While attending a peaceful rally in Washington last Thursday morning to protest President Bush’s inauguration, I overheard a reporter ask a participant if he thought that public protest is still a viable model for social change. The reporter’s question was legitimate, and it stuck in my head that afternoon as I stood in a tense crowd squared off against a line of riot police, bracing for arrests or more pepper spray.
After protests against the impending Iraq war involving millions of people across the world on Feb. 15, 2003, a New York Times reporter wrote that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” The anti-war movement has latched on to the rhetorical device, but it is difficult to see the idea of two superpowers as anything more than wishful thinking. Bush wrote off the Feb. 15 protests, the largest single day of demonstrations in world history, saying “Size of protest — it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group.” No protest could have prevented the start of his second term.
For me, protests have always been about catharsis. I have strong political beliefs that don’t match up well with our country’s current direction, and the political situation pains me. It helps sometimes to let myself get angry and go marching through the streets yelling slogans with like-minded people, though I don’t expect the protest to have any effect. The First Amendment guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. It doesn’t say the government has to listen.
So I skipped class, slept on a bus and wandered our capital in the snow on Inauguration Day. Most of the day was exactly what I’d come to expect. There was a rally complete with cheesy folk protest songs and a tiny communist presence. There were people carrying protest signs with slogans ranging from the bitter (Bush scorecard: U.S. casualties, 1400. WMDs found, 0) and the profane (Fuck Off Bush, written in 14-inch letters) to the comical (Kerry’s daughters were hotter). There was a march that filled the street as far as I could see. Most importantly, there was an affirmation that I am not alone in my beliefs.
Post-Sept. 11 security for the inauguration meant that, without a ticket, I had little chance of making it through a security checkpoint to watch the parade, but I found a spot outside a ritzy hotel that seemed full of IBM lobbyists and from which I could jeer at Bush’s motorcade. After the president passed, I went over a block to another checkpoint to find some friends, and ran into a stream of red-faced protesters crying, holding their faces. A few were vomiting.
Apparently, protesters around that checkpoint started shaking the steel fence keeping them off Pennsylvania Avenue as the motorcade passed. Police on the other side, afraid the protesters might break through, started pepper-spraying them in the face. As I arrived, the pepper spray was still thick enough in the air that taking a deep breath hurt, and reinforcements of police in riot gear were rushing in. An angry crowd built up in front of the line of police and ran as the cops advanced. When it became clear the police weren’t giving chase, the protesters returned and nearly a hundred sat down in the street before shifting tactics and forming lines of protesters with linked arms against the police. Two kids started marching back and forth between the lines of cops and protestors, goose-stepping and giving a Nazi salute.
This wasn’t about catharsis — this was combat, and there wasn’t really much point to it. As squad after squad of riot police arrived and formed lines across the sidewalks and street, the checkpoint was shut down. Yet the entire time, the inaugural parade passed on behind the security fence as if nothing was happening. The police, the immediate target of the protesters’ wrath, had nothing to do with the inauguration itself. I talked with a police captain on the scene who pointed out that his guys were just trying to do their job and weren’t out to hurt anyone. To their credit, the police did show restraint in the face of what must have been infuriating provocation, and there were no further violence. The whole affair was an exercise in misplaced fury.
I never heard the protester’s answer that morning about whether he felt that demonstrations could still bring about change. What was clear on the street that afternoon, however, was that sometimes the potential for broad change isn’t important. There are a lot of people in this country who feel that the political process has failed them. Some protestors, echoing allegations of voting fraud, were wearing stickers saying “Bush Cheated ’04,” and there was a strange irony in hearing a crowd seemingly prepared for a violent encounter shout “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” In the late ’60s, a few radicals, discouraged at the pace of change through nonviolence, formed decidedly less peaceful groups such as the Weathermen. After the anger I saw in Washington, I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeated itself.
Zbrozek is an LSA junior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.