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.


Blogger Miss Cellania said...

DC is a weirdo magnet. Only a nutjob away from home would yell at a stranger like that. Here in the hinterlands, we liberals are quite tolerant, since our bosses, landlords, and bankers are all conservatives.

Blogger Chris Nystrom said...

Good report!

Blogger KOB said...

a really good report of this event -- enjoyed reading it.


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