Inauguration Day 2005. I feel nauseous. Sick to my stomach. Ill.
For years I have tried to convince myself and others that Republicans are not evil; they just have a different philosophy. But today, I have seen a face of America that I didn’t want to believe exists, and I am surprised, disgusted and depressed.
“Was the security awful?” my mom asked sympathetically on the phone, expecting to hear more tales of police brutality that have come to define protest history. No, I struggled to explain, this time the attacks I experienced came from women in fur coats. Our greatest threat to our nation tonight? REPUBLICAN NASTINESS.
First of all, the number of fur coats I saw today absolutely cannot be exaggerated. The city looked like it was being invaded by bears coming out of hibernation. There were white fur coats and black fur coats, spotted fur coats, and striped fur coats. There were brown mink coats that must have taken a hundred animals to make. There was big hair and stretched skin and a cowboy hat or two bobbing in and out of the crowd, but it was the ubiquitous fur coats that really felt like a slap in the face. WE’RE HERE, WE’RE RICH, WE’VE TAKEN OVER THE COUNTRY.
Imagine thousands of fur coats and clicking heels accompanying men who looked like they were in town for a local newscasters convention gliding past the largest homeless shelter in the country where I volunteer. They even took over the homeless people's sidewalk! My friend Gina and I spoke with a few homeless men who barely had enough energy to laugh appreciatively at our signs as they lay on steam grates in the frigid temperatures. It is an out-of-body experience to silently stand on a street corner and see these two worlds clash; a man just trying to survive, and a parade of fur coats yelling, “They need to get a job!” We must have just stood there for thirty minutes, in awe of the invasion. She was trying to explain to her friends who came from New York to protest the inauguration the amount of pain contained inside that building. At one point, we looked up and saw a little face peering out of the window at the shelter, a child. The little hand waved at us and then disappeared.
“In many ways, Inauguration Day is all about family…the AMERICAN family,” Dan Rather reassures us. The president’s image floats across my television screen pledging to heal divisions and calling on Americans to “abandon habits of racism.” He apparently mentioned the word “freedom” thirty times, and Iraq not once. The television pundits are reflecting on a feeling of “oneness” that unites Americans on this day. Obviously, they didn’t make it to the street alongside Pennsylvania Avenue where I spent six hours today carrying these signs with my friends:
“The homeless suffer from your vote. Why not give them your fur coat?”
“25,000 children in DC are poor and we have to pay for your party?”
“20,000 killed in Iraq and you’re having a party?”
“Bush Stole My Boyfriend!” (Gina’s boyfriend is being sent to Iraq next month)
Judging from the hostility of the crowd, we decided to hide our signs about the war until they warmed up to the concept of poor American children. One little boy from Kentucky caught a glimpse of the boyfriend sign and sneered, “Did your boyfriend sign up for the army? Then he asked to be there…” we smiled and waved and hid the sign better, knowing we were asking for trouble. This crowd would stop at nothing, not even cruel personal attacks against my brave friend who prefers to talk about the poor people she cares so much about rather than the personal cost George Bush’s presidency is having on her life.
We thought it was common knowledge that DC taxpayers were being asked to foot the $12 million security bill for the first time in inauguration history. We thought our sign referencing this fact was the most benign sign in the bunch but oddly enough, it attracted the most virility from the crowd. Dozens of people shouted, “you are not paying for our party!” and I rattled off the stats, encouraging them to read the paper. “Oh yeah, everything you read in the newspapers is true you know,” one woman snickered to her smiling husband. “Check out yesterday’s editorial in the Washington Post…” I recommended helpfully as they shook their heads and walked away. “Where do they get their news? From Paul Revere riding through the streets on his horse?” Gina mused. Even those who believed our sign said that “your stinking city” deserves to foot the bill!
PARTIAL LIST OF INSULTS RECEIVED TODAY
- Give ‘em a fur coat? Maybe they could use some DIAMONDS!
- Get a life!
We’re enjoying our party!
You’re not paying for our party!
Thanks for paying for our party!
They’re all addicts!
Why don’t you call Kerry and get his money!
Those poor kids in DC should have been aborted!
The women in DC need to learn to keep their pants up!
Are you guys lesbians?
Why don’t you give them YOUR coat!
Why don’t you give them your CELL PHONE!
Why don’t you give them your leather shoes!
Why don’t you go home to your kitchen, COOK dinner and BRING it to ‘em!
You guys are pisspots!
They need to get a job!
You need to get a job!
Hmph. I don’t remember ever being called so many names before; I think today surpassed even what my brother could dole out growing up. People also treated us to the finger and one man actually elbowed our signs as he walked past. Another Republican reveler angrily tried to take another protester’s sign. One woman pushed the flash down on my camera, and I’m not even going to get into the million dirty looks and scowls. I expect to show up in a lot of Republican’s nightmares tonight. As they will certainly be in mine!
Where does all this anger come from? I am here to testify that there is a whole lot of repressed RAGE underneath that stretched skin. I really don’t know where it comes from. After all, TODAY WAS THEIR PARTY! We were merely providing a “public service” as Gina explained, to educate our visitors about the city we know and love. We were not screaming, we were not shouting. We literally stood and chatted with each other, holding our signs, smiling, saying hello. We were decidedly nonpartisan and managed to satisfy a few ruffled feathers agreeing that Clinton didn’t do enough to help the homeless either. When a man didn’t believe us that homelessness has risen under Bush, we asked for his business card to send him some more information. “Don’t, Stu,” his panicked wife warned, and I assured her I wasn’t a terrorist. If you ever need a Real Estate Financial Consultant in West Lake Village, CA, I can hook you up.
There were a few positive encounters of arguments that turned into conversations and people who looked to be revelers whispering, “I like your sign,” as they passed us by. One woman in a fur coat even stopped to take our picture, and then pointed to her coat and explained, “It’s not real.” Some southern high school girls even posed with us for pictures, explaining, “We’ve never seen protesters before!” Our signs attracted so much attention, that all we had to do is stand there and throngs of people would come to us. We were interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, CNN.com, NBC TV, as well as by several college film projects and student newspapers from across the country. All of them were trying to fit us in a box and were surprised to learn that we weren’t with any group and had decided to mingle with the masses rather than report to the designated protest cage. They were shocked to learn all of our facts about homelessness and poverty in DC and could not believe that our city decided to shut down three shelters this winter. At the end of the day, we even met Congressman Payne from New Jersey who thanked us for being there.
Still, it was unbelievable to me to see the deep hostility, rage, and cruelty stirring beneath those bundled bodies. “Put on your soul armor,” Gina would whisper through her smile. “This group is pissed and they’re headed our way.” We tried not to laugh to underscore the seriousness of our message. We both dressed up a notch from the traditional protest crowd, and we never hurled back insults. But if they are spewing this level of hostility at two yuppie-looking white girls, imagine if we were black, gay, poor, you name it. Before my friends arrived today, I was totally alone in the hostile crowd, searching for another sign as I squeezed down the sidewalk, with verbal eggs being hurled at me in all directions. I felt much more afraid and alone than I do in the dangerous neighborhoods of our city. I noticed a black photographer taking a picture of my sign and I scurried to catch up to him. “My friends better get here soon, that’s all I gotta say,” I muttered. “I hear you,” he said as we walked quickly through the packed crowd in silence.
Our “Kill ‘em with kindness!” policy definitely seemed to confuse and diffuse our attackers. Gina smiled as she called out “Take care!” to the man who called us “pisspots” and I followed with a chirpy “Have a nice evening!” As dusk settled and we shivered in the cold clutching our signs, I looked up at the gorgeous gray capitol building with its little lights warming the darkening sky.
“You know, I’ve never been called a pisspot before,” I mused, and we burst out laughing.
Jamila Larson is a social worker at an elementary school in southeast Washington,
DC. She has been an advocate for homeless children in the District for
nine years and runs a volunteer play program at CCNV, the nation's largest
homeless shelter. A veteran of countless peace demonstrations, she is
proud to count hippies and Marines among her friends.She can be reached