“He lost by 500,000 votes, but we lost it five to four,” a friend said while she urged me to get on one of the buses various political groups were renting to ferry demonstrators from New York to Washington on January 20. Five of my friends and I signed up by e-mail for tickets—$35—to ride on one of the buses hired by Voter March, described as a moderate group with a “good-government agenda.”
Around four-thirty in the morning, on 31st Street, behind Penn Station, hundreds of people gathered under the street lights that relieved the dark. A white guy with a megaphone at his hip said that they had fourteen buses, that there would be room for all. As we boarded the tour bus, two volunteers from among the passengers checked our receipts and distributed the yellow Voter March information sheet, which included explanations about what to do if arrested, and where medical teams would be if needed. There hadn’t been a protest at a presidential inauguration since Nixon took office for the last time in 1973, and no one knew what to expect.
Of the forty-nine passengers, three were black, and none Asian or Hispanic from what I could see, but they ranged in age from student to middle-aged and elderly. The bus started off at five AM and by ten o’clock we were in Maryland. Two young women across the aisle from me were helping those who hadn’t come with posters. They had extra boards, thick-tipped pens, clear tape to make the signs waterproof, which turned out to be necessary. One friend wrote, “Bush Comes to Shove,” which won approval among us in the back of the bus. At eleven we joined the other buses parked in the lot of RFK Stadium on the edge of Washington. Walking to the Metro, we saw the first of what was to be an extraordinarily heavy police presence drawn from many forces from outside the District. Squad car lights rhythmically flashed against the white blanket of sky.
We were on our way to the Voter March rally at Dupont Circle in the northwest of the city, but when we reached the subway stop for the Supreme Court building, Capitol South, we remembered that Al Sharpton, so we thought, was to take a Citizens’ Oath there to defend voters’ rights at the same time that a Bible was to be held on the Capitol steps. We jumped off the train, hoping that people in the group that had made it so easy for us to be there wouldn’t think we’d ditched them to go to a better party, as a friend, a black woman, put it.
On the escalator up to the street, we were surrounded by people on their way to applaud the inauguration. Ahead of us giant white men in white and zebra-striped stetsons strode through the turnstiles. “Oh no,” my black woman friend said. I had a pretty good idea of what she was feeling, because I was feeling it, too, a feeling that went back to the early days of the civil rights marches, when blacks were routinely outnumbered and the looks of resentment from white onlookers said that they longed to slap us all with a huge wet mop. Out on the street, parade monitors exhorted the crowd to be sure that they were on the correct side for blue tickets. I took the colorful brochures advertising the inaugural medal, as though putting on camouflage.
The protest at the steps of the Supreme Court was imaginative and intelligent for the most part and the mood of the few hundred protestors very serious. The signs suggested how articulate people would be when I got into conversations with them. And, of course, to complete the picture, helmeted policemen, one in intense blue reflector glasses, were spaced above us, guarding the concourse to the Greek revival temple, that place where Thurgood Marshall argued thirty-nine cases and won thirty-nine cases, a record unequaled in US history. In the opposite direction, the dome of the Capitol was sketched against the mist. I could see it and the branches of trees, but nothing else in that direction, because a wall of red and white buses, engines idling noisily, blocked the Capitol from our view and us from the Capitol audience’s sight.
The crowd in front of the Supreme Court was very mixed, racially, but my attention was drawn to four young black women, dressed from head to toe in black, each with a face painted either blue, red, or white. They faced north, west, east, and south, then moved in a circle behind another woman who carried a grotesque ET-like figure in suit and tie. The last of the four women beat steadily on a drum. One carried a message of mysterious, apocalyptic wishes:
May the erinnyes rain upon your dreams
Slashing the knots on your tongue.
May the truth choke you like bile as it
Spills upon you.
Let blood be seen on your hands.
A middle-aged white guy holding a transistor radio aloft threaded among us, spreading the news. “Cheney’s being sworn in.” Moments later, the four black women stopped moving and began to wail. Their posters and the eerie, potato-colored effigy were in a pile on the sidewalk at their feet. The drumming increased as their voices rose. And they just stood there and wailed, mouths wide open, arching back, hands moving slowly up to the sides of their heads. This said it was noon, the hour of the swearing-in ceremony in that place we couldn’t see.
The crowd around the women pressed toward them; a few photographers jockeyed for position; a white guy in sunglasses and yellow windbreaker with a black cord traveling from his collar to his ear chewed gum and stared—like a Secret Service man? The four black women were sinking to their knees, still wailing. Would they set their strange pile alight? One of the women moved her arms over the heap. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the wailing ceased. There was a burst of applause. The women began to walk around again in their silent circle. OK. A day of symbolism and sanity.
It was clear that Al Sharpton wasn’t coming and we decided to join the protest march that was to make its way to the White House. Behind us the ranks of the CWA Union from Trenton, New Jersey, predominantly black, continued to point their fingers at the Court building and hoot:
Who let the Bush out?
Who? Who? Who? Who-Who?
Who let the dogs in?
Who? Who? Who? Who-Who?
As we left the Supreme Court, a black guy was playing the sax for spare change. Through the parted police lines a formation of motorcycle policemen emerged from Constitution Avenue. Inside Union Station, we felt like trespassers because people were busily setting up for one of the official inaugural balls. Black security guards guided us to the Metro entrance.
We heard the tenor and guitar as we approached Dupont Circle, and it felt like our old student days, at least in the sense that the crowd of yet another few hundred didn’t fill the place. A teenager carried a sign, “Bush is unelectable says Main Line Philadelphia.” With him his parents, perhaps, draped in cashmere and shod in suede. The mother’s handsome poster offered a quote attributed to Bush: “There ought to be limits to freedom.”
That various groups were organizing separate events and had done so rather quickly, without much coordination, until a joint news conference held the day before, would become a source of frustration to some among us who regretted that there was not one place for everyone to come to. The young were less distressed with the post-Seattle arrangement of small groups holding different protests. In any event, each group had a permit to hold a rally, but not to march from one rally to another. Some groups, such as the student Justice Action Movement, would have elected the cell approach to demonstrating anyway, but the police plans forced everyone else to adopt this strategy.
We heard that Sharpton was speaking in Stanton Park, in another part of the city, and that the NOW demonstration at the Naval Memorial near Pennsylvania Avenue had been contained by police. We also heard that another group of demonstrators, at Freedom Plaza, had been hemmed in by police. Freedom Plaza was the announced meeting place of people demonstrating under the auspices of International Action Center, which, together with Partnership for Civil Justice and the National Lawyers Guild, had filed a suit on January 16, asking for a preliminary injunction to strike down the security plans and to challenge the discretionary powers of the Secret Service and the District of Columbia police.
Apparently, the judge who heard the suit considered the police plans to filter people through parade checkpoints a logistical nightmare. For citizens to go through checkpoints at an inauguration was, she said, inconsistent with our way of life, but not with the law, and so she let the plans stand. The Mall was cordoned off by chainlink fencing for the first time at an inauguration, which meant that Bush supporters were rather hemmed in, too. Demonstrators had been advised to move about in groups of twenty-five or less, because the US Circuit Court for the District of Columbia had already ruled that the US government could not fine or arrest people in these numbers. Afterward, we would hear several people remark how arbitrary security was along Pennsylvania Avenue, how many holes and alleys people had found to get through. One young man from our bus said that his backpack wasn’t even checked. I had an image of demonstrators springing up along the parade route like brush fires.
Voter March, as far as I knew, was the only group with a permit to march in a mass. At Dupont Circle we were told that the main issue was not to tie up pedestrian and auto traffic and that we had to be respectful of the permit we had. When we were asked if there was anyone there who had been at the counter-inaugural in 1973, three hands went up in front of me. Behind me, from the empty fountain, a youth’s voice shouted, “This is a civil action, not a reunion.” The speaker went on to say that our route was not direct, but it was legal. “Damn the law,” the youth rejoined.
Rain, which had been sporadic, started again as we set off at 1:15 PM. There was some honking in support from passing automobiles, but as we hiked on and on past intermittent traffic police, our morale seemed to sag. An hour later, near the George Washington University campus, workers in hard hats on a balcony cheered us. At an intersection a few feet away we were startled by a red-faced white youth in a baseball cap, hanging from the back of a stretch limousine. “God bless George W.,” he screeched over and over as the limo careened around the traffic circle. We’d been instructed at the start not to make eye contact with hecklers, though the organizers didn’t think we’d encounter any on our route, perhaps because after a point we were walking empty, heavily guarded streets. Our winding, isolated route had become known among us as the Wear Out the Protesters permit.
Our march finally turned into Constitution Avenue at the Department of State. “We can meditate when we get there,” one young woman called out, “let’s make some noise.” But most of us hadn’t the energy or the will. “This is lame,” the young woman said over her shoulder as she ran toward the front of the march. “We’re wet. We’re cold. Democracy’s been sold,” the people were chanting at the head of the march. We slogged by parked Naval Academy buses and enormous horse trailers from Kentucky and Wyoming. Coming on to the blank and sad Ellipse, with the Washington Monument peeking up in the distance, someone asked of the mud and brown grass, “Is this it? There’s no there here.”
But there was a six-foot chain-link fence and over behind the trees, somewhere, the White House. “That’s our flag,” people chanted. I could see the honor guard turning off from Pennsylvania Avenue. “Shame on you!” people cried at the motorcade following the military uniforms. We were at the rear of the White House, so maybe we were only yelling at the help moving in by a back door. To the tune of “We shall overcome,” the crowd sang, “We will vote you out some day.” And then, sometime after three o’clock, a soggy, disembodied feeling came over us again. My friends and I drifted off as a Zen group with a banner proclaiming “Meditation for Justice” sat down in the wet.
Neither side of the election divide had been in such close proximity in such numbers since Florida. I’d come to Washington not to get close enough to the motorcade to lob an egg, but to hear the sound of that America that is seldom heard on television and to see the sort of Americans I’d organized my life to avoid, the sort I only come across by accident, like that time I was in the parking lot of Neiman-Marcus in Scottsdale, Arizona, and walked by a white woman just as she opened the trunk of her Lexus and put her shopping bags beside three rifles.
Caught between those in fur coats and those in hoods, or so it seemed to me, were the black people employed in the service economy—the black guys making coffee in Starbucks while outside on Pennsylvania Avenue military units of the inaugural parade marched off; the drivers waiting beside all those limos and sedans parked around town; and especially the young black men selling inaugural sweatshirts and whatnots at the entrances to the Metro stations. The two young women from our bus who had helped the others to make signs told me afterward that in a bar in the MCI Center, a black employee had checked their IDs and taken away their signs. He put them by the door, facing in, so that patrons in Uncle Sam hats couldn’t read them.
This is not to say that blacks weren’t among the supporters of Bush, the most famous beneficiary of affirmative action in the country when it comes to college admissions. While riding the Metro, I heard a little white boy say, “They’re just trying to make George W. feel like he doesn’t deserve it.” His mother said something that ended in her proposing that my friend’s “All Hail to the Thief” sign be stomped into the ground. When the family got off, the light-skinned black man who’d been quietly sitting with them, refusing to let me catch his eye, followed the mother closely, shielding her like a boyfriend. A “patriot’s rally” had been scheduled to be held in front of the Supreme Court at nine o’clock that morning. Among the listed speakers was a black minister, Jesse Peterson, author of From Rage to Responsibility.
Laura Flanders, a white talk show host and columnist for In These Times, said she found it curious that the Bush sympathizers she talked to after the inauguration blamed the counter-demonstrations on NOW, not on civil rights groups. She said they presented it as a matter of normal people vs. those women. Maybe it was because Jesse Jackson had stayed home from the protest in Tallahassee; maybe the January 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade was on their minds, but race was not the issue.
It does seem that compassionate conservatism is not alone in wanting race and racial discrimination to be defused as an issue in politics, and particularly as reasons for black voters continuing to go to the polls as a bloc. Those two young women from our bus said that in one spot along the parade route dense with people, punk kids with shaved heads and pierced noses turned out to be pro-life demonstrators. Getting by them, their signs, and their anti-abortion chants was like running a gauntlet, they said. How striking that a spokesman for one of the most virulent right-wing youth groups on the Web believes that he is taunting liberals when he says that he “can’t wait until the so-called American Race is so brownish/gray that there can be no more racism as currently practiced.” But these people underestimate, I think, the reaction of most blacks to the Supreme Court’s part in the Florida outcome.
I would have liked to hear Sharpton speak, I would have liked to feel the consolation of being part of a large audience, but I doubted that I felt the disappointment and restlessness of one guy at Dupont Circle I’d seen in a gas mask, who I could easily imagine was not shy about direct action. Maybe light skirmishes with police and Bush supporters had taken place here and there around the city; certainly the security forces, thinking of 1973, or of the WTO fiasco in Seattle, were determined that protesters not be allowed to come together in significant numbers. But I didn’t consider the day a waste of time or an exercise in impotence or an illustration of what doesn’t happen in the absence of effective leadership, because I had attended what was for me a memorial service for the Supreme Court. Those wailing black women—that meant a lot to me, because I came of age in the days of the Warren Court.
You could argue that those who showed up represented expected positions and also extreme ones. Off Pennsylvania Avenue, just beyond the White House, crowds of both supporters and opponents of Bush found themselves inches away from the other. A Voter March organizer gained a porch and told us to go around the line of peo-ple waiting to get into an inaugural event. As the anti-Bush chanting started afresh, they reacted in the same way we had when we caught the chill among the seemingly homogenous. As people who came to cheer and people who came to chant, if they got to do either, began to move away from Pennsylvania Avenue, casting suspicious, unforgiving glances, I found it hard to believe that the country would recover soon from the defensiveness and bitterness that I’d observed—and felt.
It had been a day of unease, with the constant drone of helicopters overhead. Earlier, when my friends and I were wondering why we’d come to this shadow event, this shadow demonstration, one of us, my black woman friend, remembered the confident white men in stetsons and gave the answer: “To feel the fear again.”
February 22, 2001