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Three Failed Progressive Demonstrations at the Inauguration

Three demonstrations by progressives were planned for Inauguration Day, 2009. Three of them failed.

The first, planned by me, grew out of the simple desire back in October of 2008 to be able to stand on the Inaugural Parade route in January, no matter who was elected President, and hold a sign reminding the new president to take seriously his Oath of Office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” When staff at the National Park Service office told me I’d have to apply for a permit if I wanted to bring a sign, even one the size of a postcard, and that a permit application mailed to the NPS would be delayed for weeks while it was irradiated to destroy anthrax spores, I went ahead and applied by FedEx to hold a space for myself. While I was at it, I decided I might as well hold open a space for anybody else who wanted to do the same. The Park Service later changed its standard, declaring the Inauguration parade route open to any group of 25 or less with a sign, even without a permit. But by then I’d already gone ahead with the permit application, so I stuck with it and invited others to join in. We at Irregular Times made videos about it, sent notifications to our e-mail list of over 4,000 people, posted notes to the ACLU and EFF, and got interviewed by three media outlets about it, putting notice of the protest in the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Post, and on NBC News. We networked with other activists. If you searched for “inauguration protests” or “inauguration demonstration” on google, links to information regarding this event were right there at the top.

Here’s a picture of those in attendance at the pro-constitution Oath of Office demonstration:

Jim Cook at Pro-Constitution Demonstration on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC

Yep, I was the only person who showed up. As you have probably picked up from my writing, I am a sunny optimist who tends to see the glass as half full, so I wouldn’t even call an attendance of one a failed protest. What really matters is whether Barack Obama got to see the sign, whether he had a moment to be reminded that constitutional standards matter to some part of the public. Having shown up early and grabbed my spot, I still had the chance, even alone, to succeed in that task. And then, as Barack and Michelle Obama walked down the street smiling and waving, right at the moment they were turning their heads in my direction, one of the press trucks holding cameramen from the TV news stations drove right between me and the new President. That’s failure. Oh, well. I tried.

(Consolation prize: while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were being driven in limos down toward the Capitol building in the morning, I saw their faces looking out the window my way, all befuddled and confused-looking. Maybe they saw the word “Constitution.” Maybe they had gas.)

The second demonstration was a full-on protest by Arrest Bush, a group backed up by the Washington Peace Center and After Downing Street which planned to hold a relatively massive rally with music and drumming and 3,000 participants in it, all holding signs declaring the simple demand to the new President Obama: “Arrest Bush.” Their noble intention: to pressure Barack Obama to hold George W. Bush (and his cronies) to account for their criminal violations of law. Their permit was for a space right across the street from me, west of 9th Street on Pennsylvania Avenue, right in front of the FBI building. Until about 11:00 AM, nobody holding any sign could be seen. Then this pair showed up:

Arrest Bush Demonstration in Washington, DC January 20, 2009

Here’s a close-up in case you can’t see them:

Two Arrest Bush Protesters at the Presidential Inaugural Parade on January 20, 2009

Nobody else with “Arrest Bush” signs appeared during the long day, and by the time Barack Obama walked by late in the afternoon the signs were invisible to me. I don’t know if the pair left or were simply swamped by the sea of cheering people.

The third progressive demonstration, also to take place in the block of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was simple. Ben Masel invited a few friends and anybody else who so desired to come down to the inauguration and hold a banner with the words “Stop Government Spying” on it. Masel designed his banner to fit within the Secret Service restrictions, yet he was denied entry and threatened with arrest for daring to bring his banner to the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t know the details of this repression, but the mere notice of it is disturbing to me.

Three progressive demonstrations, three failures, surrounded by millions of cheering Americans. During a break while waiting I walked up and down Pennsylvania Avenue looking for any other signs held by demonstrators and saw not a single one. Not a single sign, progressive, libertarian or conservative. That’s a marked departure from the previous two inaugurations, and it bears note, because I think it says something about the national mood. For eight years, people were highly motivated to participate in demonstrations directed at George W. Bush. People don’t seem to be interested in participating in demonstrations directed at President Barack Obama.

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