D.C. - beside the beltway

unearthing the Nation's capital

Protests... What Protests?
by Benjamin Malcolm

"I'm flying out of the country on Monday for Thailand."



You would think that I would get my act together enough to catch some of our good old fashioned democracy in action here in our nation's capital. Yes, I'm talking about that beloved tradition passed down by our forefathers -- the protest (also known as the right to yell things at heavily armed policemen).

This city is a magnet for protest. Where else do you go if you want to complain about something and get the most national press for it? Book the mall, gather a million people, and you've got your five minutes with Peter Jennings.

I feel an excitement when I think of the protesters in action. Maybe it's my liberal upbringing. Maybe it's my tendency to automatically question what people consider normal. Maybe I feel the pressing need to collect new material for DUCTS.

But for some reason I keep missing the action. In my distracted DC way, I get busy with other things, the protesters do their thing and I see it on the news like anyone else. They could be protesting in Iowa for all I've actually witnessed.

Does this make me lame? I wonder ...


"...four tons of manure has been dumped..."


Friday, April 14

The story has been building for weeks. The protesters are coming from all over to shut down the World Bank and IMF meetings. It's going to be the "Battle of Seattle" II. The protests sound like a cross between an art show and militant action, with dancers, puppets, costumes, and huge, colorful signs all part of the march. The police have been gearing up. They stage a preemptive strike against the protesters' headquarters, taking away some giant puppets. On the way to work, I notice pockets of burly United Auto Workers with signs, milling around Dupont Circle, preparing to head south for a combined rally with other protesters near the World Bank. They aren't dressed up at all.

I promise myself that I'll catch some of the action over the weekend. The main protests are planned for Sunday and Monday.

I meet a friend at Union Station and hear on the way that four tons of manure has been dumped on Pennsylvania Avenue by some animal rights activists. My friend wonders which minimum-salaried DPW worker gets to clean up the manure.

The police end up giving the puppets back to the protesters.



Saturday, April 15

I spend my Saturday morning doing mindless tasks, like preparing tax forms, and decide that I should try to get down to the main rally on Sunday, in between two other things I've planned. On Saturday night, the police round up about 600 people and haul them off to jail in another preemptive move. The news stations are starting to interrupt regular programming. I know all this. I've been watching my Saturday news coverage and have read a piece in the Washington Post about strike spokesman Han Shan.

I could have been down in the area where the arrests were happening. I'm so lame. Then again, I could have been swept up in the police action, mistaken for a protester. Maybe I'm not so lame.


"...it's over for the day..."

Sunday, April 16

This is the big rally day, and it's steaming hot. Unfortunately, I've already committed to going to the Thai New Year festival up in Wheaton, taking me out of action for most of the morning and early afternoon. I see on TV that things are getting funky down by the World Bank. People are throwing trash barrels around, and some cop is wailing on a female protester in full view of the cameras.

The Thai festival has all the air of a big rally, as every Thai from the Washington DC metroplex converges on the Thai temple in Wheaton. I imagine myself in and among the protesters downtown, but it's not the same - I watch some Thai classical dancing, get blessed by the head abbot, and buy a couple of pepper bushes. By the time I make it down town, on my way to something else, it's over for the day, and there are only scattered remnants. People are tired after a long, hot day. I vow to get pictures on the way to work Monday.

I figure the word for "lame" in Thai would be "mye kangrang." I'm feeling "mye kangrang" after such a poor effort.



Monday, April 17

I wake up at 5 a.m. and turn on the morning news. It's pouring outside. The three local channels have pictures of glum looking anchorpeople standing in the rain, and even gloomier looking policemen. The policemen are dressed in full battle armor and raincoats. They're soaked. They are also alone at the barricades with no sign of protesters. A camera spots a small group of protesters, but they run away before the camera crew can chase them down. I look at the pouring rain and decide to bag the picture idea and just go into work.

About mid-morning, from my tenth-story office, I watch police cars and buses roar down Connecticut Avenue in the pouring rain, heading downtown to haul away protesters. The whole morning I hear sirens and horns. Apparently, the protesters have arrived, and the two sides have effected an odd compromise. The police let them cross the barricades in groups of ten and then arrest them. So much for the Battle of Seattle II.

Here was my moment to observe history in action. This was such an eclectic mix of protesters as well, everything from Franciscan monks to magenta-haired college students.

My feeling is that anything that wakes the city of DC from its slumber can't be a bad thing. I also wonder at the definition of "orderly protest." So many people complain about the irresponsibility of the protesters and about the disruption they've caused, but isn't that the nature of the beast? Were we supposed to politely ask the British for their tea, before dumping it in Boston Harbor?

One column in the Washington Post castigates the protesters for being spoiled rich kids who don't know a thing about the IMF. Another column in the same paper castigates the passionless bureaucrats of DC, who pooh pooh the protesters from their ivory towers.


"Clint Black tells us we've got to be good to the planet."


Saturday, April 22

My mom comes into town and we eat breakfast as we watch the Elian Gonzalez story play out on TV. Miami will soon be the scene of huge protests. Protests seem to be sprouting everywhere.

We head out to the Mall to see some of Earth Day. In one tent, some odd-looking people are gathered around a table and are busily over-debating the nature of God. I don't quite know how it ties into Earth Day. It feels staged. It is staged! A woman offers us cookies on the periphery of the argument, as they rage about God.

We head over to the main stage, and watch Clint Black and Bill Nye the Science Guy before heading out to the Air and Space Museum and the opening of the Salvador Dali exhibit. Clint Black tells us we've got to be good to the planet. I don't know if that counts as an official protest. Bill Nye the Science Guy is doing some sort of experiment with Woodsy the Owl.

Mom talks about going to see "Granny D" getting arrested for protesting on the Capital steps. Granny D, who lives near my parents in New Hampshire, is the ninety something year old woman who literally walked across the United States, speaking out for campaign finance reform. Unfortunately, I already read in that morning's paper that she was arrested Friday with a group of compatriots.

We've missed it. But we did get to hear Clint Black and Bill Nye the Science Guy.



Saturday, April 29

I am on the subway in the late afternoon, on the way home after a hectic day of shopping (buying gifts for my upcoming trip to Thailand), when a large group fills the train at Dupont Circle. They're on their way to the "Equality Rocks" concert at RFK stadium.

The mall has been filled all day with equal rights activists. Gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people have staged a rally on the Mall to vocalize the need for equality. It's being called the "Millenium March." The AIDS quilt has been on display.

I've missed it. I was too busy being a good American consumer.

Lame, but understandable.


"Finally, protesters!"


Saturday, May 6

I head to Malcolm X Park in the heart of the Adams Morgan area. Some friends have set up a "croquet brunch" party at one end of the park. Since it's the first Saturday after May Day, the local Communists have staged a rally at the other end of the park. Finally, protesters!

As we near noon, and the croquet kicks into high gear, so does the rally. At least it sounds like it's kicking into high gear, even though there's only about 20 people or so, waving red flags and listening to rap music. I didn't know Communists were into rap music.

A stocky biker-looking man strides by our croquet match. He's dressed completely in black and is carrying a big red flag. A few minutes later, the microphone sparks to life at the other end of the park and a man begins his diatribe against capitalism. Then the rap music starts again. It makes a nice backdrop for our game. The handful of policemen who have gathered for security purposes seem to be more interested in our croquet match.

My partner and I make it through the croquet wickets first, but get knocked out in the poison round. I almost walk over to the Communist rally, but it looks too small, and I've got some errands to run.



Sunday, May 14

Mother's Day is just a few days away, and I know I'm going to miss the Million Mom March against Guns. I'm already booked for two baseball games and a birthday party, and I'm flying out of the country on Monday for Thailand.

"I missed it ... I was on my way to Asia."

At least that doesn't sound so lame.


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