Riding Shotgun: This is what Democracy looks like

A women’s rights march.

Dust-choked, crowded, smelling of whatever it is one million human
bodies smell like when you pack them together into twenty square
blocks — that tinged with garbage, grass, cigarette smoke and a hint
of pot. That’s what Democracy smells like.

What it looks like is a moving mass of color and sound, like a slow,
shallow tidal wave making its way up, across, down, and through the
grid of streets around Washington, DC’s National Mall.

The word mob doesn’t do it justice. Neither does crowd, group, or
throng. And whatever word you use to signify so many bodies moving in
a rough approximation of unison, eclectic doesn’t even begin to
describe its one million or so moving parts.

I’m part of it, and yet not. I’m armed with a camera, not a placard,
and I’m watching with an eye connected to a brain that knows it will
be called on to write about the occasion afterwards. So I’m not
chanting, and I’m trying to stay out of the thickest parts of the
rally-march, because I’m 5′ 10″, and being in the middle of things
doesn’t always make for the best pictures. Instead, I’m darting around
the fringes, moving faster than the marchers, backtracking when I need
to. The camera around my neck and the contents of the pack on my back
— one bottle of water, one bottle of Diet Pepsi, zoom lens, notebook,
newspaper — are heavy and I’m glad it’s overcast and cool.

I spent several hours yesterday helping friends move out of their
third-floor apartment. My muscles are one twisted, aching ball and not
happy about the 15 pounds of camera and beverages they’re being
asked to carry.

It’s 1 pm and the
rally
is scheduled until 4. People from all over the country have
shown up. They were here as early as Friday. I saw them on the Metro
and walking around the city with that signature look: tourists with a
purpose.

They began gathering on the grassy expanse of the National Mall
between the Smithsonian buildings this morning around 10 am. A stage
is set up for speakers as well as several Jumbotrons. This particular
piece of the lawn stretches from the base of the Capitol to the
antagonistically appropriate phallic monster of the Washington
Monument, and it’s smothered in bodies.

The actual march starts around noon from the Monument side, heads
along Pennsylvania Avenue and loops around to end up back at the
Capitol side where the bulk of the rally takes place. It’s two miles
of slow movement through streets glutted with people, signs and sound.

The last major abortion rights rally in DC was in April 1992, the
spring before Clinton was elected. Estimates put the count then at
500,000. Park police don’t
do estimates
anymore. Not after the organizers of the Million Man
March disputed the three-quarter of a million count. But the
unofficial count today is a little over a million. That’s twice the
size from 12 years ago for those without a calculator.

Why so many? Why now?

The right time and the right place, I guess.

This rally is as much anti-Bush as pro-choice. Bush frightens and
angers a lot of people. He’s an Evangelical who has said on the record
that the judges he wants to see on the bench are those that recognize
that the rights of men are derived from God. He prides himself on his
uncomplicatedness and his unwillingness to compromise, which to many
translates as stupid, stubborn and not planning to change anytime
soon. He’s pushed forward a foreign policy that’s managed to alienate
an unprecedented majority of the world’s population.

Couple this with the fact that he lost the popular vote (more people
voted for Gore than Bush — I’ll save the complexities of Electoral College math
for another time) and many see him as a usurper, squatting illegally
in the Oval Office, and possibly shitting on the carpet.

People feel strongly about him.

An AP report tomorrow will state “Police arrested 16 people from the
Christian Defense Coalition (CDC) for demonstrating without a permit
and another anti-abortion protester for throwing ink-filled plastic
eggs at rally signs.”

Actually, it was a pro-choice protestor with the eggs, because he/she
was throwing them at one of the CDC fetus-signs. Either that or he/she
has irreparably shitty aim, which is possible, because I’m standing
behind the CDC’s little pro-life island when one of the plastic eggs
smashes right in front of me and sprays a black liquid onto the leg of
my jeans. From the smell I can immediately tell it’s permanent ink.
Maybe he/she thought I was with the CDC group, or is possibly a recent
trade to the pitching lineup of the Baltimore Orioles.

A short, brutal stint in jail is the best place for retards like
that. I don’t mean the word retard as a slam against the mentally
challenged. People who are mentally challenged I refer to as mentally
challenged. People who resort to ink-filled plastic eggs when they
outnumber their opposition by a ratio of 1 to
holy-fucking-shit-that’s-a-lot-of-people are retards.

I see things like that all along the route. Papers tomorrow will say
that a few thousand counter-protestors showed up, but they’re so
spread out along the two miles of downtown street that they seem like
only a few dozen. They hold fetus-signs and crosses and wave
Bibles. They stand behind the waist-high guard rails that line the
parade route and shout things that range from violent, but expected
(“Murderers”) to bland (“You don’t want a baby, don’t have sex”) to
frightening (“God hates you, you evil dyke cunts! You are all going to
die!”)

An offhand note: This isn’t the first time I’ve made mention in this
column of some person or group claiming that God hates
something/someone. To me, this never fails to seem the height of
hubris. Hate is an emotion so dependent on the frailty,
short-sightedness and hard-heartedness — upon the sheer, ugly
mortality of the person that nurtures it — that to attribute it to a
God that you say you love, adore and worship as omniscient and
omnipotent seems a slap in the face.

It is as ridiculous as saying “God doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

I’m an agnostic, and even I feel a little angry, embarrassed and
protective of a deity whose supposed worshipers run around with signs
reading “God Hates Fags” or “God Hates Disobedient Women.”

You hate fags.

You hate disobedient women.

Why can’t you just make a sign that says “I Hate..?”

Don’t drag your god into it.

But no matter how obscene, profane, angry and ridiculous the signs and
the shouts, there always seem to be pro-choice ralliers willing to get
in their faces and yell back, which is basically what the
counter-protestors want even if they don’t know it.

At this time, in this place, the event is about them. Ignore them, and
while they might not go away, they’ll have infinitely less power than
if you start screaming back.

Anyway.

Sometimes democracy is ugly: dirty hippies, pictures of aborted
fetuses, far too many signs designed around the all-too-easy Bush joke
(i.e. “I shaved my pussy to protest Bush”).

Sometimes it’s surprisingly not: Washington, DC Police Chief Charles
Ramsey standing on the sidelines, watching the march, being thanked by
one person after another for helping make the day run so smoothly and
peacefully.

It’s definitely democracy. But as I’m walking and listening and
watching, I’m wondering just how much good it’s going to do.

Abortion has become a symbol of the women’s rights movement in
America. I don’t know if it’s the best one, but there it is. Behind
the comparatively simple facade of the word pro-choice is a
complicated hub of issues and emotions that, when translated, comes
out sounding something like: “For a hundred thousand years of human
evolution, the female of the species has been considered the lesser of
the sexes. We will no longer allow the will of powerful men to
determine what we can and cannot do.”

For marching purposes though, it’s better if you stick to pro-life
vs. pro-choice. The most successful rallies are those that have a
solid, easily definable core, and while speakers throughout the day
talk about atrocities in foreign countries, health disparities, the
need for free dissemination of sexual education, and racial/sexual
inequities in America, abortion is still the core.

I wonder though how many pro-life women there are out there who are
allowing their rights to be trampled in other ways because they eschew
this movement for its stand on abortion.

The real question of the day is: will this be enough to get the vote?

That’s the one that groups like NOW
and NARAL and, in an off-to-the
sidelines kind of way, the Democratic Party are asking
themselves.

This march accomplishes nothing if it ends here, which it does around
5 pm. Speakers urge these million demonstrators to go back to their
homes and communities, register
to vote
if they’re not, and to take friends with them. They’re
urged to start grassroots movements in their neighborhoods. They’re
urged to begin to demonstrate their feelings/beliefs/views in their
everyday lives.

This is where the power of a public demonstration of this kind shows
its face. Oh, there might be a few whose mindframe is changed on the
spot: “Well, shucks. These rhythmic chants have shown me that the
pro-choice movement is not just about abortion, but about the right of
every woman — nay, every human — to be able to make decisions about
their own well-being. I have seen the light. Excuse me while I toss in
the garbage this giant picture of an aborted fetus whom I have
lovingly named Phil.”

But there won’t be many.

The real value of this event will be an emotional one. Ironically, it
must act in many ways like a religious revival. It must enflame
passions while guiding the fires that erupt forth in the necessary
directions. Most of all, it must tie together this gut-warming feeling
of union and self-empowerment with the world of politics, which to
many, even those who feel so strongly about a particular issue, might
seem to have the flavor and emotional texture of freeze-dried
meatloaf.

In other words, it has to help these women — most of them are women
— make the connection between their interests and their power as
voters, as agents of change.

It has to help them make the connection between their life, liberty
and pursuit of happiness and the decisions that are made in the White
House, Capitol Building, Supreme Court and various committee rooms in
Washington, DC. And it has to help provide them with the direction and
intellectual ammunition with which to help others make that
connection.

An aside: here are some facts, compiled just for me by the U.S. Census
Bureau right after the November 2000 elections.

  • There were 202,609,000 people over 18 in America.
  • 97,087,000 were men.
  • 105,523,000 were women.
  • Of the 13,375,000 women 18 to 24 years of age, 6,893,000 (51.5%) were
    not registered to vote.
  • Of the 19,072,000 women 25 to 34 years of age, 8,140,000 (42.7%) were
    not registered to vote.

Don’t feel too bad, ladies. In both age groups, the statistics for men
are even worse.

If you want to feel bad, think on this: George W. Bush won Florida,
and the 2000 election, by 537 votes.

This demonstration cannot simply be about preaching to the choir. It
must result in the conversions of those who, before now, have not been
counted, have not taken part in the process.

When they make that connection between the personal and the politic,
when they realize that the vote is the greatest power a single citizen
is given in a democratic republic, when they organize their passions
and their drives into a movement, a human machine to gather others of
like mind, they will see that they can move mountains. They will not
just be empowered; they will be well-armed.

Maybe this march can be the spark. Hopefully, it will be one of many.

Without a catalyst, without a drive to actually use that vote, their
voting power will be simply a useless hunk of lead sitting in the
chamber, a mass of never-realized potential energy that will become
just another disappointing statistic.

Watching a million people scatter into the city, I fan the fires of my
ever-present optimism (don’t give me that look) and decide I will
fantasize in their favor. I will believe that they will go home. That
they will arm themselves and others with information and voter
registration forms. And that, come November, they will be ready to
vote, to pull the fucking trigger.

This is what democracy looks like.

Article © 2004 by Steve Spotswood