They call it J-20, sort of like a military code name. They also call it a coronation. A charade. The Inaugural Charade.
They're very angry at the PIC (the Presidential Inaugural Committee), they're very angry at President Bush ("Kerry Won" says a bumper sticker handed out at a protest) and most of all, they're very exhilarated. It's not just a protest, it's the Counter-Inaugural! This is going to be huge! A paradox of protest is that it tends to put some folks in an excellent mood.
Like the other day at the National Press Club, some liberals and radicals and ultra-leftists held a news conference about their Counter-Inaugural plans, and though there was a fair bit of ideological cant and leftist dogma coming from the podium, it was all quite orderly and calm and mature. The Revolution will be polite. Imagine a do-over of the '60s, this time without the acid and the poor hygiene and the bad craziness.
The moderator wore a suit and tie, as did the spokesman for one of the big antiwar groups, and although the reporters asked a couple of snippety questions ("Are you being sore losers here?"), no one got riled. A woman from the Black Panthers said the president will see angry faces and hear angry voices along the parade route, but as she described the scene, she smiled.
At the end of the news conference, the moderator, lawyer and hip-hop artist Shahid Buttar, who performs with a group called the Guerilla Poetry Insurgency ("We provide the beats for the Revolution") told the reporters, "Thank you very much for attending. See you at the Counter-Inaugural!" And then, minutes later, the woman working the leaflet table said, "Thank you very much for coming!" Everyone was so appreciative. One almost expected to receive a goody bag on the way out.
Counter-Inaugurals are inherently decentralized and chaotic, and it's impossible at this point to know where the serious action will be, whether it will get ugly, whether the die-ins will go off without a hitch, whether the presidential limo will get egged the way it did four years ago (a scene captured in "Fahrenheit 9/11"). The one certainty at this point is that there are a lot of earnest and energized people, espousing many causes but united in their opposition to the 43rd president and all he represents. There's a movement out there, and on J-20 it's coming to town.
It is important to note that there will also be thousands of people cheering for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on Inauguration Day. The Texans will be stomping all over town in their big boots and cowboy hats. Swift boat veterans who torpedoed John Kerry will be honored in a reception after the parade. The Presidential Inaugural Committee has oodles of bleachers along the parade route. The Counter-Inaugural will be literally marginal. Literally edgy.
But the C-I has plenty of emotion behind it. It's a wartime inauguration, with the requisite ferocious opinions. "Ohio" is a battle cry. There's a protest technique for everyone. Some Kerry supporters are simply leaving town, organizing a cruise, getting as far away from this gig as possible. Another protest involves money: Don't spend a single dime on J-20, is the idea. Don't go to the mall, the coffee shop, the vending machine. Hit them where they hurt.
Then there's the Turn Your Back on Bush idea. Busloads of back-turners will come to Washington and attend the parade in "neutral" clothing (put those tie-dyed T-shirts away!), and then, suddenly, at a crucial moment, turn away from Bush. Give him the back.
The inauguration, says Turn Your Back organizer Jet Heiko, "doesn't seem like a celebration of democracy. It appears to be more of a coronation that you'd see in a kingdom."
The action appeals to many people who don't ordinarily take to the streets. It's emphatic but nonviolent. It's easily performed. It doesn't require allegiance to any particular political cause. No one has to chant a slogan approved by the Slogan Committee.
And yet maybe it's not simple after all. The organizers this past week were working on some significant tactical issues, such as the Signal. What would be the Signal to turn one's back? "It's part of the mystery," Heiko said Wednesday. But by Thursday, word had gotten out that the signal would simply be the sighting of the presidential limousine -- kind of vague, frankly, as signals go.
There's also the very key issue of how, exactly, a person should turn his or her back. The style. The nature of the pivot.
"Very sharp, quick," says Sarah Kauffman, a student at Ursinus College who is a field organizer for the protest (or "action," as it is called). Kauffman, a theater arts major, stands on the sidewalk on Connecticut Avenue and demonstrates her own back-turning technique. Her turn is swift and sure and graceful, a full 180 that never comes too close to being a 170 or a 190. She does it so elegantly that it's as though her feet haven't moved. She describes her body language: "This is my statement, I don't have any hesitation about making it, it's not something I'm sort of thinking about."
She's considering a military style about-face, with a step forward and a pronounced pivot. She demonstrates the move. It's impressive. That'll show 'em.
This inauguration feels a bit like the one in January 1973. Nixon's peace accord that month did nothing to quell the fury of the antiwar movement. Iraq isn't exactly Vietnam, and Bush isn't exactly Nixon, but some of the old-time radicals may have flashbacks.
No one has any good numbers on the turnout for the Counter-Inaugural, in part because the Counter-Inaugural is not a single thing. It's a wild and woolly concatenation of disapprobation. The D.C. Anti-War Network will be marching from Malcolm X Park (or Meridian Hill Park, as the hopelessly uncool call it) to McPherson Square. Another antiwar group, the ANSWER coalition, will be protesting from bleachers at Fourth and Pennsylvania. A swarming gaggle of cyclists who protest the automobile's dominance and go by the name of Critical Mass will stage two traffic-clogging events. The RedefeatBush people will be at McPherson Square, while also dispatching videographers all over town. The video will be shown at a Counter-Inaugural party at the nightclub Dream at 10 that night.
The anarchists will be doing their thing (one of their representatives says they're not a "group" but rather a "cluster"), which typically involves large papier-mache puppets.
"This is a people's uprising," said Shahid Buttar. The uprising doesn't have much money, but it doesn't need it, because it has conviction. "That happens to be free, and we have lots of it."
For David Lytel, head of RedefeatBush, J-20 will be a transformative day. His group needs a new name. They'll announce it at the Dream party. Something more forward-looking, he said.
On Jan. 6, as a joint session of the House and Senate counted the electoral votes, he and a small crowd of protesters gathered in an open space next to the Russell building, denouncing the Republicans for allegedly suppressing votes in Ohio. Most of these people could produce a dissertation on Ohio electoral high jinks. They know which precincts had anomalous voting totals for Bush. They wonder why Ukraine gets a do-over but not the United States.
One woman said we need to burn all the social studies textbooks in elementary school because they're all a lie now, there is no such thing as a free election. Another said: "If you're a black in Ohio, you did not have the right to vote. Period." They're astonished -- slackjawed -- that the news media didn't give the Ohio voting irregularities more coverage.
"The election would not stand if the media covered the issue," said Karyn Anderson of Baltimore.
Lytel said protesters would be rolling around town on J-20 in the Old Town Trolley, shuttling from one anti-Bush event to another. He said a Thomas Jefferson impersonator would make speeches at the Jefferson Memorial, with Lytel playing Tocqueville.
But then late this week, Lytel said Secret Service had made cross-town travel simply impossible on Inauguration Day.
"Which is insane, really, and unnecessary," Lytel said. "The people who run the White House politically, I don't think they have any fear of terrorist action, I think they're worried about dissent."
Some of the protesters are in the category of Permanent Opposition. Brian Becker, head of the ANSWER coalition, filed for his protest permit a year in advance. Becker says he'd be protesting a Kerry inauguration, too. This is the crowd that views Democrats and Republicans as a duopoly.
Wednesday at noon, Becker stood at John Marshall Park, at Fourth and Pennsylvania, and declared that it was a "historic day." For the first time, he said, the anti-protesters not only would be congregating on the parade route but also would have their own bleachers. Movin' on up! The normal state of being a radical is to be shunned, abhorred, shunted to the side, marginalized, treated like a dog, and now the National Park Service was letting the rads have bleachers!
Nonetheless, Becker's group still isn't happy. Yesterday it filed suit against the National Park Service, making a federal case out of the way much of Pennsylvania Avenue has been turned into a cheering section for ticket-buying Bush supporters. His group is also appalled by the security restrictions that will prevent people from carrying sign supports -- even thin pieces of wood used for holding a placard.
"They're trying to sanitize Pennsylvania Avenue from anti-Bush demonstrators -- for the coronation," Becker said.
He is a veteran Counter-Inauguralist. He's been here, opposed that. He said that four years ago, his people were carefully searched, but "if you had a mink coat, they let you right through." He said his people were surrounded by police, "to give the idea that somehow the antiwar movement is a criminal enterprise."
Turn his back on Bush? Not a chance.
"I don't think people will want to come and silently turn their back on Bush, I think they want to be in Bush's face," he said. "Ninety-five percent of the people are coming to have a large, visible, boisterous mass assembly protest."
So it will be a busy, newsy day, even if at some level a second-term inauguration is much ado about nothing, a nontransfer of power, a rerun. Americans like rituals and counter-rituals, even if they are relatively pointless.
"We are the main Counter-Inaugural," Becker said proudly, but the name "Counter-Inaugural" is used by almost everyone. For example, Americans for Democratic Action, a mainstream liberal group, is having the ADA Counter-Inaugural, a party at a hotel.
And it won't even be a protest. No tears or rage, said ADA spokesman Don Kusler.
"This is a speed bump on the road to the future," Kusler said. "We've got to put our hankies away and move on."