Our Crowd: Welcoming Bush as he Sneaks in the Back Door
By David Lytel
Organizing a demonstration is like acting – if you do it well it looks like you are doing nothing at all. Lou Posner, Les Souci, Bob Rogers and everyone else associated with VoterMarch.org have our profound congratulations for a job well done. Many people mistakenly believe that protests are spontaneous and self-organizing, but that is almost never true. There has to be someone to lay out the money for buses, stages, and sound systems, someone to invite the speakers, get the permits and deal with the police and other authorities. If the organizers do their job well it comes off looking like just several thousand close friends gathered for a day in the park, which but for the miserable weather was just how it appeared on Saturday in Washington for the counterinaugural celebration.
At its peak, my guess is that there were about 5,000 people in Dupont Circle, which ressembled the massive anti-war protests of the 1960s. Granny D was rabble rousing when I got there, and served as our headliner along with Patricia Ireland of NOW. It was wet, but not really all that cold. Well, if you live in Syracuse it wasn’t cold in Washington on Saturday.
Before we set out I asked if anyone in the crowd was at the last great anti-Vietnam war rally, which was the counterinaugural protest at Nixon’s second inauguration exactly 28 years earlier. It was both my first protest march and my first visit to Washington. A few hands went up, and we laughed as we looked around to see who else had their hands in the air. This will be our reunion march, I told them.
When the light turned green we set out to the White House by marching along our parade route, which took us in almost exactly the opposite direction for a few blocks. The march to the Ellipse was great fun even though we had to studiously stick to the parade route. It took us through Foggy Bottom to get to the White House, which you can see on a map is a route of such indirectness it is almost Japanese in its subtlety.
Since we respected all the traffic signals those of us at the head of the march had to wait on Constitution Avenue for the back of the march to catch up, but when it did we were one impressive force. About 2,000 of us marched together the final thousand yards. Two police cruisers briefly stood in our way but cleared out as we approached. Like a camp counsellor with reservations for a campsite for 2,000 I ran up ahead to ask a cop which path they wanted us to take into the park, but he just pointed at the Ellipse and let me figure it out.
At the Ellipse we had to adjust a bit. Ron Fussell brought a great sound system all the way from Minnesota, but we moved it so our crowd could line up along the fence that stood between us and the main driveway into the White House grounds, which is called West Executive Avenue. “That’s our flag!” we chanted as a Marine color guard marched between us and the White House.
And then the most amazing bit of good fortune befell us. For whatever reason the Secret Service did not take Bush into the front door of the White House when he was finished reviewing the parade. They put him back in the car and drove him around to the Southwest gate. So there we were for our transcendent moment – two thousand very vocal Americans at the back door of the White House to welcome George W. Bush with our voices and our signs. It was all too ironic, to be there when Bush snuck in the back door of the White House for the first time as president. If he were blind and deaf he still would have been able to feel our presence there, and our disapproval.
After that there wasn’t much left to do, since the rest of the crowd was in front of the White House and we were in the back. People started coming up to me asking why we didn’t go up front where people and the news media could see us. I thought about this for a while and finally told people that our permit was for the Ellipse so we were going to stay put but that if they, as individuals, wanted to be seen by the people and the press they might want to walk over to the gate at 17th and G Streets, which was as close as you could get without a ticket. Most everyone did that except for us bitter-enders who remained at the Ellipse until it started to get cold and dark.
The Washington Post had it right when they said the weather was a perfect metaphor for Bush’s ascension to the presidency. Like Bush’s mandate to govern the weather was cloudy and unclear, cold and uncomfortable for everyone, his supporters and his opponents alike.