Report from Capitol Hill

March 23rd, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

For those of you who may not be interested in reading further, here is the precis.  I spent March 20th in Washington D.C., along with somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people in D.C. that day for the protest, all of whom came to D.C. with less than 48 hours notice.  That estimate comes directly from the Capitol police, which means that anyone who tells you otherwise is either mistaken or lying to you.  I obviously could not be everywhere all the time, so I cannot vouch as to whether the accusations of racist and homophobic slurs were correct.  What I can tell you, however, is that even if there were a few dozen idiots (or possibly infiltrators, since I saw a few counter-protesters) at the protest, that 99.9% of these people do not care about the skin color or sexual orientation of their lawmakers, they care about their actions.  They were there because they thought government-run health care was unconstitutional, immoral, and impractical, because the bill was being passed against the will of the American people, and because they thought Obamacare would make the system worse, not better.  Period.

For the rest of you, I spent March 20th on Capitol Hill.  This is my story.

***

I pulled into the Vienna-Fairfax metro station at about 9 am Saturday morning.  I was nervous at first, because I was completely alone and I felt more than a little awkward about carrying a big protest sign into the metro and through DC.  I stalled for about 20 minutes, packing my knapsack with the things I figured I’d need through the day and otherwise getting my things together.  At about the time I was finally steeling myself to pick up my sign and move, I saw a group of four get out of a van a little way away from me, so I went over.  “Are you with the Tea Party?” I asked them.

“Yes we are!”  they replied.

My new friends for the day were Joy, Shell (nickname for Michelle), Ryan, and April.  Joy and Shell worked for the Army; Shell had not been planning on going at first because she didn’t think she could do the drive alone, but when she learned that Joy was going they decided to make the trip together.  Ryan and April were Joy’s two children, aged 13 and 9 respectively.  Despite his age, Ryan was a political junkie and surprisingly knowledgeable about the issues.  Being younger, April was simply excited.  She bounced around saying, “Kill the bill!  Kill the bill!”  I didn’t say much to Joy, but Shell was also quite knowledgeable; we spent most of the day together and each managed to give the other quite an earful on the issues that had brought us together that day.

We took the Metro to the Capitol South station, which was right next to the House offices and the Capitol itself.  There was a group of people already there, planning on going in to petition the wavering representatives.  They couldn’t bring in their bags or signs though, so since I had yet to make up my sign, I volunteered to act as guard for the group.  While they were inside, I used the markers I had put in my knapsack to write up my sign; on one side, I wrote “Medicare and Social Security are in the hole, but Obamacare will be deficit neutral?  You lie!”  and on the other I wrote “Rocket Scientist against Obamacare.”  I’d debated writing that because I hadn’t wanted to tout myself as special, but on the other hand I wanted to point out to whoever might be watching that liberal claims to the contrary, we were not an ignorant mob.  Fortunately all of the responses from those who commented were positive, so I guess the right message got across.

As I was working, a couple who were in the country from Italy came by and commented on Shell’s sign, which mentioned something about Communism.  “That word does not mean what you think it means,” they insisted.  “This is not communist.”

Shell and the others came out in time to hear this and rebut, “We’re aware that this plan is not full-blown communism.  What we’re trying to say is that it’s a step down the road.”

After that little debate, we picked up our stuff and headed out to Upper Senate Park for the rally itself.  By then it was about 11 am (the rally proper was slated to begin at noon).  We eventually decided to stake our place close to the speaking platform, almost in the center of the park.  This had both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, we could hear the speeches fairly well; on the other, we couldn’t really get a good view of the crowd, so it was hard to say how big it was.  There was a group selling buttons near where we were standing, and we all decided to buy a button to remember the protest by.  I eventually settled on the one that said “Somewhere in Chicago, there’s a village missing an idiot.”  As I bought the button, I mentioned to the seller that I was from Chicago.  “Oh, so you would know, wouldn’t you,” he replied.  “Do you still live there?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“They couldn’t keep you?”

I turned my sign around so the “rocket scientist” side was showing and then asked, “Do I look that stupid?” which made the seller laugh (I actually like Chicago, but you have to admit it was a good joke).

As the organizers and Congressmen who were against the bill took turns speaking, the green slowly filled up to capacity.  We would also occasionally hear other chants from around the Capitol building competing with our own.  At first we weren’t sure who they were.  We were afraid that they might be members of the anti-war protest that was also being held in D.C. that day, but after a while we were able to make out enough chants of “Kill the bill!” to be fairly certain that those others were here for the protest as well.  I alternated between listening to the speakers and taking pictures of the crowd… or at least, those parts of the crowd I could see.

I also made a special effort to take pictures of the doctors I saw…

…as well as the best signs:

After the rally was over and many of the participants had dispersed to go back to their Representatives’ offices, Shell and I decided to find a place to sit down in the shade (I really was a redneck by then).  We couldn’t find Joy and the kids, but we weren’t worried since Joy had Shell’s number, so we figured that if they hadn’t called, they were probably okay.  On our way we encountered a couple who had traveled to the protest from New York.

After talking to them for a few minutes, we learned that they hadn’t just come here from New York, they had actually come to the United States from Romania.  They were at the protest precisely because they’d lived under Communism, and they weren’t eager to return to it.  “We knew from what Obama was saying during the campaign, what he was going to do,” they told us.  “We knew the rhetoric from when we lived in Romania.  When he was elected, we said to each other that it was over.”

Once we were in the shade, I broke out the snacks that I’d packed and shared them with Shell (she had water, but no food).  Some others had had the same idea as us, to hide from the sun and wait for 5 pm, when we were supposed to come back to the Capitol for round two.  As we waited, we were passed by a nurse as well as by a group of doctors.

The doctors were across the street, but were still close enough to hear me when I asked if I could take a picture.  They posed, then called out to me, “We’re here to save the Republic!”

“We’re doing our best!”  I called back to them, then moved back to sit with Shell.

As we sat, we watched the protesters march down the street, to chants of “Kill the bill!  Kill the bill!”  I remarked to Shell that a part of me simply could not understand why the politicians were not paying attention, that this was political suicide of the first order and I simply did not get why they were willing to go through with it.  Shell only shrugged; she didn’t get it any more than I did, we both just knew that for some reason we couldn’t comprehend, it was happening anyway.

Eventually 5 pm rolled around, and we headed back over to the Capitol building for the next big hurrah.  We were supposed to circle the Capitol building, but people were having some trouble organizing that.  Some of the protesters started marching around the building but I don’t know whether we actually ever formed a full circle or not.  My guess is that we didn’t, partially because some people had had to leave before then and partially from disorganization, but we certainly came very close.  Eventually the bulk of the people there settled down in front of the building to listen to the speeches:

During this time, police had started to arrive, not that they had much to do.  Mostly they just stood guard, watched, and occasionally escorted people back and forth from the Capitol building.  Some rogue representatives (or possibly rogue aides) had put up signs in some of the Capitol windows along the lines of “vote no” and at one point we had some people waving out of the windows at us.  Some people were giving speeches with a bullhorn, and we were told multiple times that we could be heard both within the building and from blocks away.  Mostly I was sitting on the wall at the edge of the area, away from the main crowd, but occasionally I wandered around to get some pictures, especially when I saw more doctors.

I especially thanked the doctor with the creative lab coat for posing, as it was probably the single best sign at the rally.  He thanked me for coming.  Now that the bill has passed anyway though, I think we can safely bet that all of these doctors will be amongst those quitting, assuming that they can afford it.

At one point, a black man sat down next to where Shell and I were sitting.  I joked around with him a bit, asking him what he was doing over here with all us racist hatemongers.  More seriously, Shell asked him why there weren’t more minorities protesting with us, since we’d always assumed the message of “smaller government” was not exactly racially divisive.  He replied that he had no idea but that just because they weren’t there didn’t mean they shouldn’t be.  He was also incredibly knowledgeable about who all of the Congressmen were and which ones were doing what.  I hadn’t wanted to take his picture originally, since I think saying, “See, he’s black and he supports it!” is a stupid and false way to attempt to prove the truth of your argument, but after we had some counter protesters come through asking us about slavery (“What does that have to do with anything?” the protesters shot back, annoyed), I asked if I could take his picture as a counter example.

There was also a man with a very clever costume: half suit, half colonial-era clothing.

As he posed for the cameras, he joked that he wasn’t even charging us for the privilege.  I kidded back, “Not charging?  What kind of capitalist are you?”

His reply?  “Pay me by sharing this picture with your friends.  Remind them that if we forget what yesterday’s generation did for us, then today’s generation will betray it.”

After the speeches were over, we moved to the Supreme Court building across the street for a candlelight vigil.  Many people were gone by then, either to their hotels or their cars or their homes.  Since I didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time, I stayed and lit a candle.  At one point I was approached by a group who asked me, “What are you protesting.”

“We’re protesting the health care bill,” I replied.

“So you don’t think there should be reform?” they pressed.

“We agree that there should be reform,” I explained cautiously, worried that they might be counter-protesters, of whom I’d seen a few throughout the day, “but we think that this bill will make things worse, not better.”

“How do you think reform should happen.”

“Basically we think it should be less government-based and more market-based.”

“Oh, okay.  That makes sense,” they replied, and I relaxed.  They weren’t counter-protesters after all, they were just curious.  “What group are you with?”

“None.  I drove solo for 12 hours to be here today.”

I think that impressed them.  I don’t know whether I changed their minds or even made them think about it a little, but one can hope.

After a while, I started worrying that if I didn’t leave soon, the metro would stop running and I’d be trapped in D.C. for the night.  Before I left, though, I had one last encounter with a couple of fellow protesters, a married couple from Maryland.  The husband had just lost his job with Blue Cross Blue Shield, who had apparently cut staff no less than 3 times in anticipation of Obamacare.  His wife had actually traveled a much larger distance; she had emigrated here from China.  “I left China to escape socialism,” she told me, “but now I have come here to find it waiting for me.  The whole reason China is booming now is because they abandoned these sorts of ideas, but now America wants to become more like China?”

“Well, I think they actually want to become more like Europe,” I pointed out, “but we both know that’s not going to work either.  Just look at what’s happening in Greece right now, the debt problems and the unrest.”

“Exactly,” they replied.  “Socialism just doesn’t work.”

My last encounter for the day was on the metro, going home.  A man in the car saw my sign and asked me if I was with the protest.  When I said yes, he thanked me for coming.  He’d been unable to make it for personal reasons, but told me he would’ve been out there holding a sign if he could have.  “This thing is going to lay out so many new taxes,” he told me.  “Capital gains, Cadillac tax… it’s going to kill businesses.”


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4 Responses to “Report from Capitol Hill”



  1. larry |

    Brianna
    Congratulations for such a superb article/piece.
    The human element was the best I’ve seen to date.
    Please continue your excellent work.

    Larry


  2. Jane Thomas |

    Brianna,

    It was an excellent account. My applause for your use of our system as it was designed to be used, with peaceful protest. It is important to go beyond the polls and to speak out for what is needed. Thomas Jefferson says that the best test of an idea is in the market place of ideas. If enough buy it–it happens. If not enough buy it–then, maybe later, maybe never. I took to the trenches for civil rights and for an end to the Vietnam War. Now I only fill the mail pouches of my representatives and seniors–and that is because I am too old to stand in the street anymore. You are of the next generation of leaders and, whether I agree with you or not, I applaud your willingness to step forward and speak out.

    As a political scientist, I have long debated with colleagues as to whether a country that has experienced democracy can be subjected to an autocratic government for any length of time–or will the demand for freedom prevail. I spent a year in Europe studying under a Nazi to try to understand how the German Reich could have happened. I have come to believe that the development of a middle class economically will drive the transition from autocracy to democracy, and that democracy cannot be reversed with the existence of a large middle class. On the other hand, the lack of a middle class poses a prime opportunity for a functioning autocracy. LEASHING THE DOGS OF WAR, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, is an excellent book on the challenge of transitioning between democracy and autocracy.

    It is because of smart, active and articulate persons like yourself that the US will never transition back toward autocracy and our government will always have to respond, eventually, to the demands of its people. Keep up the good work.

    Jane


  3. Tom |

    I agree with Jane. This is an outstanding article, and it really does demonstrate the best of American political values — freedom of assembly and speech, exercised peacefully. Even if the reports of some abusive language are true, at worst there were very, very few people who did anything like that.

    I particularly like your pictures. It was interesting to see the wide variety of people in the crowd.

    Think what it might have been like with other kinds of demonstrators, in the U.S. or other countries. Cars overturned or burned, rocks thrown at windows and people, other kinds of attacks, violent clashes with police, and the areas where the demonstration took place totally trashed. This one was so peaceful that members of Congress on both sides felt safe enough to walk among the demonstrators.

    I don’t agree with many of the demonstrator’s views, as illustrated by their statements and signs, but I was pleased to see them peacefully exercising their rights. People with other kinds of views could learn from this example.


  4. Brianna |

    Video of the black lawmakers walking through the crowd

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dzRC8d4n-s

    Lots of “Kill the bill!”, “Vote them out!”, “Boo!”, and a couple of “Crooks and liars!” But what a shock, no n-word.

    Why am I not surprised?


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