The next time MoveOn.org’s political team in Washington schedules a protest at the White House, they will undoubtedly check to make sure there are no competing demonstrations scheduled for the same place at the same time. If nothing else, that was the lesson of MoveOn’s Hurricane Katrina protest today.
The rally–designed to “tell President Bush to stop blaming local officials for his mistakes and acknowledge that budget cuts and indifference by his administration led to disaster in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast”–began at 1:00 P.M. in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. But going on at the same time in the park was “A Day for Darfur,” a protest sponsored by a group called Africa Action, along with several other human rights organizations.
The Darfur demonstration was well organized, with a professional stage, a good sound system, big signs, and a list of speakers that included National Council of Churches head Bob Edgar, Representatives Barbara Lee and Donald Payne, and God’s Politics author Jim Wallis. The rally was coming to its finale when a small group of MoveOn members began to assemble under a shade tree a few dozen yards away.
Representatives of Fenton Communications, fresh from their work assisting anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas, brought boxes of pre-printed signs for MoveOn protesters to hold. One sign said, simply, SHAME, while another said HELP HURRICANE VICTIMS. (That was just as promised; the press release announcing the protest promised “Excellent Visuals–Signs reading “Shame” and “Help Hurricane Victims.”) For their part, MoveOn officials arrived bringing boxes of printed-out Internet petitions signed, they said, by 250,000 people in the previous 24 hours. The petition said, “President Bush should stop blaming the victims of Hurricane Katrina and get to work helping them.” Tom Matzzie, MoveOn’s Washington director, pulled the petitions out of the boxes and stacked them in two piles, each about three feet high, in case anyone from the press wanted to take a picture.
Then it was time to begin. “Hi, my name is Tom Matzzie…” Matzzie said. With that, at precisely that moment, the Darfur demonstrators, their program finished, began a noisy march toward the White House. “GEORGE BUSH, BREAK THE SILENCE, PROTECT THE PEOPLE, STOP THE VIOLENCE,” they shouted, unfolding a yards-long petition of their own calling for an end to the killing in Darfur.
Matzzie manfully kept at it. “President Bush should begin his investigation by looking in the mirror,” he said.
“400,000 PEOPLE HAVE DIED!” yelled a man in the Darfur protest as the crowd kept chanting. Matzzie, with no microphone and sound system, could barely be heard a few feet away.
Still, he kept going, introducing what was to be one of the highlights of the rally, the appearance of three MoveOn members who lived in New Orleans and were evacuated after the hurricane. The first of them, a woman named Iona Renfroe, a lawyer, quickly told the group that she had decided not to heed calls to evacuate the city before Katrina. “I made a conscious decision to stay,” Renfroe said. “There were a lot of other people who did not have the choice.”
But Renfroe, like Matzzie, could not compete with the Darfur crowd. “WE CALL ON GEORGE BUSH TO STOP THE WAR ON THE POOR!” they screamed. “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR, STOP THE VIOLENCE IN DARFUR!”
Another New Orleans evacuee, a graduate student named Michelle Augillard, began telling her story. “I’m here because I, too, feel that the response time was too slow,” she said. “I want to know what our president is going to do now to help us.”
At that point–as if the Darfur din wasn’t enough–a man wearing a “Hillary ‘08″ T-shirt, who appeared to be with neither MoveOn nor the Darfur group, began yelling to anyone who would listen. “No more Bushit!” he screamed. “How much more can you stand? No more Bushit!”
Augillard was followed by still another evacuee, a New Orleans public school teacher named Christine Mayfield, who also struggled to be heard above the surrounding noise. And in addition to problems with the noise, there were problems with the stories themselves. The three women, while they had lost their homes and more, were not the kind of grievously needy victims who have been on television so much lately. They are, after all, MoveOn members, meaning they are involved in Internet activism, which is usually a middle-class pursuit. And they were all able to leave New Orleans; Renfroe elected to stay, while Augillard and Mayfield left town ahead of the storm. Although they had lost much, their stories did not have the impact of many others that have been told in the press.
After their brief remarks, it was time for the crowd to picket the White House. About 200 in all, they gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue and began shouting “SHAME ON BUSH! SHAME ON BUSH! SHAME ON BUSH!”
All except one. At the back of the crowd, there was a woman who didn’t have one of the big pre-printed MoveOn signs. Instead, she had a simple 8 1/2 x 11 piece of white paper on which she had written “SUPPORT OUR PRESIDENT.” She chanted the words by herself as the crowd yelled “SHAME ON BUSH!” As she did, one of the MoveOn protesters, a woman, approached her.
“Why are you doing this?” the woman asked.
“Support our president,” the Bush supporter said.
“Why are you doing this?” the woman asked again, raising her voice.
“Support our president,” the Bush supporter said, refusing to respond.
“Can we talk about it?” the MoveOn woman asked. “Can you tell me why you have that sign up?”
“Support our president,” the Bush supporter said.
“I’ll tell you why I’m here,” the MoveOn woman said. Then she suddenly began to scream at the top of her lungs. “BABIES DIED OF DEHYDRATION IN MY COUNTRY! BABIES!”
“Support our president,” the Bush woman said.
“Supporting the president is great, but supporting the people and the Constitution is more important!” the MoveOn woman said. “THE CONSTITUTION AND THE BABIES ARE DYING! IT’S MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANY PRESIDENT, AND YOU KNOW THAT IN YOUR HEART!”
“Support our president,” the Bush woman said. And then she turned away and added, “I have a right to say what I think.”
At that point, a crowd was beginning to gather around the two women. Another woman from MoveOn came up and pulled her screaming colleague away. “Don’t make this the event,” she told her.
The crowd kept chanting. “IMPEACH BUSH! IMPEACH BUSH! FIRE BROWN! FIRE BROWN!” But off to the side, another voice was added to the general noise. A man named Kristinn Taylor, an active member of the conservative group FreeRepublic in Washington, stood off to the side with a handmade sign that said, SHAME ON MOVEON–EXPLOITING KATRINA VICTIMS. Some of the protesters moved toward him to begin what might be called a high-minded debate.
“YOU’RE AN IDIOT!” a woman yelled at Taylor after Taylor blamed New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin for failing to evacuate the city.
Just then, a man walked up to Taylor and said, “If George Bush ate a baby, would you defend him?”
“That’s absurd,” Taylor answered.
“Well, that’s kind of where you’re at right now,” the man said.
“So you’re saying George Bush eats babies?” Taylor responded. “That’s absurd. And it’s exemplary of the mindset of the MoveOn crowd. These guys are so far out from reality, it’s pathetic.”
With that, Taylor began an impassioned, impromptu speech. “Now, please try to figure out what’s going on in this country,” he said, his voice booming. “There has been an enormous outpouring of goodwill from people on both sides of the political spectrum. You know, when those soldiers and national guardsmen go into the homes of the victims, they don’t ask, are you Republican, are you Democrat. They ask, do you need help? What can we do to help you? I wish that this crowd out here would have the same attitude, because all you’re doing is trying to tear the country apart for political purposes.”
At that point, another man, a MoveOn protester, came up. Unlike the others, he wasn’t angry, and, finally, things lightened up a bit.
“Do you think the protesters would be complaining about Bush’s reaction if we weren’t in Iraq?” the man asked.
“Yes,” said Taylor.
“Because you hate him.”
“So?” the man said with a shrug and little laugh of acknowledgment.
“Everything he does, for crying out loud,” Taylor said.
“OK, I agree with that,” the man said, laughing some more.
The honesty disarmed Taylor. “Well, thank you,” he said, “that’s the first honest thing I’ve heard out here today.”
“Well, don’t you think there’s a reason we all hate him?” the man continued.
“Yes,” Taylor answered. “Because you are all pathological in your hatred of him.”
“Of course,” the man said, as a few more people began laughing. “And why is that?”
“Because you’re a bunch of loony liberals!” Taylor answered, as everyone cracked up.
That was enough debate. By that time, the “SHAME ON BUSH!” circle had thinned out. The Darfur crowd had gone, too. And those stacks of petitions were off to be delivered, somewhere.
–Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.