A hard rain

Another lunchtime protest at the White House.

I was drawn outside by the persistent buzz of the white helicopter that usually signals a motorcade. Squinting down Gucci Gulch, I discerned what appeared to be activity several blocks away around 15th street, with police cars blocking the intersection and a stream of people headed south. I walked two blocks to Lafayette Park where activities were in full swing.

Oh goodie, the coda of a weekend of protest. Travel had prevented me from attending the marches and protests over the weekend of September 24-25, which brought out hundreds of thousands of people, who shared the city with the National Book Festival and a convention of Segway enthusiasts.

On Monday, full-immersion theatre played out in Lafayette Park, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and on the White House property.

Barricades had been erected in front of the White House, behind which rows of police cars and motorcycles were parked. For the first time, uniformed Secret Service lined up along the inside of the White House fence, standing about 20 feet apart. Dozens of police cars ringed the park and adjacent streets, which years ago were closed to local traffic.

Several hundred people involved in Code Pink were gathered to present a million reasons for ending the war in Iraq. Members of Code Pink wore pink slips of paper pinned to their clothing, print outs of email describing the many ways this country has strayed from the path of decency and humanity.

Theirs was an unsanctioned gathering, without a permit. The civil disobedience was a refreshing reminder of an earlier era, heightened by protest music performed by a sidewalk folkie trio. The woman singing sounded remarkably like Joan Baez.

On a patch of lawn in the middle of the park was a group of frolicking anarchists. Dressed mainly in black, they were apparently bike-riding vegans there to engage in some bizarre street theater.

Over my shoulder, I heard some vague rants over a megaphone. Then the anarchists began wrestling, pouncing on one another in turns, tickling and trying to remove each other's shoes. Whatever meaning there may have been to their antics escaped me. But it was fun to watch.

A 20-something woman with curly shoulder-length hair began talking to me. She said she was from Georgia. "I'm keeping an eye on my mother," she told me. "I'm worried about her. I was arrested once before, but that was a nice suburban jail. I don't want us in the DC jail."

I told her that the police have to issue a warning before arresting you. If they say to move, I'd be inclined to move.

"They don't want anybody standing still in front of the White House," she told me. "You have to keep moving, or they'll arrest you."

People held up signs. Some chanted, "Make levees not war," which is a pretty decent chant if you ask me. Three people dressed like Abu Ghraib prisoners sat at the curb in front of the White House.

We were joined by an older woman, a retired librarian and social worker from Pullman, Washington, in her 70s. She told me about recently getting arrested after some sort of demonstration in Boise, Idaho.

"I was standing in the street, and a cop told me I was trespassing," she said. "He gave me five seconds to move. I was naive and asked who owned the street. But before I knew it, my hands were behind my back."

Rows of city cops on motorcycles streamed back and forth through the crowd at irregular intervals. Uniformed officers mingled in the crowd. There were dozens of reporters, people with video and still cameras, recorders with microphones.

"Did you see the anarchists wrestling over there a little while ago," the older woman asked. "It was girl on boy, girl on girl, girl on boy and girl...it was pretty wild."

I admitted that I had observed.

"Is the Secret Service in the park?" the young woman asked me. I told her she could count on it.

"That guy with the camera?" she asked.

Maybe, I said. Who knows? Maybe me. Maybe even you, cadet.

"They infiltrate groups and cause trouble," said the older woman. "Maybe him over there," she said, pointing to a man with a military bearing and a grey crew cut, wearing a dark suit with a lapel pin who later identified himself as a Green Party representative from Virginia.

A large group of Code Pink women sat in a circle, holding hands and sharing words of inspiration while media hovered around the periphery. In the street, a knot of anarchists had bandanas over their faces. Some wore goggles, as though girded for a watergun fight. I leaned in, trying to hear what they said, but could only make out what sounded like "Hnagga odno cops!"

In the midst of the madness strolled a tourist family, a couple in their 30s and their three fair-haired children. The boys appeared to be pre-teens, and the youngest in a stroller no more than three years old. The father, in sports shirt and baseball cap, clutched a map of the Mall area. His wife was on her cell phone. They were wide-eyed, taking in the extraordinary scene.

Shortly after noon, about a dozen U.S. Park Police on horseback lined up shoulder to shoulder at the eastern edge. A Secret Service panel van rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, stopping near the southwest corner of the park. It's the show of force.

A Secret Service agent rolled by on a white mountain bike, wearing a white polo shirt and sports shades. The bike was labeled US SECRET SERVICE on the main tube, which I thought was pretty cool. I was about to ask him where I could get a bike like that when Code Pink began to make their move.

Hoisting a long banner, they snaked onto Pennsylvania Avenue and stood in front of the White House, singing an politically updated version of "American Pie."

Some women removed their tops and exposed themselves to the White House. "Breasts not bombs," they said. Now that's a message that a person can embrace.
When people sat and Code Pink was determined to remain until Bush accepted their petition, I began to contemplate the effect my arrest might have on the rest of my afernoon and decided that it might be time to head back to the office. Besides, I'd smoked my last cigarette.
I started to walk north back through the park, but noticed the tourist family near the barricade in Pennsylvania Avenue. I walked over to the guy, whose face was beaming. "This is really something," he said to me.
"Yeah, democracy in action," I said. "Look, things could change here very quickly. This might not be a good place for little kids." I pointed out the mounted cops, the Secret Service riot wagon. There were no busses yet, but a definite feeling that things are building up.
"You think so?" he said. "Good point." And quickly the family steered away towards 15th street.
I walked back through the park, past the anarchists, two of whom were playing croquet. As I approached the northern side, two streams of marchers poured towards me, led by Cindy Sheehan. Thousands of people -- chanting, banging on drums, Buddhists ringing a bell -- flowed past on their way to the White House.
I crossed the street, walked up 17th, stopped for a cup of coffee, and headed back to the office. By the time I returned, news of the arrests already made Drudge. About 370 people were arrested, starting with Cindy Sheehan.


Another fine mess

Do I detect a trend?

"We had a hope the Iraqis would rise up and become part of the solution… We just didn't know [about the insurgency]."
Gen. Tommy Franks, August 2, 2004

“I don’t know of any reporting that anyone saw that anticipated an insurgency of this level, and I just have never seen anything like that.”
Colin Powell, December 21, 2004

"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground…We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."
"Senior official," August 14, 2005

"The collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the very fast flooding of the city was not envisioned."
Michael Chertoff, August 31, 2005

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
George Bush, September 1, 2005

The Bush administration is doing for incompetence what Bill Clinton did for blowjobs; make it fashionable, and also raise dry cleaning costs.
This is a perfect opportunity to go with the flow. Try these on for size:

"Officer, I never planned for my car to go 45 miles per hour over the speed limit."

"The deadline was not realistic given the unreality that dominated when the assignment was given."

"Your honor, nobody anticipated that when I punched the guy he would actually strike back."

"When I wrote the check, I did not envision that the money was not in the bank."
"I thought more beer would be the solution to my lack of sobriety. I didn't know about intoxication."


Fifteen minutes of blame

One of the benefits of working within blocks of the White House is moseying over now and then. So I moseyed over during lunch to observe a protest for Katrina evacuees organized by MoveOn.

A pudgy, perspiring man in a blue blazer named Trevor acted as emcee, shepherding the media through the planned events. The protest was scheduled for 1 pm, beginning in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

The MoveOn press release promised "excellent visuals," and indeed there were. But perhaps not what MoveOn intended.

Colorful posters printed on heavy coated card stock were stacked in the park. Some said SHAME while the others said HELP HURRICANE VICTIMS.

I wondered why the posters said HURRICANE rather than KATRINA. Had they been prepared in advance for just such an occasion? I imagined a warehouse somewhere with posters for various contingencies: HELP EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS, HELP SMALLPOX VICTIMS, HELP FAMINE VICTIMS.

The media turnout was pretty good, with a half-dozen video cameras and twice as many still photogs, AP, Reuters, the St. Petersburg Times, Washington Post, and a television crew from Italy.

As luck would have it, another protest was scheduled at the same time. A few dozen feet away, a substantial crowd gathered around a platform where speakers condemned the genocide in Darfur, where 400,000 people have been killed.

Trevor didn't have a PA system, and tried to speak loudly over the noise.

Of all the days!

Trevor said that three Katrina evacuees -- Iona Renfroe, Christine Mayfield, and Michelle Augillard -- were available for interviews after the protest. All happen to be MoveOn members. The organization handed out bios of the evacuees, which makes interesting reading.

Mayfield's bio quotes her: "I think that people are right in saying that this would not have happened to white people." "It is inhumane to have treated citizens of the United States like they were treated," reads Augillard's bio. "This is a direct slap in the face to Americans. What happens if there is a next time?"

Reporters gathered around a media liaison to get on the evacuee interview list. Pen and paper in hand, I identified myself as a reporter with a prominent hardware publication and asked for some face time to discuss power tools.

As Trevor explained how the protest would go, the Darfur crowd began their march, chanting loudly:
One, two, three, four
Stop the killing in Darfur

And then:
George Bush
Break the silence
Protect the people
Stop the violence
I looked through Lafayette Park and tried to pick out the Secret Service. A little game I like to play. With hundreds of protesters in front of the White House the FBI was probably there too, to photograph crowds if for no other reason. Secret Service is always in the park and around the White House, even if you don't notice them. If you doubt it, do something funny at the fence. You'll be smacked down before taking another breath. They come out of nowhere.

The white SUVs and vans on Pennsylvania Avenue are a given. Since no civilian traffic is allowed on the street anymore, all vehicles in the vicinity are assumed to be law enforcement. The bicycle couriers? Possibly. I've seen plainclothes cops looking like bike couriers swoop into Farragut Park. A block away, the park is a popular gathering place for couriers. Bicycle messengers blend in very well with the area.

The athletic-looking woman apparently listening to music on the bench? Those two lawyers deep in conversation? The tourist in a Gap t-shirt and shades wandering around and looking for the right camera angle of the White House? The jogger with the fanny pack and earphones? Who knows.

It was near impossible to hear over the Darfur chants, so I wandered through the crowd and struck up conversations while the evacuees spoke. I sought out others from the Gulf Coast, but met nobody else from the affected areas.

Near me, a uniformed Secret Service in black commando fretted over an unattended camera tripod. Nothing unattended is allowed in Lafayette Park, which is why Concepcion Picciotto (left) has lived in front of the White House in a hand-made plastic tent for the last 24 years. Connie seemed to enjoy the attention from like-minded people.

The Darfur protesters marched along Pennsylvania Avenue for a while, returned to their platform and eventually dispersed, some drifting to our crowd. People held up posters and faced the White House. That's right -- give them a clear, steady view of your face.

The Katrina evacuees read their statements and responded to questions from reporters. Then the mass of people -- protesters, media, curious tourists -- flowed into Pennsylvania Avenue. People chanted, "Shame on Bush! Shame on Bush!" which evolved into "Fire Brown! Fire Brown!"

Honestly, neither were as catchy, informative, or as compelling as the Darfur chants. I guess nobody had time to write a clever chant.

As I began to leave and return to the office, I heard a loud, shrieking female voice in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. I couldn't quite make out what she was saying at first, so I walked closer. Was it an anguished, grief-stricken victim?

I saw a woman in a purple jacket, her body quivering with rage. "Damn you! Supporting the president's great, but supporting the people and the Constitution is more important," the woman in purple screamed. "The Constitution and the babies who died is more important than any president and you know that in your heart."

She was inches away from another solitary 50-something woman holding a sheet of paper handwritten with ballpoint pen:

support our president
love our people

A handful of reporters circled the sign-holding woman, peppering her with questions. What's your name? Where are you from? Why are you doing this?

She said her name is Clarice McMillan, of Alexandria, Virginia, and spelled her name.

"She was just upset," McMillan said. "It's okay. I can understand that people get emotional."

The screeching woman was comforted and led away, still shaking in anger.

"We need you to move back," another MoveOn supporter told McMillan. "You're in the way."

McMillan stood her ground, meekly peeking behind her sign while reporters asked questions. Why are you doing this?

"I support the president," she said. "I don't say that he does everything right, but nobody does."

MoveOn supporters grouped around and taunted McMillan and the reporters.

"Don't talk with her."

"This sucks."

"Why are you supporting her? The story is over there [pointing to the White House]. This is bullshit."

"They're looking for a scoop. But it's poop. It's a poop scoop." [note to MoveOn: potential chant talent here.]

None of the reporters responded to the MoveOn supporters.

I wanted to say something, though, about respecting others and their views, about how the greatest test of the freedom of speech is protecting ideas that are objectionable. First I thought that I'd be preaching to the choir. Explaining tolerance to liberals? Then I realized I'd just be wasting my breath.


Drowning our sorrows


The tragic and avoidable loss of life wrought by Katrina brings into sharp focus the failures of this administration. Our government doesn't give a shit about we, the people.

Over the last five years the Bush administration has put incompetent political cronies into key positions in charge of homeland security and disaster preparedness, dismantled the former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and slashed funding for levee improvements around Lake Pontchartrain.

We've spent $200 billion on a pointless, misbegotten, illegal, and immoral war halfway around the world. We're building infrastructure that's desperately needed right here at home. The National Guard of Louisiana and Mississippi are over there while their homes were destroyed and their families riven apart.

Are we safer today? Ask the bodies floating in the fetid water of New Orleans.

Bush has the audacity to tell Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America on 9/1, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff repeated the lie on CNN two days later. Prior to joining Homeland Security, Chertoff was a private practice attorney specializing in estate planning.

Everybody anticipated the breach of the levees except, apparently, the people in charge of responding to the disaster.

The scenario was the subject of a five-part series published in July 2002 in the Times-Picayune, an October 2001 article in Scientific American, and a disaster response exercise with participants from FEMA and other federal agencies, as well as state and local officials, held in July 2004.

No, this one was right out of the playbook. As an intelligence failure, it ranks up there with "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within the U.S."

Nobody holds Bush responsible for the weather. But he certainly is accountable for the response to Katrina. To be sure, there is enough blame to go around. There were failures at all levels of government. But when it the scale of the catastrophe became apparent and that the states were unable to cope, the failure to timely provide such basic lifesaving needs as water is simply inexcusable.

On NPR's All Things Considered of 9/1, Chertoff insisted to host Robert Siegel, "I have not heard reports of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water."

Ferchristsake, Chertoff. We'd been seeing these desperate people at the convention center on television. We watched people die. How can you be so incredibly out of touch?

Yes, Katrina affected a wide area. That doesn't excuse doing nothing. Yes, it was an overwhelming worst-case scenario. That doesn't excuse doing nothing. Perhaps local and state officials could have done some things differently. That doesn't excuse doing nothing.

True to form, the Bush administration jumped into swift action to shift blame onto others, with FEMA director Michael Brown on 9/1 referring on CNN to "...those who are stranded, who chose not to evacuate, who chose not to leave the city..."

Many people remained because they lacked money or transportation, or to stay with an elderly or disabled family member, or to keep watch on their property. But many of those who chose to remain are doctors, nurses, firefighters, and cops. These are the ordinary heroes who -- had they died -- would be memorialized with misty-eyed sentiment and magnetic ribbons. But while they're in the throes of saving lives, bagging patients by hand for hours in the darkness, risking a stand against anarchy, going without food and water? Screw 'em, it's their own fault for staying. Is that right, Mr. Brown?

Under Bush's leadership, the mission and focus of FEMA has changed dramatically. The agency was subsumed under the Department of Homeland Security. Its focus has shifted from disaster preparedness, response, and coordination to terrorism.

Bush's first FEMA director was Joe Allbaugh, who was national campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2000 and campaign manager for Bush's first run for Texas governor. Brown had been Allbaugh's college roommate. Prior to heading FEMA, Brown had been fired from the International Arabian Horse Association, where a colleague described his performance as "a fucking disaster."

Five years and tens of billions of dollars spent for homeland security, and what do we get?

As New Orleans, so goes the rest of the nation. There are 15,000 miles of levee protecting communities throughout the nation. According to Jeff Mount, flood control expert at University of California , Davis, there are two kinds of levees -- those that have breached and those that will breach.

Whether we're talking about the New Madrid fault or the San Andreas fault, or the volcanic caudera beneath Yellowstone, or tornadoes, or some godawful unthinkable event like the ones we've had to think about in recent years, we need an effective federal disaster agency. Natural disasters are a fact of life. And now we have to think about bioterror or a repeat of 9/11.

We have been lulled into a false sense of security. The world has seen how vulnerable we truly are, unable to mount an effective response.

It will happen, whatever it is. Will that be you or me holding up a "HELP ME" sign or pushing a dying relative in a shopping cart?

Michael Brown is a tool who should be held accountable for his incompetence, as should Chertoff and Bush. When we have recovered somewhat, and the shock has worn off, and the dead have been counted, the tragedy of Katrina will be remembered as one of this nation's most appalling failures.

New Orleans will be back. I was just there a couple of months ago, spending several days at the convention center. Had I known it would be my last time in a while, I would have paid more attention.