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Hail to the Thief

Pageantry and Protest on the Inauguration Trail

Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers

By Michael Corbin | Posted 1/24/2001

Rain and cold makes the press of bodies more comfortable. Insulation and shared warmth are welcome relief from the frozen drizzle and the tedium of standing in line to have your bags searched along the way to the parade.

The festivities for the new president don't begin for hours, but the partisans with fortitude arrive early Saturday morning. The parade route has been salted as a defense against freezing rain and cordoned off as a defense against everything else; entry is strategically controlled at designated checkpoints. After the pomp and circumstance of the swearing-in at the Capitol Jan. 20, George W. Bush will make his ceremonial way up Pennsylvania Avenue to his new home.

The 37 days after the 2000 presidential election were a conspicuous outbreak of reality in the nation's saccharine electoral politics of choreographed imagery. Clear sides were taken. Power was baldly exercised. A candidate who received fewer votes nationally--and, quite possibly, fewer votes in the Electoral College-deciding state of Florida--obtained the presidency in what charitably can be called questionable circumstances. It was unprecedented, and it gave U.S. politics a more tangible reality beyond the usual spin and hype.

The checkpoints are a concession to this reality. The multifarious security apparatus of the nation's capital have established 16 entry points, 10 "public" and six for ticket-holders, at which to search the hundreds of thousands of citizens attempting to line up along the parade route. A judge had vouchsafed the constitutionality of this gauntlet the previous day, and the faithful who turn out for the parade in the cold, gray rain are following orders. Secret Service men, young, groomed, and bundled in dark overcoats, oversee Metropolitan D.C. police as they root out any potential Travis Bickles or Squeaky Frommes among the patriots here to witness a peaceful transfer of power. At each checkpoint, a row of long tables and parade fencing funnels the throng. The atmosphere is a mix of frustration and good humor.

This is the most "secure" inauguration in history, according to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some 7,000 police officers from the District and surrounding jurisdictions--the outsiders deputized that morning by Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey--have split up into mobile phalanxes and range about the parade route. Preparations have been made for as many as 5,000 arrests; the D.C. National Guard is mobilized just in case. (By day's end there are only five arrests, and the Guard is never called in.) Fire trucks, tractor-trailers, and acres of temporary fencing wall off the parade area for what inaugural historian Jim Bendat calls "democracy's big day."

"Have all bags open for inspection as you approach." The refrain is bull-horned to the crush of attendees stretching a block and half up D Street. "Why can't we get any closer?" one woman sighs as the clock strikes 10 and the lines trudges slowly on. "What the fuck is this?" screams a Hampshire College student who has traveled all night to be here--no doubt echoing the sentiments of many when they too arrive at the mosh pit that is the public-entry point and learn they will have to watch the parade from a block's distance.

There were no checkpoints along Pennsylvania Avenue in January 1969, when 81 people were arrested at Richard Nixon's first inauguration, nor in January 1973, when more than 30,000 anti-war demonstrators attended his second. Of course, in those years there was no question who'd won. Not since 1889 had a U.S. chief executive taken the oath of office after not having received the largest share of popular votes cast. And a decade before that, in 1877, the American public didn't find out until three days before the inauguration (then held in March) that a special commission had given Republican Rutherford B. Hayes disputed electoral votes, making him president.

After Hayes' inauguration, Democrats hailed him as "His Fraudulency." One hundred twenty-four years later, a historically minded Iowa couple has turned out for the 43rd president's investiture holding signs reading WELCOME TO HIS FRAUDULENCY, GEORGE W. BUSH. Speaking up for the triumphant, a group of early arrivals in boots and Stetsons sport buttons asserting WE WIN, YOU LOSE.

And to the victor goes the spoils. The 2001 inauguration and parade comes at the generous expense of big-league donors of the Republican National Committee, Fortune 500 companies and well-placed Washington lobby groups writing checks of $100,000 or more in an effort to find favor with the new regime. At the "Shadow Inauguration" in Stanton Park many speakers return to the theme of an election--and now, an inauguration--bought and sold, stolen even. Similarly, thousands rally at Dupont Circle before embarking on a "Voters March" on the Supreme Court.

At the Shadow Inauguration, former D.C. congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy addresses the crowd soberly. "I want to thank you all for coming out and for representing the majority of Americans who rejected George Bush for president," he says.


Freedom Plaza sits along Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets, a block from the Ellipse. It is here that the one of the largest groups of protesters gathers. The western edge of the plaza is a court-permitted protest area and a designated public-entry point. Lest it become a grassy knoll, the police are here in force, atop horses and clad in riot gear. Police don't allow the crowd through the Freedom Plaza entry point until several hours after the other 15 checkpoints opened.

Various contingents arrive throughout the morning into what is becoming a makeshift staging area. Here are the usual suspects: young radicals with FREE MUMIA and anti-death-penalty placards handed out by the semi-organized members of the International Action Center and the Justice Action Movement, wholesome-looking college students shouting "No justice, no peace!"

But as the day progresses, Freedom Plaza begins to fill with a different cast of angry citizenry, less interested in focused, issue-oriented protest than in simply expressing a form of previously unfamiliar and unthinkable disbelief. "We're an ad hoc committee from [Service Employees International Union]," says one of four African-American women hanging out together at the protest. "We came down here because we can't really believe this man is going to become president." A few families with children and some middle-aged Democrats are engaging in their first public acts of political dissent. "America should be ashamed," says a fiftysomething bureaucrat holding a sign expressing the theme of the day for the 20,000-some protesters: HAIL TO THE THIEF.

Some of the more radical heckle the police. A chant of "We are not the enemy" goes up. Others demur. A group of women standing at the front line thanks the police for keeping the protests at bay, one saying, "We know they didn't vote for Bush. We know who they voted for." A young African-American officer winks and smiles in response before returning to the stoic visage of a sentry at his point, rain dripping off hat and down his leather coat.

"Officer, officer," a fur-clad paradegoer on the arm of her pinstripe-suited beau hollers as she waves across the fencing, trying to get a cop's attention. "We're Bush supporters," she offers, trying to explain why she wants to cross Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street. A clutch of protesters jeers. "Sorry, lady. You need to go to the checkpoint at 12th Street to cross," the officer says. An Associated Press reporter pushes a protester with an anti-death-penalty sign next to the woman so as to snap a photograph of the two together. Several TV camerapeople spot them and rush over to capture this staged show of post-election comity.

Back at Freedom Plaza, the recently organized D.C. Black Panther Party for Self-Defense marches in with unintended self-parody. A few wear black football helmets with the face masks removed and replaced with plastic shields in emulation of police riot helmets. A cheer goes up when they arrive, but trails off uncomfortably as a speaker intones with dead seriousness about white-devil plots and Zionist conspiracies.

In the celebratory symbolism of inauguration one thing is clear: the continuing place of race in American politics. Before both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations he attended morning services at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal; Bush, who received less than 10 percent of the African-American vote, made his inaugural-morning peace with God at staid, ultra-establishment St. John's Episcopal near the White House. At the protests, speaker after speaker rails against the disenfranchisement of minority voters in Florida (where NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume leads an inauguration-day rally). "This is not the first stolen election," comedian/activist Dick Gregory--who ran for president in 1968 and received more than a million votes--tells the crowd at the Stanton Park Shadow Inauguration. "This is just the first one the public knows about. Don't be going through a lot of changes. We can't spend the next four years being depressed. This kind of thing is nothing new to black people."

In his own speech, the new president makes no mention of the circumstances of his ascension, but the energies animating the protesters are duly noted. "Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debate appear small," Bush says. "While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice of our own country. . . . And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country."


As morning drizzles into afternoon, people cover themselves in plastic and share umbrellas as the wait for the parade wears on. Chants from the block-deep crowd at Freedom Plaza rise up and fall away; in the periodic hush, the rev of the D.C. motorcycle cops' modified low-rider Harleys echoes against the cavernous buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue. The pervasive gray of the sky dulls the colorful bunting along the route, giving the view down the broad avenue a black-and-white, Leni Riefenstahl feel. The crowd perks up whenever any of various military troops or color guards preparing for the parade pass by, breaking into spirited outbursts of "Coup d'etat! Coup d'etat!"

Shortly before 3 P.M. the crowd at the plaza becomes energized as word goes around that the Bush-Cheney entourage is approaching. The security forces step up as well; the officers line up five-deep in front of the crowd on 14th Street. Dark sedans flanked by sprinting Secret Service agents race past Freedom Plaza. As a security measure, the presidential entourage has stopped above 12th Street and closed ranks, and now--in contrast to the meandering speed of the first stretch of the parade--it speeds the next few blocks without so much as a wave. The crowd surges forward, signs and middle fingers aloft. In the nonpublic area of the route past 15th Street, George and Laura Bush emerge from the sedans and, in a choreographed show of among-the-peopleness, walk the final block or so to the White House.

"Is that it?" a woman in the 14th Street crowd spits. "Was that him?" a man wonders. "Shit, was that Bush?"

The rows of cops stay put, but word circulates that yes, that was it. A general exodus ensues. The crowd turns and eases back toward the Farragut West and McPherson Square Metro stations; limos and cabs jockey in the people-packed streets.

"Christ, I guess they want to come down, flip the president the bird, and think that's their work for the day," a cop at the parade fence offers as he watches the protesters drift away. Another opines about the upcoming Super Bowl. "Go Ravens!" one protester interjects, and someone answers, "Go Giants!" A nearby cop smiles: "Now we can talk about something serious."

Without the crowds pressing against them, the concrete dividers, temporary fencing, and flapping yellow tape look a bit excessive. The bleachers along Pennsylvania Avenue empty out. Various floats and marching bands trail the new president and vice president down the final blocks to the White House. The real parade has just begun.

A block from the parade route, Nam Kim handles a steady stream of departing attendees at his E Street convenience store. In response to a question about his own sympathies, Kim says he voted for Al Gore. He didn't pay much attention to the pageantry outside his shop, though: "I don't care too much for politics, you see. But this is good for business. It's been steady today." Kim smiles at the throng moving away from the parade route, many coming in his door.

Inside, a man wearing a BUSH CHEATED button buys his son a Coke. "OK," he says after paying, "let's go home."

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