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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cheering Change, Booting Out Bush, and Beyond - a D.C. Diary

This article was originally published on on Tuesday, January 27, 2009:

I have never seen so many people so happy, so hopeful, so full of energy, and so united.
Being in D.C. for Inauguration Week was an experience like no other. I got to see Barack and Michelle Obama, and Joe and Jill Biden, close-up as they walked by my section of the parade route – incidentally, all of the above except Barack looked in my direction and I believe must have seen my “Arrest Bush & Cheney” sign. But the excitement was not about star-gazing. I live in L.A., I know how people are at premieres and such. That was not the vibe. In D.C., we were there to Witness, to use our senses (i.e. of the freezing cold) to make sure we weren’t dreaming when the loudspeakers joined those two words “President” and “Obama.” Above all, the excitement was the communal experience. We were thrilled to see how thrilled we all were, to meet people from all over the country, to be so crowded it took 40 minutes to exit a subway station. It was thrilling because it felt like democracy.

First of all, there was the considerable honor of being able to share this openly emotional moment with so many kazillions of proud and beaming African-Americans. To celebrate their victory in particular, and to realize how fully it signifies a universal victory, was profound. Moreover, there was the exuberance that we the people had pulled this off, in spite of many powerful forces and Fox News, fear-mongering, smear campaigns, voter suppression, electronic voting fraud, and history. There was also the enormous relief that after struggling for almost 8 years against a hostile, capricious, and monomaniacal government, finally someone was going to listen to different ideas, and actually make an attempt to pull us back from the precipice.

The joy was only heightened by the exhilarating feel of the defeat of madness, a.k.a. the Bush-Cheney regime. Not that I wasn’t worried that they were going to try to pull something. But that was part of our job, the 2-million-strong citizen brigade; to show them they were outnumbered and out-passioned. My taxi driver had deplored the expense of the Inauguration and asked why we couldn’t just watch it on TV. He overlooked the importance of an actual throng being on hand to ensure that much-ballyhooed “peaceful transfer of power.”

Inauguration pilgrims did not generally seem to agree with the party line that the outgoing president had suffered enough. Time columnist Nancy Gibbs described him as “unloved by more of his fellow citizens upon leaving office than any modern President including Nixon”, but it’s almost as if the reality of a 22% approval rating had not hit the media elite until they heard the crowd boo Bush from the Mall.

Even the MSNBC commentators, who conservative ideologues are always trying to diss as too ideologically liberal, tried to scold the American Republic for caring more about the damage that has been done to their country than about Washington ceremonial etiquette.

On Bush’s exit, MSNBC followed the usual corporate media line -- trying to ignore dissent and keeping up a superficial chatter -- while the crowds sang “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to the departing helicopter.

Gibbs’ column claimed “Bush may not be popular, but there aren’t crowds calling for him to be hanged or accusing him of raiding Fort Knox”.
She needs to get out more.

During Inauguration Week, activists from peace and social justice groups converged on D.C. to give Bush the boot and to express their hopes for real change under Obama. Those who are perpetually out of the loop tried to downplay them, or to pretend they would not be welcome amidst the festivities. This was not the case.

On Sat. Jan. 17th, a dozen members of the national groups World Cant Wait and also Veterans for Peace got the attention of visitors to the Newseum, the popular D.C. museum about the media: “When we got inside people did a huge banner drop from the 2nd floor that said prosecute war criminals Bush and Cheney,” a World Cant Wait write-up of the event later reported. “There were quite a bit of people inside and they were completely shocked. People outside and inside were very responsive for the demand to Obama to arrest Bush and Cheney. Then World Can't Wait hung out near 18th and Constitution with a banner that read, ‘From Gaza To Guantánamo: Stop The Endless Wars of Terror and Torture’. Tons of people were taking pictures with the banner. So many in fact that we had a hard time leaving because people kept wanting pictures.”

The activists also handed out 2,000 premiere editions of a new tabloid newspaper, War Crimes Times, to Newseum attendees. (This is a separate venture from the similarly-named free paper War Times/El Tiempo de Guerra, a tabloid which began in Feb. 2002, is bilingual, is financed by Center for Third World Organizing, and after close to 3 years became an online journal, still continuing at:http://www.war-times.orgWar Crimes Times is brand new, partly funded by Veterans for Peace, and specifically focuses on bringing U.S. war criminals to justice:

The Inauguration edition of War Crimes Times featured articles and commentaries by Retired Col. Ann Wright (a longtime member of the military who resigned her post as a diplomat in protest over Bush’s war), Jesselyn Raddack (the Justice Department ethics lawyer when John Walker Lindh was interrogated), Center for Constitutional Rights head Michael Ratner, and various other legal experts laying out arguments for war crimes prosecutions of key members of the Bush Administration.

The next day, war crimes of the Bush Administration were also enumerated in a panel discussion in Georgetown with Ray McGovern (retired CIA officer who served under various presidents), David Swanson (founder of leading impeachment, now prosecution, advocacy site, Col. Ann Wright, and Jesselyn Raddack. New strategies were developed and the struggle for accountability renewed.

On Mon. Jan. 19th, Martin Luther King Day and the end of Bush’s term, a “Shoe Bush” protest began in Dupont Circle with some cathartic shoe-throwing at a giant inflated Bush doll with a Pinocchio nose.

The shoe-throwing was, of course, a condemnation of the former ‘commander-in-chief’ and also a tribute to Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who threw a pair of shoes at Bush’s head on Dec. 14th at a press conference in Baghdad. Though not the first Western anti-Bush activists to utilize shoe symbolism since that incident, the Jan. 19th ‘Shoe Bush’ protesters in D.C. wanted to bid farewell to Bush by borrowing from Muslim culture, where to show anyone the bottom of your shoe is to express your utter contempt for them.

(Although Bush had brushed off al-Zaidi’s act as that of someone trying to get attention, the BBC and the British paper The Guardian reported in Dec. that al-Zaidi’s family claimed his arm and ribs had been broken and he had suffered internal bleeding while in custody. The judge who saw al-Zaidi in court then also told the Associated Press that the accused appeared to have been beaten. The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve has recently reported that al-Zaidi is seeking asylum in Switzerland because he fears for his safety in his Baghdad prison. Yet Bush expected us to buy that al-Zaidi would risk such negative consequences, and worse, just for “attention”.)

The Shoe Bush rally featured speakers like Debra Sweet of World Cant Wait, CODEPINK co-founder Gael Murphy, Col. Ann Wright, ( ) and representatives of other peace and justice organizations such as Arrest Bush 2009, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, D.C. IndyMedia, and the International Socialist Organization.

World Cant Wait, which has trademarked orange as “the color of resistance” and who frequently appear in orange jumpsuits and black hoods to dramatically remind Americans of the torture done in their name, provided the 300 or so at the rally with a disturbing demonstration of waterboarding and a lesson about torture.

Some presenters mixed their serious political message with humor, including Hartbeat Ensemble, a theater group from Hartford, CT, which did a skit about Obama’s moral dilemma if people like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton try to dissuade him from ending the war in Iraq; Grandmothers for Peace, who sang a protest ballad demanding Bush’s prosecution; and a cadre of CODEPINK women in flounced skirts, who showed off the can-can routine they were dancing that weekend outside various inaugural balls: “Yes We Can-Can End the War.”

The highlight of the event, however, was when 200 or so of the activists then marched, loudly, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., prosecution banners and peace flags aloft, and when they arrived, clustered as close as they could get with the Inauguration structures up, and hurled their footwear at the White House gates. There was much rejoicing. Bystanders snapped pictures delightedly, a few audibly commenting on “how clever” the symbolic protest was, and the whole time the activists remained outside the White House (CODEPINK sang repeatedly), tourists stayed and watched. Many of those watching clamored, giddily, to get pictures with a big-headed Bush in prison costume and chains.

Other events on the afternoon of Bush’s last day in office included a “die-in” by a coalition of activists lying on the ground as a visual reminder of those killed by Bush’s wars; an anti-war and anti-torture street theater “freeze” in busy Union Station; and an Inauguration Eve ceremony outside the White House by spiritual believers (and in some cases, just humorists) who came with sage to purge wicked spirits from the building.

On Jan. 20th, Inauguration Day, some peace groups held vigils before the main event, while a coalition of activists with “Arrest Bush” signs joined the crowds waiting on the parade route on Pennsylvania Ave. One reveler asked to borrow my own homemade “Arrest Bush” sign to make a music video with some of the exuberant dancers on the street. I ended up leaving the sign with another parade spectator who wanted it.

Numerous other Inaugural celebrants asked to take a picture of me with my 2nd sign (which read “Arrest Bush & Cheney” on one side, and “No-One is Above the Law” on the other). The same phenomenon was reported by a group of “Arrest Bush” activists who’d been walking through D.C. on Jan. 18th, according to an email by David Swanson of the activists “were absolutely dumfounded by what they had just experienced. They'd spent the day at the train station in D.C. and on the streets of D.C. as excited Obama celebrators poured in by the tens of thousands, and they'd been unable to walk a dozen steps without people stopping them to have their photo taken with an "Arrest Bush" sign.”

And on that most unusual Inauguration Day, I swear to God, the ex-president who throughout his presidency, has been protected by ludicrously-named ‘free speech zones’ keeping protesters away from him at public appearances, finally saw a bunch of those “Arrest Bush” signs by the FBI Building.

After breakfast at the White House with the Obamas, Bush’s motorcade drove up Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol. His head turned toward and lingered on an unmissable sea of “Arrest Bush” placards.

Meanwhile, CODEPINK ladies in their favorite hue moved through the bustling crowds handing out pink ribbons – the kind you tie around your finger so you won’t forget something – to remind us to remind Obama to remember his promises.

Their flyer lists 7 Obama promises to keep track of: ending the war in Iraq, rejecting the Military Commissions Act, holding unconditional talks with Iran, abiding by Senate-approved international treaties, working to eliminate nuclear weapons, and of course stopping torture and shutting down Guantánamo. Obama did indeed show good faith on his first full day, Jan. 21st, by issuing executive orders to begin the closing of Guantánamo and the end of U.S. use of torture; his Admin. has declared they will use “direct diplomacy” with Iran; and yesterday Obama signalled a foreign policy shift when in his first formal interview he told Al-Arabiya Network that "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." Groups that pressured for these changes are of course urging us to write him our thank yous for these first steps and our encouragements to continue this vein.

Still, the unwillingness of CODEPINK and other progressives to just leave it all up to Obama shows that demands for Bush Admin. prosecutions are not personal or partisan. (CODEPINK, for one, is explicitly non-partisan in their registered status.) CODEPINK, Progressive Democrats of America (which used the pre-inaugural weekend for a panel-filled, national organizing conference), and their confrères just want us to stay awake, to make sure we achieve the change we seek. And consistent with that aim, they demand prosecutions to prevent the recent presidency’s crimes from happening again.

“This is not a fantasy, boys and girls,” David Swanson told AfterDowningStreet members. “The New York Times' Scott Shane and Attorney General Mukasey agree with me that prosecution is now going to be hard to avoid. When even Nancy Pelosi has figured out where we're going, you know the winds of change are blowing strong.”

AfterDowningStreet and its allies have a petition requesting Attorney General-Designate Eric Holder “appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute any and all government officials who have participated in War Crimes”. They have 20,000 signatures so far and will deliver the petition after Holder’s confirmation process. Add your name here. You may also want to take steps to make sure Holder gets into the job first, by signing a People for the American Way petition against Republican attempts to block Holder’s confirmation.
A Jan. 26th PFAW alert featured a call by Barbra Steisand to defend Holder in the face of Republican attacks. She feels Republicans want to throw their weight around; she did not mention that they might be against him because he says he values the rule of law. In other words, they could see getting rid of him as self-protection.

David Swanson finds the roots of the movement to hold the Bushies accountable in Obama’s inspiring oratory. “That's the dangerous thing about telling people that anything is possible,” quips Swanson. “They'll end up insisting on what they really want. And they want lots of new laws, but they very dearly want us to start enforcing the old ones too.”

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