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Chirpy Slogans, Empty City


I went to the protest on Saturday. At the end of it an old soldier from movements past said, “The problem is the people who organize these marches are too old. They’re risk averse and institutionalized. And that’s really it.” I think she’s right. It was a nice march, a polite march. The police had arranged for the march to go into a kind of U turn alongside the Capitol, which was insane, inasmuch as it would have meant protesters facing protesters, shouting at each other.

There always is something sad about a march on Washington on the weekend anyway, especially when it’s confined to the area of government buildings, resounding in their emptiness. The police plan raised this to the level of absurdity. The sheer numbers forced that plan to change, so the march ended up making kind of a box around the Capitol and back down to the reflecting pool. But the fact that this was touted as a bold claim on public space does underscore the maturity and responsibility of the march organizers. The problem is, marches ought to feel a little dangerous. They ought to carry the prospect of unpredictability, of protest contained but just barely, and sometimes maybe not. I know there are always people who come to a march and want to be safe. And I’m not a big risk-taker myself. But the sight of people crammed in their penned marching area, obeying the pen, staying all polite and confined even when it’s crazy to do so, even when there are breaks in the stanchions that allow for an exit, even when all that’s holding them in is a piece of flimsy plastic police tape — it’s pathetic, like animals on the way to the knife.

As soon as the little group I was with saw an opening we walked out, but then where to go? We watched this weirdly orderly procession. After a while some of our little band went to get coffee. Two of us walked toward the Capitol. As we were approaching it there came the one unscripted moment of the march. The anarchist kids, the revived SDS, a youthful band bearing red and black flags, one saying “An Army of None”, swept up the stairs of the Capitol. We joined them and for a brief time the whole thing felt like it should — electric and raw, impolite. We were chanting and drumming and some of the kids started spray-painting slogans on the landing where police had stopped our progress.

It was too bad the tagger I was watching couldn’t come up with anything more original than “Fuck You” or the encircled A. Not the best advertisement for Anarchism’s political program, but then the kids in black always have been better at theater and destructive energy than anything. But it was worse that this hardy band was not backed up by all of those other marchers filing along cautiously not far away. At one point there were very few police. Had there been waves of thousands coming up those steps, it would have been hard for the men in blue to do much.

It’s not as if, in practical terms, ‘taking’ the Capitol steps would have been any more meaningful on that lovely winter afternoon than marching in a well-behaved box, but it would have been symbolically potent. It would have been an exhibition of a fierce anger, in the fifth year of Guantanamo, the fourth year of the war in Iraq, in the awful march of euphemized torture, legalized detention, authorized aggression, constitutional trampling, death and pain and sadness and acquiescence. It would have been apt. Not much really, just somewhat commensurate with the horror of the times, a performance of fury and a warning of more.

Maybe then a kid borne forward by waves of angry Americans and gripped with a wild passion might have been forgiven for spraying “Fuck You” on the very face of the Capitol. Maybe I’m too old. Chirpy slogans on a pretty day in an empty city seem almost embarrassing when people in Najaf are being slaughtered and men in Guantanamo are being driven insane by torture and confinement.

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at


JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American ViolenceShe can be reached at

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