FAQ: The Inauguration Of George W. Bush.
BY Neal Pollack
Q: Where were you at noon on January 20, 2001, at the precise moment George W. Bush was being inaugurated, and what were you doing?
A: I was in front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, at the corner of 14th and K Streets in Washington, DC, with a group of approximately 30 people who had answered my call to protest the inauguration. We had earlier joined a larger march, which had proceeded from Dupont Circle. It became apparent that we weren’t going to be allowed to advance. The police, who were wearing riot helmets, formed a line and blocked our way. We were on 14th. On the other side of K, we could see large numbers of police running toward another group of protesters, though we couldn’t see what was going on exactly. We later found out that these silly people had dragged USA Today boxes into the street and were being smacked around and arrested. For our part, we stood and we stood, and sang some songs, like America the Beautiful.
Q: Was there anything about your group that would have distinguished you all from the nearly 20,000 protesters who were in Washington that day?
A: Yes. We all were wearing sock monkeys on our hands. Catherine Corman of New York, who is a hero, made these monkeys. I will let you describe them to you in her own words, from an email she sent to our protest committee: “I was unable to find the real kind of socks for sock puppet monkeys. Not even at Astor Place K-Mart, the largest store I could think of (and where the sales lady asked repeatedly if I were having a sock party and if she could come). So I had to get one hundred light brown cotton anklets, which are at least monkey-colored. The dunce caps are black felt to match their sparkly black eyes. My little sister thinks they look more like witches than monkeys.”
Well, Catherine, we all thought they looked like monkeys, and, as many people have pointed out over the past few weeks, our new president somewhat resembles a monkey himself. The puppets were invaluable in other ways: They kept the group together during some very stressful moments, and provided us with something to do during lulls. For instance, I would periodically shout:
“Everybody put your monkeys in the air!”
And they did.
“Shake ‘em like you just don’t care!”
And they did.
“Everybody say ‘oh yeah!’”
Q: Very clever. So what happened next?
A: Well, it became clear that we weren’t going to move forward on 14th Street, because, incredibly, the police did not respond to our entreaties for them to let us through. So we followed other small protest groups back up 14th to L Street. We encountered a large group of anarchists wearing vinegar-soaked bandanas, the smell of which made me gag, and the sight of which frightened some of the uninitiated among us. A woman was standing in the middle of the street, telling people that if we followed the anarchists, we would be heading out of the permitted protest zone, and we could possibly get arrested. We chose to walk down 11th Street instead. It began to rain quite miserably, but our sock puppet monkeys gave us courage.
Q: What was going on at 11th and E?
A: Here, we encountered a long line of people, both Republican and protester, waiting to get through a security checkpoint to get onto the inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue. The line went for several blocks, and we made the collective decision to join because it was the only way to get to the parade, which was why we had come to Washington in the first place. Many people used this opportunity to get French fries from various food establishments and to use the restroom. My friend Joy was holding a sign that read “My Bush Is Smarter.” A woman walked by and said, “You’re trash, and your sign is trash.” I felt the need to defend my friend, and I wittily said, “Fuck off, you fucking bitch.” The rain fell harder. The lines were long.
Q: This sounds like a good time for John Hodgman to show up.
A: Well, that’s exactly what happened. Hodgman and his wife, Catherine Fletcher, were in Washington, escorting a group of high-school students who were interested in protesting. Hodgman, who was wearing a fetching black balaclava, looked as though he would rather have been undergoing a high colonic. They joined us in line and Hodgman complained of hunger, thirst, and wetness. He made, as he is wont to do, cryptic remarks about “psychic vampires.” He was soon gone.
Q: By the way, who else joined you on this march?
A: They were too many to name here. The largest number came from the DC area, but there were also marchers from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. At its height, our group seemed to number about 40, and by the time we got to Pennsylvania Avenue, about 25.
Q: OK. So did you get through the checkpoint, and how close did you get to the parade?
A: The checkpoint was easy to get through, and by 1:30 or so, we had reached 11th and Pennsylvania, where we were amazingly close to the street. The people were maybe three to five deep in front of us, and the taller members of the march were able to see the street quite clearly.
Q: What was going on there?
A: On our side of the street, protesters easily outnumbered parade attendees, perhaps by as much as ten to one. The rain was falling very hard, but a group of young protesters had a drum, and they began playing it and dancing. Todd Pruzan, who had endured the day, began singing “Cecilia,” and, amazingly, so did everyone else. We chanted various things, but our favorite went like this: “Il-legit-illegitimate.” It sounded like “Too Legit to Quit,” but you probably got that already. Pruzan, well in the spirit by now, began shouting things like “Dick Cheney’s got a big old butt!” In moments of lull, we enacted great scenes from movie history with our puppet monkeys.
Q: How did the Republicans respond to these wacky shenanigans?
A: There was an announcer in a booth just to our right, and he completely ignored us, choosing instead to ply us with useless Presidential trivia questions. Later, he was joined in the booth by Meat Loaf, and there were enough of us to shout Meat Loaf down.
One Texas woman with a large umbrella made a backwards “L” on her forward and shouted: “You guys are SORE LOSERS!” She later told us that we all needed a spanking, so we began to shout, “Spank us! Spank us!” I went in front of her and waggled my butt, but she refused to spank me, probably because I really wanted her to.
Q: Soon, I imagine, the Presidential motorcade drove by. What happened?
A: At our checkpoint, there were about 200 protesters, and we made as much noise as we possibly could. When we saw the media truck, the booing began, loud and fervent. It was a true frenzy, and it was wonderful and, dare I say, empowering. The moment passed quickly, but up and down the parade route, other groups were meeting the motorcade with similar bile. All we had wanted to do, all day, was to drown out the cheers of Bush’s supporters, and that we did. During the height of our shouting, the woman who had wanted to spank us went completely insane. She was screaming, “Shuuuuuuuuut uuuuuuuup! Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” Even though she was probably a perfectly nice woman, we nonetheless took great pleasure in her torment.
Q: So you think you were successful?
A: Within our narrow set of goals, absolutely.
Q: Was your “affinity group” meant to be ironic?
A: No. There was certainly humor, and silly humor, but humor is often used in protests. I called for this group to come together because I wanted to march with people who were angry and open-minded, but who otherwise might have felt that they didn’t fit under the big tent of protesting. Most of the people who joined me were first-timers, but they didn’t come to be ironic. They came because they are opposed to George W. Bush and his policies, and also thought that they could have fun.
Q: Are there any chants you would like to see banned from future protests?
A: There are many, but if this one would be eliminated, I would be happy: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Bush and Cheney go away.” It is very bad and full of clichés.
Q: What did you do after the protests?
A: In increasingly heavy rain, we walked a very long distance to the neighborhood of Adams Morgan, in search of a place called Tryst, which turned out to be a liquor-licensed coffeehouse patronized by a large number of attractive young people of various ethnicities. I found this place annoying, and it was crowded, so we went across the street to Millie and Al’s tavern, which was very nice and patronized by nobody. We ordered beer and pizza. Later, our friend Jenny and her friend Jan stopped by and told us that they had seen on television that Bush had planned to walk quite a bit of the parade route, but the protesters had prevented him from doing so. We all cheered and felt enormously happy. What a happy moment on an unhappy day for America.
Q: Do you have anything didactic you want to say?
A: Yes, dammit. I hate these Republican calls for unity and healing. They remind me of the Gulf War, when we were all supposed to tie yellow ribbons and shut up and not speak our minds. This is not a time for coming together. This country is divided and it will remain that way unless we are completely wrong about President Bush, which we are not. Many people are planning to remain in permanent opposition to him, and we will not be silenced.
Q: So you will march again.
A: Oh, I don’t know. If there’s a cause that seems right, I may call for another march. This was fun and successful and gratifying, but I am not going to protest for the sake of protesting. Just like this one, the next march will have to be spontaneous and democratic. I am not plotting anything specific.
Q: Are there any other people to whom you wish to give props?
A: Yes. Ashley Gauthier, for providing Regina, Joy, and I a place to crash; Phil Bob, for breakfast, and Kathleen McCafferty, who lives in a garage, as she said, “like the Fonz,” for serving us dinner with such grace. And, of course, all of you who came to the march and sent encouraging notes to us if you couldn’t come. We did it, people. We fucking did it. And it was great.
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