So Nelson Mandela will be feted at a free public rally, after all. Or shall I say paraded once again before a throng of admirers? Today's extra attraction, to be held from noon to 2 p.m. at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, is probably going to make a lot of people happy.

But not me.

It's not just that Mandela's graciousness is being stretched to the limit by adding yet another event to an already killer-paced schedule. It's the sheer nerve of Washington residents who would so eagerly take from this man and give so little in return.

If there were no stores in Washington that sold South African Kruggerands or diamonds stained with the blood of black African miners, maybe I could understand hearing people cry for Mandela's ear.

If camera and computer companies and defense contractors with offices here were not making a mockery of sanctions rhetoric, actions would back up our words of praise and support for Mandela.

But just because relatively few bold souls had some symbolic -- not everyone went to jail -- encounters at the South African Embassy a few years ago, we feel justified in pressuring Mandela to wave at us.

The Mandela tour was worked out under duress at the last minute and was done with Mandela's best interest at heart. Events were to be canceled when fatigue set in. And it was clear that the journey was already wearing on him.

Sadly, we ignored this in a selfish quest to stargaze.

Moreover, I think it is dangerous to have a such a party tone in the midst of such a serious struggle. Not only does it set the stage for Mandela to be greeted as a celebrity, which is perhaps the most easily forgotten commodity in America's narcissistic culture, but it also increases his exposure when death threats against him are at an all-time high.

For too long, the District of Columbia has deluded itself with meaningless, symbolic gestures. And now we have succeeded in making Mandela a part of our fantasy. We want "shadow" senators, even as we try to function without a mayor. Now we want another rally.

Wake up, Washington!

Mandela arrived in the most politically powerful city in the world on Sunday -- and he was greeted by the highest ranking locally elected official: a congressional delegate who has about as much right to vote as Mandela.

Also there to welcome the leader of the world's premier black liberation movement was D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke, of all people, our electoral stand-in for a mayor who is on trial for allegedly smoking crack.

This is our sad reality. A big, noisy crowd across from the District Building will not hide it. We should be embarrassed by the knowledge that far too many people in this town do not take freedom -- to vote, to travel, to work, to live -- half as seriously as Mandela does.

We can call ourselves African, but kinte cloth and beads do not make us so. We say we are American second and, indeed, our actions suggest that we are second-class. What other kind of American would not have enough clout to demand that someone bigger than Walter Fauntroy be on hand to meet Mandela upon his arrival in the nation's capital?

And so we whine and cry like children -- and ever patient Nelson Mandela indulges us. He'd be a wonderful grandfather, if his purpose had been to coddle. But Mandela is here as a warrior. If we really loved him like we say we do, we would listen to what he has said: He needs bread, not more ticker tape on his head.

Each stop on his eight-city trip has a specific purpose, with not even a bare minimum of rest factored in for a man of his age. In New York, he spoke before the United Nations -- and raised money. Actor Robert DeNiro held a house party that raised nearly $500,000. Would anyone in Washington do that? In Boston, he saw his daughters, and tapped into that New England blueblood financial pipeline. In Atlanta later this week, he will spend some time in the home of civil rights legends expressing solidarity with American blacks. In Detroit, he will strengthen ties with powerful labor unions. In Miami and Los Angeles, he'll be looking for more money.

The stop in Washington had its purpose, too. Mandela knows that the hold on sanctions is slipping and he wants them tightened. His people are desperate for more of us to do something to keep the pressure on Congress.

Given our pitiful political state, perhaps all we could do was push for another party.