It started as a fringe Washington protest. The plan was to stay up all night, have a bonfire and march to the U.S. Capitol to demand more funding for veterans and research for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But after Tuesday’s election, it morphed into something else — a giant, 48-hour psychedelic dance party, in full view of the White House — to deal with the “trauma” of electing Donald Trump as president.
“This is D.C.’s Burning Man,” said Tim Clark, an art designer from San Diego who shipped his school bus-turned-100-foot-long-dragon from California to the District for the event. “This is really helpful right now, I think people need this to shake off this whacky election.”
While thousands have marched nightly in major cities since Tuesday, and some of those protests have turned violent, the spectacle unfolding Saturday in Washington was decidedly more mellow, but drawing a bigger audience.
Dubbed “Catharsis on the Mall,” the event attracted a kaleidoscope of young professionals, aging hippies and those in between. It was organized by many of the same activists who led a successful ballot measure campaign two years ago to legalize marijuana in the District.
Saturday morning there was yoga. By noontime it had shifted into a dance party for hundreds, with techno music echoing off the nearby World War II Memorial.
“I’m just trying to let go of the anxiety from this week,” said Anastasia Greene, 29, who works for the Wilderness Society. Dancing in a blue yoga jacket, Greene lifted her arms north toward Constitution Avenue: “We’ve been talking about sending good vibes toward the White House,” she said.
Mary Burch Harmon, who works for the University of Maryland had stumbled onto the event with a group of visiting students from Argentina, the Congo, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. All stayed and began to dance.
“I’m afraid,” Harmon said of the election results. “I really feel scared of what’s to come.”
Late Saturday, the party was scheduled to culminate with a “ritual burning” of a wooden structure that organizers had dubbed the “Temple of Rebirth.”
The blaze was supposed to be an homage to a similar finale at the Burning Man festival, held each year in the Nevada desert. But it won’t be as big as organizers had hoped.
The National Park Service denied a request to ignite the massive, 30-foot-tall wooden structure. A federal judge sided with the government Friday, citing concerns that embers from the fire could travel across the city, igniting other structures.
Robert “Roman” Haferd, an attorney for the gathering, said organizers would still light three smaller fires — a moon, a sun and an egg, each about five feet tall by five feet wide — to stay within park service regulations. “The moon and the sun represent the passage of time, and the egg, renewal,” Haferd said. “That still carries the message.”
Adam Eidinger, a pro-marijuana activist said the theme for this year’s event emerged after the suicide of a District artist last year and the influence of veterans groups, which have supported marijuana legalization as a way to treat PTSD symptoms suffered by some soldiers.
But Eidinger said last week’s election results had reshaped the event. As organizers began erecting the “temple” Tuesday, they encouraged passersby to scrawl messages on the wood in marker. On Saturday, some were about personal loss and death. But many were about Trump and the election. “I’m not white + female. Scared of Trump,” one read. “This is a bad hombre,” read another. Some offered words of hope: “Don’t get mad, get active,” “Decency will prevail. There is still room in this world for love.”
“The theme this year was trauma, and it seems especially appropriate after the trauma we’ve all experienced from this election,” Eidinger said. “We have a diverse group, all coming together around the therapy of psychedelics.”