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From Day 1

Mass protests confront Bush at inauguration

Tens of thousands say he's racist, sexist, anti-gay

By Greg Butterfield


"We are the first crisis of George W. Bush's administration," proclaimed International Action Center Co-director Larry Holmes as he stood at ground zero of the historic Jan. 20 counter-inauguration protests here.

"They didn't want us out here, demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal and an end to the racist death penalty," Holmes shouted over a microphone to the crowd gathered at Freedom Plaza.

He was referring to the unprecedented police/government attempt to suppress the right to protest at the inauguration.

After the IAC and the Partnership for Civil Justice fought for weeks with Washington's multifarious police agencies for protest permits--and after a last-minute lawsuit to insure access to the permitted areas--thousands of demonstrators were able to fill the plaza at Pennsylvania Ave. and 14th St. NW.

Even then, after a court order told the cops to let demonstrators in, police officials delayed for hours before letting the protesters through the checkpoints at 13th and 14th streets.

The government attempt to disorganize and repress the protests led to checkpoints being set up in Washington for the first time in U.S. history. There were 16 in all.

At least 9,000 police were there, including every Washington cop, the Secret Service, Parks Police and police from Virginia and Maryland.

A popular chant of the anti-globalization movement caught on as long-time activists and first-time protesters demanded their right to be seen and heard. "That is what a police state looks like," they roared, pointing to the cops and their checkpoints.

Then, feeling their own growing strength as their numbers swelled, came the protesters' refrain: "This is what democracy looks like."

Protesters seize $50 seats

That feeling of strength continued to build with every obstacle they overcame.

As the damp chill of rain and sleet set in, 1,000 demonstrators seized the raft of bleachers that had been erected on the plaza for Bush supporters.

Washington Post writer David Montgomery described it this way: "Thousands more filled Freedom Plaza, brushing past a line of Girl Scouts in yellow slickers to seize bleachers reserved for Republican loyalists.

"From these $50 perches, as shocked members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee looked on, the protesters chanted: 'George Bush, racist murderer!'"

Hours later, those bleachers would be the site of the day's highlight, as limousines carrying Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were forced to speed past the loud, angry protesters.

IAC co-director Teresa Gutierrez reminded the crowd what her group had accomplished by taking on the cops in court. "We faced down the police and made sure everyone who wanted to protest had the right to do so."

Gutierrez pointed out that the IAC applied for permits at Freedom Plaza and other sites in October, even before the election, because "whether Bush or Gore won, the death machine would go on.

"We believe the police never intended to give us a permit or allow demonstrators to have access to the parade route," she explained.

"They hoped to shield the Bush administration from the political embarrassment of having thousands of demonstrators lining the route. But they were overruled by the strength of the movement."

Disproving Bush's boast

Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency by disenfranchising African American, Haitian and Jewish voters in Florida. He was sworn in by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, one of five Supreme Court justices who awarded Bush the presidency by stopping the Florida vote recount.

In his brief speech at the Capitol, Bush promised to "bring the country together" with his commitment to "civility, courage, compassion and character."

The tens of thousands of protesters lining the parade route knew better. The multi-millionaire cabinet Bush appointed, and his reputation in Texas as "Gov. Death," put the lie to that, they said.

Undeterred by the cold, demonstrators faced off against riot-clad cops for hours, their numbers growing steadily while the ranks of cowboy hat- and mink stole-wearing Bush supporters dwindled.

They chanted and hoisted signs with slogans like "Bush = racism," "Hail to the thief" and "John Ashcroft is a racist, sexist pig."

Those who came were overwhelmingly young. Many were students and workers who had never joined a demonstration before.

While most of those who came out were white--in part because of police threats aimed at keeping Washington's Black majority from mobilizing--there were strong contingents of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Palestinians and other people of color.

"We had people coming by buses, vans and car caravans," IAC organizer Sarah Sloan told Workers World. "There is so much massive anger over the way the election took place."

There were 125 buses from New York alone, Sloan said, and protesters came from across the East Coast, the South and the Midwest. They came from as far away as California, Texas and Oklahoma. Counter-inaugural protests were also held in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle and many other cities.

The number of demonstrators in Washington may never be known. But along Pennsylvania Ave. and in other parts of the city they certainly numbered in the tens of thousands.

Channel 8, Washington's all-news channel, gave estimates between 20,000 and 50,000 protesters. The Washington Post acknowledged that on northern blocks of Pennsylvania Ave. the demonstrators outnumbered Bush backers.

"More protesters than supporters," as one nervous CNN reporter said.

The corporate-dominated media tried to downplay or ignore the historic turnout. But the international press saw the protests as a sign that U.S. imperialism's new commander in chief has feet of clay.

Many issues, many voices

Numerous issues drew the protesters. But for many of them, Bush's election theft was the last straw.

The National Organization for Women gathered at 8th St. and Pennsylvania to denounce Bush and the Republican right's anti-choice and anti-women agenda.

At Dupont Circle, a "Voters' March" drew thousands of people outraged by the election theft. They included supporters of Democratic candidate Al Gore as well as more radical forces. Many later joined the crowd at Freedom Plaza.

Thousands more marched to the Supreme Court for a "Shadow Inauguration" organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network and other civil-rights groups to protest the racist disenfranchisement of Florida's Black voters.

There, students from Washington's Catholic University carried homemade signs on brown cardboard with the slogan, "Count our votes!"

"We come to underscore that today in the capital city they are perpetuating one of the greatest untruths in American history," Sharpton said. "We are here to let the world know that [Black people] are not going to give back the right to vote."

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader denounced "the soothing transition between two administrations, both of which take their orders from big business--the same big businesses that pumped $35 million into this weekend's ceremonies." (DC Indymedia Web site)

The New Black Panther Party held a "Day of Outrage" rally at Freedom Plaza, followed by a march. Organizer Malik Zulu Shabazz, explaining why many in his group wore helmets and other protective gear, pointed to the police and said, "We are not among friends."

The anarchist-led Black Bloc also staged a march that began near Freedom Plaza. At 14th and K streets police attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas.

Several activists were seriously hurt. Between nine and 15 were reported arrested.

Mumia, choice, Colombia

The Freedom Plaza action was initiated by the IAC and endorsed by Washington's Justice Action Movement and hundreds of other groups and prominent individuals. The main focus there was fighting racist disenfranchisement and stopping the legal lynching of Black political prisoner Abu-Jamal. But organizers didn't leave it at that.

Through signs, banners and speeches, they strove to show the new movement that it must link up with all the struggles--for women's right to choose, for lesbian/gay/bi/trans rights, to organize the unorganized, against sweatshops, to fight U.S. military intervention in Colombia, to get the Navy out of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and much more.

Holmes denounced Bill Clinton for not granting clemency to Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier.

"Clinton had the chance to do one decent thing before he left office," Holmes said, "and he didn't do it. We are not going to stop fighting until we free Leonard.

"The worst mistake our movement could make would be to put any confidence in the leaders of the Democratic Party," he said. "We need an independent movement that fights in the streets."

Njeri Shakur and Gloria Rubac of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement received a warm welcome from the crowd. They condemned Bush's record of more than 150 executions while governor of Texas, including the legal lynchings of revolutionaries Shaka Sankofa/Gary Graham and Ponchai "Kamau" Wilkerson last year.

Kim Denmark, a former welfare recipient from Dayton, Ohio, spoke about how she has walked across the Eastern U.S. to expose the evils of workfare and other so-called "welfare reforms." Paul Ford, an activist from Grinnell College in Iowa, led a chant of "Students united will never be defeated!"

Other speakers included Jerry Do minguez of the Mexican Workers Association, the Rev. Kiyul Chung of the Korea Truth Commission, Rebeca Toledo of the U.S. Out of Colombia Committee, Zapatista supporters and representatives of the group Free D.C.

Protesters shook the bleachers with cheers when an audiotaped message from Abu-Jamal called on them to "organize a revolutionary movement."

When a Texas marching band replete with Stetson hats and cowboy boots became the first parade contingent to pass Freedom Plaza, its members soon wished they were somewhere else.

Protesters drowned out their patriotic tunes with chants of "Free Mumia, jail Bush" and "Racist, sexist, anti-gay--George Bush, go away!"

"There were a lot of lesbian, gay, bi and trans folks," Elijah Crane of Rainbow Flags for Mumia told WW. "It was great to hear the whole crowd chanting against Bush for being 'racist, sexist and anti-gay.'

"People representing every issue and struggle were standing side-by-side. Someone was holding a sign that said 'remember Wanda Jean Allen' next to someone with a sign that said 'stop Plan Colombia,'" said Crane.

"That was really inspiring and lent to the strong feeling of solidarity throughout the day."

Workers World Party presidential candidate Monica Moorehead told WW: "The movement for social justice may have begun in Seattle in 1999. But today marks a new milestone, despite all the attempts by the big-business media to whitewash the protests.

"The hijacking of this election by the thoroughly racist and reactionary Bush administration is helping to broaden the movement. It's embracing more people of color and working people as well as militant youths.

"This will be an important and exciting period for the class struggle in the United States, and the whole world will be watching," she predicted.

Speeding limos

The afternoon wore on. But despite the chill, the crowd's anger only seemed to heat up the longer Bush delayed making the drive down Pennsylvania Ave.

Across the avenue from the liberated bleachers, an elaborate, enclosed viewing stand had been erected for Washington officials and big-money guests. They nervously sipped tea and ate hors d'oeuvres as they watched the protesters spill over to their side of the block.

When demonstrators spotted arch-racist New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the viewing stand, they erupted in loud chants of "Amadou, Amadou"--for Amadou Diallo, the young African worker killed by 41 New York Police bullets.

Bush couldn't put off running the gantlet much longer without losing face. Buses roared up the avenue carrying Republican big shots, escorted by motorcycle cops. As each one passed, the crowds roared "Shame! Shame!"

Every few minutes a new contingent of heavily armed cops would march into the street and line up in front of Freedom Plaza. Then, just before Bush started his drive, a squad of riot police staged a mock assault on the protesters at 14th St.

Advancing in military formation with nightsticks swinging, the police stopped just short of the front line of protesters. Then they retreated.

If anyone was scared by this display, they didn't show it. The chants of "Stop police brutality!" only grew louder.

At 12th Street the limos carrying Bush and Cheney came to a dead stop. More Secret Service agents surrounded the vehicles.

When they finally moved, it was to race by Freedom Plaza as quickly as possible. Secret Service agents, gasping for breath, tried to keep up.

But there's no way Bush could have missed the message. Thousands upon thousands of angry protesters were waving signs and chanting "George Bush, racist murderer!"

Bush, the police and the ruling class had hoped the inauguration would be a crushing defeat for the new protest movement. Instead it was a great victory.

"This is precisely the scene the Bush administration did everything it could to prevent," said IAC Co-director Brian Becker. "As they went up Pennsylvania Ave. they didn't want to see thousands of placard-waving protesters opposed to his conservative policies. But we've done it."

Michelle Gore, a young African American woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., and a member of the Actors Equity union, echoed the sentiments of many first-time demonstrators. "It was exciting," she said. "I can't wait for the next protest."

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