WASHINGTON — Four years ago, thousands of protesters massed along the inaugural parade route to show their anger over the contested election in which President Bush gained his first term. Bearing signs such as "Hail to the Thief" and "Supreme Injustice," they crowded the subways, got into sidewalk debates with inaugural guests and gave a historic day a heightened sense of democracy in action.
This year, as George W. Bush is sworn in for a second term, the atmosphere promises to be calmer.
Once again, demonstrations are planned. An organization called Turn Your Backs on Bush says it will send hundreds of supporters to Washington to literally turn away from the president in silent protest as his motorcade passes.
Anti-Bush activists at an Internet website called bushblackout.com are suggesting that supporters black out their websites or silence their blogs for the day. And a group called Not One Damn Dime Day is urging a boycott of commerce on Jan. 20.
Mainstream liberal and antiwar groups, however, are sitting out the ceremonies this time. The security planned for the first inauguration since the Sept. 11 attacks would make protesting difficult. And the groups are concerned about alienating moderates whose support they hope to attract on issues including Social Security, tax reform and war appropriations.
"We felt our focus has been and should continue to be this war," said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, an antiwar coalition of MoveOn.org and about 40 other groups opposed to the administration's policies in Iraq.
Asked how he planned to spend the day, Andrews paused and said, "I'm going to try to sleep in."
Washington-area law enforcement will not have that luxury. About 6,000 federal, state and local law enforcement officials will be on hand, including Coast Guard patrols in the Potomac River.
"Security for this occasion will be unprecedented," outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters this week. "Our goal is that any attempt on the part of anyone or any group to disrupt the inaugural will be repelled by multiple layers of security."
Tightened security is one reason that Jet Heiko, a 31-year-old activist from Philadelphia, came up with the idea of a silent protest. During the Bush campaign, protesters were often given permits to demonstrate only in spaces far from event sites. So Heiko figured the only way to crash the party was to dress the part.
"We're telling folks to dress neutral, to not have any outward signs of protest," he said.
Angry that inaugural planners have commandeered so much space on Pennsylvania Avenue for bleachers — with scalpers selling tickets for more than $300 — protesters plan to sandwich themselves on the sidewalk wherever they can, and turn their backs on Bush at the appropriate moment.
"We think it's shameful that, even though they call it a public event, this is increasingly private," Heiko said. "The only ones who will see the president are the ones who pay to see him."
Some observers think a more muted protest is appropriate.
"If you think of protests in a coldly pragmatic way, rather than in an emotional way, this is not the best place to focus," said Norman J. Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy center.
"It's raining on the parade of people who won legitimately. If you do jarring protests to the point where a lot of Americans react viscerally, you're hurting yourself."
For reasons of security or political sensitivity, most protesters are keeping their distance.
Code Pink, a group of street-theater activists formed in 2002 to mock the Bush administration's terrorism alert codes, is protesting the Wednesday evening Black Tie and Boots Ball organized by the Texas State Society because, spokeswoman Nancy Mancias said, "they are wealthy, well-to-do Texans with a long history of supporting Bush." The group plans to march to the White House on Thursday, Mancias said, or "at least in that general direction."
Critical Mass, an umbrella group of left-wing organizations that lists its events on counter-inaugural.org, is calling for a bike ride from Union Station starting at 7:30 a.m., four and a half hours before the inauguration. Other groups are scheduling events outside Washington: In New Mexico, protesters are planning "A Funeral for Democracy" with mourners forming a procession in Santa Fe.
The newest twists on inaugural protests rely less on shoe leather than on brain power. The Internet blackout and the consumer boycott — which owes something to a protest organized by blue-state Democrats against corporations that actively supported Republicans — are new additions to this year's mix.
"It's elegant and simple and not scary to do," said Kimberly Hughes, a psychotherapist and musician in Brooklyn, N.Y., who is helping promote the consumer boycott through her church. "We the people are fueling these policies with our money. If there's an appreciable dip in commerce, it may get someone thinking."
And then there's the book.
A postelection instant book called "What We Do Now," offering commentary by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile and other notable Democrats proved so popular that the publisher was planning a series of counterinaugural events on the day after the inaugural — one in Washington on Wednesday night, one in San Francisco on Thursday and one in Cooper Union's Great Hall in New York, where Abraham Lincoln once spoke.
"They will be well-attended by those who don't want to confront the military," said Dennis Loy Johnson, who with his wife, Valerie Merians, runs Melville Press, which increased its run of "What We Do Now" from 3,000 to 30,000.
"It's about just doing something," he said. "And these are not [Democratic] party books; they're just from people frightened by the rise of the American right."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times