Fifteen minutes after the rally’s scheduled start and here’s what we have outside the Russell Senate Office Building: one pink fedora, one pink sun hat and a half-dozen pink T-shirts.
Three Capitol Police officers ascend the marble staircase to have a word with Medea Benjamin, the head of Code Pink, an antiwar protest group that has come to publicly demand that Congress send no money to Egypt.
“I haven’t seen you guys in a long time,” Officer Patrick Gray says, giving Benjamin a bearhug. “Man, you guys used to be feistier. I remember when there used to be like 200 of you guys.”
Code Pink isn’t the only group failing to flood Capitol Hill. Last year around this time, the tea party had one of its biggest rallies since 2010 on the same day that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) hosted a six-hour anti-immigration protest. Today, there’s Code Pink and a clean-air rally that appears to have resorted to child protesters. (It’s a “play-in” where dozens of young children are holding anti-pollution signs.) It’s not to say that there aren’t protests in Washington. Just this past weekend, hundreds of people gathered outside the State Department to demonstrate against Israel’s deadly offensive in Gaza. It’s just that Congress isn’t prime real estate for a rally.
“We get arrested a lot more, and it’s harder to justify whether it’s really worth coming to the Capitol,” Benjamin tells me. “People say there’s no sense in dealing with Congress anymore because they are so impotent and useless.”
Code Pink activists have gone through the cost-benefit analysis and determined that making a scene outside of the Capitol isn’t worth it. Congress, it seems, has gotten so pathetic that even the protesters aren’t bothering to show up.
By the middle of February (February!), The Washington Post reported that Congress had already decided to shelve “any big-ticket legislation for the rest of the year.” We now know for sure that the House isn’t about to take up immigration reform. And with the August break approaching, followed by the lead-up to the midterm elections, there just doesn’t seem to be time for actual legislating. At the rate it’s going, the 113th Congress is on track to enact the fewest laws in recent memory.
“It gets most hectic if there’s hearings on issues of interest to groups that feel strongly on both sides,” says Terry Gainer, who recently retired as the Senate’s sergeant at arms. “The fact that there are fewer of those and that the House and Senate aren’t in sync on their sessions really changes the dynamic.”
This isn’t to say that protest activity has ceased. According to the Capitol Police, there have been 108 applications for demonstrations this year, down 20 percent from the 135 at this time last year. And while the number of cause-driven activists coming to the Hill has dwindled, some regulars remain. To the untrained eye, they are just misfits. And yet, their anger toward Congress couldn’t be more in line with the American public’s mood.
On this day, one of the protesters, Rick Hohensee, is embarrassed. He would normally be wearing a box on his head, and he left it behind because he had a headache.
“I’m world-famous with the box,” he says. “I can’t believe you caught me on box day without it.” It’s okay, he doesn’t go unrecognized without it. He’s been a staple outside of Congress for years now, with his big, bushy beard, his tiny guitar and his sign demanding that he be made “President by Amendment.”
“Rick, that would circumvent the entire Constitution,” says Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, as he heads to votes. (Hohensee checks the majority leader’s Web site each day to make sure he knows when to catch lawmakers.)
“No, it wouldn’t,” he says. “You gotta check out the Web site.” Hohensee knows many of the lawmakers by name, and even more of them know his. He’s whip-smart and polite enough, considering he thinks every member of Congress is a “psychopath” and should be removed from office.
“Even Marlin Stutzman!” he says as the baby-faced Indiana Republican walks by.
“Rick, come on, Rick!” Stutzman responds with a smile and a shrug.
Hohensee says it’s hard for people to want to come out and protest because it’s become very clear that no one will give them what they are asking for. Hohensee “lives on cardboard” up in Northwest Washington because he says he is one of the few with both the time and the inclination to do so.
On most days, the only constant protesting presence is Hohensee, and James McGinley, who sits outside the Cannon House Office Building working on a laptop powered by solar panels. On Thursdays, there’s usually a lady who stands outside the House entrance with a statue of Jesus.
McGinley, who has worked in tech and as a guidance counselor in Pennsylvania, says that he has been on the streets for almost 10 years now. He’s grown a long beard, had “Wage Love or Die” tattooed under his eyes, decided to go by the name Start Loving and has protested on everything ranging from military action to the need for renewable energy. He had to change his name back after a recent bout with cancer put him in the hospital. When he returned to his perch outside of the Capitol earlier this year, Hohensee cried with joy to have him back.
“It’s true there aren’t many of us out here,” McGinley says. “But the fact that Congress isn’t doing anything should be the precipitating event that gets people on the street. Too many people are interested in an easy media hit, but that’s not what makes change.”
But fear not, just because fewer people are bothering with the Capitol during these hot summer months doesn’t mean that protests have died out everywhere.
“It’s about finding the best spot,” says David S. Meyer, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies protest movements. “People don’t think they’re going to get what they want from Congress, so they will take it elsewhere.”
There aren’t mobs of people flooding the Mall or holding signs outside the Capitol steps because there are better places to be.
On this, activists from both the left and right agree.
“We could continue protesting or pounding our fist on the pavement, or we could try to win seats and make a difference,” says Taylor Budowich, the executive director of the Tea Party Express. His group has held rallies in recent months in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota but has no plans to come to D.C. “We are trying to be on the front lines, and right now that’s not Washington.”
Adam Green, the head of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, puts it this way: “It’s better to have five people show up to a town hall in a district and ask a question than to have 5,000 people on the Mall.”
Still, Benjamin of Code Pink says she can’t help but feel nostalgic for the past.
“I do miss when we used to be able to completely take over a hearing room,” she says. “In the past when we had 50 people. . . . When you have five or three people, you don’t have the same sense of power or willingness.”
The cops, on the other hand, like this better.
“I’m not complaining about that,” Gray says when the officer is asked about whether there are fewer big protests than he expected. “We don’t need more issues.”