The January 20 anti-war demonstration – the main permitted event of the J20 counter-inauguration – had only just begun at 11:30 a.m., when thousands of people spilled into the downtown D.C. streets from Malcolm X Park, singing and stomping, exhilarated by their own numbers.
The massive and colorful crowd – estimated by organizers at 20,000-strong – had gathered at the park for a spirited two-hour rally, where they listened to some 16 featured speakers. The more luminous ones included Doris “Granny D” Haddock, the 95-year-old grandma who walked across the country in 2000 for campaign finance reform, as well as Green Party 2004 presidential candidate David Cobb. When the last speaker gave his version of a final pep talk – urging protesters to “show this city what real democracy looks like” – the crowd erupted in cheers, and filed out onto 16th Street. People stretched for miles around, the White House a speck on the horizon before them, as they made their way to the inaugural parade. It took nearly two hours just to make the 22-block trek.
Overall, the day’s most significant, most vital protest projected a vibe of hope and optimism, a sense that power-in-numbers still matters — a surprisingly hardy sentiment given their presidential candidate (most of them John Kerry loyalists; but, judging by the signs, some Ralph Nadar fans, too). Marchers literally danced in the streets while unleashing a cacophony of sound — people whistled, hooted, hollered, shouted, clashed symbols, blew foghorns, rang bicycle bells, shook bean-filled jars, and pounded on plastic jugs. Packs of college-aged kids wrapped themselves in giant “War is Not the Answer” banners and chanted the refrain: “1, 2, 3, 4. We don’t want your racist war. 5, 6, 7, 8. Stop the Killing. Stop the Hate.” Others raised their arms toward the sky as if to include those DC residents gazing down upon the crowd from apartment and office buildings, many with their faces pressed against windows, as if mesmerized. Spectators waved. Some honked car horns and offered peace signs, eliciting a triumphant response.
This is not to say that contempt for President George W. Bush and his hawkish advisers didn’t come across at the march. There were numerous signs, scrawled in thick, black letters, that expressed the verbal equivalent of the middle finger (“Fuck Off Bush,” “Not Our President,” “Bush: Douchbag”). But in four hours, there were few, if any, images likening Bush to Hitler, a favorite of D.C. protests past. For the most part, demonstrators simply made the case that substantial numbers of reasonable people remain outraged by the direction in which their country has been led. And the GOP party notwithstanding, this day was going to be theirs as well.