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Taking It To The Streets

While the official inaugural provided the fantasy of a coronation, thousands of protesters provided a reality check.
 
 
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While the limousines and marching bands were parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, death filled the streets of Washington on a chilly presidential Inauguration Day. In a half-dozen protests, more than 10,000 activists demonstrated the human cost of the Bush administration’s policies in dramatic and visceral terms. The women’s anti-war group, Code Pink, staged a funeral march from Dupont Circle, complete with a New Orleans-style horn band and cardboard coffins paying homage to the death of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and other issues.

In a separate march from Malcom X Park, the D.C. Anti-War Network (DAWN) carried dozens of coffins draped in American flags and black fabric to represent the dead from both sides in the Iraq war. The two met in a spirited protest in McPherson Square, blocks from the White House, as some of its members staged a “die-in” in the middle of the street, and others infiltrated the parade route to carry signs directly to Bush’s motorcade.

“You have to take what is being hidden and bring it out into the light,” said Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink. “The war is really about people dying — our troops and the Iraqi people. Bush wants to sweep that under the covers.”

The temperature, at least, was reminiscent of the huge anti-war march two years ago, when an estimated half-million filled the National Mall on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Yesterday, as then, a biting wind cut through the multiple layers worn by shivering protesters. The tenor, however, of the first major protest since Bush won re-election in November was both more somber and angrier than protests in years past.

Gone, for the most part, were colorful giant puppets and signs with clever puns on Bush and Dick. Instead, the most typical signs struck a defiant note that left little to the imagination. “Fuck Bush” and “Bush: Motherfucker” read the two biggest signs leading the DAWN march in foot-high fluorescent letters. Other signs were only slightly more kind: “He Dances, They Die,” “4 Moron Years,” “Worst President Ever,” and “Mandate, My Ass.”

While hope turned recent protests like those at the Republican National Convention in New York into raucous carnivals of dissent, the cold reality of another four years of Bush has hardened the resolve of those who disagree with his policies. Even the more creative forms of protest were tinged with the macabre. One street theater performance along the parade route depicted the “Abu Ghraib Fraternity,” with actors dressed as Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Rush Limbaugh dancing to “Shout” and “Louie, Louie,” while wearing sweatshirts reading “Torture U.”

As in the election, most of the protesters who took part in the demonstrations named the war as their main issue. When domestic and human rights issues were raised as well, it was usually in terms of the money spent on the war instead of more pressing social concerns, such as the sign that said “End the Occupation, not Social Security.”

“When I heard the death toll from the tsunami had reached 150,000, the same number as Iraqi civilians killed, to me it was ironic and sad that our country would respond in two different ways to these tragedies,” said Kristin Marrs, a dancer originally from Iowa.

Despite the lower turnout, the disappointment of losing last November hasn’t dimmed the passion of those who were energized in the lead up to the election. Just as many new activists came out to campaign on behalf of John Kerry last summer, many protesters for the inauguration said they were here for their very first demonstration. Others picked up where they left off last fall.

“I found out about this protest at the RNC,” said Mel Zimmerman, 78, carrying a black coffin down 16th Street on his way to McPherson Square. “Flyers said come on Inauguration Day no matter who wins, Bush or Kerry. I decided right then I was going to come.” Carrying the other side of his coffin was an acquaintance he made while canvassing votes for Kerry in Florida with America Coming Together.

DAWN organizer Jim McDonald, for his part, said he was glad the election was over, so the left could focus again on its issues, instead of getting a candidate elected. “The election divided us strategically,” he said. “We all agree that the mobilization to war was wrong, that the assault on civil liberties was wrong. We can’t wait until another election to fight against that.”

One activist who lost no time in organizing after Bush’s re-election was Jet Heiko, who launched his campaign Turn Your Back on Bush (TYBoB) with a web site on Nov. 3, just after Ohio was called “red.” One of the most innovative and simplest protests of the day, the idea was for Bush opponents to infiltrate the parade route and just turn their backs on the president as he drove by.

“We wanted to turn our backs on Bush because he has turned his back on us,” said Heiko by telephone from TYBoB headquarters. “He’s turned his back on the Constitution, he’s turned his back on working with the rest of the world, increasingly he’s turned his back on women and people of color. You name it, his back has been turned.” The protest was also conceived as a way to circumvent the marginalization that has become the norm at protests, where demonstrators are confined to protest pens or met with violent responses from riot police.

“The good thing about our action is its entirely legal — it’s not even civil disobedience,” said Dan Nolan, who came from Massachusetts to take part, and staked out a place at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue with his 30-member group. “It's a non-violent, minimalist action in which we simply stand in silent protest.”

In all, more than 1,000 participants from 49 states came to take part — many of them taking all-night bus rides, then waiting in long, cold lines as soon as the entrances to the parade route opened at 9 a.m. Their patience paid off, as they grabbed prime pieces of real estate in the few places the public was allowed to stand. By the time the president’s motorcade drove by in the late afternoon, they stood in rows three-deep as they turned their backs on the commander in chief and television cameras. Their numbers were bolstered by other protesters filtering in from the marches, who carried signs and booed and threw snowballs at the passing limousines.

“It was fabulous,” said Judy Hopkins from Maine, who stood near Pershing Park, just before the White House. “We had a whole corner of more than a hundred people, and only four or five people didn’t turn their backs. Other people were chanting and booing the president behind us.”

Despite a reported 6,000 extra police officers and 7,000 military personnel in the city to provide security for the inauguration, police response to the protesters was generally restrained — just as, despite the defiant stance of protesters, most of the demonstrations were non-violent. The “die-in” staged by DAWN, though billed as an act of civil disobedience, took place in a street that had been closed off, and just a few plainclothes police officers stood to watch the 16 protesters lying with their faces and clothes smeared with fake blood, shivering on the cold asphalt.

The heightened security, however, also ensured that for the most part only the privileged few could attend the parade route itself. Long bottlenecks formed in the early afternoon for the few public entrances, and protesters and supporters alike were forced to wait in line for up to two hours to make it through magnetometers and pat-down searches. (“I’ve been to five inaugurations and never seen anything like this!” fumed a woman in a mink coat.) Many of the bleachers that had been set up for ticketed (read: paying) attendees, meanwhile, were conspicuously empty, leading some activists to surmise that they had been set up more to squeeze protesters than to accommodate supporters.

Only a few clashes with police occurred during the day, the most notable being when a group of anarchists chanting “Our Streets! Our Streets!” pushed their way through crowds of Bush supporters to rush one of the VIP checkpoints, and reportedly burned an American flag at the gate. Police quickly dispersed the crowd with pepper spray. Another hundred protesters were reportedly arrested when they tried to break through the security on Pennsylvania Avenue to rush the president’s limousine.

Judging from the spirited turnout on Inauguration Day, Bush’s never-ending war on terrorism seems to be spawning a corresponding culture of never-ending protest. Stemming from the defeat in November, the movement has also adapted with new issues and strategies. In McPherson Square, orange replaced red, black, and pink as the activist color de jour, as the group Left.org (formerly RedefeatBush.org) distributed orange armbands to bring attention to the issue of voter fraud in Ohio and elsewhere. Reading, “We Demand Honest Elections from Kiev to Columbus,” the armbands took their color from the orange worn by supporters of the victorious Viktor Yushchenko after the recent uprising in Ukraine.

Religious language was also more prominent in the speeches and slogans of demonstrators, a response to the so-called “moral values” voters who swung the election to Bush in key states. “I see moral values in who you are,” thundered Rev. Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational Church, to the crowd standing on snow in Malcolm X Park. “I see moral values because you stand up for peace, you stand up for justice, and speak truth to power.” Protester Tara White, a Christian from Virginia Beach, made the point in a more visible way, dressed like Jesus in a terrycloth white bathrobe with a crown of thorns made from her wisteria bush, while carrying a sign that said “Bush, Ye Know Me Not.”

Members of military families and veterans opposing the war were also more prominent, both in speaking roles and marching in the crowd. “I’m very gratified to see all of these young people using their constitutional protections of free speech that veterans are sworn to protect, but don’t have themselves,” said Veterans for Peace organizer Kevin McCarron, a Gulf War veteran who signed as the chief marshal on the permit for the DAWN march. “Families are seeing their loved ones lose limbs and life to go fight a war for who knows what reason. I think it’s becoming clear to them that this war is for the personal profits of Bush, Cheney and others in the oil industry.”

Another participant in TYBoB, Brooke Campbell, came from Georgia to take part in the protest on behalf of her brother, who died last spring in Iraq. “When they invaded, my little brother definitely believed that the president was telling him the truth,” she said. “But after he got to Iraq and spent time there, he began to realize he’d been lied to. I think a lot of troops have become more and more conscious of the great balls of lies as they’ve been over there.”

Campbell helped organize more than a hundred people to come up with her from Georgia, one of the largest delegations for the action. In addition to some Kerry supporters, she says, were several people who voted for Bush in the election, but don’t agree with his war policy. “A lot of Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to support Kerry are definitely outraged at Bush and want to express their frustration in this way,” she said. While the mood of Bush opponents has turned more serious in the past few months, the coalition that formed to defeat the president seems to have survived and even expanded since the election. If it is going to succeed in stopping his policies over the next four years, it will have to figure out what to turn towards, not just away from.

Michael Blanding is a writer and editor for Boston Magazine .