S and I were at the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear yesterday! It was an incredible and awesome experience. Not to mention - ahem! - brief.
No, really. We were at the site of the rally for all of glorious seven and a half minutes before beating a retreat. I was/am so ashamed of myself, and it fills me with embarrassment even as I write this account.
And before any of you commiserate with me, no, it was not agoraphobia, nor enochlophobia. What made us leave post-haste was the concatenation of several powerful realizations - call it 'light-bulb moments' - chiefly amongst which were (a) both of us were vertically challenged compared to most of the crowd, and (b) the rally was being telecast live on Comedy Central and C-Span, and also being streamed live online.
We didn't start out that way that morning, of course. Imbued with the full spirit of the rally, we got up early, finished the morning ablutions, and procured the iPhone app. While S was getting ready, I looked up, using the app, the Flickr photos that people were already taking with their iPhones and uploading. A pang of doubt did cross my mind - I see that clearly in retrospect - when I browsed through images of the crowd thronging various areas both far from and close to the actual arena. Of course, I suppressed it, and thought, we were leaving two and half hours to spare, we should be fine. Oh the foolhardiness!
True to Murphy's law, MD-295, the Baltimore-Washington DC Parkway, was unusually packed and slow, because of, first, constructions at multiple points that often squished a four lane highway into a single lane, and secondly, too many cars out in the road South-bound. Bored by the ponderous and jerky progress of the traffic, S and I took turns to speculate which of our fellow travelers were headed for the rally: the young and bearded gentlemen from Connecticut, the assiduously kissing couple from Pennsylvania, the vanful of iPhone and Blackberry-brandishing twenty-somethings from Virginia, the placid and serenely-driving older couple from New York, and so forth. And yes, eventually almost all of them entered Washington DC with us. At several places inside the DC area were tickers warning of severe congestion because of an event downtown. We finally reached the Verizon Center, where we parked, with merely a half hour to spare for the noontime start of the rally. Not quite suspecting the fate that was in store for us, we walked out, deciding to catch some breakfast on our way.
The first 'Holy Shit!' moment came when we found l-o-n-g lines of customers snaking out in front of every eatery (what a killing they made yesterday!!), McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, local coffee shops and sports bars. Like moths drawn to the fire, we ploughed on, searching in vain for a place to eat, and then giving up the quest for food altogether for lack of time. Poor S! She was the epitome of patience and reasonableness, hurrying down with me without protest.
We walked past the West gate of the National Museum of Art. Looking all around me, I became conscious of the tremendous number of people milling about, converging on the National Mall - like the gathering of storm clouds. There were strategically placed obstacles, such as police cars, which did not deter any; people just kept pouring in, inexorably. If I didn't see the animation and excitement writ on people's faces and spirited gestures, I'd have likened it to a march of the awful zombies that one finds in some modern video games. I did notice some folks, typically older, settling down at various places on the way, and that should have given me a clue, but...
And the signs people were carrying! Such an awesome, awesome display. They ranged from arcane, funny to sublime. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had been repeatedly indicating for over a month that they wanted this rally to be apolitical in nature - "Let's take it down a notch" was their clarion call; in fact, there was a lot of speculation in the news media whether they would be able to keep it that way and prevent themselves from putting out overt political messages in support of the Democrats and social liberals. It was apparent that a lot of people listened to them and understood the spirit of the rally. Although political signs were aplenty, the tone was deliberately moderated, and most people carried funny and clever signs that hinted at recent events without being obnoxious about it.
Here is a sample of signs that I caught a glimpse of, and that I could see being appreciated by the crowd:
- "This is a damn BIG sign!" - written on a huge piece of cardboard
- "I masturbate and I vote" - proclaimed a young woman
- "We get our news from Comedy Central and our comedy from Foxs News"
- "My wife is a Muslim and NOT a terrorist, but I'm scared of her anyway"
- "If only closed minds... came with closed mouths"
- "My views lean to the Left, but I lean to the Right... Damn scoliosis!"
- "Hey! Has anyone seen my car keys?" (with a hand-drawn picture of... a car key)
- "We are not nuts" (with the picture of a gloriously yellow and luscious hand of bananas)
- "I'm somehow irritated by extreme outrage"
There was a generous arrangement of port-a-potties lining the outer edge of the National Mall area. We walked past those, noticing long lines outside each one, towards the main arena, and soon realized our mistake. Well, several mistakes (several consecutive 'Holy Shit!' moments).
There were just... people, nothing else. People on the ground, people all around. Clever people who managed to climb on some trees. People who thronged the stairs of nearby buildings. People who managed to clamber up and find a spot on the high walls surrounding those buildings. The rally program had already started, and we could hear music, and people - couples, mostly - started dancing to those. I caught occasional glimpses at the huge screens that were set up high in the air; I say 'occasional' because my line of sight was almost completely blocked. We were also more than a block away from the stage set up for the program, with the Capitol as the backdrop - although I didn't realize it until much later.
In my mind, I revisited my experience with the crowd in and outside the major Puja Pandels in Kolkata, but remembered that the crowd therein was always tightly controlled, with specified entrances and exits, keeping the flow reasonably smooth. Here, at the National Mall, there was no crowd control as such. Everyone ('tens of thousands' by the reckoning of the early news reports, it may have been much more; Comedy Central estimated it at 250,000) was converging onto the designated area for the rally.
I was utterly lost. I couldn't see what was going on, was nowhere near the rally program, and realized the futility of any further effort in that direction. So we - after my aforementioned 'light-bulb' moments - made our way back to the parking. It sounds a lot easier than it was; walking against the flow of the crowd was hellishly difficult, but we made it - took us another half hour though. I drove as fast as I sanely could, and upon reaching home, switched on the TV to catch the last hour of the program. Later last night, I watched the first two hours on C-Span. The punctuality of the Stewart-Colbert rally organizers was phenomenal; they had started exactly at 12, and wrapped up the whole show by three, exactly as advertised.
A word about the message of the rally: At the end of the jokes, the feel-good musical performances, the faux-fighting between sanity (Stewart) and fear (Colbert), it all came together in the last half hour, when Jon Stewart found his personal moment of sanity. He spoke about how most people - true almost universally - go about their daily lives trying to solve their day-to-day problems, even in the worst of conditions, economic, social and global, underscoring how the note of divisiveness is consistently introduced by so-called pundits in the media, newspaper and cable TV. Prior to the rally, a lot of such commentators questioned the motivation behind the rally and the place of Stewart, a comedian, on the political landscape. Speaking to the audience, Stewart - voted in a recent poll as the 'Most Trusted Man in America' - noted that as a comedian he may well be breaking unwritten rules of the punditocracy, and that he would find out the next day how how he violated them, but expressed his disdain for the media-inspired squabbling. In a sincere appeal to true bipartisanship for working towards the common good, Stewart said, "We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together... And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. Sometimes it's just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together." It was an impressive moment. He thanked the attendees with sincerity and feeling, mentioning that he and his team were proud of themselves for actually pulling off the rally and putting on a good show.
I must admit that I had a personal difference of opinion with Jon Stewart. For example, for all his calls for bipartisanship and civil dialogs, he never offered any suggestion as to how to maintain that bipartisanship and civility in face of politicians routinely violating both norms, and certain media personalities routinely appealing to the baser instincts and using lies and distortions to churn out increasingly and insanely partisan and hateful messages. But I guess, that was the point of the rally - an impassioned appeal to sanity and reason, made not to the politicians and media, but to the common people - who get taken in, whose anger and frustrations are manipulated and twisted, and who often end up making poor decisions. The true change has to come from within people, unfettered by polarizing hatred, a message that is universal in its appropriateness. As Jon also said, "We can have animus... without being enemies."
The USA Today has a fantastic report on the event in a live-blogging fashion, and also a more formal report, and the New York Times has a balanced, dispassionate report on the rally. I urge you all to read those. Certain news organizations banned their reporters from attending the rally, NY Times included, for fear of being branded as partisan or losing their impartial image. Arianna Huffington said it best (never thought I'd agree with AH on anything!): "It doesn't make any sense to be agnostic about sanity... The rally is not political. It's not partisan. Contrived objectivity does not serve journalism... (the rally) helps us recognize we can have big disagreements as a country without demonizing opponents." I agree.
All in all, it was some experience! I would call it moving, especially since I was moving all the time, in and then out... But honestly speaking, I don't regret going to the rally at all; I could experience the phenomenon first hand, caught a glimpse of the spirit that drove the attendees from near and far, and at the end of the day, I ended up watching every minute of the main program that I had missed live.
P.S. I also resolved never to go to another rally - remembering vividly why we always enjoyed the New Year's Eve ball-dropping program at the Times Square in New York - watching it live on TV. It made for a more well rounded experience without the hassle. I know a lot of you would disagree with me... but that's okay. Group hug?