Its a little late getting this up and its completely unedited but I wanted to put something out there. I went to DC for inauguration day and here is some of what I saw. Its long and disjointed but I mostly wrote it to try to start sorting out my own thoughts on the day. Ill try to get back around to editing and adding some pics and vids and whatnot but no promises. I thought I would have a minute to write this before things in DC got totally crazy. Surprise. Here goes…
I spent this past weekend in Washington DC.
Thursday night I stayed with my dear friend, George, who opened his home lovingly and enthusiastically, for free, to old friends and new friends he hadn’t met yet. I think there were more than 20 people staying at his small house. The kitchen was an open pot luck. If you needed food, there was food to eat. If you had food to offer, there was a fridge and cupboard space to leave it. If you were the first one up, it was nice if you made the first pot of coffee. If you were the last one in at night, it was nice if you unplugged the coffee pot… Everyone in the house was excited to catch up with people they hadn’t seen in a long time and just as excited to meet people they had never seen before. Everyone is welcome.
George knows everyone and has so many great stories. A group of friends who were part of the Great Peace March of 1986 marching from LA to DC (1500 started and 500 finished) had a reunion at his house Friday night and shared stories late into the night. George’s sister and her friend who came into town for the Women’s March got down a pot to make stew. George said, “Granny D’s son bought that big pot when she stayed here and we had about 20 people.” Granny D is a legend in activist circles because she marched from LA to DC when she was 89 years old to make people aware of the need for campaign finance reform and actually influenced the passage of the McCain-Feingold act which limited campaign contributions for a moment.
George’s passion besides progressive politics is the symbolism behind the American flag and some of the unofficial finials which have become standard along with the stars and stripes. George promotes a grass roots flag with green fringe instead of gold representing the bottom up will and needs of the people with power in the hands of the people rather than the gold and riches of the elite. He wants to change out the ubiquitous cannon ball and spear point at the top of the flag pole with a blue green globe and heads of wheat, representing our obligation of stewardship for the Earth and the bountiful harvest for the hard work of the masses. I think it is beautiful symbolism and makes me happy to think of George’s idea whenever I see a flag adorned with symbols of empire and war.
George was the first person I met in Philadelphia when we marched with Democracy Spring for campaign finance reform and voter rights. He is a friend and mentor and an example we can all look to for inspiration. He gives freely of himself from a deep well of compassion for the world and all of its citizens. I’m so fortunate to know him, I hope you’ll get a chance to meet him sometime.
Brother George, thank you for everything! Much love!
I got up early on Friday for the inauguration. There were lots of protests going on all over DC for lots of groups who don’t feel like their voices are being heard and want to advocate for action. I support and am part of several of the groups which had actions planned but I wasn’t completely sure where everyone would be since I got asked to leave the final organizing meeting when I think I got pegged as an “infiltrator” on Thursday (I was wearing a red raincoat instead of a black hoody.) I brought Uncle Sam with me and figured I would fit in with most any group I ended up with or be a one man action.
I got off the metro at Gallery Place with a plan to pop outside to see what was going on and then switch to the other train to go on to McPherson square where many of the groups were organizing from. I ended up getting swept along with the crowd toward one of the entrance/checkpoints for the mall and inauguration ceremony. There were lots of people in red “Make America Great Again” hats and some of them acted aggressively toward anyone they perceived to not be one of them like big groups of drunk frat boys wandering down the street yelling at anyone who didn’t look like them after their team won a football game. There was also a heavily armed and armored police presence with several layers of gates and barricades. It was all kind of overwhelming since I’m not really a city person to start with and I hadn’t even had a full cup of coffee. There was definitely tension in the air. I didn’t have anything identifying me as anything but a white male with middle class clothes and it took me a while to adjust to my surroundings and feel secure in the physical safety of my own body. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like if I were black or Muslim or female but I am privileged to not have to carry that level of vigilance and awareness around with me. I felt glad that I had my small backpack with spare phone batteries and snacks and water so I could be self-sufficient for the day.
I ended up talking to people in the line for the gate and didn’t make it to McPherson square until much later after the inauguration. When I first found myself standing in line I asked some black women near me if this was one of the ticketed entrances or if it was far enough down to be for everyone else. They said they didn’t know and I realized they weren’t necessarily concerned with getting in but had some signs to express their thoughts on the process. I started to realize I was in the line for the “free speech” zone along the parade route where protesters would be allowed but contained to voice their ideas but not risk disruption. I thought that was probably fine if I ended up there since I found myself without a buddy and I had no intention of civil disobedience that day. I could observe and participate with minimal risk of entanglement with the DC legal system since I intend to travel in just a few weeks and need to be legally unencumbered.
I started out standing next to a guy who is studying political science and was there to observe and write an essay for a class at school. He said he was trying to maintain some sense of neutrality/objectivity but privately confessed he isn’t a Trump supporter at all. He is hoping to work in government or an NGO and make a difference in the world. I also was standing behind a family of three. The father and son were wearing Air Force jackets. I asked about the Air Force and he said he was retired from the Air Force and now worked for the government. We talked a little about the Air Force and our time in the service. His comments made it clear that they were Trump supporters. They brought their son who is a sophomore in high school to see the inauguration. He was a smart kid and talked about how this was the first election he had really been politically aware of. He had some smart questions about some of the people protesting around us. I tried to offer some ideas on why people might see things differently than he does. He was really receptive to the conversation and it gave me a good chance to try to see the world through his eyes and try to offer other perspectives in a way that he might appreciate. I think it was a great exercise in empathy for both of us and I really enjoyed their company. Since it was the entry gate to the free speech zone, there were a lot of non-Trump supporters in the line which was a surprise to many of the Trump supporters who might not have had the opportunity to research the entry plan in depth before-hand. The family I had been visiting with became frustrated when the security personnel temporarily shut down the entry point. It opened again later but since there was no information being transmitted to the people in line about what was going on, they had decided to walk to a different check point and start over in a different line. I hope they were able to get in for the ceremony and parade. I also hope the kid keeps thinking with an open mind. Whatever political perspective he ends up growing into, civil discourse is absolutely necessary if we are going to be a country worth working for.
Once I observed the situation and got to know the people around me and felt secure in my body, I opened my back pack and got dressed in my Uncle Sam costume with logos of big corporate donors like race sponsors on the jacket. Dressing like a clown at big political events draws attention. People start asking to take pictures immediately. I think nearly everyone in America believes we have undue corporate influence in our politics so the costume is pretty acceptable whether in nominally progressive or nominally conservative groups of people. I haven’t run into very many people that think we need to waste more money on political campaigns. Taking pictures with people is easy but I didn’t prepare for news cameras where they want you to say words. I like for my art to speak for itself. I can usually string together some sort of cohesive narrative but it takes a few tries. By the time I got my words lined up about campaign finance reform and voter rights I had already botched interviews with the local CBS and NBC affiliates. Oh well, maybe something I’ll be better prepared for next time. It was all I could do to get myself to DC and have the costume all in one place at the same time. The stilts would have been great for the parade later on but weren’t really necessary and probably would have brought unwanted attention from security types and others. I was exhausted by the end of the day without having to deal with stilts…
I got tired of being a one man clown show after all the people I was standing with left so I got a cup of coffee and watched the milieu in the street from a shop and found a place to use the bathroom. I only mention that because finding a bathroom is often a problem when there are big events with lots of people in one place. I am always extra exhausted at the end of the day because I am completely dehydrated because I cant afford to spend all my time looking for bathrooms. A place to use the bathroom should be a basic human right. TO make basic bodily functions illegal doesn’t make sense to me. Why don’t we have public restrooms in cities? Why are there no place for homeless people to use the bathroom? When I was in Portland Oregon this summer they had a bathroom on the sidewalk that was open to anyone. As an “advanced society” we should have figured out how to meet the needs of basic human bodily functions by now.
My friends Phil and Paul whom I marched with from Philly to DC back in April came into town for the inauguration and Women’s March. It took them a while to get into town Friday morning and I wasn’t sure where to head after hanging out in a line for 4 hours. I was walking toward McPherson Square where I knew there would be activity all day and walked passed a Gordon Biersch. I thought a beer sounded nice and it was almost time for the inauguration ceremony to start. I went into GB and stood at the bar and drank a beer while I watched them introduce the past presidents and swear in Pence and Trump. His speech grated on my nerves as expected but the girl I happened to be standing next to was a progressive leaning lobbyist for Lyft and took the speech and the cheering of the crowd around us personally. She asked, “What the fuck is going on here? This is my neighborhood bar, who the fuck are all these people and how can they seriously be cheering for this rapist?” I tried to comfort her and let her know I was on her side and that we would get through this. Unfortunately, when you are having a surreal moment when your world seems upside down because there are people saying and doing things that you can’t even fathom in your heart it’s hard to take solace from a guy wearing an Uncle Sam clown suit…
After the speech I found my friends Phil and Paul after several text messages trying to move toward each other down congested streets where half the city was closed to traffic. We decided to wander to McPherson Square to see what was going on. We wandered past the McDonalds and Starbucks and Wells Fargo and Bank of America where protesters had symbolically smashed windows to protest the corporatization of the state. I think what they are trying to express is really the same thing I try to express with my Corporate Uncle Sam costume only louder and angrier. It also gets media attention. I don’t like that the media talks about violent protestors when the protesters have been very careful to make sure they don’t hurt anyone and are only damaging property. Personally, I’m not into damaging property as part of a demonstration because I think it makes it too easy for the press to co-opt the narrative and gives the police an excuse to conduct actual violence against actual people. However, I can completely identify with the rage that the people choosing to do so feel about corporations exerting too much influence and power over the lives of all of us. When I see that happen I don’t automatically recoil in horror like I think maybe I am supposed to as a good and faithful compliant corporate consumer. I see people lashing out against an oppressive system and think, “well, that seems natural.” Even if I don’t look to condone the actions, I don’t feel any compunction to condemn them either. I think that same rage is why Trump was elected. I think it is a common thread in the world right now and we are going to see it bubbling up in more and more places and if it seems surprising when it does then we haven’t paid attention.
I think destruction of property is scary to people because it seems so close to people who are used to getting their violence through the media from faraway. We aren’t used to seeing a half finished latte by an I-phone® with Starbucks® familiar symbols next to broken glass. I think for many that is more disturbing than a brown kid drowned on the beach in a faraway place or a kid covered in dust with blood streaming from his ears and nose. Those things don’t represent an immediate threat to our actual physical security. The threat to our humanity can be mitigated by feeling sorry for people a long way away and denying that there are people within our immediate proximity that need help. We can send our Christmas donation to the non-prof of our choice and feel happy that we are doing our part to make the world a better place. Then we can go back to sipping our latte and looking at sad pictures of poor brown people on the other side of the world and thank the god of capitalism that we were blessed to be here right now… Then some white kid in a black mask shatters that illusion for a moment as the window in front of us rains down in perfect little safety glass cubes around us and we have to run across the street and tweet our friends about our trauma while the guy making minimum wage fixes us a new latte. On second thought, I deserve a beer. Its been a hard day…
Whoa, Shit man, Sorry. I think that was my barely masked rage bubbling up. I’ll try to tone it down and go back to telling you about my experience of the inauguration and women’s march.
We joined the permitted march from Columbus Circle to McPherson square. There were great signs and amazing art and creative expressions of fear and hope for the future. There were costumes on stilts and I wished I had some stilts that didn’t weigh quite so much so I could join them since I still had the Uncle Sam costume on. There were people in a giant ring banner representing us all being in the same boat and fantastic giant papier-mâché puppets. There was a marching band playing jazz. I was happy to be part of the crowd and fit right in with my costume. These were my people. The artists using art to express their and others hopes and fears and dreams…
Once the march got to McPherson square a concert commenced on the stage. The amplification wasn’t really adequate for the size of the crowd and it was getting on in the afternoon. We decided we should go find some food. I brought some bars and trail mix with me but I was happy to go eat a prepared fast food meal somewhere with my friends. I have the privilege of putting that kind of thing on a credit card and not worrying about it till later so the cost isn’t really a big deal for now. We also wanted to find another friend of ours we marched with in April. We found Tara eating lunch with her crew working for a media production covering the protest surrounding the inauguration. We reported to them that there were people burning trash cans near McPherson square and that there was a concert going on but not much else. We also pointed out a city block the police had barricaded where, unbeknownst to us, they had rounded up many of the black bloc protesters and were slowly processing them into the DC legal system and charging them with felonies. I had stopped there to take a picture as Uncle Sam in front of the Air Force security forces National Guard folks. There was a captain there in all his battle rattle. I asked if I could take a picture with him and he refused to talk to a civilian in a clown suit. He maintained his military bearing and stared straight ahead. I told him the picture was supposed to be ironic since I had been a major in the Air Force. He found that pretty funny and lost his perfect bearing for a second and let out a chuckle before recovering and returning to stare straight ahead.
We caught up with our friend for a moment and decided to go back out to see what we could see.
We ended up back at McPherson Square where the remainder of one group of black bloc folks had coalesced and were just setting a limousine on fire. The limousine fire was dramatic and got the police involved. The police formed a perimeter around the burning car so the fire fighters could put it out. After the car was extinguished the police maintained the perimeter and set up a line to push the protesters down the street. They used giant fire extinguisher size bottles of pepper spray to douse everyone and charged forward to move the line down the street. They only continued to about half way down the block and then settled into a rhythm with the protesters in the street where every once in a while someone would move too close to them and they would push back with a barrage of pepper spray and maintain this arbitrary line in the middle of a street that was already closed to traffic. The whole thing is very theatrical because most of the people are not directly confronting the police but are just there because that is where the excitement is. The vast majority of the crowd is just people with cameras and cell phones recording the scene and waiting to see what happens next. The only real dangers are that a cop is going to freak out and lose their cool and spray or shoot you for no good reason except that they got scared because of the number of people around them, or that you get trampled by the crown when they run away from the cops spraying them with pepper spray and shooting them with really dangerous but “less lethal” rounds. It’s kind of a weird thing to watch because it’s not something you see every day. Once a rhythm is established it just goes on and on for sometime until someone decides to do something new to disrupt the rhythm or people get tired and leave or the party moves somewhere else… Its best to switch up the rhythm sometimes or the tune gets really boring and people switch channels… Also, it is good to stand near protests because getting sprayed with pepper spray is kind of a badge of honor amongst activists. It shows that you were really there and really in it and really threw your body at the gears of the machine. So, I made sure to stand close enough that my eyes got a little dry and burning. I hope you can recognize my dry red eyes for the indicator that they are of my commitment to the resistance and my authenticity as a real activist.
It was starting to get dark. We liked being where the action was but the action had turned into a pretty boring dance with the police. We walked all over the place and were kind of tired so we decided to get a beer and sit for a minute. We got a beer at a local fast food taco place and sat while we watched the tired Latina woman at the register. It was a busy day in that part of DC. We may have been projecting our own views on the situation but she seemed especially miserable when a rowdy group of young men with red trump hats came through and stuffed their faces while completely oblivious to the people around them. They liked the Uncle Sam suit but didn’t seem at all interested in exploring their privileged position with the people working there who probably do not feel the same way they do about a trump presidency.
After our beer, we decided to head up to the party at George’s place. We got on the metro and rode a few stops to Columbia Heights. The metro dumps you out onto a street with brand new shopping centers and all of the trappings of capitalism. There’s a Target and a Giant grocery store and lots of eateries and whatnot. All the normal stores you would find in any suburban shopping center, right there at the Metro stop. We went to the grocery and picked up some hummus and cucumbers and a 6 pack of an interesting sounding IPA to take to the party. We walked past the Spanish speaking lady on the corner selling taquitos and headed into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood to spend time with people new and old to the resistance and movement of non-violent direct action.
I don’t know what was there before the brand new shopping center in the middle of Columbia Heights but I don’t think it was an old shopping center. I imagine a quick google search would show me a much different picture. I think there were public housing and, from what I hear from other middle class mostly white people, a “rough” neighborhood that middle class white people were afraid to walk through. I imagine the reality was very different and more nuanced. I also imagine that the gentrification that happened that brought about the new shopping center was no less than violent and upended lots of lives and made it impossible for whole families to afford to live anywhere near or accessible to where they worked. Capitalism has literally pushed those people to the margins.
I meant to write this describing different groups of people I encountered and as I introduced each group of people say, “these are my people.” I figured that way I could offend everyone by personally identifying with everyone else. I identify with the protesters who ultimately blocked people from getting into the inauguration. I identify with the citizens who want to attend the inauguration and celebrate democracy. I identify with the protesters in the march displaying beautiful art and creatively expressing their needs and expectations from our government. I identify with the black block folks in hoodies and masks smashing windows and setting limousines on fire. I identify with the police officers and the military who were trying to maintain order and security for the inauguration and in the streets. I identify with that one angry kid that throws the first rock or that one nervous cop or who blasts the crowd of people with pepper spray without being properly provoked. I identify with the spectators and photographers, hiding behind their cameras. I identify with the indignant lobbyist in her neighborhood bar full of people she can’t recognize. I can even identify with people who voted for trump who don’t understand their own privilege or why so many people are so upset. These are my people. I wish we could all talk to each other.
It was a weird day hanging out in DC for the trump inauguration and seeing what there was to see. I’m still trying to understand what I saw and figure out my role in it. I was going to write about the whole weekend to include the Women’s March but that was before it was six pages of rambling. I hope if you read this far you were able to glean some sort of perspective you didn’t have before. This hasn’t been proofread or edited and is in no way complete but maybe its useful to someone. I think mostly I hope its useful to me in unpacking the experience I had and helping me to start to understand it. If any of it sparked thoughts you’d like to share, please engage. Try to be gentle