As I flew into DC’s National Airport Wednesday night, I could see celebratory fireworks over near the Washington Monument. It was the beginning of the Bush version of a party-something akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the much more dangerous explosions that are daily occurrences in the Iraq that Washington’s war has made. After retrieving my backpack form the baggage claim, I made my way to the Metro station, purchased a farecard and got on the next train. The first thing I noticed was the numerous white women wearing fur coats and hanging tight to their tuxedo clad husbands. Not your usual subway crowd by any means. Apparently, the three inch snowfall in DC that day had screwed up the schedules of these celebrants’ limousines. Ah, the sufferings of the rich and powerful.
Thursday morning I headed into DC from the place I was staying in Maryland. After a series of public transportation holdups, I finally got to the area of the city where the inauguration was being held. Talk about lockdown. Everywhere one looked there was fencing and security personnel. DC police, Secret Service, FBI, National Guard and active duty military-all of them very well-armed. In addition to the folks on the ground, every government building along the route had a half-dozen sharpshooters on its roof. Because of the extreme security measures, one had to walk several blocks out of the way in order to reach their destination. After walking at least two miles out more than would have been necessary under normal circumstances, I finally reached an access point to the Mall where folks were gathered to listen to W’s speech. Now, the way the Bush people had the entry points into their security zone set up, one had to already have a ticket to enter through most of them. Most of these tickets were provided to those who had worked or donated to the Bush campaign and the rest were sold prior to the date. The rest of us-protesters and supporters alike-had but one point of entry. Of course, the lines were extremely long and, once one got to the front, they were subject to a patdown search. By the time I had gone through this exercise and entered the Mall grounds, Bush was beginning his speech. To be honest, I didn’t listen to much of it, choosing instead to observe the crowd, which seemed to be made up of several dozen groups of high school students in the general area where I stood. The Mall itself was less than half full of people. Recent antiwar demonstrations have drawn more people.
I left the area after Bush’s promise to end tyranny (one assumes his definition of tyranny doesn’t include the governments in DC, Tel Aviv, or Iraq). From there I began to make my way over to a decent vantage point from which to watch the parade. In addition, I was looking for some likeminded folks. I have never been in DC and felt like I was in such an alien environment. The vanilla suburbs had truly invaded the chocolate city, to borrow the terminology of George Clinton. It was somewhat disconcerting. After walking another couple of miles to cover what would normally have been a six or seven-block walk, I reached the back of the White House. There was the tail end of an earlier antiwar demonstration remaining there. Most of the people involved were participating in a die-in in sympathy with the people of Iraq. One male Bush supporter stopped and asked me what was going on. I told him and he responded: “Gee, they look like me after the party last night.” Despite his trivialization of the matter, I admit I had to laugh at his joke.
Then I wandered on, eventually reaching the intersection of 14th and F Streets. There was a large crowd of protestors there. This was a crowd made up of mostly young and exuberant folks who were not attached to any particular organization. Some were identified as anarchists, some as socialists, some as Democrats and some just folks. They were waiting in line to get through the security points, others were chanting slogans in the street, and still others were arguing with Bush supporters walking by. I remembered the intersection and walked on, intending to find the rest of the antiwar folks who were assembled under the auspices of the ANSWER coalition. I walked all the way to 3rd and C Streets, where the ANSWER folks were trying to get in. There was a long line and the process was very slow. Making a split-second decision, I decided to go back up to 14th Street and spend my afternoon there.
The security situation at this point was this: there were three fences; in between the first and second fence stood a tight row of DC police in full riot gear; in between the second and third fence (which stood directly behind the viewing bleachers) stood a more loosely-organized line of security forces, some in camouflage with automatic weapons and some in plainclothes. As the day wore on, the sense of being purposely excluded frustrated and angered the crowd of several thousand on the two blocks of 14th Street more and more. A couple of young people burned a US flag while some nationalist clown dressed in red, white and blue attempted to wrestle with them. Protestors engaged in shouting matches with overly smug Bush supporters dressed in fur coats and tuxedos. The insults from the Bushites were familiar: get a job, move to Iraq, and so on. Eventually, as the frustration of the protestors continued to grow, virtually all sense of decorum left the crowd. Taunts from Bush supporters were met with the simple response (recently popularized once again by Dick Cheney) of “Go fuck yourself.” Young and old protestors utilized this repeatedly throughout the afternoon. More and more riot cops poured into the street as more protestors showed up and grew rowdier.
The old Willard Hotel takes up a block of 14th Street between F and G. Its front steps stood about fifty feet away from the first security fence and also gave folks the closest view of the parade from the outside of the security zone. By 3 PM this area was filled with protestors, some of them intent on tearing down the security fence. As they disengaged various sections of the fence (only to have them put back in place by the cops), the riot squad began spraying some kind of pepper tear gas. Various demonstrators responded by pelting the cops with snowballs, who then sprayed more gas. By the time Cheney and then Bush’s cars were announced, the crowd near the hotel was angry and loud and some, even through our scarves and bandannas we held over our faces to lessen the effects of the gas. After this part of the parade passed, folks began to filter away from the front of the hotel but not away from the protest. In response, the riot cops began to add reinforcements with the intention of clearing the streets.
One note about the DC police. In a scenario reminiscent of a colonial army made up of local nationals (think the new Iraqi National Guard), it appears that the majority of the men and women who make up DC’s riot squad are Black. This was not the case thirty years ago, but it is today. In short, the wealthy white folks of Washington’s corporate war establishment have a bunch of non-white skinned folks protecting their buildings and their right to oppress. The irony is not lost.
Various skirmishes between the riot squad and the protestors continued throughout the rest of the afternoon. I personally only witnessed one arrest. However, there were probably more. After leaving DC that evening, I went to my parents’ house in Maryland and talked politics with my dad. He asked why I was protesting. My response was simple: Never have I felt so locked out of this nation’s so-called democratic process. Suffice it to say, the day’s events reinforced that perception in a very real and physical manner.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com