The illegitimate son

Inauguration Day in DC brings out tens of thousands of protesters, but does it matter?

Presidential inaugurations are a peculiar combination of civic ecstasy and the celebration of raw power—enthralled high-school students on field trips, watching a Soviet May Day parade for corporate democracy. The ostentatious swearing-in ceremonies; the Pennsylvania Avenue procession of floats, marching bands, and military hardware; the stretch limos pulling up to bazillion-dollars-per-ticket gala inaugural balls—all serve not as a humble promise to honor the privilege of serving the American people but as (publicly) a self-congratulatory reminder that We Are the Greatest Government in the History of the World, and (privately) a wild party for whichever clique will be pillaging taxpayers for the next four years. For more sober observers, it's all a reminder that while you can watch once every four years for a few hours, Washington power is an ongoing series of daily—and nightly—parties to which you're generally not invited.

All modern day US inaugurations, regardless of victorious party, are like this. George W. Bush's 2001 party, however, had a third element, an uninvited and largely unreported one as studiously ignored by other partygoers as any loudly drunk neighbor the hosts hope will simply go home. Of the estimated 300,000 people that gathered in a light, raw rain at the Capitol and along Pennsylvania Avenue, tens of thousands of people expressed their belief that the whole thing was a fraud.

Theirs were the largest inaugural protests since the days of Nixon. In 1973, a well-organized movement angered by an unpopular war and "four more years" swelled anti-inaugural crowds. In 2001, there was no such organization, and Dubya hadn't even had a chance to step in it with his new Oval Office boots yet. Nearly 20 different, mostly obscure groups had announced plans to protest. They had announced five different, distinct locations (or just "along Pennsylvania Avenue") at which confused anti-Bush citizens were to assemble.

Only five weeks prior, Al Gore's supporters thought they'd be the ones marching and partying. Instead, they were shivering, waving signs like "Count My Vote" and "Hail to the Thief," marginalized by the pervasive security apparatuses and disinterested networks. Alongside the protesters angry about Florida and the Supreme Court were many others, concerned about a wide variety of issues that transcended Gore and Bush. The dozens of issues all melded into one message, unmistakably delivered in block after block of the parade route: George W. Bush has no right to pursue, as president, the policies he wants. He is, according to the words of one memorable sign, the illegitimate son.

It was difficult to gauge the size of the anti-Bush sentiment, so the networks and reporters and pundits mostly didn't even try. They were content to mention it in passing, like some unfortunate yet unavoidable irritant, and content to adopt the Republican thesis that these were "sore losers." If so, the losers were everywhere, making up a large, and in many places a majority, percentage of the crowd. After the inaugural speech—some awful thing about "angels," delivered by Dubya like a high-school kid whose clueless dad stayed up late the previous night to write it for him—the Bushes rode and then walked up Pennsylvania Avenue. They passed solidly pro-Bush bleachers (these were the paid tickets), alternating with blocks that were either mixed or—especially nearer the White House—solidly anti-Bush. Somehow this became, according to one radio reporter, "hundreds of protesters"; according to most others, at best a few thousand. While the anti-Bush signs were widespread and their bearers varied, The Washington Post managed to work in the usual reference to protesters' piercings.

Such dismissal missed the point and the significance of the demonstrators, and starkly showed how difficult it will be for citizen groups alarmed by one or another Bush policy in the next four years to get themselves heard. With the exception of the National Organization for Women—which comprised a boisterous pro-choice cluster between Eighth and Ninth Streets—protests by the traditional Democratic Party constituencies were strikingly absent. Among the protests, there was no labor or environmental presence at all. Even vocal electoral fraud critics like Jesse Jackson had taken a pass; Jackson, before scandal erupted, had planned to be at a rally in Tallahassee, far away from the cameras.

Instead, the election-themed protesters were mobilized through the Internet by vaporous "groups" like Votermarch.org and Countercoup.org, entities that had never met face to face and had come together in the last month expressly for the purpose of protesting the inaugural. Farther to the left, organizers, such as the Justice Action Movement (another rent-an-acronym) and International Action Center, and the media celebrity of Rev. Al Sharpton helped bring people to DC, but they themselves sported few, if any, "followers" in the traditional sense.

The inauguration's unprecedented heavy security—the Secret Service ringed the parade route with 10 security checkpoints all parade-goers had to pass through—was in large part because, although organizers insisted that only peaceful protest was planned, nobody knew them or what to expect. As it turned out, the massive police presence was unnecessary. The lack of conflict between police and protesters and the lack of prominent names attached to the anti-Bush cause made the protesters' message less important to reporters.

But the lack of organizational backing made these protests more, not less, impressive. All the "sponsors" did was provide permits; tens of thousands of dissenters basically found their way to DC on their own volition, without any apparent policy goal beyond the desire to display opposition to a regime that had not yet even taken office. There was no legislation pending, no war raging, no recession (so far), and only a few weeks of "organizing" by groups, most of whom nobody has ever heard of. Nevertheless, tens of thousands came, and in Seattle, as in other cities across the country, thousands more also protested.

Opponents of Dubya's policies will remember this, and they will remember that after having the election yanked out from under them, Congressional Democrats have displayed almost no opposition to an array of Bush Cabinet nominees that is anything but moderate and bipartisan. There is a potentially powerful movement brewing, but nobody is harnessing it and nobody in power is championing it.

Yet.

 
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