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.
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.
We hedged. “We're just visiting for the day,” I offered.
“Just for the parade?”
“We're, uh, I mean, we came here to protest –”
Missy grinned. And, in her generous drawl, she offered me an out: “You didn't want to tell me that, did you?”
I admitted I didn't. And the three of us women — Missy, my friend Lisa and me — laughed very, very hard.
Missy's children were diffident as good children often are, as was her husband — until Missy got to listing celebrities. “Troy Aikman,” he blurted.
“Oh,” said my friend, “he's a babe.”
“We met Bo Derek, too.”
“Is she still a 10?”
“Nope. She's like a 7 or 8 now.”
We all found this sidesplittingly funny — not because it really was, but because the other side was willing to think it was. Here we were, the two of us with our deteriorating National Organization for Women posters and a Republican family, laughing at everything that should have stood between us. They were not supposed to be making fun of their star-studded fund-raiser; we were not supposed to be objectifying women. We were conspiring in irreverence, and it thrilled us.
Before Missy and her family left, she told her kids who we were and asked us to sign their autograph books. And so we did, logging our names directly under Rick Lazio's. And then Missy emptied the pockets of her mink coat, which were loaded with those chemical hand warmers you activate by shaking, and dumped a pile of little heat bags into each of our laps. We ripped them apart greedily, plastered them to our necks and stuck them inside our sodden jeans, and basked in the literal warmth of her Republican largess.
Back on the bus, the dour and dispirited hairy-necked men and grooming-averse women exchanged stories of their day. The one who'd brought her daughter bragged about how she'd stepped hard on the foot of a man sporting a ten-gallon hat. “When he turned around, I told him, 'That's a stupid hat.'” Another woman complained that the TV cameras never looked her way, and Fredda kept up her high-pitched banter about the inherent evil of sports. It was snowing. We each took an Ambien and fell back into oblivion, convinced that Michael Moore was right: “The left loves humanity,” he wrote once, “but hates people.”
I TELL THIS STORY A LOT. I TELL IT AT DINNER PARTIES; I tell it when someone asks me to speak on some panel; I told it once at a story slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café, which I won, in large part because so many people in the audience had had similar encounters with lefties. And I tell it not to prove that Republicans can be wise and thoughtful people, because, frankly, I don't think they can — I don't sincerely believe that wise, responsible people cast their votes for a leader whose family fortune depends on the oil business. I tell this story because the cloud forest is retreating from Monteverde, because Belgrade is lousy with depleted uranium from U.S. bombs, because enough ice has melted in the Arctic that there now exists a Northwest Passage, and I desperately want to be part of a movement that can arrest our imminent slide into extinction. And whatever these perfect strangers from Kentucky stood for, however distant they were from the causes of global minimum wage, clean energy and sustainable peace, they were still able to treat people who shared almost none of their values without contempt. We were able to do the same, and to us, that was a hugely political act.
But it is the kind of political act for which the current crop of activist groups — from the Voters Rights March to Ramsey Clark's International Action Center — have increasingly little patience. Faced with dissenting views or even devil's advocacy from newspaper reporters, they grow hostile and deny access. When I've collaborated with activists on the left, as I did recently on a Web site, I've found them willing to censor discussions or use ridicule when certain words make them uncomfortable. When I've written about them, they've been unhappy that I've focused on their personal struggles and not exclusively on the issues, and as a member of the media, I've endured their suspicion and scorn. Were these people ever to actually run the country, I complained loudly in the summer of 2000, while I was up in Malibu covering the Ruckus Society's direct-action training camp, it would be a bona fide fascist dictatorship.
I worry less about them running anyone's country, however, than I worry about them rendering all they stand for utterly irrelevant. The momentum of Seattle and broad-based support is gone, displaced by humorless sloganeering, didactic skits, papier-mâché puppets and a cynical attitude toward potential allies in the media. Activists of all stripes have grown fond of the notion that mainstream media moguls direct corporate-whore reporters with Manchurian Candidatelike efficiency, but in fact freedom of information is more often hampered by slim resources and small staffs: At most daily newspapers, reporters have little time to study the landscape before they write; as such, they can be manipulated by loudmouths at press conferences and scientific studies of questionable merit.
They can also be swayed by personal relationships. But such relationships are not likely to be cultivated, because at present, the direct-action movement is heavily populated by dilettante social theorists who are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson but admit more affinity for the writings of John Zerzan, the 58-year-old author of Future Primitive and an ardent defender of the Unabomber Manifesto. In prose so rambling it dares you to decipher it, Zerzan cautions against “nice-ism,” rails against the inherent evils of technology, and encourages us all to throw away our watches and stay home from work. And Zerzan's acolytes are even less likely than the Voters Rights people to woo the media, much less rookie protesters who show up in their ranks.
To quote another famous anarchist, of a different stripe, “If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.” Silenced by authorities and rejected by her political contemporaries, Emma Goldman never succeeded in overturning the social contract she considered so dehumanizing. But she left her mark on political thought, because this brave and brilliant firebrand never forgot she was speaking to an audience. “Of late there has been a new spirit manifested in the youth which is growing up with the depression,” she wrote in a 1934 essay, “Was My Life Worth Living?” “This spirit is more purposeful though still confused . . . It wants cut and dried systems of salvation with a wise minority to direct society on some one-way road to utopia. It has not yet realized that it must save itself.”