The Inauguration And Its Discontents
A Protest Against the Odds
by Mark Engler
After losing the popular vote and preventing a full count of Florida
ballots, George W. Bush hardly has the right to expect a tranquil
coronation this weekend. And even with an inaugural ceremony carefully
choreographed to elicit media adulation, as well as battalions of
Washington, D.C., police attempting to quash any unscripted surprises, he
may not get one. As upwards of a half million Republican loyalists pack the
parade route this weekend, smaller crowds will rally to protest the stolen
election and question Bush's mandate to pursue conservative policies.
One would expect the activists taking to the streets to be the Democrats'
party stalwarts, core Gore supporters disgusted by the electoral upset. In
reality, the dissenters now preparing for action did not, by and large,
support the Vice President's campaign at all. Those who have plastered D.C.
with signs reading "Hail to the Thief!" represent a collection of Black
radicals and critics of corporate globalization, Nader supporters and death
penalty abolitionists. Their outrage has raised some interesting questions:
How did this multi-issue assortment of seasoned protesters become the de
facto standard bearer of Democratic discontent? And what success might
these demonstrators have at the inauguration?
The Democratic Party itself opted early on against a mounting a mass
challenge to Bush's legitimacy. After Election Day, when attention first
shifted to the Florida tabulations, Gore discouraged public demonstrations.
He choose instead to front a cool, executive image. In those important
days, his campaign condemned any protests as misplaced "electioneering." By
the time he recognized that the terrain in Florida was too hopelessly
politicized for such detached observation, he had ceded crucial ground to
In at least one case, rowdy conservatives actually affected the tallying:
election officials in Miami-Dade county admitted that intimidating hecklers
contributed to their decision to abort an early recount.
Gore's behavior during this period was predictable. As a "New Democrat" he
has consistently distanced himself from his party's core constituencies,
and his tenure as a barnstorming populist (the persona he adopted during
the Democratic Convention) was short-lived. It is unclear that the Vice
President could muster the charisma to inspire throngs of faithful
supporters to mobilize for protest, even if he wanted to.
Those actually able to produce such mobilization have also avoided mass
protest. Major labor, environmental, and civil rights groups will be
noticeably absent from counter-inauguration ceremonies in D.C. With the
exception of the National Organization for Women (which is sponsoring its
own protest in the capital), they have shown little inclination to mount an
indelicate frontal assault on the incoming White House staff by turning out
members for the demonstrations. Some of those who initially called for
massive anti-Bush protests, led by Jesse Jackson, have redirected their
energy into a march in Tallahassee. With this, along with smaller protests
at federal buildings elsewhere, they can decry voter rights violations
without risking more politically compromising entanglements.
These large progressive organizations have adopted an inside approach to
challenging the new Administration. They have focused on defeating Bush's
conservative cabinet nominations, like John Ashcroft for Attorney General,
by calling in political favors and working Senate connections. No doubt,
this is vital work. It recognizes the hard reality that their relationship
with the executive branch of government will affect their ability to pass
and enforce legislation - laws that will make real differences in the lives
of working people. The groups are banking on proven methods of "getting
things done" in Washington, next to which the protest's goals of affecting
"public confidence" and challenging the president's "mandate" admittedly
But this pragmatic approach sacrifices something important: the uniqueness
of this particular presidential contest. Strategies of nonviolent
resistance always take on the system from the outside. They eschew accepted
institutions and practices in order to call into question the legitimacy of
the system itself. Given Bush's dubious rise to power, such an approach
could produce unexpected results: it could sink Bush in public opinion
polls, give Senators a public incentive to break with the traditions of
deference to the White House, and force the new president into a truly
As others have abandoned direct action for reasons ranging from the
ideological to the pragmatic, the tactic has been left to a loose coalition
of leftists. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the socialist
International Action Center, the Black Radical Congress, and the Justice
Action Movement have released various calls to action. Among the
experienced protesters organizing for this weekend are activists who have
specialized in staging the creative, highly visible confrontations at major
conventions over the past year, including at the IMF meeting in D.C. last
April. They will be joined by a modest array of first-time protesters who
come motivated strictly by indignation over the Bush coup, individuals
gathered ad hoc by local groups and internet "dot.orgs."
What can they hope to accomplish with a counter-inaugural ceremony?
Ideally, protesters would like push the discussion beyond a limited
Bush-Gore debate, raising problems that both major parties refuse to
combat: corporate welfare, warped campaign finance laws, and the massive
expansion of the prison-industrial complex.
However, absent organizing by large groups, these connections will be hard
to make. As it stands, protesters will be vastly outnumbered by the mostly
conservative parade-watchers, and limited in their ability to publicize
Yet civil disobedience still offers a crucial possibility for success. With
guerilla theater and inspired protest, activists can highlight the
discontent that still surrounds the electoral abuses in Florida. They can
achieve gains akin to those of Abbie Hoffman's "Flower Brigade." During the
Vietnam era, Hoffman attracted press and public sympathy by marching a
colorful troop into a "Support Our Boys" Parade. Reporters watched an
unsavory display of intolerance as the "patriots" tore American flags from
the hippies' hands and stomped the "tainted" totems into the ground.
In this case, by capturing even modest media attention protesters can help
frame the inauguration as what it is, a controversial confirmation of a
weak president, and not a pro-Bush love-fest. By virtue of the
pre-inaugural publicity that they have already generated, organizers have
already made significant strides toward this end.
The question now is whether, against the odds, and against the Democratic
Party's better judgement, activists will be able pull off something
more. Creatively managing the conflict generated by non-violent
mobilization, they can still enact some of the "outside" strategy that the
Democratic mainstream has disregarded. The small assembly of protesters can
yet embody for the nation a much larger group: the majority of the divided
public that has already voted against the new president and rejected his
---- Mark Engler is an independent writer and activist from Des Moines, Iowa. He has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University.
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