The late night of January 19, 2001 was as wretchedly cold as any evening could be during a New England winter. There was no snow on the ground, which would have once been an anomaly at that latitude, but global warming long ago skewed and juxtaposed what was expected with what actually was. Even so, the frigid temperature emanated up from the cement and blacktop of the sidewalk and parking lot next to the YMCA in Providence, Rhode Island.
The group of about sixty people huddled in small numbers, sometimes separated by their particular affiliations. People from The American Friends Service Committee, others from the Socialist Workers Party, those independent of any group connection, and students from local colleges and universities discussed the trip to Washington, D.C. to protest the inauguration of George W. Bush. Snow and sleet had been predicted for later on Saturday, the day we would arrive in D.C., but it was the theft of the 2000 election that was on most people’s minds and the impending right-wing onslaught on the nation’s government that propelled most of us to action. As I had for countless demonstrations before, I would carry a protest sign made up of oak tag fastened to a furring strip. I had learned activist Abbie Hoffman’s admonition about protest long ago during the Vietnam War and it was second nature by now, something “that you just do.” It was part of participatory democracy.
A harbinger of what the Bush administration would come to mean was perhaps best symbolized by the massive police presence in Maryland beside the highway leading into Washington, D.C.
The bus arrived at around 8:00 A.M., and we massed along the parade route between the Capitol and the White House (closer to the White House) behind the steel bleachers that had been set up on Pennsylvania Avenue. The group from Rhode Island, and thousands of others who had arrived to protest were not allowed access to the stands at this point in the morning, and it was just as well as the bleachers would have frozen us solid from head to toe. As the day progressed, it became apparent that the people who had come to celebrate Bush’s “victory” were present in far smaller numbers than protesters, at least at the spot of the parade route that I viewed the crowd from.
As the noon hour of Bush’s swearing-in as president approached, protesters passed through a phalanx of security personnel. My sign was ripped apart by an individual dressed in a business suit at the security checkpoint and the furring strip thrown away. Rather than sit in the stands I took up a position along the parade route standing against the ropes that blocked access to the street. I had a good vantage point at the very front of the mass of protesters as a frozen rain began to fall continuously.
A motley crew of Bush supporters passed by. Many were decked out in mink coats, while others wore ten-gallon hats. A well-known television celebrity passed by, whose bodyguard had just punched a protester in the face for saying something indistinct from the place where I stood. The two continued on toward the White House as if nothing had happened.
Finally, after hours of waiting, the recognizable black SUVs of the president’s motorcade approached. Since I was on the front line of protesters I raised my middle finger in a gesture of defiance of the administration that had just begun. I had only an inkling that it was in reality George W. Bush who would soon be giving his middle finger to the entire nation and the rest of the world! What followed over the next eight years is history!
The ride back to Rhode Island during the evening and through most of the morning took place during the snowstorm that had been forecasted. The bus crawled along I-95 and took every opportunity to stop at roadside rest stops along the way. By the time we reached northeastern Connecticut the bus was making the only visible tracks along the highway, as nearly everyone else had wisely remained indoors.
Fast-forward eight years. Once again I plan to attend an inauguration. This time, however, it will be for a candidate for whom I voted. Nevertheless, I’ll carry a protest sign about the need to end both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope for the best, as Barack Obama is an individual of great intelligence, but who seems to be surrounding himself, at least at the point of the transition during which I write, with many neoliberals from the Clinton era. Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who is Barack Obama’s chief of staff, is hardly someone who would champion peace in the Middle East. His transition team also includes John Brennan who supported warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. Senator Hillary Clinton has supported the wall between Israel and the West Bank. As secretary of state she would do well to read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” before assuming that position. Other advisors, however, are bright and forward thinking. The country and larger world are in an absolute mess after the disaster that has been George W. Bush. War without diplomacy; the debacle that is the global economy; the attack against civil liberties; the near-total lack of meaningful or available domestic jobs; the lack of health insurance for nearly fifty million people; and the ceaseless attack on the environment are all daunting challenges! Will a mass movement for change materialize during the Obama administration to nudge the president toward more progressive positions? I think not! I predict hardly a whimper of resistance.
HOWARD LISNOFF teaches writing and is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.