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ARCHIVES: `Rent-a-Mobs' Descend on D.C. (January 20, 2001)

`Rent-a-Mobs' Descend on D.C

Insight on the News, Feb 12, 2001 by James D. Harder

The throngs of demonstrators at Bush inaugural events were not just students or young adults, but seasoned professionals who make protesting their full-time jobs.

While the U.S. Secret Service was setting up sniper posts and checkpoints along Pennsylvania Avenue, Teresa Gutierrez was making posters and arranging housing for the waves of protesters expected to sweep over Washington to harass the inauguration of George W. Bush. Gutierrez, a 50-year-old from New York City, came to Washington two weeks early to help get things ready for well-orchestrated protests.
Today's demonstrators aren't just students and twenty somethings flying by the seats of their pants. Many are seasoned professionals who are part of a fine-tuned, technologically savvy protest machine that is backed by labor unions and individual financial sponsors.

Gutierrez has been a staff member with the New York-based International Action Center (IAC) since its inception in 1992. Coming to Washington early gave her the opportunity to arrange housing, poster-painting venues, bus parking and other necessities for the tens of thousands of protesters who were being recruited to give Bush a black eye. The IAC has had so much practice organizing protests this year that critics have begun calling it "Rent-a-Mob." Two political conventions last summer, and high-profile protests in Prague and Washington state, have helped create a highly professional organization.

And, for Gutierrez, the inauguration was an opportunity to vent what she admits is hatred. "Being originally from Texas, I hate Bush," Gutierrez says, citing his policies on the death penalty and gays and lesbians. "He's not likely to be concerned about most of the stuff the IAC is concerned with," she tells Insight. She admits it is too soon to know what Bush will do as president but, like many of the protesters, she's already made up her mind. "The inauguration protests are not going to be the end of this struggle. January 20 is just the beginning of the fight against the Bush administration."

The IAC had been hard at work setting up 50 organizing sites across the country. Sarah Sloan, an IAC staff organizer, tells Insight that some unions in New York City subsidized bus charters so that low-wage workers could travel to the demonstrations -- including Local 1199 of the National Union of Health Care Workers, the biggest union in the city. "They're subsidizing their members to go on our buses," says Sloan, who added that other unions around the nation had set up similar programs. "There are 450 groups who have endorsed our call to action," Sloan adds.

But not all the protesters who came out on Inauguration Day were in the nation's capital to rain on Bush's parade. Loud Citizen is a Web-based creation of computer programmer Kevin Conner, who in November organized rallies in 300 cities to protest Democratic Party resistance to the Florida election returns favoring Bush. Conner led a "Patriot's March" on Jan. 20. Billed as a rally, not a protest, the marchers convened on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear addresses by David Horowitz, the best-selling author and director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Popular Culture; Isabel Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution; the Rev. Jesse Peterson, a radio talk-show host; and Chuck Muth, president of C-Four Communications.

The Christian Defense Coalition, founded by the Rev. Pat Mahoney, also held an Inauguration Day rally, urging Bush to rescind executive orders favorable to abortion that had been signed by President Clinton almost immediately after taking power from Bush pere.

But conservatives were a relatively small part of the street theatrics. The overwhelming number of signs and banners displayed by protesters and demonstrators at the inaugural ceremonies resembled those seen during the left-wing demonstrations at the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions last summer, protesting everything from the death penalty to environmentalism. However, there was no question the issues that brought out most of the protesters were spun directly from the wheel of Democratic Party politics.
"Initially we came together because we wanted them to count every vote. We felt that people had been disenfranchised down in Florida," says Teresa Ward, a spokeswoman for Democracy March. Like many other protesters, Ward and her group are pushing for campaign-finance reform and complaining about the Electoral College. They also share another characteristic with other protest groups that converged on Washington -- the claim that they sprang full blown from the brow of the Internet.

With political parties, special interests and labor unions spending large sums to organize and communicate over the Internet, it is not surprising that it has become the principal tool for strategic communication and mobilization of protest activism. Ideas are presented in affinity chat rooms until there are enough activists to start an email list. Soon a Webpage appears and the organization is under way. Voter March also claims to have been formed in this way. Lou Posner, a founding member of the group, tells Insight it arose spontaneously on the Web a week after Election Day.

"We were formed as a grass-roots organization in response to election irregularities and problems," says Posner. Voter March played a key role in organizing the main protest rally on Inauguration Day, acting as an umbrella organization for hundreds of smaller groups from across the country. They started at 10 a.m. with a rally at Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington before heading through the city on a three-mile march. Posner claimed his group is more mainstream than many of the others in his penumbra, but assured in the days leading up to the inauguration that marchers would be peaceful. "We're taking a pretty strong position that everything we're going to do is going to be legal and lawful," Posner told Insight.

With more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies committed to maintaining security, the authorities weren't taking any chances. For the first time the inauguration was designated a "national special security event," putting the Secret Service in overall charge. Serving under it for the inauguration were the U.S. Capitol Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Park Police, the Supreme Court Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), and extra forces from Maryland and Virginia.

"We'll have officers in the field and along the parade route, and we've also asked for anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 officers from other jurisdictions to join us on the parade route," said Sgt. Joseph Gentile, director of public-relations for the MPD. The MPD force was the flagship organization heading into the inauguration, with all of its 3,600 officers on duty.

The Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies used mountain bikes to keep tabs on the protesters. According to Shaughn Roettele, a mechanic with Revolution Cycle, a Washington bike shop, the most popular police bikes are made by Trek. He and several other mechanics at the shop were busy putting together an order of 15 of the $2,000 bikes for the Secret Service three days before the inauguration. Bikes have been an increasingly popular mode of transportation for law-enforcement agencies and have proved effective in keeping ahead of protesters. Saturday's parade route saw most of the law-enforcement agencies using the two-wheeled machines to cruise the parade route.

Not to be caught off guard by the crowds, the police didn't limit their efforts only to personnel and transportation. To the disappointment of tourists, about five miles of chain-link fencing six-feet high was erected near the Lincoln Memorial for the opening ceremonies and on large portions of The Mall. In a bold move that confirmed the security presence, people were required to pass through security checkpoints to attend the inaugural parade along Pennsylvania Avenue -- yet another sign of the intense security that blanketed the Capitol over the weekend. The Smithsonian and the Archives-Navy Memorial subway stops, both with entrances on The Mall, were shut down for the first time during an inauguration.

In many respects the scene was reminiscent of the police state that gripped Los Angeles during the Democratic National Convention last August. The Los Angeles Police Department also erected chain-link fencing outside the convention center and had a force there that was seen, felt and heard (see "Insight Staffer Shot at L.A. Riot Scene," Sept. 11, 2000). The increased security in the nation's capital was in part a response to protests during the last two years in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Prague and Seattle. According to MPD Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer, there was one officer every 6 to 8 feet along the parade route, as opposed to one officer every 10 to 16 feet, as has been customary for inaugurations. Not that it deterred the protesters. They made sure their message was heard loud and clear.
"The rubric of security will not be falsely used to prevent demonstrating," declared Brian Becker, codirector for the IAC. To make that point as strongly as possible, the IAC filed a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia only four days before the inauguration. The emergency motion for a preliminary injunction challenged the unprecedented number of checkpoints used, the vagueness of the description of materials allowed to be carried by protesters and various permit restrictions.

"We don't want to be teargassed or create a war zone but, as George Bush proceeds up Pennsylvania Avenue and as the eyes of the world focus on this, the world will see there is a very divided United States," Becker declared.

While the police executed a well-organized plan for keeping the city safe, the protesters worked to maximize their impact. The presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the cause-addicted preacher from New York City, drew attention to the alleged disenfranchisement of black voters, a Democratic Party wedge issue. While Bush was taking the oath of office, Sharpton was taking an oath to uphold the Voting Rights Act and to work to federalize voting standards across the country. As Bush gave a brief inaugural address, Sharpton launched a stem-winder for what he dubbed a "shadow inauguration" at Stanton Park on Capitol Hill. Other protests included African-Americans recruited in the city for a "Day of Outrage," protesting an alleged "illegitimate" president, and the Gore Majority and Oral Majority, protesting what they muled was a stolen election.

The Justice Action Movement (JAM) assured Insight it had a large number of demonstrators out protesting everything from labor rights to environmentalism. But Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for the group, said the inauguration protests focused primarily on a package of electoral reforms called the Voters' Bill of Rights.
JAM was another group started two months ago as a coalition front. Many of the professional protesters who do the world circuit are looking for methods of protest that will allow them to avoid getting arrested. Eidinger claims JAM has taken on that project. Maybe -- but according to the Washington City Paper he currently is facing trial on 11 misdemeanor counts -- including criminal conspiracy, mischief and possession of the implements of a crime stemming from an arrest while on route to anti-GOP protests during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last summer. If convicted, he could face as many as five years in prison.

This sort of thing may help explain why groups such as Voter March made such an effort to distance themselves from the more experienced troupes of protesters. "Our group does not represent the `professional' protesters that you saw at the World Trade Organization [and] World Bank [meetings] and Republican convention," Posner tells Insight.

Several other groups also made a point of striking out on their own, including the National Organization for Women. They staged a demonstration outside the Senate earlier in the week to protest the nomination of former Missouri senator John Ashcroft for U.S. attorney general, and sent members out along the inaugural-parade route to defend abortion.

The AFL-CIO, whose headquarters is on 16th Street in Northwest Washington near the White House reviewing stand, decided to limit its protesting to Florida, according to public-affairs officer Rich Greer. "Our views were pretty clear when the polls closed up through the final Supreme Court decision," Greer tells Insight.
A half-dozen groups received National Park Service permits to protest along the 13-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue through which George W. Bush traveled from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. Permits also were granted for rallies at such prominent Washington landmarks as McPherson Square, The Ellipse, Dupont Circle and near the Supreme Court. In fact, no inauguration has attracted so much protest since 1973, when Richard Nixon was sworn for his second term after a crushing electoral victory over Vietnam War protest candidate George McGovern. An estimated 60,000 showed up on that occasion to march against the war and give McGovern a last hurrah.

Thirty-six days of election chaos proved to be enough to reorganize a "protest left" for a showdown in Washington. With one more spotlighted demonstration under their belts, organizations such as the IAC have expanded their e-mail databases, recruited new enthusiasts and, if they were lucky, found new financial sponsors to help carry them through the coming year.

Ted Hayes contributed to this article.

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