PUSHING MY WAY THROUGH THE CROWD of people gathering along Hollywood Boulevard, I hear two men ask each other what’s going on.

“It’s the Christmas Parade,” says one. The other guy is agreeable with that statement. I want to correct them, but leave it alone. Most of the people on the street are, after all, wearing matching red shirts, perfect for a Christmas parade. But these are striking Writers Guild of America members in the now-familiar red shirts seen almost daily around town and on our TV screens. Today they are being joined by members of other unions, including the Screen Actors Guild, the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters.

Near the staging point for the march on Hollywood Boulevard at Ivar, two shiny black SUVs drive on the wrong side of the street. “It must be the mayor,” a passerby wisecracks. But the mayor’s SUV isn’t that shiny, plus his plates don’t read MUSIC 5 and MUSIC 6. I tell the guy it must be Alicia Keys. He ask me if she is in the union. “I don’t know,” I say.

He is a Teamster.

The president of the WGA gives a quick speech and then introduces Alicia Keys on a stage built on a truck bed. She climbs aboard and tells the protesters she is “a writer too.” Still, it seems odd that she is launching the march. She performs two nonprotest songs from her brand-new album, and 30 or so celebrity photographers swarm the truck/stage to photograph her stiff performance. I join in. The guitar player’s guitar isn’t on, but he plays anyway. I’m wondering, “Where is Bruce or the guys from Rage or System?”

When Keys finishes singing, shiny Teamster big rigs rev up to lead the march to Highland. The crowd does the horn-pull sign to the driver of the first truck. He pulls his horn and releases an oddly quiet goose honk. The crowd wants more, so he does it again. The horn is still lame. The second truck driver, probably thinking that this is no way for a parade to start, let his train-style air horns blow. A huge cheer from the crowd erupts. More train horns blare from the other rigs. That is how you start a parade.

And yet this is the quietest march I’ve covered in a long time. Some 4,000 people proceed down the boulevard, mostly chantless and interspersed with a celeb or two. The loudest marchers are two strikers beating on a fancy African-style hand drum, but still not chanting. The protest signs are mostly preprinted by the union; some marchers have handwritten the names of the shows they write for on their placards. Few of the signs are witty or provocative. One striker has a life-size John Wayne figure with the message “It Ain’t Hollywood Without Writers!” Another marcher is dressed in a Hulk costume. Actress Jenna Elfman marches and is dogged by the celebrity press. So is actor Bill Paxton.

When the march stops at Hollywood and Highland, I scramble for a vantage point to shoot the huge crowd. The TV Guide offices would make a perfect spot, and the building has a patio right above the rally that points toward the Chinese Theatre. I ask the guard to let me onto the patio area; slowly, other photographers get the same idea and line up in the lobby to ask the guard for permission too. He refuses us all. A photographer from the LAPD shows up and asks to pass. The guard lets him up and tells us the LAPD guy has prior permission. The LAPD guy looks surprised and says, “I do?”

We all walk out of the building in disgust.

“There’s a good one,” my colleague Jonathan Alcorn tells me. “Hooters.”

Hooters happily lets us in to shoot. And it turns out to be a much better photo spot than the TV Guide building.

When I get the shots I want from Hooters, I make my way to the media stage. Sandra Oh is onstage, strangely buried behind a massive stack of PA speakers, and gives a speech about how to empower the writers’ cause by not spending money at places like Universal Studios or Disneyland.

The rally ends with a whimper, and the crowd disperses.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Hillmanzips around in a souped-up LAPD golf cart–style vehicle designed for crowd control. He gets on the loud speaker and asks the crowd in the most polite way to wait at the corner while he stops traffic for them to cross at Highland and Hollywood. His politeness is the loudest sound of the parade.

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