Letter from Washington: The Jericho Protest

The Jericho Protest

Small acts of rebellion, like the Jericho Protest, serve to remind others that they’re not alone.

On Sunday mornings, I like to go for coffee at Peet’s by the White House. Located on a sunny corner, it’s a good place to write in the quiet moments just after dawn. Inside, it’s usually just me, Secret Service agents taking a break and the odd jogger.

One of those odd joggers is the man from the Jericho Protest. I saw him a couple months ago. A runner with a vuvuzela. He stopped in front of 1600 Pennsylvania, blew his horn, and jogged off. Clearly, it was his Sunday morning routine.

So, when I saw a person with a horn in front of Peet’s, I had to stop and get his photo. He does seven laps around the White House, blowing his horn on each circuit, just like the Jericho legend.

The plaza in front of the White House is blocked off to cars. Located at the intersection of two major bike lanes, it’s the Mixing Bowl of #BikeDC. If you bike in this city, and are going east-west or north-south, it’s hard to avoid the Trumpian residence.

How do you respond?

Some go out of their way, not wanting to be reminded of the figure in the White House.

Others incorporate protest into their daily routine.

Flipping off the White House

There’s a cyclist who flips off the President every morning. For a while, I had the same schedule as her. I’d see her, the woman in the Ortlieb backpack, one hand held up in defiance as she pedaled by, her moment of protest for the day.

On Tyranny is a great little book on defending democracy. In it, Timothy Snyder highlights that tyranny is only possible through consent. Our actions, even small ones, matter:

The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote

Rites of resistance, from blowing a horn at the White House to flipping off the President, make a difference, for they signal to others that Americans will not give up democracy without a fight.

Letter from Washington: Endgame

Protest in support of the CFPB

Never a good sign when there are people picketing the office. I started a contractor gig at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently. Monday morning, I was greeted by protesters in front of the brutalist home of the agency a block from the White House.

But they were in support of the CFPB, not opposing it. The Director had left the week before and had tried to appoint one of his deputies as Acting Director. The Trump administration had countermanded this order and sent over Mick Mulvaney, the OMB Director, to run the CFPB. He arrived Monday morning with donuts.

Outside, the media asked, “Who’s in charge?” Inside, there was no confusion: Mulvaney, because the agency’s General Counsel said so. Americans have an admirable belief in the rule of law, even when it harms their interests.

Mulvaney settled into the executive suite with a small team (including his own Jonah – life imitates VEEP) and immediately put a hold on all activities. Innocuous communications work, like the type I was hired to do, will be allowed to continue but Mulvaney will put a stop to enforcement actions, such as penalizing Wells Fargo for creating fake accounts and bilking consumers.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren came to protest on Tuesday, trailing the largest media contingent I have ever seen. Presidential, I would describe it, a scrum of reporters, TV crews and giddy supporters so chaotic that I couldn’t hear anything she said about the agency she helped to found.

Inside, we were instructed not to talk to reporters. I would gladly talk to reporters, if I knew anything. We work for the people. They have a right to know.

Inside, the line was: Mulvaney will change us, but we’ll change him too. CFPB is staffed by relentless, Obama-era optimists.

Lincoln weeps for the nation

Thursday night, I went for a run, ending up in front of Lincoln, dead and forgotten in his memorial. Republicans, what happened to you? The Great Emancipator freed people from bondage while today’s GOP works to put consumers in debt traps, provide tax breaks for the wealthy and collude with Russia to destroy democracy.

Just before starting the CFPB gig, I finished reading A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, which takes Abe off his pedestal, revealing his early life as a scrambling politician. Born poor, he worked for the common man, trying to bring canals and railroads to the frontier, always on the side of farmers and tradesmen, believing that government worked for the people.

If Lincoln awoke today, he would be appalled, recognizing in today’s GOP the exploitative planter class that he destroyed during the Civil War. For abandoning the beliefs of Lincoln in favor of a charlatan, Republicans have disgraced themselves for eternity.

The week continued with the chaos typical of the Trump regime, with rumors of Tillerson being forced out at State and a nightmare of a tax bill being forced through the Senate.

Then, a Friday morning bombshell: Flynn pleads guilty! The odious former National Security Advisor made a deal with the Special Prosecutor, who is working through the Trump administration, as if he were rolling up a Mafia family.

Because Trump can’t stop tweeting, even on the weekends, he had to comment on Saturday about Flynn, seeming to incriminate himself in obstruction of justice.

How does this end? Nixon had the decency to resign. A member of the Greatest Generation, he left office to preserve the country (and his party).

Donald Trump, the ultimate representation of the crass and selfish Baby Boom Generation, lacks the honor of Nixon. A con artist, draft dodger and rapist, he will not surrender office willingly.

As justice draws near, I see three possible endgames:

1. Trump fires Mueller. The country is thrown into chaos. 2018 is a year of mass demonstrations and widespread resistance until the midterm elections. Then, with a crushing Democratic majority, Trump is impeached.

2. Trump is charged with obstruction of justice, but Republicans refuse to impeach. Again, widespread domestic chaos hopefully ending with a Democratic majority.

3. Trump goes to war against North Korea to distract from the Mueller probe. Like World War I, a regional conflict spirals into a global catastrophe, leaving millions dead and the end of the US as a superpower.

I hope to be proven wrong but if 2017 has taught us anything is that each week brings ever-growing chaos and peril, as American democracy comes under sustained attack from without and within. It’s up to us to resist.

Unpresidented: Days of Rage and Rebirth on the Streets of DC

Unpresidented panel at FotoWeek
Mukul Ranjan, Chris Suspect and Joe Newman (seated, l to r)

If you get hit with tear gas, flush your eyes out with milk. Flashbang grenades make a lot of noise but aren’t harmful. The DC police are very professional but will lash out if they feel trapped. These are the things you learn at a FotoWeek panel. The subject was UnPresidented, a great photo book documenting the Trump inauguration protests.

Joe Newman organized some of D.C.’s top street photographers to document the contentious inauguration of Donald J. Trump, which was met with rioting, peaceful civil disobedience and one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. The images from the three days of the inauguration — which included President Obama’s last full day in office, the day before the inauguration, and the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after — were published in UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response.

Joining him for this panel discussion at the Mexican Cultural Institute were Chris Suspect and Mukul Ranjan, who documented a weekend of chaos on the streets of DC.

Protests in DC typically have a routine quality to them, a polite display of signs and chants. But the inauguration protests were different in size, scope and level of anger. I was on the streets and saw things I never expected to see in DC, like people getting punched and a limousine on fire.

But I was also witness to the start of something. Days of rage gave way to the inspiring spectacle of the Women’s March, the largest crowd I have ever seen, stretching from the Capitol to the White House and beyond. It was a nation finding its voice: The Resistance.

These momentous days of protest and and rebirth are captured brilliantly in UnPresidented.

Letter from Washington: Disabled

Wheelchair-bound protesters return home
Wheelchair-bound protesters return home.

After pulling my calf, I’ve been biking even more than usual. Since it hurts to walk more than a block, I’ve been biking everywhere, door to door if I can, aiming to never let my feet touch the ground.

I was coming back from a happy hour for the Climate Ride. Cyclists did 208 miles over three days to raise money for climate change research. Once in Washington, they were greeted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who insisted that climate change was a bipartisan issue and that there were Republicans who would be on their side, were it not for the pernicious influence of anonymously-funded PACs.

It was a sweaty day, unusual for the end of September, with temperatures in the 80s. The news has been filled with hurricanes, first Florida and then Puerto Rico, while Trump has tweeted slurs against NFL athletes.

After happy hour, I rode home as it got dark. Just off the National Mall, traffic was stopped.

Filtering up to the top of the queue, I saw why – a long stream of people in wheelchairs were rolling through the intersection. They were returning home to their hotel after demonstrating against the repeal of Obamacare. Imagine the level of commitment – and desperation – required to travel anywhere in a wheelchair, much less a strange city, to spend the day demonstrating against a government that wants to kill you.

The Metropolitan Police Department had blocked traffic so that these wheelchair-bound protesters could get home. Three cars were devoted to this purpose. The MPD has mastered this kind of rolling roadblock, gaining experience escorting the numerous anti-Trump demonstrations that have rocked the city.

A long silent moment passed as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians waited respectfully as the people in wheelchairs crossed the intersection. The protesters who came to Washington, the police protecting them, the people who waited – we represent the best of the country, while our leadership represents the worst.

Letter from Washington: Erased from History

With TrumpCare, you won't be covered
Protester at the old Post Office

Following the election of Donald Trump, I was not discouraged. I wasn’t even particularly interested, as if I was watching a TV show featuring a car wreck rather than actually living through one. I even a wrote a short story that appeared in the City Paper, Victory Party, that was sympathetic to the misguided wishes of Trump supporters.

Once in office, I assumed Trump would be a new and better man, cognizant of history and burdened with global responsibilities.

We know how that worked out.

His derangement is such a weird outlier in American history that our system doesn’t know how to respond. What do you do if the king is mad? It’s a problem more out of Shakespeare than anything written in the Constitution.

Engulfed by scandal, a rational man would resign. A rational party would step in and force him to do so, like the Republicans did during Watergate.

Instead, Washington is powerless, the will of one man dragging the country into a political abyss from which both parties, and the country as a whole, will be irrevocably changed.

Not even six months in office and Trump recently held his first reelection fundraiser. Shamelessly, it was held at the Old Post Office, a historic building that he’s trimmed with gold and slapped his name on, the Emoluments Clause be damned.

On the street, a few dozen protesters, their focus being on the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with the rump plan of Trumpcare.

There were two Trump supporters. The first, a homeless man who revived from his drug-induced stupor to stagger across the sidewalk and demand that we respect the President. The second, a tourist who shouted her love for Trump before her husband led her away.

The Presidential motorcade drove by, as if the protesters and supporters didn’t exist, their cries rising up to an empty sky, the interloper slipping into the grand old building that belongs to the public.

I took a few photos of the motorcade. I could see the Presidential seal but not Trump himself. I deleted the photos. Didn’t want them.

In ancient Rome, some rulers were so awful that their reigns were erased from history. Nobody wanted to remember them. Their temples were destroyed. Their burial places hidden. Their names scratched off monuments.

When this ends, and it will end, there will be a similar effort. If America had an undo button, we would hit it. Instead, we will try to pretend that this never happened, like the ex-wife nobody talks about or the house guest that stayed too long.

Of course, we won’t forget – nor should we, this hard lesson in democracy.

Letter from Washington: Protest Fatigue

a smattering of Trump supporters

The weather has gotten warm, mild May days segueing into June humidity. People still come to Washington to protest, nearly every weekend, but with diminished fervor, everyone waiting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of collusion between Trump and his Russian masters.

A rare event occurred on Saturday – a demonstration in favor of the President, a small band of supporters from Virginia, kids mostly, holding signs and shouting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You had to really look for them, hidden amid the Segways and selfie sticks of summer tourists that crowd the plaza. Only the presence of TV cameras hinted at the presence of the Trump group, a gaggle of photographers encircling the small protest. At its peak, the Make America Great Again crowd mustered 50 people from the red state across the river.

It was a mostly white crowd, but not entirely. What struck me, however, was how many high school kids and preteens there were, as if MAGA was a form of youthful rebellion, sticking it to teachers and authority figures.

There were counter-protesters, people who had come down early for the March for Truth. They stood a respectful distance away, for the most part not interested in mixing it up with the Trump folks, confident in the strength of their numbers. The one flare-up I witnessed was when a 14-year-old Trump girl began shouting “Build the Wall!” at Trump opponents. “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” one responded.

Still, the day lacked the raw tension of Inauguration Day, when you felt that violence was imminent (and it was). The reason is that the Trump people have disappeared from the streets. Nearly every weekend, a massive march has filled the broad avenues of the capital – Women’s March, Immigration Ban Protest, LGBT Makeout Session, The March for Science, Climate March – driving Trump supporters underground. The only time you ever see a Trump hat in DC is when it’s perched on the head of a red state sophomore touring the monuments with a school group.

The March for Truth

The March for Truth, which was not a march but merely a rally under the Washington Monument, had an exhausted quality to it. “Protest is the new brunch!” a speaker announced as the crowd emerged from the under the shade of the cherry blossom trees, as if reporting for duty.

The era of the mass protest is over. By filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of people for weekends in a row, the point has been made: we outnumber you.

Now, it’s up to the institutions. The men and women in the Congress and the courts who are entrusted to preserve our precious democracy. We wait for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday. Our system of government was explicitly crafted by men like Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington to prevent the rule of a tyrant. We’ll see if our current leaders have a fraction of the courage that these great men displayed.

Letter from Washington: We Don’t Need Any Stinking Credentials!

IMG_1931

We’re winning. That was my thought watching a dozen women make out in front of the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A right-wing blog called the protest “sparsely attended.” Which was true. Participants were outnumbered by a crowd of viewers, which included photographers, police, tourists, friends and security guards.

But the protest was just one of a dozen that took place in Washington, DC, over a very mild President’s Day Weekend. Or, as it was called here, Not My President’s Day Weekend.

Despite the small size, there was a joy in the LGBT Makeout Against Trump protest that would overwhelm even the most bigoted heart. Protesters distributed mints and gum to the crowd. Funny signs were shared. Selfies were taken, as the thump of Nicki Minaj reached up the face of the Old Post Office.

My anaconda, don’t

My anaconda, don’t

Security guards delicately looked away as women grinded on the other side of the barricade. Two men paused in front of the Trump sign. And kissed, as the cameras whirred, recording their contribution to the resistance.

The interesting stuff always happens on the margins of these protests. In the middle, you have a hard core of organizers and participants – the people who make the signs and lead the chants. Surrounding them are supporters, friends and media. Beyond them, you find people passing by, drawn in by the noise and excitement.

And there’s always one or two who come to yell at the crowd, like Canute trying to hold back the waves. During the Muslim Ban March, there was a woman who shouted at the streaming throngs from her balcony, filled with desperate madness and fear, yelling until she went hoarse.

The LGBT dance party was no exception, one middle-aged man giving a young AU student a hard time. Her offense? Trying to interview him. She was a journalism major and was seeking opposing opinions for her video. “Where are your credentials? I need your credentials!” he kept demanding of the blonde girl, his face full of aggro.

But, if the election of Donald J. Trump has taught us anything, is that no credentials are needed. His election has inspired millions of people to do things they previously thought unthinkable – writing their member of Congress, organizing rallies and even making out in the street. You don’t credentials to be a journalist. Or a protester. Or the President. That’s what truly makes America great.

Letter from Washington: Signs of Spring

signs of spring

There are signs of spring in Washington, DC, little splashes of color appearing around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere in the city, despite temperatures that remain in the 40s. I spotted bits of of yellow, pink and white while running between memorials, the bright tones popping out against the muddy grays and browns of late winter.

Winter, even a mild Mid-Atlantic one, is a season to be survived. The days get shorter, the green drains from the trees and a low clouds descend upon the city for weeks at a time.

Snow is the only consolation, the bright white blanket that stills traffic and turns Washington into a pedestrian paradise. With its marble monuments and red-brick townhouses, DC becomes a magic snow globe, fat flakes falling forever, piling up on history and politics, Mother Nature making a mockery of man’s schemes.

But we didn’t even get snow this year. Instead, nothing but chaos under cloudy skies, stretching from the Presidential Inauguration until today, marches and demonstrations filling the streets, the weather be damned.

“I want one one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me,” the judge says in the Trump Peoples Court skit on SNL.

But there will be no relief. Instead, we get some light treason from the Trump campaign, revealed to be in contact with the Russian government before the election. All the dark theories about Putin’s control of our President are revealed to be true, in a blockbuster New York Times article fueled by leaks from the intelligence community.

Trump rages, in a barely coherent tweet slamming not the Russians, for subverting our democracy, but, instead, the American government.

The right calls it the Deep State, civil servants striking back against legitimately elected leaders. But, when you have a leader that’s mentally unstable, do you blame them? This rebellion of the bureaucrats prevented Mike Flynn, friend of Putin, from becoming National Security Advisor.

It’s a victory. Not quite the checks and balances envisioned by our Founders but a stop to erratic, dangerous and possibly treasonous executive action, joining the hold issued by the 9th Circuit against the Muslim Ban in the pantheon of victories.

Our enemies are weaker than they appear, held together only by the bluster of the flim-flam man. Take apart the lies, and they’re revealed to be scared and desperate, lest the mark uncover the illusion.

Winter seems to go on forever. Then, one day, you notice a couple of green shoots. Within a period of weeks, the world turns green again, spring reasserting itself with the power of all that’s good and true. That’s what Washington feels like today.

Letter from Washington: Don’t Blame The Swamp

The Swamp Welcomes Steve Bannon

During the campaign, Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp in Washington.” According to his formulation, this city was filled with nefarious characters who skirt the rules for their own benefit.

But what do you call a President who hawks his daughter’s clothing line on national TV? And sends his surrogates out to do the same? It’s literally a violation of Government 101 – you can’t endorse products as a government official. More than just unethical, it’s illegal, and one of the first things you learn upon entering federal service.

Don’t blame The Swamp for this endemic corruption. From stiffing contractors to swindling students, Trump exhibited a pattern of unethical behavior long before he set foot in this city.

I know, it’s easier to blame the nation’s problems on a secret cabal in Washington that controls everything. But, as the past few weeks have taught us, it’s shocking how little lawmakers actually control in this country. Trump can issue orders but they go unheeded and unenforced, for they are poorly written and unconstitutional. As I’ve written before, you need the cooperation of the bureaucracy to get things done in government.

Dystopias are supposed to be more efficient. Big Brother in 1984 was quite good at quashing dissent, even to the point of erasing the past. But the authors of this dystopia can’t even write a tweet without an embarrassing error.

Don’t blame Washington – we’re really not that good at governing the lives of others. Even the Obama administration, staffed with Ivy League graduates, was responsible for a bloodbath in Syria and somehow made healthcare in this country even more complicated and unaffordable.

The Swamp is a town of do-gooders, which is not entirely a compliment. The prospect of helping others leads people into government agencies and nonprofit organizations. But it also propels some of the worst excesses of the past couple decades, such as the invasion of Iraq. The architects of that disaster believed that they were liberating people from tyranny. They were doing good.

Fortunately, the longer you are here, the less confidence you have in the efficacy of government. Instead, you work to make your community better on a local scale.

You could see this in a pair of events on a Saturday afternoon in DC. Cupid’s Undie Run was a charity event, designed to raise money to fight cancer. Participants donated money and ran a mile in their skivvies in a good-natured, PG-13 happening.

The run happened less than a block from where anarchists torched a limousine on Inauguration Day – the Swamp is compact and walkable.

Cupid's Undie Run

Running for Cree

After Cupid’s Undie Run, another event took place, one of a more serious nature, a demonstration against Trump’s immigration policy. Though his sweeping Muslim Ban order had been stopped, the threat of extreme vetting and deportation remained for the nation’s Latino community, who gathered in an emergency basis in front of the White House.

Demonstrators

Silence is consent

This was just one of several demonstrations that day. Earlier, was Primal Scream Against Trump (which I was sorry to miss) and later was a rally for free speech.

How do these demonstrations come together? The Internet. Groups post their rallies and marches online and people show up. The denizens of The Swamp. They look like quite normal people, don’t they?

The Swamp is a poor metaphor for the corruption and incompetence that plague American politics. That government no longer works is not due to a place. It’s due to people, most of whom are from out of town. If you live in The Swamp, you want government to work, for it’s the industry that defines your city. It’s why you’re here.

The chronic dysfunction comes from the creatures that slither into The Swamp every four years. Like Trump, they want to make money, cause some trouble and then get out. Without these interlopers, we’d have a healthy ecosystem that delivers results to the American people.

Iraq, Obamacare, Muslim Ban. Don’t blame The Swamp for these calamaties. Blame yourselves and the elected officials you send to rule here.

Letter from Washington: Fear and Loathing After the Inauguration

White House construction zone

Washington, DC, has a raw, unfinished quality to it. The Presidential reviewing stand is still up on Pennsylvania Avenue, as the National Park Service disassembles it with their usual lethargy. The site is surrounded by chain link fences, adding to the type and variety of barriers that encircle the White House – yellow caution tape, red wooden snow fences, concrete bollards, decorative planters, metal car barriers that pop up and, of course, the historic wrought iron fence that has proven to be so easy to climb.

Behind these walls, a couple of orange-hatted construction workers toil at disassembling the reviewing stand by hand, while observed by a platoon of heavily armed Secret Service agents. Work isn’t expected to be completed until March.

On the other side of the White House is the empty spire of the Washington Monument. It’s closed until Spring 2019, due to an elevator problem. We’ve fought and won wars in less time. It’s a symbol of America but is not a priority to Congress, who is more interested in taking things apart than fixing them.

Looking out on this tableau of dysfunction is Donald Trump. Brooding, tweeting, as he wanders the White House in a bathrobe. He doesn’t think to right the broken things around him. Instead, he conspires to break more things, appointing a parade of loathsome incompetents to high office – Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Betsy DeVos.

I wrote a novel called Don’t Mess Up My Block, the thesis of which is that you have to fake it until you make it. In this satire of a self-help book, a loser reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no qualifications or experience. With the blind confidence of a conman, he goes from Dinkytown obscurity to DC success.

Even with my fevered literary imagination, I never thought a conman could take over the federal government.

What this city needs is a good snowstorm. Today, it’s 65 degrees. I’m in a coffee shop by the White House. The air-conditioning is on. Outside, tourists walk by in shorts and t-shirts.

We need a blizzard, something to remind lawmakers of the power of Mother Nature to silence them all. A storm that shuts the city down for a week (like the one that occurred last year) might instill some humility in these cruel powerbrokers.

But that’s not going to happen. Winter is nearly over.

Rescue is not coming. “At some point, the adults will step in,” I assured myself during the election. Party elders. The media. The wisdom of the American people. Someone would save us.

We’re going to have to save ourselves. Humor is a good start. The parody of Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy did more to shape the public view of the administration than hours of talking heads on CNN, revealing the Trump regime’s bullying and incompetence.

Humor is subversive, an effective tool targeting tyranny and freeing people from fear. There’s a reason why anti-Trump demonstrations in DC feature so many hilarious signs – the people sense it’s working, these little pinpricks getting under the skin of delicate Donald and his supporters.

A President Full of Bologna

How does this all end? Mass demonstrations began the moment Trump was inaugurated. And they’ve continued despite seasonably cold weather in DC. Six major marches are coming this spring, from everyone from outraged scientists to outrageous juggalos.

If I was the city government, I would prepare for a million people to descend upon Washington, mass demonstrations of a size and scope not seen since the Vietnam War.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office

And if I were demonstrators, I would lay siege to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. The General Services Administration foolishly leased this grand building to Donald J. Trump, who garishly affixed his name to it in gold.

But this landmark belongs to the public, who saved it from demolition in the 1970s. Trump does not belong there; the Old Post Office belongs to us.

And, unlike the White House, the so-called Trump International Hotel is not ringed by fences. The Old Post Office is open to the public and right on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is vulnerable and should be the focus of demonstrations.

Surround the Trump Hotel. Discourage stays there. This would hurt Trump in his pocketbook. And, more importantly, his pride. Destroy the Trump brand. Make it mud. That’s how you drive this particular tyrant from office.