Subject: Naked cowboys and leather-clad animal rights activists
Date: January 21, 2001
"Reconciliation? I'll hug your elephant if you'll kiss my ass," read perhaps the most creative sign I saw Saturday morning at the Justice Action Movement inaugural protest in D.C.'s famed Du Pont Circle.
Fittingly for an inaugural that has drawn small crowds, the circle was only about a quarter full with protesters. The ready-made signs proclaiming, "Ashcroft is a racist, sexist pig" and "Free Mumia" actually outnumbered the protesters.
By now, everyone in D.C. knows the protest drill: Protesters promise to take over the city, or at least disrupt some official event, such as World Bank proceedings; members of the press smell a story and play up the conflict; and local officials freak out and throw money at law enforcement, who infiltrate the protestors' organizing meetings and shut down half the city, lest all hell break out.
Then the event itself comes, there's a little rain, snow, or sleet, and the protesters somehow don't make it out in expected numbers. Today seemed to be no exception.
Not that the protesters who did actually show up weren't entertaining. There was the "Delegation of Concerned Caribou," who put on a skit to raise awareness of the need to save the Arctic Circle. Most memorable was the Naked Cowboy, an Axl Rose lookalike who wore only a cowboy hat and boots, tighty-whitey underwear, and an American Flag cape. He was a big hit, strumming his guitar and singing, "I'm a naked cowboy," over and over and over. At least one ostensibly anti-capitalist profiteer was present. A guy in from Montana to take orders for "Impeach Bush," $3 a button, 50 for $50. As he passed out order forms, a guy muttered, seemingly debating himself, "I think it's a little early to impeach him."
In short, it was a glorious freak show. Patricia Ireland was blathering something from the stage when I showed up. Granny D, the old lady who walks and walks and walks for campaign finance reform, was on hand. She took the stage to "Go Granny, Go," chants and proceeded to go on for a long time. "There are many angry people in America these days, and there's plenty for them to be angry to be about." Granny D may be old, but she likes to talk and talk and talk. I decided to talk to the atheist activists, who have had a hard year between the Lieberman/Gore/God ticket and with Born-Again Bush being elected (or "selected" as most protesters would have it") as president.
"You know, it's really tough on an atheist when you have so much talk of God on both sides of the aisle," said John Obst, Maryland state director of American Atheists United, a nationwide organization that acts as both a support group and lobbying force for atheists. Obst points out that "people living without a God" constitute 10 percent of the population. His short-term goal: Kill the Ashcroft nomination.
* * *
I went two blocks over to watch the swearing-in and to catch the protesters marching down to the parade route. The police accused some protesters of destroying property and blocked their route. It dispersed the march, and by the time I got down to 14th and Pennsylvania (around 1 p.m.), the protesters where milling about, unorganized, and basically harassing anyone who appeared to have voted Republican. One dreadlocked teenager was screaming at a group of Marines, telling them he couldn't believe they were on the street, among the protesters. He seemed genuinely upset as he demonstrated his machismo before his group of friends. (Doubtless, he would have been less upset, or at least less vocal, if he knew Marines aren't bound by honor or military rules to ignore his attacks).
A block away at 13th and Pennsylvania, animal rights activists took time out from talking on their cell phones to verbally assaulting anyone in fur. "Excuse me, your coat is bleeding," yelled a young fellow at a 60-something lady in a fur coat. Her husband, hugged her supportively and escorted her along. Another woman in a fur soon passed by and the guy pulled out a more colorful script. "That is ugly. That is so fucking ugly," he explained. "You look like a fucking rat," he said.
"I think it's funny," the guy, whose fur patrol alias is Malcolm, responded when I asked him about harassing unsuspecting people. "We're not using violence. We're just saying it looks ugly, which is a fashion complaint. Everybody likes to be complimented and be told when they look ugly. It's kind of public service."
Betty, his partner in protest, said that they are yelling at people to call attention to the fact that fur is evil. When I asked what made fur evil, she got indignant, as if she was talking to an idiot. "Because you're killing animals," said Betty, who was nonetheless sporting leather shoes herself. "What do you mean, Why is it evil!"
It wasn't only leather-wearing fur haters who were milling about the corner. Tom Perini donned a cowboy hat with an anarchist sticker on it. His buddy, Boo Hauser, looked 100 percent Texan, which, it turns out, both of them are. "I think this is great," drawled Boo, when I asked about the protesters. "This is all part of America."
Indeed, it is. There's a strong case to be made that not only did it make American in the first place, but that it's consistently made us a better—or at least more interesting and telegenic—country over the years. In any case, we can look forward to more protests over the next few years.