"Do you think there'll be porta-potties?" Was the anxious question my husband asked. He's in his fifties, after all. He asked about restroom facilities several days before we left for DC, and enjoined me to "find out on the internet" because he thinks I can find out anything on the internet. It was from the various conservative blogs and forums that I haunt on the net that had inspired me to put together this trip to DC in the first place. Like most tea-partiers, I am only loosely affiliated with any of the organizers. I was anxious about restrooms, too, and anxious about the notorious summer heat and humidity of our nation's capitol. I'm in my fifties, after all. I knew the organizers of this event were not professionals (and I mean that in the nicest way) and things like adequate porta-potties might not have crossed their radar.
So we set off to DC with our supplies of poster-making materials and some folding camp chairs, umbrellas, trail mix, and basic first-aid. If there were no restrooms, well, we'd just deal with that when we got there.
We'd booked a hotel in the downtown area, and when we arrived a family with three small children was also checking in with some Tea Party paraphrenalia. If they can face bringing three children under five to a political rally with the uncertain knowledge of available restrooms, I'd better stop whining.
The only preparation we had for this Tea Party were the downloaded instructions: "We meet at Freedom Plaza between 9 and 11, then we march down Pennsylvania to our rally on Capitol Hill." Getting up late, we were on the street at 10 for the twenty-minute walk to Freedom Plaza, marked on our city map. We started seeing other tea-partiers with their signs and flags, camp chairs slung over their shoulders and Uncle Sam fashions, and we walked together and spoke together without introduction like old alums from the same school.
"Heading to Freedom Plaza?" asked the Rebels in Fanny Packs. "Yep!" We were headed west on F street, roughly parallel to Pennsylvania Avenue. Maps were consulted, we all had several, maps with earnest orange and pink highlighting. We were at 11th Street when we glanced two blocks south toward Pennsylvania Avenue and stopped in shock.
A mass of humanity! a wave of signs and people! marched east, framed to our eyes between the tall shadows of the two blocks of buildings. Husband asked, "Is that a different protest group going ahead of us? There are always protests going on in DC." Another said, "I see the yellow Gadsden flags. That has to be the tea-party." "But they weren't supposed to start the march until after eleven o'clock!"
So we hung a sharp left and hurried to Pennsylvania Avenue. When we reached the curb, we squinted north-eastward to see where the marchers started. We knew that the march would start with costumed musicians in Revolutionary War gear playing Yankee Doodle. No music. There was nothing but a solid mass of people with signs as far as we could see, all the way to Capitol Hill. We looked southwest, to where we had expected to assemble with speeches before the march: nothing but a thicket of protestors and signs across four lanes of Pennsylvania.
It was like the loudest, most jovial football pep rally you've ever seen, hundreds of thousands rooting for the beloved home team. Every demonstrator was grinning wide and hoisting the most original, pithy, and often hilarious signage. One marcher had contrived a life-size cardboard Obama at the podium, with two friends carrying teleprompters made out of plexi-glass--"promises, promises, promises" said one, and "lies, lies, lies" said the other. People on the curb leaped out to photograph this work of genius, and the protestors all stopped good-naturedly to allow the recording. "We're not the party of no. We're the party of HELL, NO!"
But one of the most poignant signs was flaunted by a fledgling couple that were probably newlyweds. "$800 Plane Ticket. $300 Hotel Stay. Marching for freedom--priceless." DC is an expensive town to visit. So many had dug deep into their pockets during a financial downturn to make an appearance.
Husband and I just stood on the curb (we weren't supposed to stand on the sidewalk, and we are law-abiding partiers), laughing and yelling back at the protestors. "Yay, Texas! Yay, South Carolina!" We couldn't stop reading the signs and calling encouragement long enough to join in the marching. It was just too delightful to stand and watch the parade go by, even though we knew that the early marchers would get the plum spots close to the steps of the capitol, and probably conveniently close to the porta-potties.
While waving our flags and hollering, trying to save some of our voices for the actual rally, a young woman came to stand by me, probably in her early twenties and dressed smartly in good leather boots and a dashing shawl-sweater ensemble. I was the country bumpkin and she the urban sophisticate, but she was bashful and uncertain, and ventured a question to this woman in her fifties wearing a Life is Good t-shirt. "But what about Freedom Plaza?" said, worried, as if somehow she had transgressed. " Weren't we supposed to meet at Freedom Plaza before the march? Why are they already out marching?"
I found out the next day that at Freedom Plaza, the turnout had been too unmanageable to have the pre-march rally as planned; the Park Service (who would later refuse to give out any estimates of crowd size) demanded that they start the march an hour and a half early because the crowd had swarmed too large for comfort. After all, Freedom Plaza is very close to the White House.
There were now three of us, because the woman seemed to want company and we liked having a young person to look after, watching the crowd go by for more than an hour. At eleven-thirty, we decided to join in the march and ebullient bellowing. "No more czars!" "Enough is enough!" The marchers paused front of a building with the first amendment engraved in the side, Congress shall make no law... to generate a handsome noise about the threats to our freedom of speech.
When we got close to the Capitol, the crowd stopped for almost half an hour because there was a bottleneck of people finding their places in front of the capitol. I noticed that in the parking lot was a reassuringly long row of porta-potties. We eventually set up "camp" across the pond from the staging area, and really couldn't hear much of what was said. An informal "parade of signs" marched around the pond, as people showed off their original artwork and slogans to the applause and cheers of partiers. The crowd was thick all around the pond, and I turned to look behind and gasped at more crowds that stretched toward the Washington Monument (and also saw the CNN bus sitting bravely in the thick of a partying humanity).
So the young woman and I talked some politics. Everyone around me was collaring some friendly stranger to talk politics: to joyously, vociferously talk politics. A small, elegant, elderly lady had flown in from San Francisco and told everyone of her low opinion of Nancy Pelosi's character and warned that she posed a dire threat to the welfare of the nation. A man with an Oklahoma flag and a man with a Texas flag crossed the poles, like military sabers at a wedding, and everyone joked about the two rivalrous states finding common cause. There was no profanity. (Well, there were several signs with One Big Ass Mistake, America, but it got no worse than that.) People made a point of picking up litter, even some that had obviously been there a while.
Observing this, my young companion mentioned that everyone in her social set were "progessives" and that she had been dragged to a Green event.
"You should have seen the mess they left," said in disgust. I concluded that she was a closeted conservative ready to Come Out but only beginning to figure out how to go about it. She had decided to come to the Party at the last minute, had come alone, and had found her way to the Metro.
"It was filled with people with signs and flags. We packed in like sardines, but everyone was having such a good time."
Everyone, everyone in the crowds grinned big grins. Joy. You could feel the joy of people who have been distressed, even anguished, for over a year suddenly finding that they are not alone and that there is something they can do. Not alone by a long shot! We knew with our own eyes that there were hundreds of thousands of people, maybe as much as a million. Tens of thousands would not have stretched across four lanes of Pennsylvania for hours!
The young woman departed with a hug, infected with the cheer of all those around the Capitol, and eventually the rally was over.
But not really. The euphoria continued. We joked with strangers about the dangerous "mob," --Put down that brick!--when we saw the first waste disposals with dozens of discarded signs stacked neatly next to the cans. The cans overflowed, but upright empty water bottles tidily circled the cans, to make for easy removal.
We were relaxed on the Pennsylvania sidewalks now, filling them on both sides as we left. People talked on their cells as they walked. One women, alone like our campanion, shrieked happily into her phone, "No, I didn't mind being alone! Because I wasn't alone! Not for a single minute!"
And there was a luster to the eyes of the departing partiers. I heard: I'm so glad I came. This was incredible. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was worth every penny.
And the restaurants were full of us, gauche in our Uncle Sam finery. We greeted other partiers at their tables, partiers whose names we didn't know, to discuss plans for taking this to the next level. I caught the sideways glances of chagrin from the urbane Townies. We tipped the wait-staff well.
The only discouraging word was not all that discouraging. As we ambled away from the Capitol, some youthful local man with a soft round face and early balding scalp, sporting the prerequisite wispy uptown Van Dyke, muttered in a high-pitched tone that conveyed a kind of agonized sqeamishness, "These people need to get out of my city."
His city. If he's listening, I'd like to tell him...
We'll be back.
Kathy Garriott is a housewife from the American South