At Bush’s 2004 Inauguration, the city was packed with protestors. There was a carnival atmosphere with street theatre, marches, gigantic puppets, musicians, and constant call and response chanting. We stood packed in line for hours to be allowed to view the parade from a tiny section. (The rest of the parade route was virtually vacant.) Despite the hours waiting, there was never a dull moment.
This year, I wondered what we would do in line all those hours if the city wasn’t filled with protestors. Would we chant, or sing, or dance, or just stand there like cows? What was our role, now that “our guy” was in office?
I went to DC with a hope to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinians and pressure the new administration to change their policies toward the region. I expected demonstrations and rallies and vigils to protect the children of Gaza. Instead I found a city too busy celebrating. Everyone from Asian Americans for Progress to Democracy Now! to the SCLC was preparing for their $100-$1000/person galas. The left was in party mode.
Sure enough, on the morning of inauguration, thousands of folks stood patiently, obediently, and quietly in line waiting for our gates to open, clutching our precious purple tickets. Every once in a while someone would start a chant of “O-BA-MA!” or “Fire it up, ready to go!” But the chants would die out in 10-20 seconds from lack of response.
Instead what we found in our section was a sense of entitlement. “I’ve been here since 5am and you cannot cut in front of me”…..”I’m going to call my brother about this….he’s an agent!” Some people started to get claustrophobic and paranoid: “I gotta get out of here…what if someone does something crazy?” By 10am people began complaining. Little did we know that the reason we were stuck was because the purple gate had been closed due to a nebulous “security breach.”
But also, out of this chaos, community began to emerge. A young guy from California discovered that the logjam of people emerging from the metro was trying to get past us but getting stuck. He suggested we open a channel for them to pass through so we could also move. He enlisted help and 8 or 10 of us coached a line of pedestrians past our section. “Come on through! Watch your step…Single file….Keep moving!” we urged. This spontaneous grassroots effort shifted the energy and made it flow, made us active instead of passive, and helped others in need.
Gradually the cork popped and we broke through, only to find out we had to walk another half mile to the yellow gate. Many of those who’d stuck it out to this point became discouraged and left. It was already after 11am, and many had been there since before dawn.
Later that night we packed up to drive all night to Detroit, to make our pilgrimage to the legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs. The Boggs Center that day turned out to be a hive of activity, filled with activists and artists from far and near. Grace engaged us all in conversation, eager to hear reflections on the inauguration and how it related to our other projects and activities. At 94, she remains incredibly sharp, curious, deeply engaged, and attentive. She took notes on our comments for her column, for god’s sakes, as if what we had to say was as significant as her own opinions. I shared with her my question and concern about the left getting comfy if we’re not in protest mode. What can we do now?
Grace described how in the 1960s, civil rights workers went door to door asking people what their grievances were. “That’s old school,” she said, “Now we have to ask: what does our community need? And build from there.” She showed us the stack of books she’s working through which have to do with education, and shared with us that more and more she’s concerned about healing: healing ourselves and healing our communities. Grace summarized her own work as building community out of chaos.
We talked extensively about urban renewal through agriculture. How growing our own food and composting our own waste could lead to self-reliance, greater well-being, and vibrant communities. Gardening is the new protesting! Composting is the new resistance!
Where do we plan to go from here? Will we stand like cows at the inauguration gate, comfortable in our privilege and level of entitlement while getting nowhere? Will we watch Obama from afar and criticize him for not enough change fast enough? Will we withdraw into our cocoons, hypnotizing ourselves with cable TV and Facebook, smug in our electoral success?
The Obamas are in the (White) house. What will we create together? How will we transform chaos into community? Who dares to stop us now?