I noticed them around 1 p.m., a pack of 14 or so counter-inaugural protesters who were conspicuously keeping their distance from the rest of the crowd. They separated themselves physically with a large banner that read “George Bush: Your wars shame US.” Symbolically, they distanced themselves by wiping red paint on faces and arms. Instantly, I understood the contingent – they were participating in the staged die-in, the only act of civil disobedience scheduled to take place on J20 day. That meant that they were the ones most likely to find themselves hauled off to jail.
So, I followed them, as they rang a single solemn cow bell. On the corner of 16 and I streets, just two blocks from the White House, they stood, packed tight, shouting, “Stop the Killing. Stop the War.” Before them stood a wall of yellow-jacketed volunteers checking to see whether people had the right credentials to pass the barricades (translation: whether they had contributed enough money to the Bush re-election campaign to score front-row seats to at the parade).
The volunteers stared blankly at the gang. But after one of the protesters asked, “May we get by?,” the wall of yellow jackets fell away. There was no argument, no fuss.
Within seconds, the group made it to their destination, the corner of 16 and H, the White House looming ahead. A protester explained he and his comrades had come to memorialize those who’ve died in Iraq. Another protester shouted the first of what would be many names, so suddenly that I didn’t even have time to catch it. Then he dropped to the ground.
That was when the confusion started. An onlooker rushed over and said, in a loud voice, “Stand back. This man has fainted. He needs CPR!” The man knelt beside the protester and appeared ready to pump his chest – until another person dropped. The man looked up at the surrounding crowd, sheer puzzlement on his face.
A woman with a videocamera yelled, “That’s assault and battery.”
“What?” the man asked. He stood up and explained that he was a volunteer and he had signed a form promising to administer CPR to crowd members. He looked behind him, and all the protesters had dropped to the street, in the middle of the intersection. “That is not a joke,” he said, storming away.
He might have been the sole spectator unamused by the display. Most of the president’s invited ticketholders who passed the protesters lying, motionless, on hard pavement, had something flip to say.
“Well,” said one man with a wide smile, “I guess you could call that dedication.”
“Look!” offered another. “That one is still alive. He’s twitching.”
And another: “That looks like us after a party.”
Such was the scene, which lasted longer than anticipated — at least by the scrum of reporters and media covering the event. A half hour into this act of defiance, and not one police officer or Secret Service agent had been in sight. The TV cameramen and still photographers circling the die in got antsy.
“How much longer can we shoot these people laying here?” one CNN cameraman asked a colleague. “Where are the arrests?”