Monday, May 18, 2009

2005 Protests: My, How Things Have Changed...

I've been meaning to post this for a while. In 2005, I went to Washington DC to protest the Bush Inauguration, and produced this article for the Brandeis newspaper, the Justice. I think its a fascinating read now, because it really drives home how divided we were as a nation, and how much things have changed in the last four years.

Students proudly protest inauguration
By: Adam Schwartzbaum
Posted: 1/25/05
"What do we want?" I shouted. "Peace!" the crowd roared. "When do we want it?" Our voices echoed fiercely off the walls of the tunnel, erupting into the loudest chanting yet, "Now!"

It was Jan. 20, the day of President Bush's second inauguration. Over 35 dedicated Brandeis students-some Republicans, but mostly members of Students for Peace-had traveled to Washington to witness the event.

The mood was somber and intense. Signs ranged from defiant-"No Mandate! Impeach Bush for War Crimes!"-to despairing. One man held a black sign with pictures of Bush's and Cheney's faces, reading, "Four more Years. We're Fucked." Another read, "I voted for Kerry, now I'm holding this fucking sign." There were expressions of disgust and forceful calls for an end to war and torture, and a renewed emphasis on peace and justice.

My girlfriend and I began the march by carrying a black coffin through the streets, marching and chanting with thousands of like-minded activists. Most striking was the mixture of people: old and young, rich and poor, hippies and punks and families with kids, all united in deep appreciation of the promise of democracy.

As we came out of the tunnel and up into the light, I looked to my left, and I was struck by the image of an inquisitive young black girl in her mother's arms. As the crowd shouted "Peace!" I thought of the transformative effect this had on the child, opening her mind to possibilities of co-existence. As we roared "Now!" the toddler mouthed the word along with the crowd in sweet innocence. I had the good fortune of witnessing the miracle of a child's quiet prayer for peace.

Sadly, others' experiences weren't nearly as positive. Two Brandeis students, Isaac Kalish 08 and Reilly Stoler '08, were demonstrating on Pennsylvania Avenue when an altercation with the police resulted in shots of pepper spray into the crowd.

According to Kalish, anarchists had jumped up on the subway and were starting to burn a flag. Then several kids in the crowd started jostling a riot fence that had been erected to restrain the protestors. A three-foot section fell over.

"We started chanting like crazy: 'Whose streets? Our Streets!' and 'Tear it down! Tear it down!'" Kalish recalled.

When the crowd pulled down two more sections of the fence, he said, "The cops went ballistic and started spraying people straight in the eyes with pepper spray. Our eyes and throat started burning. We coughed uncontrollably."

Stoler was surprised to see how prepared some of the activists were for violence. "Anarchists had medics immediately spray milk in their eyes," he recalled. "Many took out gas masks or goggles once the pepper spraying began."

Even someone from Fox News was sprayed, both students noted, but he kept his camera directly focused only on the Bush supporters waiting in line. Nobody offered to help him.

Kalish and Stoler stayed there long enough to see the president's car. As Bush passed, these beleaguered, dedicated individuals let loose a giant roar of boos. Judging from what I heard, I wouldn't be surprised if he was routinely booed most of the way up the parade route.

Detailed student observations from the day reveal just how deeply divided our nation is.

Rebecca Pelfry '07 witnessed a disturbing argument while waiting in line to enter the parade: "I saw a demonstrator in his thirties walk up to an older man wearing a Bush/Cheney button on his chest. He rose in the man's face and sneered, 'You have blood on your hands! You sicken me!'"

Pelfry said that the older man, his family beside him decked out in Inauguration 2005 gear, replied, "You're going to hell, young man!"
"No way," he replied, "I'm not going to hell. You're going to hell!"

"I'm not going to hell," said the old man. "I'm a priest."

"What kind of priest are you?" he reportedly exclaimed. "Are you one of those child molesting priests, who go around touching little boys? Some of you are all right," he said, "but most of you aren't."

"His glare was venomous. The entire encounter was raw and barbarous," she said. "I thought they were going to bite each others heads off. Every time I'm more and more disheartened both by those protesting and by those in power. It becomes more hostile, more confrontational, and not something I want to be a part of. It has lost part of its class," Pelfry sighed.

For me, the day ended on a contemplative note. As Bush passed in his motorcade, I turned my back on him, in a symbolic protest organized online weeks before the inauguration. Afterward, I walked out into the crowd as it filed out and took the large American flag I'd been wearing all day off my back. I held it up upside-down in front of me, to make the symbol for America in distress. As I solemnly stood there, some people thanked me and took pictures and videos. Others cursed me, calling me unpatriotic. As my arms began to tire, two fellow Brandeis students came and held up my arms. Soon, 15 Brandeis students were gathered behind me. Our calm, serious faces forced people to think.

I was proud.

Editor's note: Adam Schwartzbaum '07 is Brandeis Democrats vice-president. © Copyright 2009 The Justice

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