No one could offer a precise explanation as to why so many swaths of people were circled around Citi Field hours before dawn this Saturday, waiting to board an army of buses bound for Washington, DC. Such has been the prevailing, perhaps intentional narrative associated with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity – other than a tongue-in-cheek rebuke of Glenn Beck, it had no clear political implications, and thus served as a sort of blank slate for the predominantly young, left-leaning crowd. Above anything else, it appeared that most were motivated to attend out of simple curiosity, which became coupled with sending a message of discontent to those crazed Tea Party actors who now command so much attention.
Free roundtrip transportation to the rally was courtesy of the Huffington Post, whose namesake Arianna Huffington mulled around the crowd Saturday morning to chat, pose for photos, and happily receive chants; “thank you, Arianna!” many would shout, prompting a wave and reciprocal greeting. Aside from Stewart and Colbert, Huffington became one of the event’s most visible figureheads – without HuffPo’s financial backing, legions of sympathetic New Yorkers likely would not have been able to attend.
Throughout the Citi Field parking lots, insignia marked in the familiar Huffington Post font directed attendees where to queue and from whom to request assistance. Staffers wearing green HuffPo windbreakers were in ample supply, ensuring that a very-possible breakdown into logistical chaos was averted. All told, not one unhappy face could be observed, no matter how aimlessly people were being herded or how little sleep they had gotten the night before. A catnap would be possible en route, after all.
By the time the buses arrived at RFK Stadium in Washington, it was already past 12:30 and the DC metro entrance was hopelessly clogged. Upon reaching the Mall area at around 1:30, we emerged to discover that many would-be rallygoers were already heading in the opposite direction, indicating that it would be impossible at this point to secure a decent spot. Indeed, as I would come to realize, my relative tardiness was not conducive to seeing or hearing anything that was going on at the rally itself, save an occasional line from Stewart that I could tell was funny based only on the crowd’s subsequent laughter. Comforted by the assurance of video being online in mere hours, I meandered through the masses that had also been relegated to the rally’s outer crust; despite having missed the onstage antics, moods were not sour. It was enough, one woman told me, to be counted in the crowd estimate that Glenn Beck would later inevitably receive.
Simply viewing the many rally-signs proved sufficiently entertaining. “Palin-Voldermort 2012,” “Gay Parents have an 0% Abortion Rate,” and “The Dallas Cowboys are 1 and 5” are a good sampling of the messages that ranged from political to patently absurd. There was one sign that struck me as particularly poignant, even though it was not intended to convey humor at an event where everything was tinged with irony: a lone African-American man held a poster board that read “Meaningful Change Does Not Happen Overnight.” The message spoke to an understated but palpable explanation for why the rally was taking place at all – the euphoria of electing a progressive black president two years ago has not necessarily carried over to sustain any long-term activism among a demographic that is easily disillusioned, and we have felt the excitement from which we used to draw inspiration being sucked into the purview of a very disturbing element of the electorate.
Thus, Arianna Huffington helped to provide an alternate outlet to express whatever sentiment we most wanted to get off our chests – joy, frustration, and for some, hope that Democrats would not be completely wiped out a few days later. Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor also lacked a coherent political message, but it didn’t necessarily need one in order to be effective; as long as it could provide, again, a blank slate through which politically-motivated people could relay whatever aphorism they felt was most applicable, Beck’s job was done. The Stewart/Colbert rally accomplished largely the same thing, though by contrast it was largely populated with youngish technocrats who find the Tea Party very distressing.
The inherent ambiguity of the rally then raises some questions about the Huffington Post‘s role in promoting it. Is the site now a full-fledged outlet for activism, having successfully made the transition from an online-only model to a generator of physical “boots on the ground”? If so, the implicit assumption is that attending the rally indeed constituted a form of activism – certainly an easily disputable claim by virtue of there being no tangible political objective. But even if it wasn’t about electing Democrats or promoting some policy goal, the rally still infused something into the larger political conversation. And given the HuffPo’s role in turning a comedian’s whim into reality, it may be increasingly looked to by organizers as a source of institutional backing – and even strong branding – for their future endeavors.