WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dozens of Yale students joined thousands of others from around the country to march in protest against Bush’s inauguration Thursday. Leaving just before midnight Wednesday and driving through the evening, the Yalies arrived early Thursday morning to join the DC Anti-War Network’s protest.
During the bus ride south, students colored in signs, wrote the phone number of the National Lawyers Guild on their bodies in case of arrest during the march, and debated policy and political issues into the early morning. Hopes were high that this protest would strike a chord among the progressive community, preparing for a further four years of organizating.
“It’s going to be a good kick-off to four more years of fighting Bush,” said Leela Yellesetty ’05, a member of the International Socialist Organization, who protested along the presidential parade route Thursday.
Sofia Fenner ’07, who planned the trip along with Erin Donar ’05 and Emily Jones ’06, said it grew out of the excursions they organized to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to get out the vote in contested swing states last October and early November. Preparations for Thursday’s trip began last semester after the outcome of the presidential election became clear.
Donar is a former city editor for the News.
“I think it says a lot about the people on this bus that they were willing to commit a long time ahead of time, or were willing to drop everything on short notice [to go],” Fenner said.
Setting aside the question of dedication, Al Jiwa ’06, president of the Yale College Republicans, said he was unsure what the protesters were trying to accomplish.
“I’m not quite sure the message they were trying to send,” Jiwa said. “It seems to me like they were trying to protest democratic processes, which to me is ridiculous. I think you can take objection to different elements of the Bush agenda, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish by protesting a democratic process.”
But students like Helena Herring ’07 said they felt their presence at the protest was fulfilling a vital role in that same democratic process.
“I think the reason I’m here is because I think it’s important to have a visual representation of dissent and to remind the country of the 49 percent of people that didn’t vote for Bush,” Herring said. “I also think it’s important for college students specifically to be here, because we’re the demographic group that has the time and resources to make this kind of a trip. My parents can’t be here today because they’re in Georgia, but I’m here to represent them.”
Thursday morning brought gray skies over cold Meridian Hill Park as the DAWN protest assembled. While musicians played and liberal organizers gave speeches, representatives of the New York City-based group One Thousand Coffins assembled protestors to carry over a thousand cardboard coffins — half covered with American flags, half covered with black cloth — during the march to McPherson Square to protest the war in Iraq.
“I think the image speaks for itself,” said Jenna Hunt, the artistic director of the One Thousand Coffins group. “We honor the innocent Iraqi civilians as our brothers and sisters, just as we do the dead American soldiers.”
Although anti-war slogans featured strongly in the protests and in chants during the march, marchers highlighted many other issues as well, ranging from election reform to prisoner torture and unlawful detainment. At times, the scene resembled a carnival as belly dancers gyrated along with the beat of the chants.
“The march seemed more like a festival than a protest in a way,” said Samantha Do ’07, one of the marchers. “I guess that was just part of having so many groups there. It didn’t seem like it had as much of the seriousness I’d felt coming in or the anger.”
The Yale crowd chimed in with more traditional staples of the protest movement, such as songs like “Carry On,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” When 16th Street passed below an overpass, the various chants, songs, and tambourine music merged into a single call-and-response: “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”
Upon reaching McPherson Square, marchers deposited the coffins on the street and joined the various protests assembled there. Due to enhanced security measures, only those protesters with permits were allowed to be present on the presidential parade route itself, but the remainder assembled in the square, complete with a brass band to welcome arriving protesters. Those who did not remain in the assembly pursued their own ends — some tried to get as close to the parade route as possible while others brought the protest to guests waiting to pass through security before entering the inauguration itself.
The inauguration this year was particularly security-conscious, as the Secret Service coordinated federal and local forces to place snipers on the rooftops and police in the streets.
“This was the first inauguration that was designated a national special security event under the Department of Homeland Security,” said Secret Service spokesman Tom Macur, referring to a classification of events in which the Secret Service holds predominant authority to design and implement security plans. “Our goal is to have a safe inauguration for the participants and the public.”
Protesters at the gates found no fond reception from Bush supporters like Drs. Dina and John Giesler, representatives of Doctors For Bush from Atlanta. John Giesler was particularly upset by student protests at inauguration security lines, feeling that their animosity was unfounded.
“The American people have spoken,” Giesler said. “George Bush got more votes than anyone in the history of this country.”
The Gieslers and their friend John McKinney, a money manager from Tennessee, expressed their hope that Bush’s agenda in the coming term would address such items as tax and tort reform, which John Giesler referred to as “the biggest thing that needs to be done, period.” All three also expected Bush will fulfill his promise to get the United States out of Iraq.
“I wish we hadn’t gone to Iraq, honestly,” John Giesler said. “But [Bush] didn’t lie, he just got bad intelligence. — [We want Bush to] get us out of Iraq. And he’s promised that. We’re getting out.”
While several officers of the United States military were present in the security lines, they declined to comment, explaining that they did not feel comfortable going on the record while wearing their uniforms.
The ceremony began, and protesters dispersed as flak-jacketed DC Metropolitan Police entered the streets. By 3:30 in the afternoon, McPherson Square was empty, as marchers dispersed to later events or made their way home. There was no sign of a brass band — only a lone mandolin player remained, strumming to an audience of five under the late gray sky.
As the Yalies returned to the bus, some still sang “Carry On” under their breaths.
“I think that while on the one hand, for me and for many of us today was a very disheartening day — it was very important to make it clear that while Bush claims to have a sweeping mandate from the entire country, there is also a significant core of dissent,” Jones said. “Ultimately this is our country. This is where we live, and so the onus is, or should be, on us to be active participants and vocal in our opinions, and in this case in our dissent with the Bush administration in these next four years.”