More than 20,000 people chanting “hail to the thief” and carrying hand painted signs reading “only five votes counted” came to Washington DC on Saturday to protest the presidential inauguration of George W. Bush.
The demonstrators reflected the outrage felt by many to the installation of Bush as president after losing the popular vote and by the ruling of the US Supreme Court halting the vote count in Florida. While the protests were reportedly the largest in the nation's capital since the 1973 inauguration of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, the media chose to give them scant coverage, in an effort to preserve an air of calm and dignity around the proceedings.
“I just couldn't stay away,” said Jean Peays, who lives in the DC area. “I had to let people know that I was against a president being selected while votes were not counted.” Many at the protest were from Washington and other East Coast cities, including New York, Albany, Philadelphia and Boston. Others came from Chicago, North Carolina and from as far away as Florida.
“I feel this is a coup d'état,” said Karen Way, who flew up from Florida to protest. “I feel this was an attack on our democratic right to choose a president. The Supreme Court stopped the counting, held it up until 10:30 of the night before, and then escaped in their cars in the dark and left the papers for the reporters to read. There was no time left to count the votes.”
Way traveled with her friend Ray Lee who said, “I am here to protest that they did not count all the votes. I am a person of a few words. I feel government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. We are supposed to elect our president; they should make all the votes count.”
Both Lee and Way said they had been brought into active politics for the first time by the actions of the Republicans in Florida and the Supreme Court. “This has turned my life over. I used to just go to work, come home, eat, watch TV. Now I just go to work, tape C-span, come home, tape C-span, watch C-span, sleep, tape C-span.”
Unlike other protests that have taken place in the capital, demonstrators did not rally in one specific location. Rather groups of protesters were stretched out along the entire route of the inaugural parade, with large groups of several hundred at just about every corner.
In addition, there were protests organized at locations not along the parade route. More than 500 people rallied at the Supreme Court building protesting the high court's decision to stop the vote count in Florida.
Hundreds of people began arriving at Dupont Circle at 9:00 a.m. where they listened to speakers before marching to the parade route. The wide array of signs indicated that people at the rally opposed many of Bush's proposed policies as well as the undemocratic manner in which the election results were undermined.
Protesters carried signs reading: “The people have spoken, all five of them” and “Selected not elected.” Another placard read: “One Person, One Vote” with an asterisk at the bottom followed by the words “may not apply in some states.” Another sign had the pictures of the five members of the US Supreme Court who voted to stop the vote count with the words: “Wanted for the Assassination of Democracy.”
Other signs took direct issue with the policies of the incoming Bush administration. Many opposed the death penalty and the frame-up of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamil. Many protesters were opposed to the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general while others raised environmental issues like oil drilling in Alaska and opposed the nomination of Gail Norton as interior secretary.
Many of the demonstrators' signs pointed to the close connection between the incoming Bush administration and corporate America. Placards had pictures of the American flag with dollar signs painted in the spaces for the stars.
As was the case at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle at the end of 1999 and the Democratic and Republican conventions last summer, a large number of the protesters were young. But many who came to this protest were not college students, but workers and professionals in their 30s, 40s and older.
“I am really here to protest for democracy,” said Robert Stoker, a professor at Georgetown University who attended the protest with family and friends. “I think the democratic process is vitally important. I think it was subverted in this election.” Stoker said that he and his family have been concerned with many issues in the past, but “never in protests—we are newly mobilized by this event.”
The marchers faced the biggest show of police force ever for a presidential inauguration. For the first time in history an inauguration was declared a “national special security event,” which placed the Secret Service in overall charge of security.
At least 10,000 uniformed and plainclothes officers of 16 federal, state and local police agencies were present. The parade route was lined with steel barricades and uniformed police stood five to eight feet apart. To get close to the parade route, people had to pass through one of ten checkpoints where bags were searched while helicopters flew overhead and sharp-shooters watched from rooftops.
Police justified the buildup by claiming that the protesters would be violent. However, the only violence came from the police themselves. When a contingent of demonstrators who had left Dupont Circle heading for Freedom Plaza, where they had a permit to protest, they were blocked by a line of police in riot gear standing shoulder to shoulder. As the demonstrators approached and chanted “let us through” the police began swinging their clubs and arrested 15 people.
At another point during the parade the Secret Service had all the checkpoints closed but two. This meant that thousands of both protesters and supporters of Bush had to walk as many as ten additional blocks to enter the parade area. At the first of these two checkpoints the line stretched more than three blocks as people waited to enter.