At the Rally to Restore Sanity, We Were ‘It’

[1 November 2010]

By Kirby Fields

My wife and I were watching The Daily Show when John Stewart announced his Rally to Restore Sanity to be held at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Though I guess we qualify as fans of the show, we have deemed precious little that is on television as “must see”, and we don’t go out of our way for anything, much less that which I can catch online the next day if it cracks the popular imagination in any meaningful kind of way. But the boy goes down around 10PM, and by the time 11PM rolls around, the house is straightened, the emails sent, and the eyelids too heavy to read, which means the television is finally on, and unless there’s a game or a good concert on Palladia, we usually land on Comedy Central.

On this particular night, Stewart used the first segment to make his announcement: He was going to hold a rally. It was going to be for that population of American that is, as he put it, “too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)—not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority”. The bit was funny. The part about how they chose the time because he had to get home to pay the ‘sitter, particularly so. I laughed. My wife, however, pulled her computer from the table to her lap and began clacking away.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Reserving a car,” she said. “We’re going to this rally.”

“Do you think we should invite Heather and Morgan?” I asked. Heather and Morgan are dear friends. They have a daughter, Avery, who is six weeks older than Jonah.

“I’ll email them,” she said. She provided a link, which was already up, and asked if they wanted to go.

Within minutes, she had her response. It was from Morgan, and it said, in part—and I’m paraphrasing here—“FUCK YYYEEEAAAAHHHHH!”

This is how the six of us—four in our 30s, two in our twos—ended up crossing the George Washington Bridge on the last Saturday of October in a minivan that was bound for DC.

*****

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I wouldn’t consider myself an overtly political person. I’ve voted in every presidential election since I turned 18, but you can count on one hand the number of times I’ve voted in a midterm. I’ve voted for the Democratic presidential candidate each time, though in 2000 I briefly flirted with Ralph Nader before ultimately deciding that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush. I still hold Nader, and not the Supreme Court, responsible for Gore’s loss. Gore also could have won his home state. That’s culprit number two, as far as I’m concerned. The Supreme Court is a distant third. I’m planning to vote during these midterms. I’m tempted by that guy from the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, the one with the gloves and the funky mustache, but I’ll probably just cast my ballot for Cuomo. I remember liking his dad.

I grew up in Joplin, Missouri, which was hardly a hotbed of activism, though I did participate in an Earth Day event my senior year of high school, and I wrote an article for the school paper about a local environmentalist. I attended a Vote for Change concert in support of John Kerry in 2004, but that was as much about not having seen Springsteen before as it was about siding with a guy for whom, try though I did, I just could not muster the enthusiasm.

After we moved to New York, Leu and I marched in a protest that opposed the Iraq War. Well, “marched” is a little misleading. We gathered in Midtown. The route was supposed to take us up near Central Park and then over to the United Nations. But it took a really long time for things to get moving. The announced start time came and went. A few people had megaphones, but I couldn’t tell if they were official. The police were nice. They were there to direct traffic as much as anything else. Eventually we got tired of waiting so we left before the actual march got underway. It was February. It was really, really cold.

What I admired most about many of the hundreds of people who turned out that afternoon was not their ability to withstand the city’s bitterly cold winter winds, though that was impressive; rather, it was their willingness to stake themselves to a cause. I don’t remember the exact signs that day, but they were along the lines of “Bush Is a War Criminal”, “Impeach President Cheney”, and “Heil Halliburton”. That kind of thing.

They were precisely the kinds of signs that the Rally to Restore Sanity urges us to oppose, come to think of it. But I would never hold one of those signs anyway, even if I did believe the slogans. I’m just not that kind of person. I just don’t feel it. I believe what I think I believe, and I test these beliefs everyday through my actions, but I feel no need to announce them. And I feel even less a need to name them. I haven’t eaten meat for the better part of two years, yet I refuse to call myself a vegetarian.

“But you don’t eat meat”.

“So?”

“So that makes you a vegetarian.”

“I eat fish.”

“Then you’re a pescatarian.” 

“I don’t know. I’m just someone who doesn’t eat meat except for sometimes fish.”

“Yeah, a pescatarian.”

“Whatever.”

Like the title of that Arctic Monkeys album: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. I didn’t say it was one of my more endearing traits.

caption

Comedian Stephen Colbert performs at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Why All the Fuss About the Patriot Act?

The Rally to Restore Sanity unofficially started about 100 miles outside of DC when some road construction forced a kind of impromptu meet-n-greet where I-95 crosses into Delaware. I envied George Washington being slowed only by the fog on his famous Delaware crossing. From my vantage point there was nothing but red break lights blinking as the drivers slowed down and then slowed down even more, as if we were all communicating with one another through some kind of a code. A message for the initiated didn’t seem like such a farfetched idea.

I looked from car to car to try to identify who was going to the rally and who was not. The car with the “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker, they were going. The BMW in front of me with the vanity plates that said “GO PRAY”, probably not. Likewise the SUV with the Semper Fi flag in the window. But the ralliers on the road, as it appeared, far outnumbered the non-, even this far away from our destination. You couldn’t tell so much when we were all speeding along, but slow us down and put us in one place and it became obvious.

Costco-sized containers of pretzels, peanuts, and licorice warmed in back windows. Posters sat in backseats, yet to be unfurled. One placard took up the entire back window. All that I could make out was “I’m afraid”. Busses from New York were parked at the rest stop to our left. I filled in a blank and surmised they were from the fleet that Arianna Huffington had provided for free. I had a few friends on those busses. How different their experience must have been from mine. Even with two toddlers, ours had a been a pretty sedate trip, the morning spent enjoying the rising sun and marveling at Jersey’s extraordinary display of fall leaves. Had the early start time subdued them similarly? Or were they a livelier bunch, singing Woody Guthrie songs and playing Pin the Witch Hat on Christine O’Donnell, the more serious-minded of them in a back corner poring over a district-by-district map and determining the makeup of Congress come Wednesday morning.

One thing was for sure: They weren’t the only ones traveling en masse. Everywhere I looked there were cars packed with people. You don’t realize how rare it is to see more than one person in a car on the highway until you look around and see car after car packed with three, four, five passengers. We crawled under a sign that said, “Report Suspicious Activity”. A phone number was listed. I thought about calling.

“Hello, what would you like to report?”

“There are people carpooling in America.”

“Excuse me?”

A friend texted: “Bring our troops home from Vietnam. [smiley face] Hope you guys have a great time. Those hippy chicks practice free love you know?”

The text was more prescient than he knew. Bereft of an MP3 adapter or satellite radio, we had turned to the non-satellite variety, the kind that doesn’t rely on outer space for its transmission. After cycling through our limited options, we settled on a station that was featuring a time capsule of 1965. “Help!” and “Get Off of My Cloud” and “Rescue Me” cut through the static. A version of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” that I’ve never heard before and wasn’t sure that I liked. Between songs the DJ would recount current events from that year. Names of places in Vietnam that sounded as foreign as they actually were to me. Numbers of casualties, of dead, that were just that: numbers.

I thought about a comparable program from 2055. Would the Rally make the cut? “On this day in 2010”. The connection felt forced, like something I was supposed to think. The pop songs during that future program wouldn’t be nearly as good. That much I could say with confidence.

The cell-phone towers along the side of the road were disguised to look like trees, but they didn’t look like trees. They looked like cell-phone towers. Another sign said tickets are enforced by radar. The GPS said that the construction had added 16-minutes to our estimated time of arrival. A woman’s voice said, “Recalculating…”

Why all the fuss about the Patriot Act, I thought, when we surrender ourselves so willingly?

caption

Musician Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne (right) take a bow after performing at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

*****

We were supposed to continue being conscientious citizens after we arrived in DC. The idea was to park outside of the city and then take the train the rest of the way. This was a plan both altruistically and selfishly hatched. On the one hand, we had all pledged our allegiance to public transportation when we had moved to New York, so it’s not as if we were train averse. Our belief in public transportation was one we tested daily, and it passed every time. The kids excepted, we all had unlimited metro cards in our pockets.

On the other hand, the traffic into DC was supposed to be brutal. I had heard horror stories about the infamous Beltway that made the traffic fleeing the Holland Tunnel ahead of a three-day weekend sound like a joy ride by comparison, which meant that this was an easy decision, a rare instance in which doing the right thing also meant doing the right thing for us, a choice that was much clearer than, say, the decision to use cloth diapers or to start a compost pile under the sink in your apartment.

The problem is that we were running late as it was. We had stopped at the hotel on the way in and changed the kids into their costumes. You see, the kids were dressing up. When you have kids the question of what they’re going to be for Halloween begins in earnest with the first official day of fall, some five weeks before the actual date. The rally was on 30 October, which gave us something to work with.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we dressed the kids up all patriotic-like for Halloween,” I idly suggested one evening. “Then they could be all dressed up at the rally.”

Everyone loved the idea. There was a costume shop across from where Morgan works. He picked up matching Colonial Boy and Colonial Girl outfits. They were perfect. Exactly what we were looking for. Only they were for four-year-olds.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Leu. “I’ll adjust them.” She had taken up sewing not so long ago, and she was anxious to practice her new skills.

She had spent the better part of the week sewing. Taking things off, shortening, reattaching. She had stayed up until 1:00AM the night before we left making final adjustments, but the adjustments weren’t final enough to prevent her from tinkering the whole way down. By the time we arrived, they looked great. Every stitch back in place. The kids were going to stand on the street corner and be the hit of the rally. People would take pictures. They would be on the evening news if the evening news were more relevant. Hell, they would be on the evening news and make the evening news more relevant.

Morgan had made signs for them, stapled pieces of paper taped to No. 2 pencils. One read, “‘Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people’ – John Adams.” The other, “‘Great necessities call forth great leaders’ – Abigail Adams.” They would stand with their signs and represent the future. They would be fucking adorable.

caption

Musicians Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

The consequence of their adorableness was that we were running late.

“It looks like the Green Belt takes about 20-minutes to get to the city,” Morgan said. “It runs every 10-minutes.”

“Great,” I said.

“We may have to transfer.”

“Shit”.

It was almost noon. America’s house band, the Roots, would take the stage soon. The rally proper started at 1:00. I had given up on the Roots. I was OK with this. But I wanted to be there for the start of the rally. If everything broke our way, we would still make it.

When we pulled up to the train station we realized that everything was not going to break our way.

“I’ll drop you guys off and go and find a parking spot,” I said.

Then we saw the line. It was as long as a line at Disneyworld if the line at Disneyworld accounted for every line from every ride on a Saturday in July, which is to say that it was long. Really, really long.

“Oh, my god,” we took turns saying as we finally found the tail. “We’ll never make it on time.”

“Never mind ‘on time’. We won’t make it at all.”

We took a vote and decided to drive. The GPS had us arriving at shortly after 1PM. Allegedly, it accounted for traffic. We could find a spot and get there for most of the rally. If we waited for the train we’d be dead.

So we drove. The traffic going in had a festival feel to it. People hollering out their windows. Guys relieving themselves in McDonald’s cups and then tossing the evidence out the window like chamber pots. When we found ourselves nearing the National Mall around 1:10 we congratulated ourselves on making the right decision. We were jazzed, energized by the city, by our crack decision-making, ready to go lend our voices to the choir of the sane.

This is when Jonah puked. He had been quiet for some time, and I heard Leu say, “Jonah, sweetie, are you OK?” I looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see the mouth beneath his tri-corner hat open and, for the first time in his young life, a great mass of vomit come out. This was no infant spittle. This was big boy throw-up. Solid. Still in the shape of his esophagus. The closest comparable was the alien popping through the guy’s chest in Alien, only it was coming out of his mouth.

My first thought was, “His costume!” Sure enough, it was ruined. The car gave a collective “oh!” Leu unfastened her seat belt and climbed to the back of the minivan. The dashboard dinged. “Please fasten your seat belt. Please faster your seat belt.” Jonah was crying. Avery was asking if Jonah was OK. Morgan and Heather were soothing Avery and inquiring about Jonah. I couldn’t pull over because we were right next to the Mall. There were people everywhere, barriers everywhere, cops indiscriminately moving everyone along. “But we have a sick kid”. He just blew his whistle and motioned with his arm. This way. Keep moving. Eventually I found a parking garage.

“It’s $18 a day,” I said.

“Just do it,” Morgan said.

We circled the labyrinthine parking lot for another ten minutes before finding a spot. Heather said, “They wouldn’t let us in if they didn’t have a spot”. By this time Jonah was in Leu’s lap. He was still crying, but we were convinced that it was a one-off thing, carsickness but nothing more serious, which was a relief. The lot was full of ralliers. A woman carried a sign that said “I’m a Muslim and I Don’t Hate You”. Her daughter’s said “My Mom Told Me to Carry This Sign”.

This was the point at which I thought, This is hard. This is a commitment. You can’t just wake up one morning and say to yourself, “I think I’m going to go to a rally today”. It takes planning, not only on behalf of the organizers but also on behalf of the attendees. You need time—lots of time—and travel expenses, and things have to go right. An unreliable car, a sick kid. These are far more likely to derail a prospective ideologue than any kind of reconsideration or change of heart.

I have long heard stories about professional protesters. People who take their causes on the road, like an act. They make much more sense to me now. I don’t know how you can do it unless you’re devoted in a professional kind of way. Where does a weekend activist keep the fetus in a jar, the chum that will eventually land at the pregnant woman’s feet? Do anarchists practice wrapping their faces in those masks in front of a mirror to make sure that they have done the job right, to make sure that their identify is impenetrable?

And what does the person who throws a Molotov cocktail at a G-8 conference do on Monday morning? “So, how was your weekend?” Do they make the cocktails with the same casualness of coloring Easter eggs? Most importantly, is there nothing else in these people’s lives to absorb this energy? Do they not have lives? Or is the cause their lives? And, if so, is this noble or sad?

I was reminded of a passage from Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, a book that gets better and better the longer you are away from it. The passage reads, “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to”.

Jonah had changed from his Colonial Boy outfit to jeans and a St. Louis Rams jacket. Avery was still in her dress, bonnet and all. At long last, we were ready to rally. It was 1:40PM. 

caption

The police were on hand at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

I Settled In to the Experience Like I Was Settling Into an Unfamiliar Drug

If you would have asked me ahead of time about where we would have positioned ourselves amidst the crowd, I don’t think I would have had an unreasonable answer. I don’t think I had unrealistic expectations. I would have told you that we would have been too far back to have a decent view of the stage but that we would have had a clear shot of the jumbo screens that were going to be throughout the park.

Furthermore, we would be able to hear just fine, and we would befriend those around us in such a way that we would watch one another’s spots while the other went to the bathroom or checked out the crowd. They would come back and say, “If you go over there near Beau Thai, there’s a guy dressed like a stormtrooper. Not like a member of the SS. Like, a stormtrooper from Star Wars”.

Except for the stormtrooper part—both SS and from Star Wars, actually—none of this ended up being true. After working our way through the street vendors and the congested crosswalks, we found ourselves on 7th Street, a main vein through the park. This was not a place to settle, though we did so, anyway. People continued moving on either side of us. I could vaguely make out some sound coming from one direction and everyone seemed to be turned that way, so we turned that way, too.

“Can you see anything?”

“No. Can you?”

“No.”

Off to the side was a flickering of color. One of the jumbo screens. Too far away and too obfuscated by people to see clearly. I held up my camera like a periscope, took a picture from each direction. I looked at the images. Nothing but people. “Throngs” doesn’t capture it. Neither does “sea of”. The best way to put it is that there was nothing but people.

“This is it,” I said to Morgan. “This is the rally.”

“I can’t wait to watch it on TV,” he said.

People were in trees. People were on streetlights. Adults were on the shoulders of other adults. We would hear an indiscernible voice from the speakers, and then a wave of people would start laughing.

“What did he say? Could you hear him?”

A chant started, “Lou-der! Lou-der!” But it was unheeded.

In lieu of the entertainment being provided for us, we turned to those around us for our amusement. There were people in tinfoil hats, multiple people dressed up as Mario from Super Mario Brothers, one even dressed up as Luigi. One guy was dressed up as the devil—horns, arrow-shaped tail, face painted red—he held a sign that said “Arizona”. Another woman carried a cardboard psychiatrist booth like the one Lucy sits behind in Peanuts. The front of the booth said, “Ask me about the Tea Party”. Someone said, “Are you really from the Tea Party?” “Yes,” she said. Her booth was fashioned out of a TV tray.

The signs alone were worth the trip: “What Do We Want? Moderation. When Do We Want It? In a Reasonable Amount of Time.” “Stop the InsaniTEA”. “Bring Back Crystal Pepsi”. My favorite was a plainly pretty 20-something woman who stood at the edge of the crowd with a dry-erase board on which she had written, “I think the president is doing OK”.

caption

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Initially my fear had been that we would miss the rally entirely. Now my fear was that we wouldn’t be able to suffer it all the way to the end. I looked at my watch. It was a little after 2PM. We had almost another hour. We unleashed the kids from their strollers. Jonah picked up his John Adams sign and instinctively held it above his head. Then he took it from the handle end and started pushing the sign across the ground like it was a shovel. I thought, Either he’s an unheard voice in a swell of unheard voices or he’s using a cause to shovel shit. This pretty much captures my dilemma.

There was a point at which I became acclimated to being smack in the middle of 200,000 people. There was a point at which “This is the rally” became “This is the rally.” I can’t pinpoint the moment exactly, but I know it was a result of me relaxing into the experience, like I was settling into an unfamiliar drug. I caught what I could. Kid Rock was announced. This is so Stewart can say he included the right, I thought. I recognized Sheryl Crow’s voice. And when I could barely make out Stewart and Colbert’s climactic debate, I didn’t for a second think, “I’m missing it”. All that stuff on the stage. That was just to get people’s attention. Those of us in the crowd that day, we were the important part.
I wasn’t missing it. We were it.

*****

After Tony Bennett sang “America the Beautiful” the crowd dispersed pretty quickly. We stayed in the middle of the street as the National Mall revealed itself to us. Morgan and Heather had never been to DC, and it’s always invigorating to watch people experience for the first time that which is familiar to you.

We walked toward Congress. Our path took us by the stage, now being disassembled by teamsters. Heather took a picture with the Capital Dome framed between the stage. Above it: “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”. I thought What must John Stewart and Stephen Colbert be thinking right now? I remember Stewart from MTV. We’ve grown up together. There’s a legitimate case to be made that he has himself become such a sanctioned member of the media that he has lost his edge. His annihilation of Jim Cramer last year boarded uncomfortably self-righteousness, and interviewing a sitting president, as he did with Barack Obama in the days before the rally, scores more street cred for the president than it does Stewart.

But I’ll leave that discussion for pundits who prefer a different angle than mine. Any sympathetic thoughts I had toward this point of view dissipated that afternoon into nothing but pride.

As we drew closer to Congress, the Capital Dome loomed larger and larger, and damnit if I didn’t get all choked up. I’ve been known to do that from time to time, to invest with great emotion that which does not deserve it. One of the few bits I heard clearly from the show was a song that Stewart and Colbert performed together. The chorus went something like “We are the greatest, strongest country in the world / The greatest, strongest country in the world / We are the greatest, strongest country in the world”. These were the words going through my head when we stepped into Congress’ shadow.

“Greatness” and “strength”. I don’t know that these are the traits that I value above all else, though I would be a fool to deny their significance completely. Instead, I continue to be awed by America’s ability, often despite herself, to inspire.

caption

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Kirby Fields lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. When he is not working or writing, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/132990-we-were-it/