What Happened The Day I Saw Protesters Provoke Police At A Presidential Inauguration

What Happened The Day I Saw Protesters Provoke Police At A Presidential Inauguration

The media did not report on it. But the protests at Bush's inauguration were ugly, offensive, and frightening for many. Here's what happened.
Matthew Mehan
By

Every once in a long while, the planets align, the rain falls at the right angle, the wind blows just so, and the drama of our nation is revealed with an allegorical clarity that jumps out like a flat screen TV in a dark room. The inauguration parade for George W. Bush in 2001 was one of those times. Forgive me a little retrospective.

Being a tall man, I was asked to take photographs over the crowds for a reporter friend at the inaugural parade. We set up shop in the press stands across from the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania. Navy servicemen and women lined the parade route on both sides of the street, facing inward so they might salute the commander-in-chief as he passed by their hallowed monument with its crisp semaphore flags of the fleet flapping in the misty breeze.

With their backs facing the crowd, the young sailors looked strong and stalwart as the rain beaded on the shoulders of their dark pea coats and crisp white caps. They stood poised to share a moment of patriotism before their memorial, with the nation watching, the people gathered, and their new commander and president passing by in full motorcade.

“Not so!” seemed the howl of the protestors gathered in the semicircle that formed the Navy Memorial.

How Protesters Acted at Bush’s Inauguration

Across from us, crammed in the memorial plaza, a pulsing throng of anti-Bush, Gore supporters booed and swayed. On the fringes of the mob of protest signs and black ski masks were a few sour grapes families with young children.

From the start, they had been scooped up into the arms of their parents, who uneasily eyed their strange bedfellows. The signs and chants contained many expletives. The memorial flag poles rose above them, but even these were strewn like gallows, with ski-masked protestors flipping the bird to the Bush supporters in adjoining sections and the press box, which sat directly across from them.

CNN, NBC, CBS. All of them had cameras and all of them took front row footage, but none of them told the story that night on the news of what I saw at the inauguration.

The protestors’ boos increased as the preliminary patriotic floats made their way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Each float and limousine passed through the gauntlet of hisses from the anti-Bush mob. One plump Vietnam Helicopter veteran, hanging out of the cockpit of an old Huey, waving cheerfully at the cameras, would have flinched if he’d seen the glass bottle hurled at the back of his head from deep within the sea of signs and ski-masks. Fortunately, the bottle just missed, shattering the silver-haired veteran’s smile into little shards on the street.

Liberal Protesters Used a Liturgy Of Hatred

Bush supporters along the rails in front of our press seats who’d been trying to laugh at the silly protestors, changed from quiet, half-hearted chuckling, to booming chants of “Sore-Loserman” and “Give it Uh-up.” The liberal protestors would not be outdone, however, and they began what had the markings of a rehearsed liturgy of hatred.

Their sense of drama was explicit. Like an angry Greek chorus, they would wail and shake, and then turn in on themselves like a black, coiling snake that had just been struck. Suddenly, the ferocious motion and the chants of “F— Bush” would cease, and a space would open up in the throng to reveal a lone actor with a burning American flag. In seconds the chanting and churning of the throng would begin again, and its black coils would spirit away the offending protestor.

All the while, the Navy seamen stood at attention, only occasionally shooting a glance behind them when one of the protestors would spit or throw trash at them. An ensign walked down the line. He stopped to talk to some of the seamen, probably telling them to ignore the protestors no matter what. At least I assume they were under orders not to move, for when the protestors began to tear down the flags of the fleet that hung from the memorial, a certain chisel line formed on a number of the seamen’s jaws.

The sailors on my side of the parade route watched as across the street, protestors put the Navy Memorial flags down their pants in (perhaps) mock desecration. More twisting and coiling, and then up went the flags of the revolution: upside down pink triangles, black symbols of entropy and chaos, white flags smeared with brown and red were all hoisted up the memorial flag stands.

Bush supporters began to boo, but their outrage soon turned to clapping. The parade had stopped, and riot police, marching at the quick, came down the parade route. They stopped beside the memorial and began talking with the protestors. Again the mob rocked and tossed; with the memorial flag poles made to look like the double masts of a sea-going vessel, they seemed the perfect ship of fools.

What Happened When Law And Order Appeared

Just so, someone in the throng threw a bottle against the lead riot cop’s helmet. Many things happened at once. The riot police, like a boarding party, tore back the guard rails and ran into the crowd of protestors which fell back in all directions from the onslaught.

Democrat families, feeling the sudden and frightening squeeze of the protestors trying to escape to the wings, began desperately handing their children over the rails to the Bush supporters in the adjacent sections out of fear for their safety in the press and din. Billy clubs rose and fell about a dozen times in a sea of ski-masks and plastic shields. Whistles and shouts of approval from the Bush supporters quickly rose and fell with each swing of the wooden batons. Protestors were dragged from their rooks on the flag poles, and some were dragged out into the parade route, ski-masks removed, and all to the now rising, clapped chant of “Law and Or-der” from the Bush supporters.

After a time, order was restored, and the many protestors that remained contented themselves with coiling and rocking in their ship of discontent. Bush, with rolled up windows, made a speedy pass of the memorial. The seamen stood at attention. The rain poured. And history rolled along unreported.

Matthew Mehan is the Worsham Teaching Fellow for Hillsdale College's Allan P. Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.

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