M19 - A Report from the Voter Rights March, Democratic Underground
May 22, 2001
by William Rivers Pitt
"You can't stop a rooster from crowing once the sun is up, and the sun done come up." - Old folk saying
The train jarred to a stop in the station as a wet dawn peeled across the sky above Washington, D.C. I rose groggily from the cramped, lotus-like ball I had been trying to sleep in for the last ten hours, gathered up my bag, and walked into the cavernous emptiness of Union Station. My head was thumping sickly as I collected my wits; in order to ensure a quiet night of rest, I had medicated myself with several beers and a healthy dollop of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.
When I had first boarded the train at 8:30 pm in Boston the night before, I had figured on a long, lonely trip down to D.C. I had not been five minutes in my seat, however, when I heard a snatch of conversation from the seats in front of me: "...saw the VoterMarch website a few weeks ago, and knew I had to come."
I lurched over the headrest and introduced myself. Here were Laura and Adam, taking the same journey for the same reasons as I was. Laura, in fact, had been in Washington for the inauguration with the 30,000 other protesters who had been so assiduously ignored by the media. Laura and Adam were perfectly normal people. They were not pierced, purple-haired anarchists. Adam worked for Sun Microsystems, and Laura was out from Colorado on a tech-work contract that would keep her in Boston a year. They both could have passed for accountants in any city in America. This was, I felt, a very good sign. I reasoned that it would be harder for the media to ignore a protest driven by ordinary citizens.
Laura, Adam and I wandered into the bowels of Union Station on the morning of May 19th in search of a cup of coffee. This proved to be a hard nut to make. The place was deserted, all food shops closed. We finally found a barbecue joint run by an early-rising Korean family, and as we sipped their potent brew, we talked about why we were here.
The Voter Rights March to Restore Democracy had several specific purposes behind its inception: to bring attention to the fact that the November election was a catastrophe and that election reform is a moral American imperative, to point out that some 180,000 votes have yet to be recounted in Florida despite a requirement for same inked into the books of the Sunshine State's laws, to cast a glaring light upon the scurrilous actions taken by the United States Supreme Court on December 13, 2000, to shout as loudly as possible that George W. Bush is not President because he was selected and not elected, and lastly to remind all who would listen that Albert Gore, Jr. is the rightful President of the United States for good or ill.
This is a long laundry list of grievances, but underneath it all is a motivation that harkens back to the days before the voting reform laws passed in 1964. At the bottom, the Voter Rights March was about protecting the basic American right to vote, and about ensuring that all the votes which are cast are counted fairly and equally. If this seems like a reactionary and foolish platform, bear in mind that by the end of this day, May 19th, I would meet a dozen people from Florida who believed their votes had not been counted. The hurt and anger in their eyes was fresh and electric; after 157 days they had not "gotten over it," and were I to make a bet, I would confidently put money on the idea that they never, ever would.
I have participated in many protests in the last ten years. In 1991 I was marching against the Gulf War, shouting with swollen throat into the face of an 80% approval rating for that ill-conceived massacre. I marched against General Electric with those who were getting screwed by that company's pension fund, which is swollen with millions of dollars earned by everyday workers who see little of it after 30 years of service. I marched to protest the execution of Gary Graham on the eve of the 2000 election.
This gathering in Washington on May 19th, however, was something else entirely. The other protests I had participated in had been focused on a specific, narrow grievance - a war, a company, the death penalty. This march was focused upon the fact that a basic and fundamental American right had been abrogated, and because of this, a man had been installed in the White House who had not won the election. Nothing like this had ever happened in all of American history, and the fact that ordinary American citizens were compelled to come to Washington, D.C. from as far away as Alaska, California and Minnesota on May 19th in defense of the simple right to vote exposes the degree of rage that lingers in the electorate.
Laura, Adam and I came out of Union Station at 7:30 am and headed for Lafayette Park under a sky heavy with rain. We walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing the building holding the Department of Labor, whose steps were laden with homeless men huddled against the wet. We passed the Federal Courthouse, and I mentioned that the last time I had come to this city, in 1998, the front of that building had been crowded with reporters covering some aspect of the Clinton trials. We passed the headquarters for the FBI, housed in a building owned by Reverend Moon, and I wondered aloud how many more boxes of undisclosed McVeigh documents were still hidden behind those walls. Behind us, the Capitol dome loomed above the street. We would be seeing it again soon enough, when the March arrived at the western steps.
When we finally arrived in front of the White House, my heart sank. There were a few early-bird high school groups, and the anti-nuclear protest station that had been in place since 1981 squatted eternally in the Park, but beyond that I counted a meager collection of six Voter March participants. Most of them were 'Fringe Folk,' members of a group that had created a clearinghouse for protest announcements at www.FringeFolk.com. I would later be informed that the definition of 'Fringe' according to these people was defined by Bush, who claimed that the only people who opposed him were "on the fringe."
I made myself busy for the next couple of hours as the Park began to fill with protesters. I introduced myself to Democratic activists from Kansas, Pennsylvania and Arizona. I helped construct a sound stage where speeches would be delivered around noon. I snapped pictures of signs and banners that began to wave in the swelling crowd. Somewhere along the way I lost track of Adam and Laura, though I occasionally spotted them in the crowd.
I must have spoken to 50 people before 10:00 am, and I was impressed by the amount of information they possessed. This crew was not a bunch of young reactionaries simply looking for a reason to shout. The median age of the gathering was about 40, and they all knew exactly why they were there.
I would start a sentence about ChoicePoint, and they would finish my sentence with specified statistics on exactly how many Florida voters had been blown off the rolls before the election. I would say, "The Bush energy policy." and eight people would turn to finish my thought, using phrases like "money laundering" and "campaign contributor payoffs." I felt like I was sitting in my living room conversing with 100 manifestations of my own brain. I have never been quite so comfortable in the company of strangers. Even my 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' t-shirt drew compliments, proving to me that these people had read the right books.
The speeches began around 11:30 am. By this time the crowd numbered in the hundreds, and more buses were arriving each minute. We heard from Lou Posner, one of the central organizers of the march, who looked like a blue-suited roadie for Crosby, Stills & Nash, but had the eyes of an assassin with his mark in the gunsight. We heard from Bob Kuntz of OralMajorityOnline.com, who declared his candidacy for the governorship of Florida and delineated all the reasons why Jeb Bush had to go. We heard from a woman who had been an observer during the recount, and she bore witness to the mob action and calumny that motivated this march.
Soon enough, the moment arrived. The signs and banners were hoisted, and the crowd formed into a long column as we began our march to the Capitol steps. I took a spot at the vanguard, just behind the main Voters Rights March banner and next to an elderly group bearing a loud sign that read, "WWII Veterans Against Bush." An older woman with a bullhorn became the chant leader; she looked and sounded like a union organizer with many marches under her belt. In front of us all, a man bore a huge American flag, and another man made sure that none of us marched in front of it. The flag was to be first.
As we passed the White House I found my voice, and raised a bull-throated roar that quoted the title of the column I wrote back in December: "Not my President! Not my President! Not my President!" As I howled, I pointed a fist at the residence, where the usurper lived in illegitimate splendor. The chant was picked up by those around me, and as we passed the Treasury building it was being shouted by everyone in the march. I paused to look at the mass of people behind me. I am no good at counting crowds, but it seemed clear that the six who began the morning had swelled into the thousands. Traffic stopped around us as our police escort led us slowly towards the Capitol. Many of the drivers we had slowed with our procession beeped and waved, drawing a cheer from the marchers.
Some of the chants heard on the street:
"Gore got more!"
"We'll move on when he moves out!"
"Cocaine conservative!" (another one of mine)
"George was AWOL!" (shouted whenever we saw people in uniform)
"Jail to the thief!" "Investigate the fraud!"
"Where's the Washington Post?!"
"Never forgive, never forget!" (me again)
"Count all the votes!"
"This is democracy!"
"Shame on the court!"
The march passed the Department of Justice, where we paused and shouted for an investigation of the Florida vote. We circled the Supreme Court and heaped vitriol upon those who had broken faith with the American people by selecting a President before the votes were counted. Every step of the way we were photographed by tourists, some of whom were gape-mouthed at the fact that there were still people angry about the election. Not one person, however, gave us the finger or shouted us down, a testament to the hope that America knows full well that all is not right with its election process.
We arrived at the steps of the Capitol around 2:00 pm sweaty, sore-voiced, but not nearly finished. Lou Posner addressed the crowd again, warming us up for the speakers to come. Among the crowd was a lone figure in a brown cowboy hat, a pot bellied man with a mustache and sweat-stains growing under his armpits. He held aloft a Bush/Cheney sign and tried to shout down the speakers, but was himself shouted down by the marchers around him. After a little while he disappeared. Before us, the Capitol was festooned with more tourists, many of whom clapped and cheered as the speakers berated the Democrats in Congress for failing to call for investigations into the election. Once this Bush supporter was gone, we were alone among the faithful, unmolested by any GOP supporters.
Darting through the crowd was a cameraman for CNN, and the march organizers did their best to give him clear shots of the crowd and the signs they carried. I wondered to myself if the images he was capturing would ever find their way onto a news broadcast. I had my doubts.
After a number of speakers got the crowd's juices flowing, a man in his 60s walked slowly to the microphone and began speaking in a quiet voice. His name was Ronnie Duggar, founder of The Alliance for Democracy, and he had spoken at Dupont Circle during the inauguration protests in January. As he spoke, the crowd hushed, for surely there was power in his diminutive frame. I had a mini tape recorder with me, and I held it aloft to record his speech. I cannot begin to give you the electricity his words gave the crowd with these simple, typed sentences. But I would be remiss if I did not share them with you, for they were the best I have yet heard. They burned. Here are some slices of his most notable comments, re-created to the best of my abilities from my tape recorder:
"After the secret, four-month Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a matron of that city approached Benjamin Franklin afterwards, and asked what they had produced. 'A republic, if you can keep it,' Franklin said. Well, we haven't kept it. We've lost it. George W. Bush and his lawyers, led by the crafty James Baker III and five members of the Supreme Court, who invented a Constitutional right for the occasion, have usurped from the people the right to choose the President of the United States. The judges overthrew the government by selecting the President themselves, 5-4, rather than let events take their constitutional course."
"When Governor Bush was sworn in by Chief Justice Renquist of the court that had stolen it for him, the government itself was seized in a judicial and presidential coup de'tat."
"Congress and the presidency had already been de-legitimized across the past 20 years by the triumph of uncontrolled campaign finance corruption over the common good. Now, in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court de-legitimized itself and the court system arrayed below it. This is no longer a respectable government, because we've lost the only three branches of government we've got. We've lost our entire government to a corporate oligarchy that now governs us without our permission."
"The only basis for democratic legitimacy is the consent of the governed. The presidency has been seized, therefore the government has been seized. What does it mean to realize that your government is illegitimate? What does it mean? What do we do? We have lost the very authority of law for our everyday lives. What Bush damaged when he accepted the presidency was much more than our politics, much more than our democratic self-esteem. He made a mockery of our most fundamental agreement to respect and obey the law the government passes, to co-operate with the government, because it is ours."
"We will label these four years of Bush illegitimacy as the Lawless Years, the tyranny in American history, the Tyrannical Interlude. We trust that George II will not be succeeded by George III, throwing us right back to where we were in 1775, because we are men and women and students on fire with controlled anger and we refuse to consent!"
Mr. Duggar went on in this vein for some time, his voice quivering with rage as he lashed the crowd with his words. The cheering swelled to a roar as he called upon us never to name Bush president. Call him Governor among friends and family, at the bar or at work, Duggar asked, and in this daily act of dissent spread the word that the fight is not over, will never be over, until the man not duly elected is cast from the White House like so much refuse. Duggar called for the organization of a multi-faceted group, based upon the framework of the old Rainbow Coalition, whose cause will be the re-invigoration of democracy and the reformation of American voting rights.
Duggar concluded his remarks quietly with a solemn invocation: "When we're ready, we'll start things up again as the new American Democracy, the new American Revolution, democracy and justice at last more nearly realized among us. And then we can whisper to each other, and to ourselves, 'Yes...the new American Democracy.'"
The speeches and music went on into the afternoon. I worked my way through the crowds, meeting, networking, getting and giving information. As the sun got lower in the sky I felt the quakings of exhaustion in my legs, and shouldered my pack to leave. As I made my way back to Union Station, I considered everything I had seen and heard.
I was reminded of an interview I had seen on television once. A musician was talking about the first Velvet Underground album ever released. The album sold only about 2,000 copies, this musician said, but everyone who bought it went out and started a band. I think this Voter Rights March will have the same effect.
We did not shut down Washington, D.C., and I doubt our number rose above 3,000 people. But each and every person who came, those from New Jersey, California, Alaska, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Florida, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Kansas, Colorado and Arizona to name a few, will all return home knowing they are not alone. They will become active within their sphere, and if we come back together in a year, our numbers will have certainly grown. Big storms gather around small particles, and there were thunderclouds on the brow of all present on May 19th.
This is only the beginning. I awoke at 12:17am that night to the voice of the conductor announcing the train's arrival in Boston. I had covered some 1,200 miles in just over 24 hours, and my body was at the end of its reserves. I gathered my stuff and reeled into the street to find a taxi.
A 50 year old cabbie who looked like some strange hybrid between Elvis and Johnny Cash let me sit in the front seat. He asked where I was coming from, and I told him D.C. He asked what I was doing there. I feared becoming engaged in an argument about politics in my weakened state, and chose only to tell him I had attended "some protest thing."
He turned his head sharply towards me. "I hope you was protesting Bush," he said. "That bastard is bad news."
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