Sunday, November 14, 2010

Being Counted

The podcaster asked me if I thought it was a cluster fuck. I said, to describe it that way would be to disavow our newly cultivated caution against hyperbole. I said, instead, I would just call it . . . crowded.

During the drive up, Svetx had asked what would be most important to me about the rally. I said the important thing was to be counted. I had learned that phrase from a friend who was in a civil rights march one time. She got arrested, and said later that it was important to her to be counted with respect to that issue.

This was my time to be counted. I wanted attendance at this rally to beat that of Glenn Beck’s. On the phone the night before, my step-father had assured me it would NOT surpass the Beck rally, and I needed to prove him wrong.

Svetx said she was going to restore sanity. She said that, in any discourse, that was the first thing that should always be restored.

We woke on Saturday in friend G’s apartment right across the street from the College Park metro station. We took our time and ventured into the chilly morning around 9:30.

At the metro station, the ticket line unfolded before us, laying dismay upon dismay, like some awful vista of a mob trying to fit itself into a few dinghies to escape the land-roving aliens in War of the Worlds. The crowd filled the large sheltered space before the ticket machines; it went 4-persons wide up the steps, around the corner, along the parking lot and into the parking deck. And it was not moving very fast, as if everyone were figuring out the ticket machines for the first time.

I had not prepared properly. I should have had us purchase tickets the night before. This was not sane.

I texted that sentiment to friends who were driving up from NC that morning. They texted back that they were at the station in Springfield and having the same trouble.

One woman in line front of us said the line was worse than the line for Obama’s inauguration. A guy behind us said to bear in mind that this was a college stop and would draw an inordinately large crowd for a Stewart/Colbert event.

This was my second strike. Not only should I have bought Metro tickets the night before, I should have thought that this might be a bad place to board the Metro. Svetx and I talked about driving to another station, or even driving downtown. But we figured, countryfolks like us shouldn’t try to drive in the city on a day like this. We stayed in the line. And, an hour later, we were buying tickets and heading to the platform where, thankfully, the distribution of people allowed us decent positioning to get on the train.

We College Parkers did fill the train though, so that from the next stop onward, virtually no more were able to get on. Crowds on the platforms would look at us in disbelief as our doors opened and our ranks swelled outward a little, taking a breath, before retracting so that the doors could slam again. One rider yelled to waiting passengers, “Go to Greenbelt,” meaning, ride out of town to a station not crowded, then get on an empty train coming in.

We had seen our first sign at College Park. It read, “Fear Through the Ages” and gave examples like “Satan” and “Fallen Women.” On the train we saw a woman with “I Could Be Working.” I was glad I had not executed my own sign idea, “Algae Oil -- The Sanest Transportation Fuel,” because now it seemed bland compared to these others.

Folks pressed against us on the train said we should get off at the Archives. Sailing into that station, we saw hordes of people, shadowy through the train’s tinted glass. We wondered why this platform, the Metro exit point for rally-goers, was even more packed than those we had passed. Then, stepping out, of the train, we saw why. The exit escalator and gates were simply clogged.

But this crowd was moving steadily, if slowly. We would get out. As long as nobody set off a bomb or something and caused a panic.

Ahead someone held a tall sign on a stake, like a military standard, leading the way. The Metro ceiling was high enough to allow this sign to tower above the rest of us, broadcasting its message even to this underground audience before emerging to its intended venue of daylight on the mall.

For the Metro’s part, it doesn’t help that you have to run your ticket as you LEAVE the station, not just as you enter. Why on earth does DC require this?

Upstairs in daylight, everyone walked with long strides on streets, sidewalks, low walls bordering sidewalks, heading south toward sunlight, toward the wide open space lined with grand marble buildings, toward shimmering glints in windows. We ignored regulatory walk signs and simply crossed, giving cars no chance. We passed hucksters selling activist buttons and signs -- the pink booby awareness people, the abortion people, some Guantanamo people -- groups I’ve only seen, heretofore, on TV -- and one guy advertising “Generic Signs” holding my favorite for the day: “My Balls Itch No Matter Who’s In Charge.”

Clearly, this was the big time.

Ahead of us bobbed other signs advancing toward the Mall, including “God Hates Figs: Mark 11:12-14”

We were on 7th, which was supposed to be the back of the Rally. Entering the Mall, though, it seemed the crowd stretched equally far toward the Capitol and toward the Washington Monument.

I’ve been tuned to crowd murmurs since, as a child, my Dad would listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. He once told me that as soon as we heard the crowd noise on the radio broadcast, that would be the top of the hour, and I could set my watch.

I would do this every Saturday. I learned to spot that audience murmur as soon as I heard it. Now, entering the Mall, we became enveloped in a crowd murmur far more substantive. The 200,000+ voices sounded hushed under the big bright sky, with no concert hall to lend its reverberation. But like the South Dakota grass, there was power in the numbers.

And, like the South Dakota grass, there were waves. We would hear a roar coming and, country boy that I am, I would experience slight panic -- was there a terrorist attack going on ahead where we couldn’t see? The roar would come closer and we would hear the strength in those voices, the mid-range growing, alarming; and then there would be the hands in the air and we would raise our hands too, and the wave would pass on.

It probably took us half an hour to cross the Mall on 7th. Then we spent another half-hour crossing back. Like hardening concrete, the mob was getting denser, and we needed to quickly pick the spot we would be cemented to. So we stood at the back of 7th sort of behind and to the side of the TV trucks.

We could barely see a jumbotron and hear a stand of speakers; then an ambulance parked in our line-of-sight, and obscured both of these. We essentially saw and heard nothing through the entire rally.

In front of us, on 7th, the concrete never fully hardened. People oozed past in both directions, pressing each other. And, strangely, immediately to my left, there was a constant single-person thick trickle of people going both in to, and out of, the grass behind us. It was like when you take a decongestant, and you can’t believe how relentlessly your snot flows out. This line of people flowed through the whole rally. A grumpy northeasterner just to the other side of this trickle kept griping at the people. “We’re going to cut this off. There’s no room back there. Why are you heading there?”

Expressing counter sentiment, one passing mom said, “Cut it off after me. My son just went through.”

When the Rally was over, we just stayed where we were. The crowd thinned slowly. A set of signs went by, each held by a different person: “How Do We Get Out Of Here?” “I Don’t Know.” “How ‘Bout That Way?” “Okay.”

Svetx and I laid down in the grass and rested our backs. The late October sun was still bright, but angled low in the sky. It would be a long time before anyone could freely walk wherever one wanted. I later heard that, into the night on blocks surrounding the mall, people could be seen still wandering or just sitting on the sidewalks in their folding lawn chairs, with no idea what to do for the night. Hotels and transportation were probably booked, leaving them with no options.

Text messages had been impossible during the rally, but when they finally started again, friends said that they were at the Archives steps. We met up there, and wandered to view the WWII Memorial.

The WWII Memorial does make great use of spacial divisions, with upper layers of flat pools giving way to waterfalls which spill to lower layers; and curving ramps that draw the visitor down to its bottom layer. But what’s with the columns depicting names of states and territories? Arkansas, Alabama . . . these words alone do not represent soldiers fallen in war. If I had not known this was a WWII memorial, I would have thought it was simply a monument commemorating the states, as stamps and quarters do.

The Vietnam Memorial, on the other hand, is a truer memorial in my view. There is no confusion about what the names listed there mean, and no way not to be conscious of the death. Every visit there, I have seen people making rubbings from the names of the dead, and volunteers helping them and answering questions. This is what a memorial is for -- place to address the pain. I’ve known no one who died in that war, but it is hard even for me to go there without being moved to tears. Svetx’s father was in the war and surely he knows lots of names on the wall. I think about how I’m so glad he survived, and I think about the others coming here who know a name on the wall, and for whom the only explanation I can give is that a president did not want to appear soft on communism.

Friend S pointed out that the list of names for memorial for an Iraq and Afghanistan war would have a distinction from the Vietnam list: Many would be Latin American.

We moved on to the Lincoln Memorial, which now stood on its hill in the setting sun. Inside are the words of a president who served during war and claimed responsibility for his decisions about that war, vocally questioned his own wisdom, and observed the correlation between the slashes of the swords and the lashes of the whips in slavery. How refreshing this is compared to today’s politicians who never seem to question themselves, and never acknowledge how our nations past actions may have contributed to present strife.

The Lincoln Memorial has been the site of past rallies of people who really needed to rally. They were oppressed, or protesting a war, for instance. In my lifetime, I have also seen rallies of laborers, people seeking abortion rights, women’s rights. I have not felt moved to attend any of these. Why, of all rallies, did I come to the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear?

Because it struck a chord. Because I get it -- at least, I hope I can claim to be one of the “It Getters” that Colbert identified as the viewers of his first show back in 2005. It was a rally about rallies, with signs mostly mocking or referencing slogans from past rallies, and Stewart invoking the criteria on which past rallies have been judged -- the size and composition of the crowd -- and declaring the rally to have some exaggerated number of people, just as past rally organizers have done.

We were not desperate people fighting for civil rights, as many Americans rightfully have done; and we do not perceive ourselves to be living under a socialist or Muslim president. We are the more middle-ground folks, the “million moderates,” in Stewart’s words.

Probably, we can afford to be moderate because we are just lucky. But surely it is a good sign that our rally was more than double the size of the teabaggers’.

Continue . . .