WASHINGTON — Until the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 9, I was asleep at the political wheel. A friend and I were replacing the lock on the back door when the news broke on the radio: The US Supreme Court had halted the Florida hand recount. Standing in our Washington, D.C., neighborhood, just a few miles northwest of the court, my heart sank to my feet.
I can't remember ever being so furious about a national political event. We canceled our plans for an evening at the movies, drew up signs, bundled up in long johns and layers, and headed out into the night. Our destination: the streets outside Vice President Gore's residence.
Demonstrators from both sides had been camped at this busy intersection for weeks, and until now I had just driven by. Suddenly, I wanted to be one of them.
Never before had I participated in a show of protest about a national political issue. I am a young baby boomer, a working mom usually too busy to breathe. I was fascinated by, but too young to participate in, demonstrations over Vietnam, Watergate, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
While not politically blind, I had focused my attention on struggling countries suffering through starvation, devastation, and serial revolutions; and later, on community issues that directly affected my son and me.
We made our way over to the Gore side of the intersection and joined some 20 people holding signs. With taunts of the Bush demonstrators in our ears - "We won. You lost. You lost." - we sang and shouted, and when the hour drew late, we sang and chanted softly. We spoke of our anger with nameless fellow protesters. As our breath hung in the air and our toes froze, we shared gloves and scarves. To keep warm, we sang folk songs and tunes from old Broadway musicals with the words slightly altered for the occasion. An opera singer who had driven in from Baltimore led us in a moving rendition of "America the Beautiful."
That night, I slept soundly, knowing I had exercised both my lungs and my First Amendment rights.
Six weeks later, my belief that the election was less than legitimate has not diminished. I've lost that old sense of comfort that everything is OK and the nation will roll along without much help from me. I no longer feel as if I'm living in some safe, self-sustaining political fairy tale conjured up by a few wise men 200 or so years ago. As George W. Bush moves closer to the presidency, unabashed, the memory of my peaceful protest stays with me. I feel a rising sense of political purpose and a heightened awareness of the way power is wielded in this country now. I'm not alone.
Living here in D.C., it's hard to escape all the inaugural fussing. I am looking forward to Inauguration Day, but not to the concerts, balls, parade, and the show of it all, or even the counter-inaugural bashes being planned.
Rather, I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to return to the streets to proclaim my outrage once again and let my voice be heard in a peaceful and legal manner. I, for one, don't intend to let the nation sleep through this inaugural as it has through most. With the exception of the second Nixon inaugural, most have been shows of unity, a symbolic moment to remind us that it is time to put the campaign behind and let the new president govern.
This one should fairly represent the divisions within our nation. Mr. Bush needs to hear our message: We will not forget the manner in which he claimed the presidency.
While more experienced protesters may have seen it all before, I am offended by the attitude of the powers-that-be toward the citizens who plan to demonstrate on Inauguration Day. Security will be at its tightest for any inaugural. News reports say that nearly 7,000 police officers will be on duty, and that parade spectators, for the first time in history, will have to pass through checkpoints that will restrict the access of demonstrators.
Signs can only be on stakes less than three-quarters of an inch thick. Ed Gillespie, communications director of the 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee, says these security measures are being put in place to protect families from "being jostled."
It seems that the D.C. police have adopted the same heavy-handed attitude toward inaugural demonstrations that they had for the World Bank protests last April 16, when they arrested hundreds on trumped-up charges that were later reduced, and used questionable preemptive measures to obstruct demonstrations.
There are numerous reports that the police have been infiltrating organized protest groups. In a recent Washington Post article, the assistant chief of police chose words like "nefarious" and "hooligans" to describe demonstrators, and dismissed them as "college students."
These labels remind me of the words Deng Xiaoping chose to describe demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989: They are "a bunch of rebels," he said, "and a lot of riffraff."
The US Secret Service is getting ready for us nefarious folk, too. It is coordinating the 16 federal and local law-enforcement agencies charged with providing security. According to the Post, they are concerned about what other countries will think if inauguration day is marred by noisy protests. What might these same countries think about our recent presidential election?
Personally, I hope these thousands of law-enforcement agents remember that they are operating in a democracy, and need to balance legitimate security needs with the obligation to protect the First Amendment rights of all citizens - protesters and Bush supporters alike, including those of this middle-aged mom who has never had a close encounter with tear gas.
Thousands of protesters are expected to turn out this cold Saturday, across the nation and in D.C. Armed with reluctantly dispensed, court-supported permits, an array of women's rights, civil rights, voting rights, gay rights, and justice-action groups as well as the pro-Bush National Patriots March and the Christian Defense Coalition will be out in Washington en masse.
While not part of any group, I'll be out there, wandering in the crowd somewhere along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.
I'll be waving a sign with a stake that is less than three-quarters of an inch thick, wearing lots of layers, and chanting my heart out about what happened in this country on Dec. 9. On that day, my sign said, "Right-wing coup in progress." Now it will say, "The coup is complete."
And when the inauguration is over, I'll go home and think about what it means to be politically awake in the year 2001.
Nadine Epstein is a writer and artist. Her latest book, "Rainforest Home Remedies" (HarperSan Francisco), was just published.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society