Thousands of protesters lined Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday throwing tomatoes, tennis balls, water bottles and umbrellas at the passing presidential motorcade to show their disapproval of the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
Demonstrators from across the country joined marches and rallies around the city to voice support for a wide array of causes, including abortion, election reform, civil rights, women’s issues, the death penalty and the release of political prisoners.
Protesters held signs that read “Bush is not my president,” “Re-elect Al Gore” and “Hail to the Thief.”
“We as a public are not handed things we do not want,” said sophomore Brian Dolber, who helped coordinate protest activity with the Justice Action Movement.
Metropolitan Police officers guarded the parade route in large numbers – many dressed in full riot gear – and parade watchers passed through police check points to get a view of the inaugural parade. Protesters complained that D.C. officials unfairly restricted peaceful demonstrations by using strict permit policies and breaking up marches.
“I think that it is wrong that our constitutional rights are being violated here,” said Jon Harturgh, a college student from Baltimore, Md. “There is no reason for security to be so tight.”
GW students organized Wednesday night in Corcoran Hall at a teach-in on the issues at stake and the reasons for protesting a Bush presidency. The GW Action Coalition, an activist group formed after last year’s IMF/World Bank protests, headed the effort, predicting a following of 1,000 students at Saturday’s demonstrations.
Kareen Asmus, a sophomore and leader in the College Greens and GW Anarchists, joined a group of anarchists dressed in black that calls itself the “Black Block.” The group rallied hundreds of protesters to storm streets around the parade route, entering in sometimes-violent confrontations with police officers.
At the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, anarchist activists surrounded the Memorial and replaced Navy flags with black flags and upside-down American flags.
“We did all of this right in front of a hotel with thousands of people watching,” Asmus said. “It was great publicity and it kept the cops from beating us up. They knew that they were being watched.”
The GW College Greens had a different set of objectives than the Black Block, Asmus said.
“The Greens forecasted that voter disenfranchisement would happen,” Asmus said. “We would be out here if Gore had won also.”
Police presence along the parade route was heavy with 1,600 officers manning the steel barricades that lined the parade route. Confrontations were minimal, with five arrests and only one police injury reported, according to MPD.
“I saw some people get shoved back from the police lines, and getting hassled at check points, but it has been a very reserved response,” said Janet Dobbs, an activist who traveled from Michigan to show her outrage at the Florida election results. “I really can’t see why more people aren’t out here marching in the street.”
Actual numbers of protesters are unknown, but, according to Associated Press reports, event organizers estimate there were as many as 20,000 – a number that would rival the anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1973 inauguration of Richard Nixon.
“We have been very lucky that everything has run so smoothly out here today,” said a protester who called herself Mary. She said Saturday’s demonstrations were much safer than ones she experienced in the 1960s.
“I remember when there weren’t so many cameras on the police and they would really hurt you if they were able to separate you from a group,” she said.
In Freedom Plaza, a permitted protest site between the 13th and 14th block of Pennsylvania Avenue, and at the Navy Memorial – where protesting was concentrated – demonstrators and police were dispersed among Bush supporters, families with small children, Girl and Boy Scouts volunteering at inaugural events and other onlookers.
“(The police) threw a smoke bomb at us,” Asmus said. “But the smoke went to the Bush supporters and the spectators as well.”
Tension ran high between Bush supporters and protesters.
“I think that those (protesters) are horrible,” said Girl Scout Stephanie Miller, a Silver Springs-area high school student and parade volunteer who worked in the ticketed seating area. “I just can’t believe that people act like this.”
Heated words erupted after protesters stormed and held a section of bleachers reserved for ticket holders.
Some took part in counter-protests, speaking out against the anti-inaugural demonstrators.
Texas high school students Nick Maxwell and Jim Stanton walked behind a line of security and taunted the protesters at Freedom Plaza, two blocks from the parade finish at the White House. The students, dressed in suits, said they harassed the rain-soaked demonstrators because their actions were against the patriotic spirit of the events.
“I really think that these people are un-American,” Maxwell said. “They have the right to free speech and all, but they can do it somewhere away from this honorable celebration of our president. It really shows a lack of respect for our country.”