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.

Americans Will Believe Anything

Heather Heyer memorial
Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville, VA

Despite blackening the sky, the eclipse was not a transcendent moment for America. Within minutes of totality exiting the United States, we went back to business as usual, with a big chunk of this nation denying any fact they find to be inconvenient as “fake news.”

On the way back from North Carolina, I decided to stop in Charlottesville to see the Heather Heyer memorial. This anti-racist demonstrator was mowed down by a driver on a side street in the downtown of this beautiful Virginia city.

It’s chilling. She died just steps from the city’s pedestrian mall, on a narrow lane offering no escape from a driver with his foot on the gas. It was a deliberate act of murder from an extremist who hunted down protesters.

Heather Heyer died – but for what?

This week, Hillary Clinton emerged, hawking yet another autobiography. And worse – she endorsed a laughable web site, Verrit, which Jack Shafer memorably described as looking like North Korean agitprop. What’s different about this new site? It provided verified factoids, with their own Verrit code, enabling you to live in a Clinton-approved media bubble without any exposure to the messy real world.

Patronizing, clumsy and conflicted – it’s everything you hate about Hillary in a single site. This kind of top-down lecturing from our political betters (you will read what we want you to read) is why Hillary and her sycophants lost an election that should’ve been easily won.

This kind of appeal to authority no longer works in America. Kurt Andersen documents America’s slide into unreason in How America Lost Its Mind, a voluminous Atlantic article that comprehensively name-checks nearly political and cultural movement from the past fifty years, everything from chemtrails to Uri Geller.

Why are Americans so crazy?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

Andersen puts the American tendency to create our own beliefs in a historical context. It’s been with us from the start, with invented Thanksgiving myths and tall tales about George Washington.

We also have a rich tradition of con-men, Donald Trump just being the latest in a line which extends back to L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and P.T. Barnum.

What Andersen misses is that Americans have good reason not to believe in American institutions. They’ve failed. American business has become parasitic, little more than Uber and AirBnB bros skimming value while employing only contractors. The American political class, as embodied by Hillary Clinton, has no core beliefs, other than getting elected (it’s her turn!). And our vast security state has given us endless war while failing to protect us from actual Nazis.

No room for racists

Posters reminiscent of World War II propaganda have emerged on the streets of DC. They are a call for resistance against Trumpism. The creator of this evocative art, Robert Russell, said:

In the the 1940s, America unified against an explicit and obvious enemy. In this case, the enemy is firmly entrenched in the White House. We’re inverting that message and saying the threat is right here, so look out.

But the posters do more than just target an incipient fascist. They remind us what Americans believe and what we’ve fought and died for – that we’re all created equal.

While Americans may hold their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the efficacy of vaccines or the possibility of alien life forms, this belief in democracy is a shared one and one that we must defend, whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

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.

America First, Then and Now

America first
Newspaper headline from the Great Crusade exhibit

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

– Karl Marx

If the America First mantra of Donald Trump sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The slogan was used by American isolationists to keep America neutral in the face of Nazi tyranny. But the theme, with its small and fearful sentiment, comes from an earlier war.

Woodrow Wilson invented the mantra in 1916, covering the country with America First posters in one of the first modern propaganda campaigns. He kept us out of war, he claimed at the time.

But America couldn’t deny its global responsibilities forever. It had to pick a side in the European conflict. When it did, Wilson needed a whole new propaganda campaign. This time, with the aim to mobilize a reluctant American public to enlist and fight the Hun.

Mass media such as posters, songs and shows drew upon the 1776 spirit, the myths of the American Revolution, to join a total war against the Kaiser. “Lafayette, we are here!” the cry went up, as millions of American soldiers went to save a Continent.

Relive this momentous era in The Great Crusade: World War I and the Legacy of the American Revolution, now on display at Anderson House, the beautiful home of the Cincinnati House on Embassy Row in Washington, DC. It’s a small exhibit – just a room – but looking at the America First headlines and the debates about this country’s role in the world – it feels incredibly timely, as if we’re repeating history that was settled a hundred years ago.

Anderson House ballroom
Ballroom at the Anderson House was designed for inaugural galas and diplomatic receptions

And when you’re done, explore the rest of Anderson House, a Florentine mansion just a couple blocks from Dupont Circle.  Built in 1905, this grand home belonged to Larz Anderson, a wealthy diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and art collector. With its drawing rooms and galleries reminiscent of the salons of Europe, the house was designed to host inaugural balls and diplomatic receptions. Anderson House was to represent the USA to the rest of the world, standing as a confident expression of a country that repudiated the small and fearful philosophy of America First.

As Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. We’re living through the farce. But remnants of other eras remind us that we’ve had these debates before – and won them. America is not the fearful, closed realm of Donald Trump but the confident, open and generous country represented by diplomat Larz Anderson, his art collector wife Isabel, and their glorious house on Massachusetts Avenue.

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: Macron!

Saturday morning soccer

I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.

In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?

We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.

My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:

Un café s’il vous plaît

Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.

But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.

Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.

That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.

To quote Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Letter from Washington: A War We Must Win

Greetings, comrades! Glory!
Greetings, comrades! Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.

Southern Monuments

Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC
Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC

Monuments tell the story of a people. Overlooking the town of Sylva, North Carolina, stands a Confederate War Memorial. The statue was erected in 1915, at the height of Jim Crow in the South. Bands played and dignitaries came from as far away as Asheville. The copper soldier stands guard atop a stone base in front of the courthouse, with a commanding view of the town below.

If you read Cold Mountain (or saw the movie), then you know that the people who lived on the slopes of the Blue Ridge were reluctant participants in the Civil War, for the conflict brought nothing but chaos, murder and starvation to this remote corner of North Carolina. It took decades to recover. Northern money brought the region back, as Sylva became a manufacturing center, its paper mill belching white smoke even today.

I’ve been coming to the region for twenty years, ever since friends moved here from Florida – a very common story. The mountains are filled with Floridians retiring from Florida to North Carolina.

Trump supporters are proud of a map colored red, all those counties away from the coasts voting for a new kind of war against the federal government.

All-Gender Restroom

But the red states are red just barely. In Asheville, which went for Clinton, restaurants and coffee shops make a point in identifying their bathrooms as “all-gender,” appalled by their legislature’s bumbling efforts to regulate toilets.

The cities and towns are blue, while the rural areas are red. A man who worked in a remote valley said that people just assumed that he voted for Trump. After all, he was in his 60s and white. But he didn’t. Old enough to remember segregation, he recognized wrong then and he recognized it now.

“We fought the Civil War once already,” he told me, not interested in another red versus blue battle.

I-26 east of Johnson City

On the way home, I took I-26, a four-lane highway soaring over the Eastern Continental Divide and down into the green valleys of Tennessee. It’s a monument to the genius of America, with passages blasted through granite and tons of concrete used to create ramps and bridges, allowing me to drive 70 mph over mountains that formed an impassable barrier during the Civil War.

I nearly had the road to myself, just me and a few other drivers enjoying the monumental views of the Blue Ridge. Where other generations valued segregation and identity, our generation values progress, as memorialized in the monuments that we build. Rather than casting bronze renditions of a lost cause, we’re connecting cities with all-weather highways.

When I was in North Carolina, I kept being asked, “What’s going on in DC?” Even in the mountains, people recognized that calamity in the nation’s capital would eventually touch their lives.

Retirees can only afford to live in these red counties with Social Security. The federal government battles the opioid epidemic that plagues trailer parks in the hollows. Highways like I-26 are only possible due to a much-maligned administrative bureaucracy.

Government is a monument that some would tear down upon themselves, happier to live among the rubble. That’s what taking back America means to them. Like those who precipitated the Civil War, they would rather see the country burn than change.

Monuments like the one in Sylva represent the past. Those who cling to these symbols want to return this country to the days of segregation and oppression. If you truly want to make America great, then it is government that you must support. It’s the monument that we all depend upon – and one that we build together.

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.