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At the DC Rallies, a Few Hundred Thousand Go Missing

Iraqt-Up!

by MATT TAIBBI

WASHINGTON, D.C., Saturday, Jan. 17. It is cold as a bitch out here. Journalism of any kind, in fact, is practically impossible. Less than ten minutes after arriving here at this small tree-lined park in the shadow of the Washington monument, I had to ask BEAST publisher Paul Fallon for an extra pair of gloves to put on over the thin leather ones I was wearing. If you’ve ever tried to take notes on a legal pad in below-freezing temperatures while wearing two pairs of gloves at the same time, you can understand the obstacles I’ve faced. It’s been a difficult morning. We had come out early that morning for the first– and most twisted by far– of the weekend’s Iraq-related protests. The main event, the anti-war protest at the mall sponsored by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War and End Racism), was due to start at 11 a.m. This pre-event, scheduled for 9 a.m., was the day’s journalistic appetizer, a freak show too tantalizing for any responsible press organ to ignore. It was the pro-war demonstration, run by one of the most amazingly-named organizations in the history of American activism.

MOVE-OUT stood for Marines and Other Veterans Engaging Outrageous Un-American Traitors.

The MOVE-OUT protest was like a caricature of a left-wing paranoid’s idea of a staged CIA diversion. It had all the elements of a low-budget piece of fake political theater: a suspiciously high level of press participation (according to our careful count, there were 80 “protesters” and 40 journalists), a pile of carefully-rationed “protest” placards with high production values (a nicely airbrushed painting of George Bush in a muscle-bound Uncle Sam pose), a near-total absence of local protesters, and, last but not least, a single well-dressed, smiling, traitorous black person representing the “cause” (Kevin Martin, head of the “African-American Republican Leadership Council”). This thing was about as spontaneous as the applause for Comrade Stalin at the Fifth Party Congress. Offered the chance, I would have bet serious money that at least half of the protesters were secretaries and janitors from the NSA offices.

My hands were numb because I had kept them out of my pockets for long stretches in a frantic attempt to record for posterity the amazing rhetoric of the MOVE-OUT speakers. Some of the speeches were of a type not seen since Bluto rallied the troops in Animal House. Only this slapstick comedy, this was real. Martin, the corpulent Oreo, gave a typical speech: “Our troops have always been there for us,” he said, “from the time of World War I, when our soldiers beat back the fascists in FranceS” I turned to Paul. “France?” I said. “Fascists? What the fuck is he talking about?”

Paul shrugged. “Forget it,” he said. “He’s on a roll.”

I turned around. Behind me there was a man in a mesh baseball hat and glasses listening with rapt attention to Martin and brandishing a lovingly hand-drawn sign that read, painfully, “GIVE UP SADAM.” I moved over to him. “You’re missing a D,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“‘saddam1 is with two Ds,” I said. “You’re missing a D.” He looked down at his sign.

“Listen,” he said. “I can spell it any ways I want. Faggot.”

PAUL AND I had come down here from Buffalo to take part in the A.N.S.W.E.R. anti-war rally, and I have to admit that my expectations were low. Like most young Americans, I’ve been trained to think of protests and demonstrations as something shameful and vaguely embarrassing– something one outgrows, like Journey albums, or those hour-long showers you took when you were eleven and twelve.

It’s not hard to see why people my age (in their early thirties and younger) think that way. Our parents were all part of a scrupulously-documented protest generation that they subsequently renounced. Oliver Stone aside, the movies and documentaries the people from our parents’ generation made about the sixties inevitably describe a generation that was maybe well-meaning in a bluntly stupid kind of way, but on the whole extremely indulgent, narcissistic, and naive, a bunch of rich jerks flinging their braless chests and stinky beards in the direction their parents’ grim, sexually-repressed, business-driven world.

Our parents are ashamed that they left behind all those movies of them burning their bras, eating acid at Monterey, and giving the finger to returning Vietnam vets. They’re ashamed because they ultimately became everything they were against back then: cynical, greedy careerists. That’s why they created this atmosphere that celebrates the uncompromising protest of Mohandas Gandhi on the faraway Asian continent as brave and principled, but teaches us that protest in our own country is just something that’s nice to try when you’re young, before you get a real job. To be socially conscious today, the older generation tells us, all we have to do is watch Ali a few times, and recycle. All the really hard work here, after all, was already done in the sixties.

I admit to being influenced by all of this. My previous experiences with protests have all tended to confirm the worst stereotypes about modern activism. In anti-globalization, pro-environment, and anti-Kosovo War rallies I saw almost exclusively well-off people of my age and class dressed down and plainly living out some revolting Oliver Stone-inspired sixties fantasy (the most damning evidence of which, incidentally, is the tendency of these protesters to run to the cameras and start mugging in John-and-Yoko poses as soon as TV arrived). More than once I’ve come across protesters who barely even knew what they were protesting; the important thing, obviously, was the protest itself, the poetic act of participating.

But the most glaring problem with all of these protests I’ve seen is this sense that no one involved in them actually hoped to accomplish anything. At so many of the protests of our generation, you can sense a sort of willingness to comply with the wishes of our parents– protest, sure, but only do it for the “experience,” as something to do. Turn it into a sort of street theater, a way to meet girls. Whatever you do, don’t make it matter. In a glib, permissive age where dissent, protest, certain forms of civil disobedience, and even the occasional arrest are superficially acceptable and even encouraged, the only real taboo when it comes to having political convictions today is meaning it. And in 32 years I hadn’t seen anyone break that taboo on any real scale.

Washington would be a little different. Not that it mattered. In order to even hear what happened there, you had to be there. Our illustrious national press corps saw to that.

AT THE MOVE-OUT protest in the morning I had gotten into an argument with some of the mainstream reporters covering the event. Not that that was surprising. A blatantly staged media event like the MOVE-OUT demonstration is the kind of thing that any journalist with even a sliver of a conscience left is bound to be extremely defensive about having attended.

After all, one would be hard-pressed to think of any circumstance not involving a pro-government counter-demonstration in which 40 journalists from major news organizations would attend a 9 a.m. weekend rally involving 80 illiterate morons. To use the Russian expression, crayfish will whistle in the mountains before 80 environmentalists in a park on a Saturday morning draw so much as a college radio intern, much less 40 of the country’s heaviest press hitters. The mere presence of so much press at MOVE-OUT was monstrous.

So when I arrived at the scene I thought it would be amusing to count the total number of journalists, as opposed to actual protesters. And wouldncha know it, some members of the working press were offended by the exercise.

“You shouldn’t be doing that now,” a bearded Reuters hack told me, after suffering the indignity of being counted. “It’s too early. The bulk of the crowd won’t show up until later. Like around ten-thirty.”

“Well,” I said. “The Washington Post said this thing was supposed to start at nine. It’s now nine-thirty.”

“The Post was wrong,” the Reuters man snapped. “If you want to be honest, you’ll do this later.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re actually worried that I1m going to undercount these yahoos?”

“I1m saying,” he said, “that if you want to be fair, you’ll count when the crowd really shows up.”

Next to the Reuters man stood a young blonde woman in black horn-rimmed glasses who identified herself as a reporter for the New York Times. She didn’t offer her name, but another reporter there later told me that she was an assistant to Times reporter Lynette Clemetson. She’d been listening to my exchange with the Reuters man and decided to chime in.

“And the important thing isn’t the numbers,” she said. “This demonstration has more Vietnam veterans.”

I shook my head, stunned. “Are you kidding?” I said. “The other demonstration will have a hell of a lot more vets than this one, I1m sure of that.”

She frowned. “No,” she said. “That one’s going to be mostly college students. Kids.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “But just in terms of sheer numbersS I mean, even half a percent of 100,000 is going to be ten times more vets than we’re seeing here. There are about fifty people here, for Christ’s sake.”

“No,” she said, not convinced. “No, this one will have more.”

A third personage, a scrawny redneck protester in a baseball cap and a Gore-Tex face guard, was listening in. “That’s the slimiest journalism I’ve ever seen,” he said, jumping in. “You’re in here and you’re going to count us before we’re even here. You wait until ten-thirty, then you’ll see how many of us there will be. You’re yellow journalism scum.”

“Settle down, Beavis,” I said.

“You wait until ten-thirty, you liberal bastard,” he said.

I shrugged and walked away. An hour later, after suffering through numerous historically confused speeches about our victories over fascists in France and our spectacular, as-yet-unrecognized military successes in Vietnam, I counted all over. The final tally, again, was 80 protesters and 40 journalists and that included the five-man Guardian Angel security entourage that followed speaker Curtis Sliwa. I sought out Gore-Tex face in the crowd.

“Hey, Chester,” I said. “Eighty to forty. Nice turnout.”

“Fuck you,” he hissed. “We represent the real America.”

“You know,” I said, “I once went to a Suzanne Somers book signing. There were like three hundred people there. It was a book of poetry.”

“Fuck you,” he repeated.

A few yards away, a mealy-faced young man in a blue button-down shirt named Eric DuVall was quietly taking notes. An intern under Washington-based reporter Jerry Zremski, he was the representative of the Buffalo News. We would later spot him in the crowd at the main demonstration. Like me, he was observing the crowds. Only his conclusions would be a little different from mine.

RIGHT FROM THE START, there were two things about the A.N.S.W.E.R. demonstration that were startling. The first was its staggering size. I’d read about the last demonstration in November and had tended to believe the conservative estimates of the crowd size, not believing that more than a very small number of people like me would be sufficiently motivated to go anywhere to protest the inevitable. But the crowd at Washington last weekend was truly gargantuan.

Police admitted to the Washington Post that it was the largest anti-war rally since the Vietnam era, and that it was much larger than the October rally. I personally could not see the end of the crowd. It took a good half-hour to make my way to the front of the crowd, and from a speaker platform up on the press podium I was able to get a look at the gathering as it stretched back along the mall. Even from an elevated position, I couldn’t see the end.

Later on, when the crowd filed out to march to the Navy Yard, it proved impossible to determine how far the line of people stretched. The length of the march was several miles, and, again according to the Washington Post, the crowd was still entering the beginning of the route at the mall when the first marchers at the front reached the Navy Yard.

From where I sat, there was no question that there were at least 200,000 people present, and probably closer to 300,000. The extraordinary turnout was the chief topic of conversation along the march: time after time, I spotted marchers turning to look back, shaking their heads at the trailing crowd, and saying, “Holy Shit!” Walking in a gathering this size, you get a sense of its building kinetic energy and potential destructive power a chain-link fence near the mall that obstructed a group of short-cut seekers, for instance, simply blew away like dandelion fuzz once the crowd decided to walk through it. This was far different than the feeling one gets exiting an NBA game, for instance.

Back to the size later. The second thing that was striking about this crowd was that, despite the fact that it was comprised largely middle- to upper-middle class whites, there was no name politician from either major party there to address it. Given that a Pew survey taken this week showed that a majority of Americans (52%) felt that President Bush had not yet made a convincing case that war was necessary, one would have thought that at least some opportunistic politician from the Democratic party would have decided to attach his name to the anti-war effort. But the only politician of any stature at the event was the Reverend Al Sharpton, a doomed candidate for president with too much political baggage to really be an effective champion for anything.

Put two and two together and what you get is the amazing realization that this crowd, perhaps the largest to gather in Washington in the last thirty years, has no political representation whatsoever in today’s America. Almost certainly representing a vastly larger number of people in the general population, the anti-war crowd has simply been excluded from the process.

The 80 nitwits at the MOVE-OUT event could reasonably claim one sympathetic U.S. Senator per demonstrator: the 200,000+ at the A.N.S.W.E.R. event couldn’t claim even one between them. The only real clout it could claim was its own physical presence at that particular moment.

All of which makes sense, because from the very beginning, the character of this war has been that of a giant end run an end run around common sense, around international law, around political reality, even around basic human logic. When you’ve spent half a year getting your head around the idea that a terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists somehow necessitates the immediate invasion of an unrelated secular dictatorship, or that opposing an offensive war is somehow evidence that one “hates America ” and is a traitor, it isn’t hard to see how 250,000 people in this country these days can actually, in real terms, be numerically fewer than 80.

Nonetheless, it seemed like everyone in the march, myself included, was shocked to find themselves in the middle of so many other like-minded people. It was clearly a group that was not used to being in the majority and was intoxicated by the experience.

“No way did we expect this many people,” said Nick Salter, 18, who was with a large group from Cherry Creek high school in Colorado. “But we felt like we had to come out here. It’s now or never for our generation.”

“It was a sense of obligation,” said Chris Kezzara, 23, a bartender from Detroit. “But I came by myself. I wasn’t expecting so many people.”

“Shit, of course not,” said Lee Turner, a social worker from Brooklyn, when asked if he expected so many people. “But it doesn’t matter. We’ll wake up tomorrow and find out from the newspapers that there were only 15,000 of us or something.”

That didn’t seem likely. During the march I was convinced that the only possible angle the media could take on this protest was one that met the sheer size of it head on. There were all sorts of peripheral stories about the protest to cover the uncertain future of the protest leadership (the reported affiliation of A.N.S.W.E.R. with the Workers’ World Party was an uncomfortable undercurrent that ran through the entire event), the Martin Luther King day angle, the protests in the light of waning international support for the war (the line the Washington Post in fact ended up taking). But the only story any observant journalist could really take out of this event was the fact that it was a) massive and b) extremely diverse, an exponentially larger and broader crowd than had attended even the last A.N.S.W.E.R. rally a few months ago. If the snapshot the media got from Seattle was a gang of hippies standing in front of a row of broken store windows, the picture from this one should rightly have been seven lonely college Republicans cringing behind a “Hippies Go Home” banner high up on a balcony as tens of thousands of obvious non-hippies screamed for them to come down to the street level for an ass-whipping.

“Get down here, you cocksuckers!” shouted a huge black kid with rows. The Republicans said nothing and just grinned.

“Hang on,” I said. “It’s a trap. No one really dresses like that.”

Indeed, one of the “protesting” Republicans was wearing a circa-1977 Argyle V-Neck sweater.

“Yeah,” he said. “Whatever. Let’s get them down here anyway.”

About a half-mile down the road, the remnants of the MOVE-OUT crowd about seven people were huddled behind a row of policemen, shouting through a megaphone at the waves of bemused protesters.

“We are the majority!” one of them was saying. “We are the majority! We are America!”

At the time, that sounded like a joke. Then I got up the next morning and checked the newspapers.

According to the vast majority of American newspapers and news services, 30,000 was a solid estimate for the size of the Saturday crowd. Each of the news outlets used a different rhetorical means to avoid a true description of the crowd size that day.

Fox News was among the most disingenuous. On Saturday evening, the news crawl was telling viewers that “at least 30,000 gather in DC to protest military action in Iraq: a smaller group demonstrated in support of action.”

Well, “at least 30,000″ is not technically incorrect, of course. There were “at least 5″ there as well. But we all know what Fox was saying.

The Associated Press reported “tens of thousands” of protesters, but also quoted police spokesman as saying that a “permit had been issued for 30,000 protesters.” That 30,000 figure would be roundly circulated in the headlines of AP-subscribing papers around the country.

The New York Times, which caught flak for under-counting the last A.N.S.W.E.R. protest as well as an anti-war protest in London, did not even speculate on the crowd size, remaining content with the designation “thousands” in the headline (“Thousands in D.C. Protest Iraq Plans”).

Reuters, whose reporter had worried so much that I might undercount the MOVE-OUT demonstrators, contented itself with the wording “thousands marched on Washington and San Francisco,” and noted that while organizers claimed 500,000 protesters, there were no official figures.

Crowd-counting is a tricky business. It used to be the province of the National Park Service, but it has stopped counting crowds since Louis Farrakhan sued them for allegedly undercounting the Million Man March. It is therefore somewhat understandable that officials might be reluctant to release an estimate. But there is caution in reporting, and then there’s common sense. If there were just 30,000 people at that rally, I1m a Chinese jet pilot. Any reporter with two eyes could have seen that this was a matter of hundreds of thousands of people, not tens of thousands. And yet all of this careful language was used to leave the impression of a smallish rally, half the size of a good college football crowd, balanced out by an only somewhat smaller rally in support of the war. If ever there was a case of the media simply lying outright to the public, this was it.

On the day after the protests, I tried to track down representatives of the offending news agencies and demand an explanation. In each case the best answer I could get was “no comment.” DC Fox News reporter Molly Hennenberg laughed in my face when I cornered her on the street and asked how her station could possibly have counted 30,000 people at the previous day’s rally.

“Gosh, I1m sorry,” she said, flicking a piece of lint off her glowing white winter coat. “I wasn’t on yesterday. I just can’t comment.”

“Well,” I said. “Doesn’t that bother you that they got it so wrong? I mean, you saw the crowds yesterday.”

She smiled again, almost as if to say, “Oh, this is so cute!” Then she said. “Look, I have to go on the air. I really have nothing to say. I1m sorry.”

And Buffalonians, the worst of the worst was your own Buffalo News. Its headline presented the unequivocal pronouncement: “30,000 in DC Protest War Plans.” The spill headline read: “Protests: Polls indicate mixed feelings on Iraq war; veterans rally for Bush.”

That wasn’t the worst part. The actual article claimed:

“Protests stretched from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Moscow, but the Washington march was by far the largest, though it was much smaller than a similar event in October. That protest drew 100,000; police said Saturday’s rally drew 30,000.”

The BN was the only news organ in the country that concluded that the Saturday rally was smaller than the October rally. Even the Washington Post quoted Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey as saying that the rally was not only “bigger than October’s,” but that it was “one of the biggest ones we’ve had, certainly in recent times.” Not even Fox News sunk as low as our hometown paper. When I caught up with A.N.S.W.E.R. chief Brian Becker the next day, and told him what the Buffalo News had reported, he was flabbergasted.

“They said what?” he asked.

“They said it was smaller than October,” I said.

“And it wasn’t a wire story? It was their own reporters?”

“Yup,” I said.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, kneading his forehead.

The Buffalo News report was doubly irritating for me because I’d actually seen one of their reporters, DuVall, twice during the day, and even met him. Even after I told him I was with the BEAST, he was polite and even seemed friendly. A cursory examination seemed to show that this was a human being in full control of his faculties. How he could possibly have gone home after a day of watching these events and filed that bullshit story was beyond me. The fact that he’d shaken my hand left me feeling raped. After I returned to Buffalo, I decided to call him.

“Eric,” I said. ” MATT TAIBBI from the BEAST. We met this weekend.”

“Oh,” he said. “Hi.”

“I was wondering how you guys came up with that 30,000 figure. It seemed like there were a lot more people than that there.”

“Well,” he said. “That wasn’t me. That was [lead reporter Jerry Zremski]. I think he got it from a wire report.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why would he need a wire report, if you were there?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But if Jerry got it from a reliable source, then I1m cool with that.”

Jesus, I thought. This kid is barely out of college, and he’s already completely full of shit.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You were there. Do you think there were 30,000 people there?”

He paused. “I couldn’t give you a figure,” he said.

“Why not?” I said. “You can’t say if there were more or less than 30,000 people there? You don’t have your own opinion?”

“IS didn’t have a good view,” he said.

Jesus Christ. A good view?

“How can you call yourself a journalist,” I said, “if you can’t even make a determination, by yourself, as to how many hundreds of thousands of people there were at a public event?”

“It wasn’t my story,” he said. “It was Jerry’s story.”

“But your name went on it,” I said. “And it’s a fucking lie. I wouldn’t be comfortable having my name on something like that.”

After a brief pause, during which time Jerry Zremski himself obviously advised DuVall to hang up the phone, he came back on.

“I1m sorry,” he said. “If you have any further questions, the best you can do is send an e-mail to Jerry.” He then rattled off Zremski’s e-address. “You realize,” I said, “that once you start giving OEno comments’ to other journalists, it’s all over. Your career is over. I know you haven’t been in this business long, but once you take that step, you’re fucked. You understand that, don’t you?”

He again advised me to write to Zremski, then hung up. I wrote to Zremski. There was no answer, of course.

Sunday, the second day of the protests, was a disaster. The main crowd was all gone and only a group of student protesters remained. Their goal was to march to the White House and engage in “Civil Disobedience.” And that’s exactly what happened. After a brief standoff when the police abruptly canceled the permit to march in front of the White House, the group ran around a corner, outflanking the police, and parked itself in front of the White House gates. Once there, a small group of teenage camera-mugging assholes jumped the fence and then kneeled on the ground with ear-to-ear grins as they waited to be subdued by the cops. When the police sighed and cuffed them, the crowd chanted, “This is what a police state looks like.”

Minutes later, the worst of the worst happened. A group of ebullient and clearly overweight teen granola types parked in front of a gang of mounted cops and, bursting with self-satisfied smiles, sang out the dreaded “Give Peace a Chance.” When the TV cameras showed up, they started the song over and flashed peace signs at the cameras. They looked like they’d just gotten through to the next round of American Idol. You’d never guess, from looking at them, that a war was about to start. They didn’t even looked like they were worried about midterms, much less war.

The 16 smiling dickwads arrested that day were given major air play all around the country. Thanks to the wires, the TV networks, and even small-time flunkies like Eric DuVall, they were made the official face of the anti-war movement. It’s that easy to hide a few hundred thousand people in this country.

MATT TAIBBI is editor of the Buffalo Beast. He can be reached at: matt@buffalobeast.com