Reporter's Notebook from Inauguration Protests:
Resistance in the Capital Streets
By Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #1089, February 4, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
Over 20,000 of us were in the streets in Washington, DC on January 20, determined to protest the system's new president George Dubya Bush. We faced an army of cops--by some accounts, one cop for every two protesters. There were cops on rooftops, cop spies in plainclothes, cops in helicopters and rows of street cops in their new "Darth Vader" look--hard plastic boots, thick black body armor, helmets and riot clubs.
The police bottled people up at checkpoints around the city. They searched everyone's bags. They targeted protesters who fit their "profiles" of radical troublemakers. But they could not intimidate or stop the protest.
The thousands who came were determined to speak out--against Bush and his policies, about the perverse way this political system had selected him, about the way people seem to have no voice and power. We worked our way through the police checkpoints. We lined Pennsylvania Avenue as the traditional inaugural parade came by, with their Chief Executioner tucked in his limo. We chanted, danced, sang and talked for hours in the cold rain.
On inauguration day itself, the official media gave Bush the spotlight and tried to shrink protest to the margins. But the streets were alive with protest. As the new President and Vice President passed the crowds in their motorcade, the air was often filled with more boos than cheers. The presidential limousine was hit with tomatoes and eggs. As their motorcade approached the strongest protest point, at Freedom Plaza, it came to a stop, as the Secret Service scrambled to beef up their security--and then quickly raced through the boos.
George W. Bush is now in power. One of his first official acts was signing a presidential decree withdrawing federal funding from any international program that includes discussing or helping women get abortions. With the scratch of a pen in Washington, DC, the right to choose whether or not to have a child was stripped away from women in many countries, and their lives were endangered. And Bush did this, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade, to declare his opposition to women's legal right to choose here in the U.S. too.
Then in a second revealing move, Bush sent Congress his proposal for the "Ashcroft-ing" of education--with more discipline, more testing, more religion, and more segregation by race and class. Bush's plan would impose an annual series of standardized tests on kids, starting in the third grade, and forcing teachers to emphasize the rote learning of federally mandated facts and skills. In a historic attempt to break up public education, this presidential plan proposes withdrawing funds from public schools and moving federal funds to private and religious school systems through "vouchers"--handing over the minds of even more youth to the punishment and dogma of priests and preachers.
In short, this new government has charted a harsh and reactionary course from its very first days. But for the first time since the election of Richard Nixon, the inauguration of a U.S. president was marked by significant protest in the streets of Washington.
Clampdown at Freedom Plaza
"I just feel it's really disgusting that the people in power are in cahoots and are dictating this to us. I can't believe this is happening in America, because we assume it's a democracy. That's what you're taught in schools."
A student from Antioch College, Ohio
Thousands came to DC by bus. At the drop-off point, people tried to get on the Metro trains for downtown DC--and ran straight into police. The uniformed cops were only letting 20 people at a time on the trains, while a plainclothes cop spread the rumor that the trains weren't running at all. City transit workers helped the protesters find ways to evade the police and make it downtown--where the next ring of cops was waiting at checkpoints in the miles of new steel fences that encircled the heart of the city.
Lots of protesters were heading for Freedom Plaza because it was right on the parade route and because it was one of the few spots where the authorities had been forced to grant a demonstration permit. The police tried to stop protesters from passing through the nearby checkpoint. They were massed behind concrete barriers preventing us from reaching Pennsylvania Avenue. After hours of demanding entrance, the anti-Bush forces got through, and took over the plaza.
The theme at Freedom Plaza was opposition to the death penalty and support for Mumia Abu-Jamal. As we waited for the limos to show up, Mumia's "Message to the January 20th Protests" was played. Many people in the crowd were not familiar with the case and listened with interest. A member of the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network read the Philadelphia speech that C. Clark Kissinger is now in jail for making.
In this crowd there were many veterans of the last few years of activism and protest. Many people had come to oppose the official politics of cruelty, the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the death penalty. Many were there to fight the power of international corporations, capitalist globalization, and the destruction of the environment. There were powerful sentiments against the constant bullying and interventions of U.S. imperialism--in Colombia, Palestine, Puerto Rico and the Balkans.
But meanwhile, the majority of those booing Bush and Cheney were much more new to protest. While we waited to get into Freedom Plaza, over a thousand folks like that formed up at Dupont Circle for a "Voter March."
Among the protesters in DC, a great many were college students who had voted for Gore or Nader, who had thought of the U.S. as a "great democracy" and were now deeply shocked by the way this new president was chosen. When they discovered that their votes had not counted, they were determined to have their voices heard in the streets--only to run into an army of cops organized to suppress that too. Many said they felt fear for the future--a sense that things are really out of control, with sinister forces in high gear.
I pulled out my tape recorder to interview some these new-voters-turned-protester--and got a sense of the turmoil they felt after these last few months.
Disillusioned and Angry
One youth told me about the day the Supreme Court picked Bush: "I felt rage. It's a feeling of powerlessness in a country where we're supposed to have the power in the people. We don't have any power any more. Then we come out here and we try and demonstrate our power--that's our constitutional right--but they're taking that away from us by blocking these streets. It's designed to keep out protesters. We're the ones they're going to be targeting. We're the ones that are going to be stopped and searched."
A youth from Vermont told me: "All my life I've been told it's my responsibility to vote. Turning 18 a few years ago was a big milestone. But it's very disheartening to see that my vote really doesn't matter that much."
Another student said: "It just seemed to all be pushed and manipulated and controlled and by no means democratic."
A youth from upstate New York told me: "I'm here protesting the thievery of the presidency. He didn't win the popular vote so he didn't win. I thought Florida was total crap--not counting the votes. It's just like stabbing the American public in the back. I feel totally betrayed by my government. And I wasn't exactly pleased with it before this."
Talking about Solutions
"We're here because we want to unite with people and their outrage, but we also want to put forward what the only solution to all this shit is--which is proletarian revolution. It's really important for people to realize. And we want to bring out that it's not Bush that created this system, it's the system that created Bush. For as disgusting a man as he is, he's a product of this fucked-up capitalist system. And we're not going to get rid of people like Bush until we get rid of this whole system."
A member of the Revolutionary
Communist Youth Brigade
All day long people told me that they had been in "long heated discussions" over these elections and what it all meant. Responding to the headline of the Revolutionary Worker--"See Bush... Think Revolution..."--one student said, "I don't know what revolution would entail but it's going to take some drastic measures on the part of the people because the people in power take drastic measures to get what they want. So you kind of have to fight fire with fire."
I met a suburban student who had voted for Nader but was now wearing a sign that said, "Revolution: Power to the People." He told me, "I'm pretty much fed up with the entire political system. I would have been here whether Gore or Bush won. This is a really scary time. The average age of the people working in the White House just went up 20 years. This is really a backwards administration with people who have committed genocide at the head of almost every department. I'm hoping that this is going to be enough of a spark, that this is an alarm call so we'll all wake up. I'd love to see revolution!... The way our laws and everything are set up, I mean from the very get go it's set up to prevent any sort of such thing. They know our meetings. The government is watching us on the internet and everywhere. So it's going to be very hard to make that push forward but I definitely want to see it. Eventually it's just going to be class war. The poor are going to rise up and take what's theirs."
A teenager from a small city told me: "The two parties disagree on issues that may seem major but overall they have the same philosophy. They both work for big business. And we live in a police state where we're essentially slaves to capitalism.... I think that if enough people didn't feel like they couldn't change anything then things could change. But I think that people are stuck in a rut where they look around them and they see things that they don't like but they don't know how to change them and so they just forget about them and they try not to look at them."
Police Attack at 14th and K
"At one point we turned a corner and a bunch of cops ran up to us holding their batons in a line. They wanted to block us. We confronted them. We weren't being violent but we were like right up there. Everyone is holding on really tight to each other with locked arms. We wanted to stay really tight together. When we turned around to walk away from the cops, the cops started hitting kids with batons. So we started running. A lot of kids got beat. Everyone was running and they were pushing kids over, dragging kids into the middle of the street where no one was and beating them. One kid had four cops with batons beating him in front of everyone."
Youth with R&R! who was hurt
during the police attack
While I talked with people in Freedom Plaza, a wild march of hundreds wound its way through the streets nearby blocking traffic. It combined anarchist Black Bloc youth carrying their "Class War" banner with youth of other political trends, including the R&R! Youth Network. At 14th and K Streets police attacked and surrounded the protesters. Over 100 riot cops were called in, while helicopters hovered overhead. DC police chief Charles Ramsey was on the scene. He personally oversaw the beatings and even made one of the arrests. A reporter who taped the beating had his camera lens smashed by police.
Later on the internet, one anarchist described how, to his surprise, some people from the Voter March helped free protesters from the clutches of the cops.
Protests Throughout the City
"When I finally got through the checkpoint, I realized I was at the foot of the Capitol lawn just as the ceremony was to begin. As I crossed Pennsylvania Avenue toward the lawn I saw two large banners strung behind the police barricades. "Hail to the Thief" read one. The demonstrators challenged people as they walked by, calling out the sham of the election. As I trod through the mud to get into view of the swearing in, I noticed demonstrators sprinkled throughout--some for the environment, some against the death penalty, some just against Bush. As Cheney was sworn in amid the cheers of the crowd came a resonant undercurrent of boos--boos that only grew louder when Bush was sworn in."
An RW correspondent
"Live for the people! Die for the people! Fight for the people! Power to the people!"
Chant of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade
marching into Freedom Plaza
There were protests all over the city all day long. Hundreds of demonstrators chanted "Fuck Corporate Media!" in front of the Washington Post building. Signs demanded freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Antiwar veterans of the Vietnam war were there. A guerrilla theater troop declared themselves to be "Students for an Undemocratic Society" and chanted "We love Bush" while waving big portraits of Dubya and slogans like "Kneel," "Obey," and "Slavery Is Freedom." The New Black Panther Party marched from Howard University to Freedom Plaza.
Here and there, groups of protesters forced their way through the checkpoints. Metal barricades were overturned at one spot. Windows of police cars were broken. American flags were burned in several places. In the front of the Navy Memorial, someone tore down the Navy flag. Fifty police charged the crowd and surrounded the flagpole. In the clash that followed, 15 people were arrested.
Anti-Bush protesters taunted Bush supporters in their fur coats and cowboy hats. They mocked the Christian fascists who gathered to urge quick action against abortion. One RW correspondent wrote: "When we came into D.C.'s Union Station I clicked on my radio. The reporter was talking about how at the Supreme Court demonstration that morning demonstrators seemed to outnumber people who had come out for the inaugural. Things were starting to sound encouraging. As I passed through the terminal a scene caught my eye. A man drinking his morning coffee, was being taunted by a demonstrator who was waving a sign in his face. I realized the man was David Gergen--former adviser to Ronald Reagan and Clinton--and a constant presence on the cable news circuit. No one, it appeared, was going to get a free ride today."
At the Court of Injustice
Dubya was given the presidential oath of office from the same Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist who had handed him the presidency itself. Meanwhile, thousands of people circled the Supreme Court across the street in protest.
Many Black people took part in this "shadow inauguration" called by Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Center. People were angry that the election had been stolen and that Black people were denied the right to vote--or when they did vote that the votes weren't counted. Many people here told the RW that they were moved to protest by their anger at the blatant reminders of the days of the Jim Crow South in this election. The focus of the demonstration was on defending the Voter Rights Act, but what came through in talking to the people was a sense of the deep oppression of Black people--that can never be solved within the workings of the system.
Everybody knew that the oppression of Black people will only intensify with Dubya in charge. One woman told us: "I'm a preacher of the gospel and I'm here today because the rights of the people were denied. Not only that, I am here because Ashcroft cannot be confirmed. The African-American community already have over two million African-American boys and girls incarcerated in prison. Ashcroft will only bereave the African-American community even more. We are asking for relief from the mandatory minimum sentences. Ashcroft will only oppress our people even more. Ashcroft is a racist."
One group of Black men and their teenage sons and nephews had come together and chanted: "We want Bush for murder!" One of the young men told the RW: "Bush killed a lot of people with the death penalty. I don't like him really. If he gets in office there will be more death penalties around the world." One man said, "The only way to make a serious change in this country is to get people with different viewpoints to come together to try and change things. And it's important that these young people see that. They are the future. They are the ones who have to carry our work on. It's important that they get involved in the process at an early age and know that they can reach out to other people--different races and cultures, different agendas and organize."
Darnell came with other activists who oppose the death penalty. He told us his brother is one of the Death Row 10--a group of men in Illinois who were framed for murders they did not commit. "This commander, Commander Burge, been beating a whole lot of guys into confessions with shock treatments, beatings and made them say confessions. My brother's been gone since he was 22. He's 36 years old now. He's just getting back into court 'cause they found out that he didn't do it. He was at a splash party when these murders jumped off, you know?"
Dorothy Copp Elliott told us about her son, Archie Elliott III: "My son was killed by police in Prince Georges County, Maryland in '93--handcuffed behind his back and shot 14 times. The police officers never did see a day in court.... Our case went as far as the Supreme Court and they declined to hear it....I believe that they are pro-police--like everybody else in law enforcement.... Is a traffic stop a death sentence? That was why my son was stopped--because the car was weaving. He had not committed any crime whatsoever."
Hands Off Our Right to Choose
"It's my choice. I totally agree with the Roe v. Wade decision. I don't believe a man should have any say in it. It's a woman's right. It's not even a privilege that we're given--it's our right to decide what we want to do with our bodies. It changes your whole life and if you want to make that decision for yourself you should be allowed to. There shouldn't be some bureaucrat men in Washington deciding your fate. Bush's entire platform is anti-woman and it upsets me."
New Jersey woman who
recently had an abortion
"Bush is 'pro-life' and he killed 152 people? That's insane."
Bush's opposition to abortion and the expected Senate approval of Christian-fascist Ashcroft for Attorney General were on many minds. Almost every young woman I spoke to said this was one reason she had come. Many men mentioned this too.
One woman described the desperation women often face with unwanted pregnancies, and said, "The more people who are out here, the more regular housewife type citizens are going to realize that they don't have to just sit around and take it any more--that they can speak up for what they want and they don't have to lay down like dogs and just let the government walk all over them.... Take away the right to abortion and you might as well just put women back in the kitchen again, barefoot and pregnant. My cousin works at an abortion clinic and I helped her out for a couple of days once--I heard girls calling there crying so upset. They don't know what to do. If they take away our right to get it done professionally and safely it's just going to be back-alley abortions again--and that's death for more than just the fetus. Why does a fetus have more rights than a man in jail?"
A student from the Midwest told me: "In high school I knew of girls who got pregnant and they starting shooting up! They had never shot up. They were just trying to get rid of the baby. I know one girl that had somebody punch her in the stomach. If abortion becomes illegal it'll just become so dangerous. Women will die." Another student told me: "I believe that a woman's right to choose abortion should stay legal. All the work that my parents did--the generation before us in the '60s--should not be erased just by one president and one administration." Another said: "We've got to be prepared to fight and take aggression and really not lay down when people are going to be telling us what do and saying you don't have a choice any more. We need to say no--we're going to fight for this."
"I kept thinking about revolution the whole day--not just how much it's needed, but what these protests showed about the prospects for building the kinds of alliances necessary to get to the point where revolution is a real possibility. Here you had neatly dressed women holding pro-choice signs side by side with youth in black who skirmished with the police; relatives of people murdered by cops alongside environmental activists; anti-sweat shop/anti-globalization college students; delegations of Black people from many cities, joined by people of other nationalities, protesting the disfranchisement of Black voters in Florida; anti-death penalty forces; all kinds of people with Mumia signs; and the RCYB with a big red flag. The kinds of alliances the rulers really don't want to see. All jeering as one when Bush's car went by in the parade. On the other side, anti-abortion Christian fascists; puffed-up patriarchs; frat-rat Dubya wannabees and spit-and-polish USA #1-types. You caught an embryonic picture of two futures--and reason for a lot of optimism on our side."
Mary Lou Greenberg, spokesperson for the
Revolutionary Communist Party, NY Branch
"I think the system needs to be torn down and brought right back up on some different level, you know what I'm saying? I feel that the people...are going to leave here with this energy knowing what's up, that this is bullshit--and that's going to spread out."
A Latino student from New York City
who voted for Nader
Almost everyone I spoke with hoped the inauguration protests would spark intensified struggle and resistance that would change society. And many had a deep sense that they were part of something historic, and something that was just starting to take shape. As I waited to pass through the security checkpoint, the person I was interviewing pointed to the police snipers and photographers on surrounding rooftops and said: "When you're a child you're taught always that at least you're free in America. But they never quite explain how that is. And now I can't see how anybody can claim that we are free in America. I'm still enraged. At first I sat back and I laughed, and then I almost cried."
I pointed out that the presence of so many different kinds of people united together in a common struggle at this protest should make us optimistic. A man jumped into our conversation: "Well, Bush said he was a uniter--and he's united all of us against him."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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