Walking Away from Democracy

crazy stupid sign

The rain, sadly, ended in time for the Walk Away pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC.

Supposedly a group of ex-Democrats who had “walked away” from the party, they gathered, a couple hundred of them, on the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza.

The Florida bomber wasn’t mentioned. Nor the Pittsburgh shooter. Instead, they complained that they were the victims, renounced by friends and family for “walking away” from liberalism.

Over and over, speakers claimed that they weren’t racist, to a very white and old crowd. I have never seen so much vaping in DC. One woman said that she couldn’t be racist because she had a black husband and a black baby.

“You won’t see this picture on the mainstream media!” she shouted in front of a collage of portraits of people in the movement, steps away from the Press tent, where the media could check in. Trumpkins desperately want coverage from the media that they scorn.

Political group demonstrates in DC isn’t news, especially if there’s only a couple hundred of them. This is a city which has seen anti-Trump demonstrators by the millions.

Q

Another speaker bragged of his ignorance. He only got the news from Twitter, as a couple circulated through the crowd holding a “Q” in red, white and blue. It’s the right’s favorite conspiracy theory, too complex and stupid to summarize. Basically, the government that Republicans have cursed as incompetent is secretly so competent that they can organize a deep state conspiracy against Trump.

The dangerous part is that these conspiracy theorists believe that Trump will strike back soon, with a military coup, that they cheer and encourage, as they work to make Trump a dictator.

It’s important to know your enemy. I went to see and record their anti-democratic beliefs and oddball notions. There is a temptation to ignore the madness of our fellow citizens.

But it’s better to know what they believe, for they are Trump’s base and provide cover for acts of violence like the Florida bomber. They are the sea in which terrorists swim.

For the Trump movement is a fascist movement. If the leader of another country called the media “enemies of the people” and winked at acts of violence against them, that’s how the American media would cover it. They’d call it fascism and refer to Trumpkins as right-wing militias or violent supporters of the regime.

But, since it’s here, we deny what occurs before our very eyes. We can’t be 1970s Argentina. Or Franco’s Spain. Yet, we have much in common with these fascist states, including a vast military, economic inequality and a leader’s cult of personality.

We should take seriously the words of Trump supporters. Calls for dictatorship and violent suppression of enemies (“lock her up”) are preparation for the real thing.

A couple hundred people rally in DC, walking away from reality and into the comfort of authoritarianism. It’s easy to mock them as old and stupid and sick. But we do so at our peril.

Letter from Washington: Occupy Lafayette Park

Mariachi band performs at Occupy Lafayette Park

We’ve reached the banana republic stage of resistance to Trump, in which the United States has come to resemble a South American caudillo with pot-banging protests outside the Presidential Palace.

It’s Occupy Lafayette Park, a nightly happening that mocks Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I was there at the beginning, when this home-grown event started up in the wake of the Treason Summit in Helsinki. The brainchild of Philippe Reines, a former Clinton staffer, the objective was a simple one: make some noise. Let Trump know that we object to whatever secret agreement he negotiated with his Russian masters.

Since then, I’ve taken photos and watched the protests grow and morph into a nightly celebration of opposition. There have been dinosaurs (Treason T-Rex), Pikachu, Michael Avenatti, Alyssa Milano, a Russian translator to speak Trump’s language, songs, chants, dancing, the woman who confronted Scott Pruitt at Teaism and a squad of folks carrying glowing letters that spell out TREASON and LIAR. It is Washington’s hottest party.

The most memorable night was when an 18-piece mariachi band showed up to serenade Trump as he tried to sleep. As the sky grew dark, the musicians launched into spirited versions of Cielito Lindo and Viva Mexico, the crowd singing along with them.

There is something incredibly moving to be with people united in song, a people that have been locked out of power, but united in a diverse and hopeful celebration of this country, an America that existed long before the Trumpkins, and will continue long after they’re gone. This country will endure the assaults on our liberty and ultimately emerge triumphant.

But it won’t be easy. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” to quote Thomas Paine.

Occupy Lafayette Park continues, night after night, through the steamy heat and tropical storms of summer in Washington. Every evening, around seven, they begin their vigil, filling the street outside the White House with signs, songs and chants, a reminder to the very temporary occupant of the presidency that his days are numbered.

Note: the protests began with the Twitter hashtag #OccupyLafayettePark but have moved on to #KremlinAnnex. Follow them there. Or just show up outside the White House at 7 PM any night.

Photos: 500 Days of Trump

I intended to ignore the Trump administration. But, 500 days ago, during the Inauguration, I heard a helicopter hovering over my apartment, followed it into the street, and I’ve been taking photos ever since.

Inauguration Day riot, Muslim ban protest, Women’s March, Science March, Climate March, Women’s March (again), perp walks, protests, street art, paper mache, Juggalos, makeout sessions, security theater – I’ve documented the resistance in DC.

limo in flames on K St Continue reading “Photos: 500 Days of Trump”

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science

The thinking cap photo is mine

I have a photo in this beautiful book from MIT Press! Science Not Silence celebrates last year’s March for Science with stories and photos from around the world. More than a million people came out to support science, in cities across America and around the world.

My photo is the guy in the thinking cap. Heading down to the march in Washington, DC, I didn’t know what to expect. The weather was terrible – it had rained all day. Would people even show up? But when I approached Constitution Avenue, I heard a dull roar. Crowds stretched in both directions, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, a half-million people joyously marching, singing and chanting.

I was proud to support the cause. I’ve spent a career working with scientists, helping to communicate their achievements at The Nature Conservancy and NOAA. What makes science different than other professions is that it’s not just a job, it’s a life. You are a biologist or an oceanographer or a chemist – it’s not just something you do 9-5.

It’s inspiring to be around that kind of passion. After my NOAA experience, I wrote a novel, The Swamp, that features a meteorologist as a character. He has to send his employees home after their shifts, otherwise they would hang around the forecast office:

weather being as much an obsession as a vocation and one that they would abandon only upon death.

That’s the kind of dedication I’ve found in the sciences.

At the march, there was so much to see – women dressed as Klingons, people in dinosaur suits and countless hilarious signs grown soggy from steady rain. I captured the photo of the guy in the thinking cap toward the Capitol, where the crowds began to thin. I liked his expression.

I had been out for an hour, zipping around the edges of the massive demonstration on a bright red Capital Bikeshare bike. Despite my raincoat, I was cold and wet. The thinking cap photo was one of the last I took before I left to get warm.

“Science predicted rain,” read one sign. The forecast came from a National Weather Service meteorologist, a government employee and a scientist, which must enrage the red state know-nothings who believe that they can live in some kind of lawless, free fire zone of ignorance.

The rain fell on everyone – marchers, tourists, photographers. Like science, it was non-partisan. Like science, you can deny it but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re soaked.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science Movement is available from MIT Press.

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: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.

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.