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Why I'm Not a Protester 

Alienation on the political frontlines

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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ON JANUARY 20, 2001, A FRIEND AND I TRAVELED by bus from New York City to Washington, D.C., to protest the theft of the presidential election. We were not organized; we had not aligned ourselves in advance with an "affinity group," as seasoned activists advise protesters to do. We didn't have time. We had merely exchanged a few e-mails with a man named Louis Posner, who was part of something called the Voters Rights March -- a group that seemed, based on its Web page, to fill that elusive middle ground between establishment liberals and the latter-day anarchists who'd recently made a name for themselves at protests in Seattle, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. We figured that in the five hours it took to travel from Eighth Avenue and 34th Street to D.C.'s Dupont Circle, we would bond sufficiently with our traveling companions and would soon be marching arm in arm in the streets.

On the bus, we learned that one woman had brought her 16-year-old daughter to inculcate her in the art of street protest; a couple was using the opportunity to do a radio documentary on activism in America. But there was little camaraderie among our fellow travelers. Except for our bus captain, a woman named Fredda who spent most of the trip chattering to the man next to her about how girls have no instincts for competitive sports, most of the D.C.-bound brigade slept. Some snored. At our destination, the stern, no-nonsense black man who drove our bus -- the only nonwhite person in the crowd -- warned that we'd better return on time if we wanted to beat the impending blizzard; otherwise, we had no instructions at all. We were deposited at the Stadium metro station and followed the herds of sign bearers down to the train. By the time we emerged near Dupont Circle, any face vaguely familiar from our bus trip had vanished.

It was a cheerlessly drizzly day, and we took the weather as a harbinger of ill times ahead: "Oh, Democracy," proclaimed a sign carried by a middle-aged woman in a rain slicker. "Even the heavens know to weep on this foul day." Volunteers from the National Organization for Women handed us signs that said "No 'W'" and we gladly carried them; we bought buttons that said "Rage Against the Coup" and cheerfully affixed them to our jackets. For the first time in our adult lives, we felt the stirrings of a resistance movement that would span different cultural and economic backgrounds. We told reporters we were helping to usher in four years of activism, in which a decade of frustration -- over the squandering of natural resources, a militarized national drug policy, the increasingly globalized chasm between wealth and poverty -- would finally find a collective outlet.

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OH, WE WERE NAIVE. IN ACTIVISM, AS IN HOLLYWOOD, it's all who you know, and truth be told, we simply lacked the connections to find our way to the parade route. Several miles of wrong turns and a few beers later -- we'd ducked into bars to get out of the rain -- we stood in the gathering storm, shivering against the wind, our teeth chattering and coats soaked through. We briefly joined in "Oh, no, I'm not ahead! Better call my brother Jeb," and at one point congratulated a man who carried a banner announcing "Jack-Booted Thugs for Bush." We had come to oppose an electoral process gone awry; we wanted to chant for voter reform and a recount. But the bleachers across the street from where we stood were papered with banners demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. It soon occurred to us that we had offered ourselves up to a protest movement that didn't really want us.

Toughing it out in the gathering storm had started to seem more like a tourist exercise than a rebellious position, and so before the presidential armada ever made it down Pennsylvania Avenue, we took shelter in the subway. Blinking into sputtering hail, we found ourselves almost by accident at a small cluster of restaurants on Capitol Hill, and wandered through a steam-coated door into a Thai restaurant, where we found empty seats, a TV and a full bar. We sat down and ordered mai tais and dumplings.

Next to us, a well-dressed family of four was just finishing dinner. The matriarch looked in her mid-30s and wore a mink coat. Hearing our complaints about the cold, she offered us what remained of her family's appetizer. We declined, but this shiny-haired Kentuckian -- I'll call her Missy, because if that wasn't her name, it should have been -- insisted on finding out everything about us. Her husband's brother had worked for Ronald Reagan's campaign; her children had been collecting the signatures of celebrities attending the inauguration. She'd been to the Kentucky Republican Ball, she confessed with a roll of her eyes -- "What a bunch of squares!," she griped -- and wanted to know if we'd been to any parties ourselves.

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