Saturday, 4 or so, I’m burrowed into the Old Ebbitt Grill at the corner of K and 15th streets. I’d walked for hours and needed to get off my feet. So now I’m drinking a Guinness, courtesy of this big, friendly guy, John, curious about my mouse ears, Mardi Gras beads and medieval Nikkormat. John is a regular guy–plaid short-sleeve shirt, neatly trimmed short hair, big smile, ordering drinks for a crowd of his pals and that takes time. He has set a beachhead at the bar, camped out while a large, flush, Irish bartender full of beef and potatoes rounds up what seem like dozens of dewy pints. I’d ridden with friends and slept in their newish Buick, better than the woods of Arlington like an earlier trip, when I’d been initiated to the Ebbitt via a chance encounter with one Ron Rosenberg, former D.C. big shot attorney. This guy turned out to be the real thing, a mean-ass, brainy, Jewish, Supreme Court lawyer who’d had four ribs broken in Augusta and din-din with Rabin (indyweek.com/durham/2002-10-09/eichenberger.html).
Rosenberg ordered breakfast, I, a Maker’s Mark and coffee, and in the hour or so we sat there, this half-crazy old man taught me more about the nation’s Constitution than I’d absorbed in the balance of my life.
I like the Ebbitt–legendary D.C. power bar, shiny, dark and pricey, open since 1856 at a half-dozen locations. Great place to survey that messy democracy thing.
Outside, it is like watching a snowstorm. Great drifts of humanity floated by for hours–on and on and on, signs, old ladies, kids, veterans, everyone (with a few pathetic exceptions) here for their own agenda folding into one main message–that over a quarter of a million people see through the smoke and mirrors and are willing to confront the ruination that the Bush gang are visiting on the nation.
The Ebbitt sits nearly on a sight line intended to run between the Capitol and the White House, part of the combined plans of Surveyor General Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Banneker and Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Banneker, a self-taught free black, used astrological calculations to established the boundary of the new capital, marked by stones at one-mile intervals. He retired from the project to prepare his 1792 Almanac & Ephemerides; Ellicott and L’Enfant laid out the city’s curious grid.
Like so many great ideas–that there would be symbolic exchange of views, that the Congress and the president would be able to literally keep an eye on the other–this one was flummoxed by the construction of the Treasury Building in the early 1800s by a smooth talker name of Samuel Blodget, employed after Washington fired L’Enfant after he’d mostly finished his work. Money literally got in the way. The city further economized by getting slaves to build the city–not just to save money on wages but also to “cool” free labor. No news here.
John’s from Tennessee. Straight up sort of chap, moved up four years ago.
“What do you think?”
“I am overwhelmed by the passion of the people here. This is the first time I have been to one of these rallies other than seeing it on TV. It is great to know that all these different organizations have come together for one movement–you know, you’ve got the IMF protest, you’ve got the people who are Bring the Troops Home Now, you’ve got the people who want to impeach Bush, all coming together. Everyone’s got their reasons to dislike the administration, yet they’re all getting along just fine and continuing on the march.”
“Are you at Ebbitt’s because you’re at Ebbitt’s or are you participating?”
“Participating. I voted for Bush in the original election and was comforted by his ability … it seemed like he related to the American public. I felt like the small-town guy like me from Tennessee connected with him and I thought his policies were great. Born, bred, raised [laughs] Republican.
“Last election there was no way I could vote for him. I couldn’t do it, because I started to see that a lot of things he’s done in office negatively impact our country.”
John looks off into the distance. He’s confessing now.
“I have always been the person that’s like ‘Protesters in the street, that’s bullshit. Run over ’em.’”
I don’t need to say a word. I just let John keep talking. He’s pure. He has entered a world he really doesn’t know about. John is a canary in a coal mine, and there is the story, the difference between this one and previous ones: Formerly, one saw many of the same faces and numbing repetition of the same causes. This time, there was a whole new crowd–from the folks I’d rolled with to this guy now, there were citizens, many who’d never thought of attending a rally or else hadn’t in decades, present on the streets. It’s exactly the sort of nuance that never reaches the general public, thanks to a compliant, docile and controlled media.
“Bush Policies, Missteps, Energize Tens of Thousands of New Demonstrators,” the Nooz headline should read, instead of the measly half column buried on page 14A of The New York Times as it was–sans photo. You don’t do this stuff to see yourself in the paper. This is not some sort of game; it is serious stuff facing up to riot squads and cavalry.
The police were caught off guard by the size of the crowd. Lacking the forces to put up much of a coordinated effort and lacking back-up courtesy of other jurisdictions, they were staggered by the crowd–as were the leaders of the event. At one point the march went runaway, losing both the cops and the march marshals. At the head of the parade, a mounted unit facing off against Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan at the head of thousands upon thousands backed off 25 feet after a barked command–something I’d never seen, the D.C. police falling back from a line.
“Today, I was at the rally and we were outside in front of the Ellipse and the police pulled up,” John went on. “OK, the police are here, there must be something going on. The guys jumped on top of their cars and pulled out their mace and their tasers and their sticks and just were standing on top of their cars.
“Well, in my eyes, that incites fear in the protesters–‘What did we do wrong? What is about to happen?’ And of course the other people who are there to–not necessarily cause problems, but aren’t scared to intimidate the police. And I was talking to the officer, I said, ‘;Look, you’re really irritating the 15,000 people that are around you right now. You guys need to tell us what you are doing, you know, this isn’t fair to us. You are going to cause a scene–I’m not going to be part of it–but you are going to cause a scene. It’s going to make everybody look bad.
“And they just looked at me and never said anything. And I’m thinking, ‘They’re going to cause problems that way. That not the right way. You’ve got sirens, I know you’ve got a bullhorn. Let us know why you’re here, why you literally drove through thousands of people, parted the crowd, stopped and took out your sticks and your mace and everything else.”
I’m thinking that this guy is getting the sort of education only one who goes to D.C. can get–you’d never know any of this happened unless you saw it for yourself, so effective, so Soviet is the control over our media.
John went off to join his friends. I made my way down 15th to the Washington Monument where the main stage was set up. I lay on the lawn gazing at the great white stone obelisk off in the gathering dark, symbolic not of anything Christian, but a pagan symbol, the staff of Osiris. A helicopter whined and clattered overhead, cutting lazy loops around that marble staff. A light mist fell–one that burned the eyes. I lay there gazing at this huge, stone–well, dick–rising 555 feet into the Washington night sky. Crazy. If they can hide the true meaning of that monster from the people, I thought, reflecting upon the denial/ignorance of the millions, the rest is easy.
I thought about John and the education he was giving himself, how far he had to go, how many millions of him there must be out there.