It was strangely easy getting to my office at 15th St. and New York Ave. in Washington, D.C., Thursday, an office in the heart of the Green Zone carved out for the ascension and coronation of George W. Bush. Much easier than I had anticipated.
I had expected legions of gun-toting federals angrily demanding ID’s, business cards and possibly notes from our mommies as to why we needed to be there. We — those of us who work in downtown DC, the region I’ve taken to calling the Green Zone for the duration, those of us whose work schedules did not allow for a day off to avoid to inaugural — were told to take extra time, to make sure we had something resembling a “proper, legal photo ID” and proof that we had reason for being deep inside the Green Zone. I expected checkpoints, pat downs, arguments with hard-faced men and women that I’m there because the New York Mercantile Exchange is open today, thank you very much, the business of the world goes on regardless of what Caesar is up to. I even considered, though largely discounted, the possibility of strip searches, forced finger printing, DNA sampling, catch-and-release tagging and rectal probes.
But there were no Interior Ministry Security Forces barking “papers, please!” at passers by, wickedly snapping rubber gloves tight for those who look extra nervous or ill-at-ease. Aside from the police cars parked nearly every block, and the Metro buses positioned to block intersections, the only other law enforcement presence here were the gaggles of unarmed, somewhat bashful but eager young men (and a few women) in brown pants and bright yellow jackets emblazoned with “Scout Volunteer.” And the occasional federal bicycle cop.
I coulda ridden my bike to work Thursday, too, because no one was stopping the bicycle messengers — or anyone else on a bicycle — from getting into or out of the Green Zone.
In fact, the bike riding in the Green Zone looked awesome, given that all automobiles have been banned, and I’m gonna kick myself for days about missing this. (Northern Virginia is full of high-security and very important government buildings, and one of the unintended consequences of creating huge separation barriers around them has been to make some really nifty bicycle-friendly space. I’m fairly certain it’s inadvertent, and if they knew that people like me were enjoying large stretches of auto-free road, they’d ban bikes too.) It’s like a scene from The Omega Man or some other dour and unhappy prediction of utter and complete doom from the 1970s. Aside from the sound of seagulls (the place was full of seagulls … why?) and the constant drone of at least one helicopter in the distance, I’ve never been in a major city this quiet since lower Manhattan on September 12, 2001, when you could just sit and hear the wind blow.
And nothing else.
Oh, not entirely quiet. About an hour after noon, along came “no peace, no justice,” about 700 or so people walking down 14th St. toward the Pennsylvania Ave. parade route. No mistaking these people for errant Republicans on their way to appreciate their Commander-in-Chief’s big day. A few carried signs — “Bushwhacked Again!” and “Democracy or Empire” and “Another Veteran for Peace” and the rather ambiguous “We’re fighting the wrong war” (Which war ought we to be fighting?) are the sentiments that come to mind. A few carried cardboard coffins draped in black, a few fake coffins covered with American flags. And they are behaving themselves. They are shadowed by a couple of Secret Service bike cops. And at a respectful but threatening distance, the DC Police’s giant tactical squad van.
There are a lot of soldiers here, too, with their ribbons and combat patches all in place, their slacks and jackets pressed, their berets on tight, and their shoes shined bright. I’m guessing they are spectators (they are too well-dressed for action), with special seats near 15th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. There’s a huge, impromptu fence blocking New York Ave. between 14th and 15th, and only those with invites or proper uniforms get through the gate to see the parade. Right now, most of the soldiers (and airmen, and sailors, and Marines) are taking a break, getting ready for the big show, in line for coffee at Starbucks or a sandwich at Quiznos or Cosi (which are also packed by beautiful young Republicans). A few snap photos of the protesters, more in a curious “look at what I saw at the inauguration!” kind of way than a “we’ll hand this over to Homeland Security tomorrow” kind of way.
(And God bless all the businesses that stayed open, in the understanding that commerce trumps all and keeps the world moving. No one was sure earlier this week who would be open and who would close. So it was nice to see.)
As I wandered around the intersection of 14th and New York, watching the protesters and the soldiers and the GOP faithful, near as I can tell, no one called anyone a “baby killer.” Or a “communist.” Or a “Nazi.” No one told anyone to “get a job.” No one hit anyone and no one, near as I can tell, even looked askance at anyone.
Later in the afternoon, as the parade neared, things got more interesting. A group of five anarchists stood out in front of the 14th and New York Starbucks and sang something resembling the Star Spangled Banner, loud enough so that I could hear it (but not quite make out the words, which were different) in my fifth floor office. A protester with a megaphone started in on his take on the post-September 11 Miranda warning. “Everyone willing to surrender your 4th Amendment rights do not raise your hands” and “You have the right to a full body cavity search,” was about all I could make out as he was occasionally cheered on.
A young protester, in the genteel way American protesters tend to deface things these days, scrawled “No More Stolen Elections” in chalk on the street (it was both cute and funny the first time I saw it at Georgetown, and later at a World Bank/IMF summit I covered in 2000). Another wrote “End Fascism.” People walked on.
All the while, the party faithful queued up, tickets in their hands and ID badges around their necks. Oblivious to it all.
It got even dicier later in the afternoon, when a group of protesters tried to storm an access gate to the parade route near the National Press Club. According to press reports, several hundred were trapped. That explained the arrival of 10 minivans full of DC riot cops, who marched down 14th St. in ominous formation and then summoned six ambulances. Just in case.
The ambulances eventually left. Empty. The riot cops eventually wandered back to their minivans, and drove away.
At the risk of sounding like I’m pinch-hitting for the opposing team, near as I can tell, no one got bonked on the head and dragged away to Guantanamo Bay. Nobody’s cavities got searched. Someone somewhere in Green Zone probably got a good talking to by someone with a badge and a gun on his (or her) hip and a club on his (or her) hands, but that was probably it for the day.
On the other hand, a huge chunk of this city was closed for no real good reason, there were cops and fencing and concrete blocks just about everywhere, and most workers were chased out of their offices for the day. It was hardly fascism as we know it, but it didn’t much look like freedom either.
It looked like tight security, the kind that brokers no dissent. But it wasn’t, not really. And I’m guessing it was less about keeping out undesirables — the black-clad, drum-pounding anarchists, the aging hippies, the various and sundry other antis with signs and flags and posters (but no giant papier-mch puppets this time around) and the gainfully employed — than it was a show of force to boost the confidence of the true believers. The missiles, the soldiers, the barricades, the legion of police, it was all for them, to prove to fearful people that their leader, their party, their government, their state, are going to do everything to protect them.
Because on George Bush’s coronation day, deep inside the 100-block Washington security Green Zone, the undesirables were everywhere.
This is an odd ruling elite, the Red State faithful, many of whom reverted to type and wore their cowboy boots and their fur coats to the parade. They are inheritors of both 19th century Methodist notions of human perfectibility and chosenness while, at the same time, the much-older Scotch-Irish sense of swagger and persecution. They are a people who both hate and fear the world and yet want to save it, to teach it what they desperately believe it needs to learn, for its own good. They are people who are convinced they are entitled to run the planet but are also scared to death by almost all of the strange and mysterious folks who inhabit it. That’s why it’s always fun to watch them take mass transit, like the DC Metro, because they dislike the notion of something like an underground train just anyone can get on to begin with, and look warily at anyone who isn’t one of them and hold tight to their wallets. Alternately in charge, and yet completely at the mercy, of everything around them.
By 6:30 pm., a curtain of night nearly drawn upon the District of Columbia, the first of the buses and concrete blocks were moved, and traffic again began flowing through the once-upon-a-Green Zone. As men in tuxedos and women in gowns made their way to whatever event or ball they had an invite for, it was time for me to board a fairly empty Metro train for the trip home to Alexandria. Tomorrow will be another trading day, another business day.
And just another day in government-occupied America.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.