Wednesday, January 14, 2009

At Rallies, Giving 'Please' a Chance

By Lori Aratani - Washington Post
Updated: Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Code Pink, Arrest Bush, the Coalition for Peace and other liberal activist groups plan to jam the Mall and line the parade route on Inauguration Day. They will hoist banners, wave signs and call for action. It might look a lot like a protest rally. But don't call it that.

"It's not a protest; it's a celebratory event," said Jose Rodriguez, a longtime activist who is coordinating an Arrest Bush demonstration in front of the FBI building Tuesday.

Their guy might have won, but after almost a decade of being on the opposite side of presidential decisions on the Iraq war, Supreme Court appointments and a host of other issues, progressive activists have a new problem: how to make demands without appearing adversarial.

"We don't want to be seen as protesting against [Obama] so much as pushing him to fulfill his promises," said Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink. "It's totally, totally different."

"In years past, we organized and organized and didn't see any direct result because we were up against an administration that wasn't listening," Rodriguez said. "Now, we know there's an opportunity for change to happen."

Even those who disagree with the president-elect's stands on such issues as abortion say they are planning "educational gatherings," not disruptive demonstrations. That's not to say there won't be any angry words come Inauguration Day, but it appears that Obama isn't the only one who wants to set a new tone in Washington.

Presidential inaugurations are traditional backdrops for demonstrations of all types.

The National Parks Service has issued more than a half-dozen permits for groups that want to "express their First Amendment rights" Tuesday, spokesman Bill Line said.

Among the groups that disagree with Obama's politics there was debate as to whether it was appropriate to protest on what many consider a historic day.

"For us, it was really a difficult thing to even [decide] to demonstrate," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, which has had a presence at the past three inaugurations. "We don't want to detract from the enormity of the celebration of the nation's first African American president. We do respect that. So that's why we've chosen more of a display than a demonstration. We won't have signs chiding President Obama or saying negative things."

Line said that in addition to the 100 or so members of Mahoney's antiabortion group, who will be stationed in front of the Canadian Embassy, about 15 people will come from Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan. The group is known for its opposition to gay rights and has made headlines for staging protests at military funerals. Members will be at a spot at the northeast corner of John Marshall Memorial Park.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and other law enforcement officials said they don't foresee any trouble but will deploy additional security to manage a crowd that many expect might number in the millions. Sal Lauro, chief of the U.S. Park Police, said that for the first time, 1,300 D.C. National Guard troops will be brought in to supplement other personnel.

Still, Lanier, speaking to a group of businessmen in the District last week, said the gatherings will be "nothing on the scale we had the last inauguration."

"We don't expect any kind of conflict [like] the protests we've had in the past," she said.

Progressive groups say their shoe-throwing and anti-Bush banners will be replaced by more "positive" slogans. Sonia Silbert, co-coordinator of the Washington Peace Center, said several groups are collaborating on a "Hope" project in which people will be invited to share their visions for the future. They'll be able to fill in the blanks on signs and postcards that read, "President Obama I wish for _______."

"We want to have them think: 'What do you want? What are you hopeful for?' " Silbert said.

Even groups that oppose any form of government, including some anarchists, are taking a different approach to the new administration, Silbert said, coming to Washington to educate people rather than disrupt the day's festivities.

Silbert said the goal is to create momentum but to be realistic: People are impatient for change, but they have to realize it might not come as quickly as they want.

"There are folks that remember when Clinton was elected," she said. "There was a lot of hope, but people became disillusioned. If Obama doesn't follow through or isn't able to follow through, that's not a reason to give up hope."

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