Fear and Furs

It was at his first inaugural address in the early years of the Great Depression that Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously warned that fear was the nation’s greatest danger -- ”nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.“ In these more prosperous times, fear itself was the dominant note at George W. Bush‘s tainted inauguration in Washington, D.C., last weekend -- fear and furs, lots of furs, mink after mink after mink, the lustrous hides of entire generations of rodents. In the most heavily guarded inaugural celebration in American history, more than 7,000 officers from more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies flooded the city to ensure that Bush -- and his legions of tuxedoed and mink-wrapped supporters -- could enjoy their $40 million corporate-sponsored victory party in royal style.

As thousands of demonstrators from widely disparate backgrounds trooped through the cold and rain-soaked streets to voice their outrage, National Guardsmen lurked nearby, outfitted for urban combat; armored cars and a 70-man FBI SWAT team waited out of sight. Police set up 10 checkpoints through which the general public -- including tens of thousands of parade-goers as well as protesters -- had to pass to get to the inaugural parade route. All bags, even umbrellas, were searched at the checkpoints.

Following a lawsuit brought by protest organizers, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler grudgingly approved the security plan despite ”very, very deep concerns.“ She warned, ”The very term ’checkpoint‘ has what I would call an odious connotation of repression . . . Every citizen has the freedom to walk the streets of this land.“

Agreeing with Kessler, protesters took over the streets of the capital for the day on Saturday, cheerfully braving the assaults of both the weather and the police, defying aggressive attempts to contain them, charging through one of the security checkpoints and raining on the presidential parade with loud and visible dissent. Along with cheers from onlookers in cashmere overcoats and furs, the executive limousine was greeted with great choruses of boos, with nearly as many protest signs as black umbrellas, and at one point with a skillfully lobbed orange.

By the end of the day, Bush had broken into the White House, with the blessings of the Supreme Court; police had arrested about 10 protesters on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to felony assault on a police officer.

Hours before Bush was sworn in on the Capitol steps, protesters were converging throughout downtown Washington. The International Action Center (IAC), leading a call to ”Stop the Death Machine“ and protesting a range of issues from capital punishment to police brutality to corporate globalization, staked out the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route four hours before the procession was scheduled to begin. The Justice Action Movement, a coalition of progressive groups, and the Million Voter March, composed largely of more centrist Democrats angry about the election debacle and Bush’s far-right cabinet appointees, rallied at Dupont Circle before heading to Pennsylvania Avenue. Several hundred New Black Panthers marched to declare a ”Day of Outrage“ at the disenfranchisement of African-American voters in Florida. Reverend Al Sharpton led over 1,000 in a ”Shadow Inauguration“ at Stanton Park, swearing: ”We‘ve taken an oath today that we will turn this nation around, and it’ll take more than senior Bush or little junior Bush to turn us around.“ The Revolutionary Anti-Authoritarian Bloc, better known as the Black Bloc, convened at Franklin Square, yards away from the spot where anarchist protesters were clubbed and tear-gassed by D.C. police during last April‘s rallies against the International Monetary Fund.

The day’s first confrontation with police took place not long after the latter group, about 500 anarchists wearing black bandannas and hooded sweatshirts, joined by the odd mainstream Gore supporter, began marching at 10 a.m. to chants of ”Who is the enemy? The state is the enemy!“ By 11 a.m. they had picked up an escort of about two dozen cops on foot at the rear of the march. This happened after an hour of parading through the streets, waving signs (a sampling of messages: ”No Aid to Israeli Apartheid,“ ”Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,“ ”End the Racist Death Penalty,“ ”Genetic Engineering: What Are You Doing to Our Food?“ ”The Real Elections Are in the Streets“), occasionally targeting the property of their adversaries with a brick (one was thrown at the window of an Armed Forces Recruitment Center -- it missed) or can of spray paint (the facade of the Washington Post building was tagged with circled A, as the crowd yelled ”Fuck Corporate Media!“), dragging newspaper boxes into the street to slow the police cars trailing them.

As the group turned the corner at 14th and L streets, just a block from its starting place at Franklin Square, police charged the crowd without warning, batons swinging. Several protesters -- and an AP photographer -- were thrown to the ground, some were beaten. Matt Even, a 24-year-old Washington resident, was bludgeoned with a baton as he turned to run from the advancing police. Knocked briefly unconscious and bleeding badly from the head, he was pulled to safety by friends. (Even was soon back on his feet, his head hastily bandaged: ”It looks like it‘s going to need stitches but I don’t want to leave the protest,“ he said two hours later.) More police appeared from the opposite direction and quickly lined up, boxing in about 200 people on the sidewalk at 14th and K. That group dwindled slightly when about 50 pushed through police lines and fled. One young man was tackled and arrested, his shirt torn off and his face bruised and bleeding.

The stage seemed to be set for the now-familiar police tactic of mass arrests, used both in D.C. last April and during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Police began pulling journalists, at times forcefully, from the group, and pushed all other protesters, who were gathering in the surrounding intersection, onto the sidewalks, where they stood angrily waiting for buses to arrive to haul off their captured companions. D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, always eager for a photo op (in April he could be seen wrestling teenage protesters to the ground himself), was at the scene, but refused comment when asked why his officers had charged the crowd.

Within a few minutes and apparently without any foreknowledge of what they were walking into, a band of several thousand demonstrators, filling at least two blocks -- the JAM and Million Voter March groups, who, marching from Dupont Circle, according to one protest organizer, ”just happened to walk up on the mass arrest“ -- arrived from the north on 14th Street and began chanting, ”Let them go!“ Overwhelmed by the sheer number of protesters, the police dissolved the line separating the captive anarchists from the rest of the crowd. After a few minutes of tense confrontation, during which officers tried with limited success to keep demonstrators on the sidewalks, the entire crowd marched off, joining forces on K Street and chanting triumphantly, ”The people united, will never be defeated!“ A few miles away, George W. Bush pontificated about courage and compassion and the duties of citizens to be neither spectators nor subjects.

Elated by its victory and unexpected release, Black Bloc marched behind a banner reading ”Whoever They Voted For, We Are Ungovernable,“ heading for the parade route, joined now on all sides by thousands of others, including five wearing papier mache caribou heads in solidarity with Alaskan wildlife, and a gentleman from Boston, his heading poking through a hole in an enormous butterfly ballot, who asked to be called Chad. At one point two anxious-looking Bushite couples en route to the parade found themselves in the midst of the crowd. One black-garbed marcher politely offered a pamphlet to one man, who ignored his offer, staring stubbornly ahead as if being pestered by a persistent panhandler. At the same time, another protester spray-painted an anarchist ”A“ on the back of his wife‘s fur coat and slipped away unnoticed.

Chanting ”Whose Streets? Our Streets!“ the crowd stormed through a checkpoint at Seventh and Pennsylvania with little resistance from police, filling the Navy Memorial plaza, across the street from the imposing Corinthian-columned National Archives building. Two lines of riot police closed in behind them, but soon filed off in rigid formation.

Protesters bid them adieu with a serenade of the Mickey Mouse Club theme.

For the next hour and a half, the crowd milled about in the frigid rain, teenage protesters drummed on overturned trash bins, sandal-clad environmentalists mingled with Boy Scouts and Secret Service agents, Radical Cheerleaders danced beside bleachers brimming with blanketed Republican ticket holders in yellow slickers and, inevitably, furs.

The police action did not begin again until three protesters climbed the 8-foot cement base of one of the plaza’s two enormous flagpoles, unmooring strings of naval banners and, to wild applause, raising the black flag of anarchism. The cheers had not died down before about six Park Police officers in full riot gear, eager to protect our military emblems from insult, surrounded the flagpole, reaching up to grab at the anarchists‘ ankles. One by one, the three protesters dove over the officers and into the arms of the waiting crowd. Police, now guarding an empty flagpole, charged the crowd, which successfully pushed them back into the street.

In the midst of the melee, two anarchists earnestly debated religion with a middle-aged man clutching a Bible and a sign reading, ”Pray for Revival,“ but even that island of calm disappeared when police reinforcements arrived, tackling demonstrators, trying to drag their prey back to police lines as protesters struggled to rescue their friends. Two undercover cops, who had been posing as parade-goers, began grabbing randomly at people, one of them spraying protesters in the face with a small canister of either pepper spray or Mace. Both were immediately mobbed by the crowd, and had to be pulled to safety by uniformed officers in riot gear. Protesters linked arms and, chanting ”Shame! Shame!,“ pushed even the riot police back into Pennsylvania Avenue. To shouts of ”Whose country? Our country!,“ an upside-down American flag was raised beside the black flag. Police made no further efforts to take them down.

By now it was well after 2 p.m., and the parade had started a mile or so to the east. While Black Bloc marched behind the bleachers, chanting, ”What do we want? Class war! When do we want it? Now!“ to an audience of fur-clad Bush supporters smiling nervously and waving miniature Texan flags, protesters spread throughout the parade route had already begun to jeer the presidential escort. By the time Bush’s limo reached the Navy Memorial plaza, another scuffle had broken out between police and activists. Apparently believing he had seen a knife, a plainclothes officer tackled a protester, who was quickly aided by the crowd. The riot cops moved in once more and, just as the plaza again turned into a mosh pit, with protesters and police alike pushing and swinging, the presidential motorcade drove by, Secret Service agents jogging beside it. Despite the tumult, the cry went up: ”Fuck you, George Bush!“ Someone hurled an orange, and a tennis ball bounced off the limousine‘s shiny black roof.

Linking arms again and shouting, ”Cops off the sidewalk!,“ protesters once more successfully pushed the police back into Pennsylvania Avenue. The parade had paused to let the Secret Service scope out a much larger crowd of protesters several blocks down, where the International Action Center had gathered (Bush’s limo eventually sped by, his Secret Service escort breaking into a sprint to keep up), and a battalion of mounted police had paused in front of the Navy Memorial. After one last rousing chant -- ”Get those animals off of those horses!“ -- their point made, uninterested in standing in the rain any longer to watch the miles of marching bands, floats and bayonet-wielding troops file by, the crowd broke up and spread out into the downtown streets, heading for the metro, the bus station, any place dry and warm.

Within a few hours CNN and the networks would be drooling over the ”pomp and pageantry“ of the day‘s events, neglecting for the most part to carry their alliteration out to its logical conclusion with more than a cursory mention of the word protest. The protests, the largest at least since Nixon’s inauguration, would soon be forgotten, the metros teeming with Republicans in formalwear on their way to eight inaugural balls, the streets clogged with herds of limousines, coughing out their mink-swaddled contents, whose tight, triumphant grins out-glowed even their pearls.


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