George Walker Bush has barely warmed his Oval Office chair, but the national media already seem eager to forget the rancor he incited on his way there, all but ignoring the shouts of the thousands of protesters who turned his inaugural celebration into a festival of dissent. Any further whining about the suspect legitimacy of his presidency, the pundits decree, would only be divisive–it's time to move on. Unity and bipartisanship are the order of the day.
How quickly we have forgotten the thousands who filled the streets of Los Angeles last August to protest the Democratic Party's betrayal of its traditional constituencies in favor of the deep pockets of corporate America. And how easily we ignored the thousands more–many of them centrist Democrats content with the Gore platform–who lined Pennsylvania Avenue with thickets of protest signs and greeted the presidential motorcade with boos and hisses, drowning out the cheers of Bush supporters. But what happened last Saturday was historically unique. Not since Nixon's inauguration in 1973 have so many turned out to voice their outrage over an election. Without the Vietnam War to bring them together, as many as 20,000 filled the streets of the capital, united by their conviction that Bush's ascension to office was illegitimate. Their presence, more than whatever partisan haggling fills the halls of the Capitol, may well determine the political tenor of the next four years, on the streets and off.
Despite discouraging weather and extraordinary security precautions–parade-goers were forced to pass through police checkpoints and submit to searches just to get to the procession–black-masked anarchists mixed with khaki-clad Gore supporters, greens mingled with elderly unionists. Many of the usual suspects were there–veteran activists who had marched in Seattle, in LA and Philadelphia–but many others were protesting for the first time. They came from all over the East Coast, angered by the election irregularities in Florida and the disfranchisement of black voters, galvanized by the hypocrisy of Bush's rhetoric: his repeated promises to unite the country coupled with his cabinet appointments of far-right ideologues.
It was impossible to turn one's head without seeing a hand-made sign reading "Don't Blame Me, I Voted with the Majority," "The People Have Voted–All Five of Them," or an American flag with an Exxon logo in place of stars, the word "SOLD" stamped across the stripes. Along most of the parade route Bush was jeered with chants of "Not My President!" Protesters were so thick at one point that the presidential motorcade paused for five minutes before reaching it, then sped by, forcing the Secret Service escort to break into a sprint to keep up. Only at the very end of the route, where few demonstrators had gathered, did the President muster the courage to emerge from behind the tinted windows of his limo and walk through the street.
But CNN and the evening news shows made only the briefest mentions of the day's most remarkable events, preferring to devote hours of footage to the glitz of the inaugural balls. The New York Times buried less than 600 words–mainly about security precautions–on page 17, devoting the front page to a photo of the first couple dancing. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times did only a little better. The international press was more honest: Mexico's La Jornada put a photo of the protests on its front page, just above an image of Bush being sworn in; Britain's The Guardian headlined their inauguration story "Bush faces jeers, not cheers" and snidely mentioned American TV commentators trying "their best to talk over the boos, adopting a pomp-and-ceremony tone for the occasion."
Now Bush is in office as if all is well, paying lip-service to national unity while pandering to the religious right with his Cabinet appointments and executive orders. And, in the interest of a spurious and unlikely bipartisanship, the depth of the discontent over Bush's presidency has been cursorily brushed over. If Saturday's protests had a message, it's that it is far too soon for unity–justice takes priority.