October 12, 2012

Maybe it was the autumnal equinox or the fact that Congress had left town, but something impressive, even inspiring, took place around Capitol Hill on a Saturday last month. This event brought together a marvelous mix of political theater, patriotism, irony and the perfectly ordinary.

The neo-Nazis came to town. They arrived at Lincoln Park (yes, a park named in memory of Abraham Lincoln), carrying a message of prejudice and hate, on a Haymarket Bus Co. charter driven by an African American. By my count, a dozen neo-Nazis tumbled out of a bus that could hold 60 — a mean-spirited, motley group that looked far more pathetic than powerful. They were met by a considerably larger group of counterprotesters, some from the neighborhood and others from beyond. Sprinkled among them were Wall Street occupiers and anti-capitalist ideologues, whose harangues against the power structure bizarrely overlapped with the rants of the neo-Nazis.

Added to the hatemongers and counter-protesters were a yet larger group of bystanders: moms and dads providing children with a teachable moment; people carrying placards in support of equal rights or Israel, or expressing simple disdain for the Nazis (“You are stupid”); folks passing through with grocery bags; joggers and cyclists oblivious to the whole thing; and a couple hundred curious neighbors.

Perhaps most numerous of all were the police, both the city and park varieties. The array of officers in cars and vans and on horses, motorcycles, bicycles and foot was truly impressive. They provided a clear demonstration of overwhelming force and an even clearer demonstration of excellent training and control under pressure.

What came next unfolded as if it were scripted. And I suppose it was, at least unofficially. The little group of neo-Nazis recited their blather and waited as the police tried to create a path through the protesters, who refused to move. A phalanx of horses pressed within feet of the protesters. A pause, a warning of arrest. The protesters backed off. The path opened.

This became repetitious. Move forward, stop, move forward. Everyone seemed to know his and her role. It was a wonderful display of free speech, of protest against hate and of the protection of both by the police. The onlookers were fascinated. Some, like me, worried that an “incident” such as a frightened horse or the tossing of a brick would turn the scripted play into chaos and injury. Fortunately, peace prevailed.

While all this was unfolding, as the marchers proceeded to the grounds near the Capitol Reflection Pool for a final rant, the National Book Festival was underway on the Mall less than a mile to the west, shoppers were swarming at Eastern Market about a mile southeast, and throngs of tourists were arriving at Union Station less than a mile northeast. I would note that the Supreme Court is located virtually in the middle of all this.

For me, this was a perfect picture of Washington, and of America. Good, bad, engaged, and indifferent, all proceeding freely as they chose, with full rights and in safety.