The left may be alive, if you believe the signs brandished Saturday by young men and women angry at George W. Bush's inauguration as president, but it was also cold, wet and tired.
Clustered in locations predetermined by Washington police and federal security officials, several thousand young people turned up at Bush's bash to bash Bush. They provided a dash of color and creativity — sometimes off-color but equally creative, nevertheless — to the patriotic pomp and circumstance with which America welcomed its new leader.
Bush campaign signs defaced to read "Bull----" were the gentlest placards in a sea of profane taunts on the new leader.
At key intersections along the parade route, the sea of red, white and blue banners, hats and flags was broken by clumps of other colors — green hair, all-black clothing, red bandanas and very blue language. But most prominent was yellow, the color of the rain slickers thousands of people wore Saturday to ward off the continuous drizzle that never quite turned into the 3 inches of snow Washington's meteorologists had predicted. It made for a show alternately festive and frigid.
"How long have we been out here?" a weary young man asked as he slumped into a subway seat on his way to yet another demonstration. "Since 5 this morning," said his companion, a spike-haired young woman. It was only 10 a.m., and for many, the party was just starting.
Every cause under the sun
They represented almost every cause under the liberal and left-wing umbrella, from abortion rights to civil rights to animal rights to anti-defense pacifism. There was a large contingent demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black activist imprisoned in Pennsylvania for killing a police officer.
There was a mini-procession of Puerto Ricans and supporters calling on the U.S. Navy to abandon its base and military exercises at Vieques island. There was even a lone man insisting that the CIA was using secret military technology to control everyone's thoughts. But no matter what they were espousing, from genteel Green Party environmentalism to violent overthrow of the capitalist system, they all agreed on one thing: George W. Bush should not be president.
Early in the day, activists and left-wing groups commandeered Freedom Plaza, near the end of the inaugural parade route, and they took over an entire stand of seating at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, to boo and shout slogans at Bush as his parade rolled by in the afternoon.
Off to the side stood a grizzled but proud veteran of the leftist movement, delighted that so many young people were taking up his causes with so much energy and so little violence.
"We're seeing the birth of a new left," said Guy Chichester, 66. For 17 years, Chichester has been a Green Party organizer in New Hampshire, but throughout his decades of rabble-rousing, he has promoted a smorgasbord of leftist causes — against nuclear weapons and missile defenses and for workers' rights among them.
Saturday, he was sporting a button from the International Workers of the World — the Wobblies. It was one of the happiest days of his career.
Chichester proclaimed the wet, raw weather "perfect."
"People have a lot to be happy about," he said. "Talk about raining on a parade." The protests Saturday "definitely have the feeling of the real thing," Chichester said.
Loud but peaceful
With the exception of eight arrests, the crowds on both sides were loud but peaceful.
Watching over the shivering throngs were diverse groups of observers. Among them was a platoon of lawyers, 160 of them, organized by the local Libertarian Party to "observe and make sure that protesters and police respect the rights that both have," said one of them, Kat DeBurgh of Washington.
As they wandered through the storm, they jotted down notes for a report they intended to file with the National Lawyers Guild, a civil libertarian advocacy group.
Close by were stoic squads of medics, most of them advanced first-aid technicians and nurses who arrived this week from all over the country, all of them identified by the makeshift red crosses they wore fashioned out of duct tape.
Brian Dominick of Syracuse, N.Y., said he and his colleagues were expecting nothing but were prepared for anything, including a chemical weapon attack. "That's a good chunk of what we do," he said.
The lawyers and the medics seemed to take everything in stride, but not everyone was so blase.
The unlucky Bush supporters who happened to wander by the main staging area at Freedom Plaza or a smaller but more active setup at the U.S. Navy Memorial seven blocks away seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the sentiments they heard.
As Bush's limousine approached Freedom Plaza on its way to the White House, Bush, who had gotten out to walk part of the parade route, ducked back inside, and the car sped by, Secret Service agents running alongside. The all-protester stand erupted in boos and profane chants. Twenty-five feet away was a larger stand for the general public. Even though seating along the route was a precious commodity, that stand was only half full, as ordinary Americans, many of them adorned with Bush stickers or waving Texas flags, slowly trickled away amid the verbal barrage.
Bush fans fire back
They responded only once, when a young man fired up a bullhorn to suggest that a U.S. flag be burned. At that, many in the main stand who had turned their backs, studiously ignoring the protesters, wheeled around and started booing themselves.
Another group the protesters took by surprise were those parade-goers who happened to be nearby when two young women supporting People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took off their tops — just as television cameras were on them.
Cindy Gassman of Bay City, Mich., was in town to watch her 16-year-old daughter, Kristin, march with the Mid-American All-Star Pom Pom Squad. She said she had been chatting most of the day with one of the PETA protesters and had no idea the young woman was about to make the evening nudes.
"I'm a bit disappointed at what just happened," Gassman told MSNBC.com correspondent Tom Curry. "I mean, she's going to get so much publicity ... It was just amazing when she ripped her clothes off."
But overall, she said, "I'm glad I'm here, and I'm glad my daughter is going to be able to experience something like this."
Less lucky was a group of young men and women dressed all in black jackets and military-style fatigues who refused to say who they were or what they represented. They marched down 14th Street NW, all wearing bandanas over their faces.
Asked why they were hiding their identities, one of the members hissed at a reporter, "It's for you people."
Minutes later, the group stopped for lunch. As they broke out sandwiches, they realized they would have to remove their bandanas if they wanted to eat. Most did. Meanwhile, television cameras and news photographers captured every one of them on video and film.