Sunday, April 26, 2015

Washington DC, Part 1: Student and Activist Edition

I've been acquainted with Washington DC as a student, a tourist and an activist. A comprehensive school trip in 1998 was enlightening and enjoyable. Two subsequent trips to protest various wrongdoings by our government were fulfilling and necessary (though those jerks never listen). More recently, Mrs. Tires and I thoroughly explored both the touristy and authentic areas of this city during a stay in the summer of 2012. Come along with me as I relive my adventures in our nation's capital.

Touring DC as a Student

My high school contracted a company that specializes in delivering educational trips to the nation's capital, so I was lucky enough to go with my friends on a four day trip to DC, where we would join students from around the country. I have vowed to make this blog more exciting than a high school field trip, so I will skip the details and just share a few highlights.

Most of the main attractions in DC are located on one long strip. The west end of this strip is a particularly wonderful part of this experience, as it houses the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This makes for great wandering, and I was particularly taken by the Korean War Veterans Memorial. From there, it is a short walk to the Washington Monument. As one travels east, they pass the Smithsonian Museums and end up at the U.S. Capitol Building. Our visit also included meetings with a few state representatives on the capitol steps and tours of both chambers of congress.

We also visited Arlington National Cemetery, which is separated from the main drag by the Potomic River, but is well worth the extra effort to visit. The main sites in the cemetery are the Eternal Flame at John F. Kennedy's grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It also serves as the resting place for many soldiers, politicians and other heroes.

JFK's grave and the Eternal Flame
This trip's programming included a talk on the common traits of a liberal and a conservative. I was familiar with these terms, but had never heard the differences broken down issue-by-issue before. It was quite influential, and it wasn't hard for me to figure out which side of the aisle I belonged to. You'll figure that out pretty quickly as we explore my next two visits to DC.

Protesting the Meeting of the IMF and the World Bank

Going to college in Massachusetts means interacting with many politically charged students who are willing to go the extra mile to make their voices heard. When someone who is already political and is further developing his views in this environment interacts with these peers, there's a good chance he will be tempted to join them in their efforts to perpetuate their political agenda. And that's how I woke up snuggling a stranger on a bus that was stranded on the New Jersey turnpike at 4:00 AM.

We were headed from UMass Amherst to Washington DC in the spring of 2000 to disrupt the meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The reasons behind our outrage were complex, and I have to admit that I didn't fully understand the issue despite hopping on the bus to protest it. The essence of our argument was that these organizations loan money to underdeveloped countries unfairly, which leads to poor global economic conditions, depleted resources and more sweat shops.

It was easy to make friends on the bus, as protesting with rah rah liberals is often an open and welcoming experience. I bonded pretty quickly with strangers named Maggie, Boomer and Tricia. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to fall in with. Additionally, I couldn't ask for a more appropriate collection of names to represent social activists.

Maggie was sleeping on my shoulder when we were abruptly woken up by a loud bang. The tire underneath us had blown, leaving us waiting on the side of the New Jersey turnpike for a few hours while the bus company sent someone to fix the tire. The tire was eventually fixed, and we got into DC at about 10:00 AM.

This event was a follow-up demonstration to the protests of World Trade Organization meetings that happened in Seattle a few months earlier. The Seattle protest was quite violent and unruly. We vowed to make our protest a peaceful one, but the authorities weren't convinced, and word was that we'd face police officers with riot gear and tear gas. The powers that be in the IMF and World Bank were also taking our demonstration quite seriously. Someone with political ties used his sway to close down the building that was to act as the main convergence center for the movement. 

We arrived at the original convergence center but were routed to a new one at a Jewish Community Center that was pulled together at the last minute and worked just fine as a replacement. When we arrived, there was a ton of energy in the air. People of all kinds were making signs, planning routes and giving training sessions on civil disobedience and what to do if you're tear gassed. I was amazed at how well everything was organized despite the huge gathering of so many different organizations and interest and the impromptu change of venue. We were each given an affinity group and a corresponding location to demonstrate. Our foursome was assigned to affinity group #49.

That night we slept on the floor of the Democratic Party office at Georgetown University. Our host there was amazed by the number of people from UMass that came to DC for the rally. There were four busses full of us that made the ten hour trip. He said there were only twenty or so people from Georgetown involved in the protest. That's a testament to the level of activism at UMass.

Early the next morning we showed up to our assigned block and joined the demonstration. There was already a large crowd there, and they were facing off against a long, tight row of policemen on horseback dawning riot gear. The mood was energetic but tense. We participated in a slew of Hell-No-We-Won't-Go-type cheers and yelled our agenda out loud in various ways as others held signs and even large puppets depicting world leaders.

It was weird protesting in the direction of the cops. They weren't the real enemy, as they had a completely separate agenda from the politicos of the IMF and World Bank. And yet, they served as a symbol of the enemy as they represented the repressors, the system and "the man." Fortunately the police were really just there to ensure that there wasn't anything dangerous going on. After an hour of peaceful protest, they took off their masks and put away their shields, which took some of the tension out of the air.

I could tell by looking around the gathering that I wasn't the only one that wasn't 100% clear on the purpose of our outrage. There were many different groups represented at this demonstration. People for a free Tibet, labor unions, anarchists, vegans, reps from Ralph Nader's campaign and many other organizations were represented. It was clear to me that the IMF and the World Bank were our current targets, but the real enemy is a less tangible but more frustrating sense of corporate globalization and the uneven dispersal of financial and social wealth in the world.

Eventually we moved on to another location of the demonstration, and as soon as we arrived, we received word from a clever crowd participation call-and-response system that we should build a human chain to block the intersection. A bunch of us locked arms, and before I knew it, I was on the front lines as we attempted to physically stop the procession of leaders that were driving to the meetings. A group of eight police cars drove up to our intersection and honked, turned on their sirens and used their megaphones to order us to move. We would not be deterred, and after a thirty minute stand-off wherein their announcements were drowned out by our own chanting, they drove away. We cheered as if we had closed down the meetings right then and there.

About an hour later we got word that despite our opposition, the meeting of the IMF and World Bank was underway. We were not successful in stopping the meetings, but were able to delay their start by an hour while bringing attention to our cause, which was something to celebrate. The demonstration was over, but rallies were to continue at the National Mall.

When we got there, everyone was buzzing. We had just missed a performance by the Indigo Girls. No bother. We were in time to catch a rally speech by Michael Moore. After making his case for the idea that current democrats in office were just as bad as the republicans, he explained we should not vote for either party and should instead vote for the ficus plant he had with him on state. He got the crowd going with a chant of "Vote for Ficus."

After a full day of rallies, we boarded the bus and hunkered down for a long ride back. We were exhausted after a long fight. I slept well on the return trip, satisfied that I had contributed to a cause that was fuzzy but nonetheless stood for the right things.

Protesting the Iraq War

Photo by Drex Drexler
Our cause was much more clear and straightforward the next time I marched on Washington. It was October of 2002. Just a year removed from 9/11 and already at war with Afghanistan, there was talk from President George W. Bush about our country going to war with Iraq. I felt the need to inform George and the rest of Washington that this was a very bad idea.

I was joined by Drex, Katie and Adam, who at the time were fellow performers in our comedy group Casual Sketch and have since become lifelong friends. We hit the road after a Friday night show and headed south to DC to join thousands of others in a demonstration against the war.

We spent the night at Katie's mother's place in Delaware, and caught a train into DC the next morning. The photo above is a shot from the station. You'll notice I'm carrying a hobby horse. We named it the Peace Pony, and when people inquired, we'd tell them "Get off the war wagon and ride the peace pony!" I had seen a lot of theatrics and spectacle as part of the first protest, so I found it appropriate to add a bit of my own brand of theatrics to the cause.

As we approached the city, it became easy to identify others that were there for the rally, so there were plenty of people to follow when we got off the train. The initial gathering place for the protest was the base of the Washington Monument.

When we got to the monument, we joined a huge horde of activists. There were many college students like us, but there were also huge representations from labor unions, veterans of previous wars and many other backgrounds. Right away I could feel a sense of unity with this crowd that wasn't present in the previous protest. We were rallying around a single cause, so it didn't matter as much that we were approaching that cause from different angles.

Photo by Drex Drexler
At the designated time, the crowd mobilized and we began marching through the streets of DC, which had been blocked off from traffic. The police were keeping an eye on the crowd, but they had left their riot shields at home. This made things much less adversarial than the last demonstration. The crowd was energetic and loud, and the chants were out in full force. "No blood for oil" was the big rallying cry, and "The people united will never be divided" was another popular chant as we marched past the White House and on to the Vietnam War Memorial. The Peace Pony fit in well, as theatrics, puppetry and signage were abound.

Photo by Drex Drexler
Photo by Drex Drexler
Photo by Drex Drexler
The crowd grew throughout the day as we milled about the area, chanted, talked to others about the cause and listened to a series of speakers. We were there when Susan Sarandon addressed the crowd, though we were too far away to really hear her.

As the speeches continued, the crowd eventually started to fizzle out. We had been there since the beginning of the rally, so we felt at that point that we had said our piece and it was time to seem some sights. Our first stop was the Lincoln Memorial.

Photo by Drex Drexler
From there, we took the long walk to the Jefferson Memorial, which was a bit off the beaten path in comparison to the other sites but was worth the trek. The Jefferson statue is huge, and the rotunda that houses it is a thing of beauty.

That was our last sightseeing stop, so we headed back to the train. We didn't speak much on the ride back, as we were exhausted from the day's activities and were reflecting on the magnitude of what we just did. Over one hundred thousand people showed up to the protest that day, and from the choir it seemed like we were loud enough that they had to hear us.

Well, they heard us all right. They just didn't listen. Months later, the US would go to war with Iraq. It would be a long, painful and costly endeavor that took more than ten years to wind down. While the protest didn't accomplish its goal, I am glad I was there to speak out, and there's some small satisfaction to be taken by knowing we were right all along.

The fact that we were allowed to gather in that manner is a testament to what is great about Washington DC, and about our country in general. We disagree with each other often, but we allow all sides to have their say. I am proud to live in a country that allows this freedom of expression. While it comes with a price, in the end, it's worth it. And that's what DC is all about.

Washington DC, Part 2: Tourist Edition

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