At least 200 hundred people followed him – and he was easy to spot, walking on stilts – heading along P Street before turning onto 14th. Some onlookers gaped, some took pictures, some gave a thumbs-up. A few cars, stopped by the marchers, sounded horns in support. Chants began at one end of the line and rippled to the other, sometimes colliding in plangent counterpoint. “Hey hey, ho ho, Bush and Cheney gotta go” was popular, although the less-poetic element occasionally gave voice to the simple “Bush sucks!”

Then came the K Street barricade. It seems to have been kicked off by some Black Bloc activity, leading police to surround a group of about 80 of them, and this was what turned into a full-scale blockade when Eidinger’s group reached K Street shortly thereafter. Most of the day’s arrests (there were nine) took place here, although the blockade was lifted when the rest of the Dupont Circle crowd, led by filmmaker Michael Moore, approached.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Security measures were unprecedented, calling forth every police department in Washington, D.C., as well as officers from Maryland and Virginia. Two metro stops were closed, unprecedented during an inauguration, and police erected checkpoints along parade-route-access streets in order to confiscate possible weapons. The checkpoint plan was contested by the International Action Center last week, and U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler termed them “odious” and lamented the “chilling effect” they have on First Amendment rights, but she nevertheless ruled last Friday that police were allowed to make a visual inspection of bags and bulky coats. Nevertheless, the checkpoints did violate the D.C. Park Police assurances that they would be non-discriminatory. “Thousands of demonstrators were held back and slowed down at the checkpoints,” said Brian Becker, co-director of the International Action Center, “while there were many cases of Bush supporters being waved through in large numbers.”

Those at the 14th Street checkpoint at least had entertainment as they waited. A protestor in colorful attire sat nearby and repeated through a bullhorn, “Welcome to checkpoint W. Please be prepared for a full body-cavity search. As you reach the checkpoint, drop your pants, bend over and spread ‘em. And keep ‘em spread for the next four years.”

Although protest groups had received permits from the National Park Police to gather in Freedom Plaza, part of the area was unexpectedly taken up by two large bleachers intended for Bush supporters who’d paid $50 for a ticket to sit there. An early wave of protestors solved the problem by pushing past the yellow-slickered girl scouts who were supposed to control access, taking over one of the bleachers. “They did it when our backs were turned,” one of the scouts complained to a Secret Service agent who arrived shortly thereafter.

The chilly drizzle that had been falling all morning gave way to a spray of tiny hailstones shortly before the inauguration parade got started and prompted spontaneous chants of “Hail to the thief!” A group of drummers kept up a constant, enthusiastic rhythm for the many hours during which the assembly waited, and each wave of pre-parade vehicles that passed was met by boos and middle fingers. All of which was merely a warm-up for the main event: the inauguration parade with the presidential motorcade.

With protestors so scattered, no reliable count was achieved. The CNN number was a fuzzy-math estimate of “greater than 15,000.” “That’s a dramatic understatement,” says Joe Seeman. “There were big rallies all over town. There were protesters all along Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s scary how much the media keeps the numbers down.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Protest groups set up at every intersection along the parade route, to the scorn and discomfort of the Bush supporters they outnumbered. From the moment the motorcade left the Capitol until a short distance before the White House, there were hecklers with signs every step of the way. The groups swelled to such a size that the presidential vehicles were stopped by police for five minutes at 12th St., then ordered to cruise the rest of the route at a brisker speed.

“There weren’t that many protestors,” snorted a tuxedo-wearing Ben Bradlee on the Larry King show later that night. “I wasn’t impressed,” the former newspaper crusader said, adding, “and those protestors looked sloppy.”

When the motorcade passed Freedom Plaza (breaking from crawl to sprint), the noise was deafening. “And exhilarating,” said Jeff Caswell, a musician from Manhattan who drove down to protest. “The energy here is fantastic, and fellowship reminds me that I’m not alone in feeling outraged. But we have to hold on to those feelings and keep it up, keep the pressure on, keep the protests going.”

“People were wet and cold,” said Seeman after he and the group got back to Albany, “but they were psyched. They’re ready to work together. The Justice Action Movement has brought in a bunch of young kids, and they’re working with old farts like me. People are seeing the need for unity among progressives. We’ve got to keep thinking about what we do from here.”

Caswell brought a radio to keep up with events, and he heard Bush’s inauguration speech. “A lot of posturing,” he said. “Glib generalities for the nightly news pundits to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over. Did he say ‘I am going to end poverty in this country’? No. Did he say, ‘I am going to see to it that every American citizen has health care’? No. It was business as usual. And it’s going to stay that way until we change it.”

Metroland Magazine, 25 January 2001

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