Letter from Washington: Resist

Resist banner over the White House
Greenpeace hung this Resist banner on a crane overlooking the White House.

Strange days indeed, where I’m retweeting Van Jones. My politics don’t fit into an easy category. I’m socially liberal, believing that people should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others.

I also believe that government is too big and does too much, interfering in aspects of life (such as mandating health insurance) that it should stay out of. Nearly a decade of experience as a government contractor has just reinforced that notion. As I wrote in Victory Party, my award-winning short story (shameless plug!) about election night in DC, government is:

nothing but a big blind beast, stumbling across the American landscape, more likely to crush you than help you.

The economy is the most important issue to me; the biggest moral issue of our age is the lack of real economic growth, for it leaves millions unemployed and underemployed in the vast heartland of our country, a tragedy of abandoned towns and people, like a modern Grapes of Wrath.

In a fit of 2008 optimism, I voted for Obama but then switched to Romney in 2012, wanting a President that would focus on jobs. He doesn’t look so bad now, does he? Trump vs Clinton was a nightmare choice for me, literally Kang and Kodos. In a fit of pique, I wrote in independent Evan McMullin (I might have a thing for Mormons), knowing that blue DC was going overwhelmingly for Hillary.

Trump merchandise for sale outside Treasury Building
Few takers for Trump merchandise for sale outside the Treasury Building.

Like everyone else, I expected Her to win. When she didn’t, I was ambivalent, fictionalizing my response in Victory Party, my tale of DC on election night.

I am ambivalent no more.

What does it take to get someone as jaded and as cynical as me off the sidelines? A week of chaos from the Trump administration, from the graceless “American carnage” inaugural address to the dissing of the Women’s March and on to the Monday night massacre firing of the acting Attorney General.

Trump is a bully, now with the overly vast power of the federal government behind him. There’s never been a better argument for limiting the size and scope of the executive branch than Donald J. Trump.

I expected the evil – it’s the incompetence that surprises me. They have no idea how government works. And despite their purported social media savvy, it didn’t occur to them that public servants, such as the National Park Service, could push back anonymously using these same tools.

Rather than uniting the country around the need for economic growth, Trump has issued a series of bizarre and poorly thought out decrees. It’s government by tweet, straining this country’s democratic institutions beyond the breaking point.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office
Muslim ban protesters besiege the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

me at the Muslim Ban march
Me at the Muslim Ban March. I used Capital Bikeshare to get around and take photos.

The streets of DC have been filled with demonstrations the size and scope of which I have never seen before. And I’ve been out, biking around the city with a camera, capturing the moment. And participating as well, something I never thought I would do.

As Van Jones points out, it’s no longer a question of Democrat vs Republican. It’s whether you believe in democracy or not. If you do, then you must resist.

Solidarity at the White House

Letter from Washington: Public Servants, Not Trump Servants

President Trump is “locking down” government communication, including social media, at federal agencies. A crackdown is occurring at the Department of Transportation, HHS and other agencies. Press releases, tweeting and even public speaking is banned – temporarily, they claim. Trump loyalists are being embedded to monitor the work and communications of public servants.

Public servants are called that for a reason – they work for the public. It’s a service, paid for with your tax dollars. Federal employees do not work for a single faction. They serve all of us, no matter which political party we support.

They are public servants, not Trump servants. Their work belongs to us. They have an obligation to communicate to the citizens who pay their salary.

I worked as a contractor in the communications department of a large federal agency. Among my duties was updating the social media account. As long as I avoided certain hot-button issues (like climate change), I was allowed to write and post to Facebook and Twitter without review.

Was this because senior management was interested in more important matters? Or didn’t think social media was important? A little of both. Press releases went through rounds of reviews because they could be printed out, marked up and distributed. The ephemeral world of social media didn’t lend itself to such micromanagement so was left alone.

It’s also impossible to monitor, as the rogue Badlands NPS account revealed. While there are tools to manage social media, my agency didn’t have them. We didn’t know how many social media accounts we had, who ran them or what they were doing with them. Different components of the agency had set them up, without informing HQ. Passwords to social media accounts were widely shared and given to interns and even contractors, like myself.

I felt we should communicate more, not less. There were some fascinating stories inside the agency where I worked. Technicians developing tools to alert the public to severe weather. Scientists uncovering the secrets of the lightless deep ocean. Researchers helping farmers plan for drought.

There should be more government communication, not less. Every government employee should be allowed to communicate with the public on the subject of their work. Conservatives should demand this – don’t you want to know what your money is being used for?

Information wants to be free, wanting to escape its bounds and find its way to readers. Just look at the 2016 campaign, during which embarassing DNC documents were leaked by the Russians.

The Trump action will ultimately fail, the tools they used against opponents now turned upon them. Once the feds discover how easy it is to go rogue, an alternate universe of federal information will be established in cyberspace, outside the control of Trumpian minders, a Wikileaks of climate reports, scientific research and gossipy accounts of government life, ultimately achieving the aim of making government information accessible to the people.

For what better way to get people to read something then to tell them that it’s banned? 😉

 

Letter from Washington: Hope at the Women’s March

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Inauguration Day ended with me running in fear down K Street, as the DC police fired “flash-bangs” to clear the mob of anti-Trump protesters.

Anarchists had set a limo on fire and were trying to stop the fire department from putting out the blaze. The explosions made me jump but it was being in the middle of a crowd that suddenly turned tail that was so frightening. It was run, or be trampled.

I needed a large bourbon when I got home.

The next day was the Women’s March on Washington, the first stirrings of opposition to President Trump. No one was sure how many people would attend.

The crowd turned out to be three times the size of the inauguration, nearly half a million people crammed into the streets of DC. The march was so large that they couldn’t march, the route being filled with people from mid-morning until night.

Women's March

Not being a fan of crowds, I was going to meet some friends after the march. But they couldn’t get to me and I couldn’t get to them, separated by a few blocks and a couple hundred thousand people.

On Inauguration Day, I rode my bike down H Street, virtually alone. Now, a day later, tens of thousands of people streamed down this street by the White House. Rounding the corner on 15th St, I ran into a vast and immeasurable horde of women in pink hats pouring up from the Mall. I’d never seen anything like it, not even during the Obama inauguration of 2009.

I wanted to get to Freedom Plaza so I could get a photo of Pennsylvania Avenue and marchers stretching to the Capitol. But I couldn’t get there, feeling like a salmon trying to swim upstream. A never-ending crowd marched down the inaugural route, doing their own alternative parade, cheered on by protesters occupying the bleachers lining the route.

Women's March on 14th St

I dipped into one little corner of this vast throng, before turning to go back up 14th St. There’s a little crest on the street. Looking behind me, I could see the crowd stretching down 14th all the way to the Mall, where thousands more were marching. More people than I’ve ever seen in my life. Every few minutes, a vast cheer would rise up, echoing off the office buildings.

In contrast to the Inauguration Day protests, everyone was happy. There were no arrests. No one was masked. People smiled, took photos together and laughed at the signs mocking Trump.happy protesters

The celebration went on into the night, demonstrators with signs parading around the White House for hours after the official end of the march.

I met friends for dinner afterward, going to an Irish bar a dozen blocks away from the protest. Far enough where I thought we could get a table. Wrong. Every seat of the bar was filled with women in pink hats. The TV was turned from a basketball game to CNN. When the broadcast showed video from the march, the crowd cheered, their voices filling up the bar, the sound of a vast protest movement coming to life.

Inauguration Dispatch: Day of Fear

Socialism, as the limo burns

May you live in interesting times.

– An old Chinese curse

No fan of Trump, I contemplated leaving the city for the Presidential Inauguration. I ended up staying for leaving was a kind of surrender. The inauguration was just in one corner of the city and could easily be ignored.

But the pull of history was too strong to ignore. I’m a writer and a photographer. These historic events are material for me, to be captured in photos and transmuted into fiction, like how I turned my election night experience into my short story, Victory Party.

I wanted to be in the room where it happens. Or at least on the street.

On Fridays, I go to Friday Coffee Club, a meetup of bike folks at A Baked Joint. The coffee shop was open so I went, figuring that I might run into some inaugural crowds.

empty streets on Inauguration Day

Nope. A couple hours before the inauguration and the streets were empty. H Street had been blocked off to traffic so I rode down the middle of it, just seeing a couple of buses go by. There’s always a line at A Baked Joint but on this Friday, nobody was there. And there were no bikes out front. Just a couple of Friday Coffee Club people had made it in.

The only action on the street was from the anti-Trump demonstrators, who were assembling at McPherson Square. It started to rain, so I headed home to watch the inauguration.

As Trump wrapped up his “American carnage” speech, I heard a helicopter overhead, hovering just a few blocks away. A well-organized band of anarchists (oxymoron alert) had thrown rocks at Starbucks and other businesses. It takes a lot to get the DC police to arrest you but they did, making more than 200 on Friday.

The helicopter went east and continued to hover, eventually drawing me out my apartment, camera in hand, expecting to see one of those typical DC protesters where people chant and sit in the street.

But McPherson Square, packed with anarchists and the Black Bloc, had a very different vibe. Within five minutes of entering the park, I saw a Trump supporter get punched in the head and knocked unconscious by a guy who was dressed like Bane. The First Aid tent was nearby; the medical volunteers did nothing, unconcerned about a Trump supporter’s injury. Instead, National Guardsmen came into the park to rescue the guy. The police were lined up outside the park and would not come in.

Trump supporter in McPherson Square

scary dude

Anarchists on K St

I live in DC. It’s my city. I felt afraid in that park, in a way that I never did during the Occupy and other demonstrations in DC. Violence has an ugly quality that’s instantly recognizable. You feel it when it occurs, an anxiety rippling through the crowd.

The kids in the hoodies weren’t going to square off against the heavily armed police. Instead, they were looking for soft targets, such as businesses and lone Trump supporters. Or you and me, if they wanted to – the police were not coming into the park. I left.

14th and K was the epicenter of the protest. In front of the Washington Post building, the windows of a limo had been smashed in by the demonstrators. Protesters were standing on it. Then members of the Black Bloc marched by, their faces covered. Someone threw something into the limo. It caught fire, black smoke billowing up into the sky.

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

I snapped some quick pictures. People said the gas tank was going to blow. Others said the police were coming.

As I turned to leave, I saw a woman behind me, silently pleading for peace. It’s her heartbroken face that I’ll remember more than anything else. Within seconds, I would be running as the police fired flash-bangs into the street.

Spread love not hate

Practical Advice for Protesters

Anti-Trump protest

More than 200,000 people are expected at Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington.

I’ve lived in DC for two decades and have witnessed countless protests, from the aimless grifters of OccupyDC to the thundering anti-war protests of the George Bush era.

I love taking photos of protesters. It’s real drama on the streets of DC. And while I’m not one to rise up, fist in the air (unless it’s in support of bike lanes), I admire their passion.

Living in DC, it’s easy to be jaded. During the Occupy movement, it was protest du jour, as a couple dozen millennials occupied K Street at rush hour every evening (“Whose streets!” “Our streets!”) while police protected them from a sea of angry drivers. The protests had a ritual quality – the same people, the same slogans, the same protocols until the whole thing fizzled out, the professional left drifting away, leaving McPherson Square a shantytown of broken tents and broken dreams.

Hippie star at Key Bridge protest

But protests can make a difference, as any history of the 1960s will tell you. More importantly, they bring like-minded people together, allowing them to forge stronger connections and partnerships. If you’re a liberal in Oklahoma, a protest like the Women’s March provides affirmation that you’re not alone.

Protest means sacrifice. You’re giving up your time and money to support a cause you believe in. It ain’t easy. And protest in DC, amid the marble columns and soaring monuments, can be thrilling. And exhausting. Here’s some practical advice for protesting in Washington, DC.

Transportation

U St Metro in black and white

Washington is a complex urban environment, relatively dense, with limited access points. We have a semi-functional subway system, some commuter rail and are surrounded by highways in perpetual gridlock. Complicating things, there’s a river on one side. And chunks of the city, like around the Capitol and White House, are closed to the public.

Don’t expect to drive anywhere near this mess. Take Metro, a bus or a bike. Leave early and give yourself plenty of time.

The good news is that Washington is a walkable city. You can walk from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial in fifteen minutes.

Also, the scale on the Metro map is deceptive. The stations downtown are closer than they appear. It’s only a couple blocks from Metro Center to Gallery Place. If you’re coming to the Women’s March, use the stations off the Mall, like Archives and Federal Triangle to avoid the crowds.

Bikes aren’t allowed in the exclusion zone during Inauguration Weekend. Which is a pity, because they’re the best way to get around the city. Capital Bikeshare is the city’s bikesharing system and it’s cheap and easy.

Circulator in the snow

The Circulator buses are also a great way to get around. The fare is a $1 and the routes are pretty straightforward.

Comfort

Joggers and walkers by the Lincoln Memorial

You’re going to be walking! Wear comfortable shoes. The day of the march is not the day to break in a new pair. No one cares what your feet look like.

Bring food and water. Around the monuments, your food options are limited. If you’re lucky, you can get a hot dog from a stand. Pack some snacks. Also, all the water fountains on the Mall have been turned off for the winter. Bring water. You’ll get thirsty from marching and chanting.

Dress for the weather. Check the forecast and dress a little warmer than you think you’ll need. You may be outside for hours.

Tech

A classic iPhone scene #charging

Ah, the problems of our connected age when we can’t get connected. 100,000 people trying to update Twitter at once is going to tax even the most robust network. Your cellphone may not work in the crowd. Be patient. If you’re meeting people, make plans ahead of time, if possible – don’t count on them being able to reach you.

At some point during the protest, everyone is going to need to recharge their phones. People will peel off, in search of electricity, clustering around outlets like cavemen around a fire. Bring or borrow a portable battery. I like my Jackery portable charger.

Police

Park Police look on

You need an appointment to get arrested in DC. It’s true. The DC police are not going to arrest you during a protest, unless you’re a celebrity who has made previous arrangement with them. It’s a highly choreographed and largely symbolic affair. The city is still paying off plaintiffs from their last mass arrest during a protest so they have no interest in arresting you or anyone else.

The Park Police, however…  Perhaps because they’re least intimidating of DC’s numerous police forces (they have the word park in their name), they tend to be the most aggressive. Nothing they like more than closing monuments and public spaces. Do what they say, even if it’s nonsensical. The same is true for the Capitol Police and the US Secret Service. There are at least 28 separate police forces in DC plus countless rent-a-cops so there will be men with strange uniforms and guns yelling instructions at you.

fenced in at the Washington Monument

Security theater has overwhelmed Washington over the past two decades, stealing space from citizens and making it the private reserve of the nomenklatura. It’s infuriating. And expanding, as the Secret Service slowly takes over the Ellipse and other public spaces around the White House.

They love putting up fences. Fences around monuments. Fences around fountains. Fences protecting other fences. Someone climbed over the fence! Put up another fence!

This absurdity will be at its highest level during the inauguration, as if chain-link could protect us in the era of the drone and missile.

If you’re here for the Women’s March, expect to be funneled through fences, like cattle, and subject to TSA-style search. You won’t be able to get near most of the monuments, either – they’ll be protected by fences, of course.

Photography

A picture of me that I actually like

It’s tough to participate in an event and take photos of it. Fortunately, my friends from DC Focused, InstagramDC, ExposedDC and countless local photographers will be there to document the action using #WomensMarch

I’ll be around too, posting photos to my Instagram account and Flickr. Ironically, I’m not a big fan of crowds, so I’ll be on the periphery, where I can easily escape.

Don’t bring much gear! Nothing bigger than a small bag is allowed during the Women’s March.

If you are taking photos, look for details that stand out in the crowd – a red flag, a friendly smile, a cheeky sign.

i'm socially conscious and stuff

Plan B

Planning ahead means having a Plan B. Make sure you have a contingency plan, one that covers events ranging from the annoying to an actual emergency. For example:

  • You get separated from your group and the mobile network goes down. Where will you meet?
  • You’re tired/hungry/cranky. Where will you go for food/water/caffeine?
  • You get anxious in the crowd. How will you get out?
  • An actual emergency occurs. It’s chaos. Where will you go to be safe?

Hint: hotel lobbies make excellent places to hang out if you get lost/bored/tired. If you’re at the Women’s March, go north to Farragut Square and Dupont Circle to find food and shelter. I like the Renaissance Dupont, because they have an Illy cafe there.

Cappuccino Viennese

Trump is determined to bring back many elements of the past. He’s also bringing back the era of the mass protest. The Women’s March is just the first of many.

If you are coming to DC to make your voice heard, plan ahead. And wear comfortable shoes.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Election Lessons from Gandalf

White House at nightIf you’re a progressive, these are dark times indeed. You’ve suffered a historic and surprising loss, one that seems to usher in a new age of evil.

Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings, can provide consolation to discouraged liberals in the new Trump universe. Look for hope, not from the east, but in the big books of fantasy. From Gandalf to Aslan, the characters in these imagined worlds endured far worse than a bright orange politician. They took on and defeated enemies who would enslave them. Let their stories be your guide to surviving the Age of Trump.

When it comes to confronting evil, no one is more inspiring than Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together an unlikely coalition of misfits, he defeats evil in its purest and most implacable form.

His greatest weapon: hope. As he struggled with the impossible task that was destroying the One Ring, he rallied his companions by saying:

Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

If you’re Gandalf, you fight on, even as you plunge into the pit with a Balrog.

His credo was simple:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

That means that you do what you can, every day.

Gandalf knew how to deal with a two-faced politician, too. Lock him in a tower. After the treacherous wizard Saruman is defeated by the Ents, Gandalf keeps him trapped in Orthanc. Saruman pleads for release, with words whose very sound was an enchantment:

Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to see wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.

Saruman possesses the oratory of Ted Cruz. And, like Cruz, he’s taken every side on every issue. He turned evil because evil was going to win. Better to be on the winning side. Gandalf wisely keeps him in Orthanc.

And if Saruman is Cruz then who is his treacherous companion, Grima Wormtongue? He tries to weaken King Théoden of Rohan and nearly succeeds. Playing the role of Wormtongue in the Republican Party would be Newt Gingrich, who sought to discredit the Republican establishment from within. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, the Grand Old Party never woke up from its spell. Rohirrim did not ride to the rescue at the Republican Convention.

C.S. Lewis would argue that great sacrifice is needed to cleanse the world. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it’s always winter but never Christmas (which feels like Washington today), it takes blood to put things right in this thinly veiled Christian allegory. Perhaps Hillary, like Aslan, should’ve sacrificed her political ambitions and let a more palatable candidate run for office.

George R. R. Martin dismisses these ideas about good and evil. You’re naïve to even think that way and liable to get beheaded if you embrace the hero myth. In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. Like Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, it’s best to look after your own interest, without morals. His scheming and self-interest represent many in Washington.

I prefer the consolation of Gandalf. As progressives enter the political wilderness, remember the words of Greybeard:

Not all those who wander are lost.

In the years before the War of the Ring, Gandalf adventured throughout Middle-Earth, defeating monsters and learning about the people under his protection, from greedy dwarves to breakfast-loving hobbits. He could not become Gandalf the White without the forge of this experience.

From merry wizards to talking lions, the world of fantasy offers consolation to progressives looking into the land of shadow. At the very least, they’ll provide something to read over the next four years.

Five Novels for the Age of Trump

trump jalopy at the CapitolNothing makes sense anymore. You wake up one morning and your country has changed. It seems absurd. Laughable. Yes, America really did elect Donald Trump.

How do you survive this new vulgar age? By reading fiction. According to a recent Time magazine article, books will not only make you smarter, they can provide comfort during a traumatic time. The immersive experience that good books provide is cheap therapy for the disaffected.

Here are five books to help you cope with recent events. Five novels that provide a comic perspective to understanding the Age of Trump.

Super Sad True Love Story

No one is better at identifying a failing and corrupt state than a Soviet emigre. In Super Sad Love Story, Gary Shteyngart draws a portrait of a dystopian New York in the near future. No one works anymore, everyone seeks social media fame and the Chinese are threatening to foreclose on the country. It’s a comic ruin of a book, one that will break your heart while it keeps you laughing. And one that will make you determined that this dystopia never comes to America.

The Nix

Our poisonous politics began during the culture wars of the 1960s, according to the The Nix by Nathan Hill. Hippie vs square, young vs old, liberal vs conservative – it’s a battle that was never resolved and continues to today. In the book, a failed writer puts down the gaming console to discover the mystery of the mother who abandoned him for radical politics.

The Sellout

Racism. That’s the explanation for Clinton’s loss, according to her supporters. It’s America’s original sin. Okay. But what do you next? If you’re the narrator of The Sellout, you decide to reinstitute segregation in your LA neighborhood as an attempt to bring people up. And you keep a slave, one that has forced himself into your service. That the nation is outraged by these efforts is not surprising, as “The Sellout” is brought before the Supreme Court in a tour de force of comic writing. It’s a searing novel that deserves the mother of all trigger warnings but one that contains the tiniest threads of hope for the American project.

Catch-22

What do you do if caught in a world that doesn’t make sense? Thousands of bureaucrats in DC are about to find out, being whiplashed from the soft socialism of Obama to the incoherent populism of Trump. In this WWII novel, Yossiarian finds himself in a system that doesn’t make sense. He’s a bombardier and has to fly dangerous missions. If you’re crazy, you don’t have to fly missions. But being crazy is a rational response to flying missions. Therefore, you’re not crazy and have to keep flying. Catch-22 is a hell of a catch. This novel by Joseph Heller illustrates an absurd system, one instantly recognizable to any federal government employee.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

American politics are tumultuous. But not as tumultuous as Macondo, the fictional world created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The doomed Buendia family suffers war, revolution, murder, magic, dueling, insanity, incest, massacre and a hurricane in this sprawling human comedy. It’s seven generations of suffering, as history repeats itself, going from hope to tragedy. A simple election doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. At least, you’re not being lined up in front of a firing squad, dreaming of ice. Lose yourself in this thick book.

Reading can provide consolation to those suffering trauma. Or at least distraction. Forget the news. Put down the iPhone. Pick up a novel instead. These five books will help you survive the Age of Trump.