At Obama's inauguration, activists will walk a fine line

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 12, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Peace activists in the nation's capital met for weeks last fall, brainstorming how they'd demonstrate their opposition at the inauguration of John McCain as president.

Then Barack Obama won the election.

What's a liberal protester to do?

"It was a happy dilemma," said Barbra Bearden, spokeswoman for Peace Action, which is affiliated with the Activist Coalition of D.C.

Washington is a town of protests, and not a week goes by, it seems, that a group isn't in front of the U.S. Capitol with bullhorns and signs calling for better education, or cheaper health care, or the beginning of peace, or an end to abortion.

With Obama's election, however, liberal organizations that have spent eight years blocking streets now find themselves working to change their message for this inauguration.

"We're not doing a protest," Bearden said. "We're working on having a progressive presence."

That means no chanting and no blocking the city streets as she and others did last year at an event marking the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Instead, the coalition plans on having a community teach-in at Meridian Hill Park, which is some distance from Pennsylvania Avenue. A few blocks from the White House at McPherson Square, they'll ask visitors to sign a "No Soldier Left Behind" petition.

"Eight years ago and four years ago . . . the message was clear and easy to deliver," said Jodie Evans, a co-founder of the antiwar organization CodePink. "As antiwar activists, to be effective, the bar has been lifted. You have to create a tone that reflects the tone Obama has taken."

So instead of expressing outrage, some 150 CodePink activists plan more festive demonstrations. They will dance the can-can outside inaugural balls, Evans said. They will pass out thousands of pink ribbons reading, "Obama keep your promises."

And though many members of CodePink might've voted for Obama, Evans said the group still has concerns about some of his policies. They don't like his plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, for example.

At PeaceAction's organizing meetings, participants discuss almost daily how to walk the fine line between sending a message without protesting Obama's election, Bearden said.

She said the Activist Coalition of D.C. plans to bring 3,000 signs reading, "I have hope for . . . " Demonstrators can fill in the blanks themselves. The idea, she said, is to capitalize on Obama's themes of inclusion.

"We're going to answer your call and hold you accountable to our message," Bearden said of the group's message to the new president.

Another demonstrating non-protester is James Cook, a stay-at-home dad and writer in Columbus, Ohio.

Cook, a civil libertarian, said he was curious to see whether the National Park Service would issue a protest permit to any everyday American. The agency did, and he sought space for 50 to 250 people to stand outside the Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Cook plans to drive to Washington with a sign asking Obama to honor his pledge to uphold the Constitution. He isn't sure how many others will join him.

"It's not really a protest," Cook said. "Do you protest a president who just took office 20 minutes ago? And I voted for him!"

Then again, some demonstrations planned around the inauguration really are protests.

Consider the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church, which pickets U.S. military funerals with anti-gay and anti-U.S. signs, is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On Monday, Jan. 19, members plan pickets outside the Canadian, English, Swiss, Israeli, French, Australian, Kenyan, Irish and Vatican embassies. Then on Inauguration Day, the church has a permit to demonstrate along the parade route.

Also protesting, with a permit in front of the Canadian Embassy, is the Christian Defense Coalition, an anti-abortion group based in Washington.

In all, five organizations so far have received permits from the National Park Service to hold protests at the inauguration and along the parade route.

The space was expanded from four years ago after a lawsuit filed by the ANSWER Coalition, a collection of leftist groups fighting war and racism.

In 2005, the coalition complained that the park service didn't allow enough space along the parade route for protesters and members of the public. Last spring, a judge in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia agreed.

The activists who've organized massive antiwar marches and filed the lawsuit to open the parade route, however, plan no protest on Inauguration Day.

Instead, the coalition is inviting local residents — especially those hit hard by the economy — to come join the parade viewing, but not in any organized way, said Brian Becker, the coalition's national organizer.

"It's not a protest. It's not an action," Becker said.

Some might bring signs, he said.

Some might not.

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