Beyond the Inauguration: The Shifting Ground of Protest Strategies for Real Change in the Obama Era

"What the cynics fail to understand," Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address, "is that the ground has shifted beneath them-that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

The ground shifted on January 20th when nearly two million people descended on Washington DC to celebrate the swearing in of the first African American president in US history. Despite the bitter cold weather, the mood was overwhelmingly celebratory–in stark contrast to the previous contested inaugurations of George W. Bush. Can progressive social movements in the United States apply the new president’s own words toward successful strategies for truly meaningful change under his administration? What does the lack of visible dissent at Obama’s inauguration suggest about the politics of protest and the prospects for global justice in the post-Bush era?

I attended both of Bush’s inaugurations. Alongside thousands of others from all over the country, I traveled to DC to protest in 2001 after the most controversial presidential election in US history, and again in 2005 after the initial three year preview of the nightmarish "War on Terror," followed by mass voter disenfranchisement in Ohio and other states handing Bush a second term. In both cases, the celebrations of the cowboy hat, tuxedo, and fur coat-sporting Republicans were mixed with, if not over-shadowed by, the marches and rallies that swept the nation’s capital. Unsurprisingly, the corporate media downplayed the protests at both but for those of us present–on either side of the police barricades–we remember that they were impossible to ignore. I think it is important to look back at the mass dissent at Bush’s inaugurations to help put Obama’s into perspective and as our strategies for social change evolve in this new era.  

Counter-Inaugural ’01

Joining the largest inaugural demonstrations since Nixon’s second term, I arrived at Bush’s first inauguration with a large group of folks from an intentional community in rural Virginia and, upon arrival, we pointed out how appropriate the gloomy cold rain was that day. The weather may have kept some of the new president’s supporter’s at home, but the passion of the resistance was impenetrable. A vast coalition of groups converged along the parade route from feminists to anti-death penalty activists, environmentalists and anarchists, holding signs like "Hail to the Thief," "Not My President," and "Selected Not Elected." In a departure from tradition, the newly anointed commander in chief did not leave his bullet-proof presidential limo to walk a portion of the parade route until right before it reached the White House. At one point during the parade protesters threw bottles in the street in front of the vehicle, while another threw an egg at it. "The hatred was palpable," Daryl Lindsey observed in Bush, however, obliviously pontificated during his speech about ”a commitment to principle with a concern for civility.”

After the parade began, I passed through a security checkpoint near Freedom Plaza where a mass rally had been organized by the International Action Center. My friends and I found ourselves within surprising visibility of the motorcade, standing atop wet bleachers. This ensured that our boos, chants, and signs were visible to the president and his militaristic accompaniment. In an article I wrote for Indymedia covering the protests I described this moment:

"Along Pennsylvania Avenue there were two sets of bleachers to provide an adequate view of the inaugural parade. Many of the protesters that inhabited Freedom Plaza climbed the bleachers with our signs." The organizers of the rally "later informed the crowd that the bleachers had actually been reserved for Republican elites." The Washington Post mentioned this incident in their coverage of the inauguration: "Thousands more [protesters] filled Freedom Plaza, brushing past a line of Girl Scouts in yellow slickers to seize bleacher seats that had been reserved for Republican loyalists. From these $50 perches, as shocked members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee looked on, the protesters chanted: ‘George Bush, racist, murderer.’"

In addition to the largest amount of protesters since the Vietnam era, Bush’s first inauguration also featured the most security ever as thousands of police from neighboring states were sent in to prevent the kind of upheaval brought to DC the previous year during the IMF and World Bank meetings or the "Battle of Seattle" in December 1999. The heavy police presence also seemed to appropriately set the tone for a presidency defined by repression and force both domestically and around the globe. Although, I would argue, what actually occurred in those subsequent years went beyond what our collective imagination feared and resisted on that miserable January afternoon.

Counter-Inaugural ’05

Four years later, in 2005, I returned to DC after another suspect election to protest yet another Bush inauguration, or what then-Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge hailed as "a celebration of democracy." It was once again a cold and grey January day, but this time the US was waging two full-scale wars abroad with over 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of Bush supporters gathered in the National Mall watching his speech about defending freedom in the post-9/11 era was not drastically different than 2001. The protests and Draconian security measures, on the other hand, were exponentially larger.

More so than Bush’s first swearing in, the demonstrations against him this time around were not relegated to DC or even within the borders of the United States. In addition to the tens of thousands of people who joined me to make their dissent visible amidst the inaugural festivities, solidarity protests were held in cities across the US and around the world from San Francisco to Atlanta, Seattle to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Mexico City, London, Tokyo, and Manila. Myriad issues were addressed at all of these, from civil liberties to environmental regulation and abortion rights, but the day essentially served as a global anti-war demonstration with the escalating violence in US-occupied Iraq at the forefront of these concerns.

In DC, protesters carried hundreds of flag-draped mock caskets made of cardboard to symbolize the growing number of US troops killed. An anti-authoritarian bloc of 300 left from Logan Circle and battled with police throughout the day under the slogans, "No More Presidents" and "The Parade Must End." Another anarchist bloc formed after the Counter-Inaugural Ball that night. Under the banner "Bring the War Home," more than $15,000 of damage was done to corporate property, resulting in 78 arrests

Probably the most memorable action I witnessed was a small group of people that took over an intersection wearing masks of Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez, and Rice surrounding a man in a black hood, reenacting the prison abuses in Iraq ordered by the administration. They held pom-poms and signs that read: "Abu Ghraib Fraternity." Such creative and powerful demonstrations helped complement the ubiquitous "Worst President Ever" signs.  

With casualties mounting on all sides of Bush’s wars, a number of critics pointed out weeks before the inauguration how obscene the total price tag of $50 million was to cover the security, entertainment, and other logistics for the day. Some argued for scaling back the events during wartime such as FDR did in 1945 before WWII ended. The cost of the more than 10,000 police and secret service officers exceeded the record set in 2001. An increase of checkpoints and other measures, such as denial of permits to demonstrate, prevented many protesters from gaining access to the 1.7 mile parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue despite battles with the National Parks Service by organizers of the more than 60 planned protests.  

As thousands "turned their backs on Bush" and others took more militant actions, risking arrest, the opposition was more visible than ever and reflective of a president whose approval rating drastically plummeted throughout his second term. Despite a sense of hopelessness that many of us felt as we braced for four more years of reactionary policies and the increasing violence of empire, some looked toward the potential of the 2008 election to move the country in a different direction.

Beyond Bush

Some activists invested hope early on in a little-known senator from Illinois who first made a splash on the national consciousness with a speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was then that discussion began of Barack Obama, an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, being "presidential material." Less than three years later he joined a number of other candidates for the start of what would become the longest, most bitterly fought and expensive election season in US history. On February 10, 2007, Obama formally entered the 2008 race and after spending over $700 million he emerged as the winner, first of the Democratic Party nomination against Hillary Clinton, and then in the general election against Republican John McCain. During the long campaign, Obama inspired a vast grassroots "army" of supporters, many of whom were attracted to his anti-war stance and his message of "hope" and "change." This proved to be at the heart of his success.      

Obama’s historic victory in the general election signaled a long-awaited end to the Bush era. In addition to the election night rally of more than 125,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park and countless, more spontaneous gatherings across the US, the global celebrations of the new president-elect were just as widespread as the worldwide protests against his predecessor’s second inauguration. This "global mandate" was a dramatic shift from Bush’s controversial and unpopular presidency. After 8 years of straightforward, and often simplistic, opposition to the US head of state and his administration, this was clearly the dawning of a new era of shifting ground requiring more political creativity and flexibility.   

In the period between November 5th and Obama’s inauguration in January, progressive activists in the US were posed with a challenging dilemma: How do movements for social change express their visions and concerns without alienating allies in DC and around the world who would be joyfully celebrating on January 21st? As Obama began announcing a number of neoliberal, Clinton-era cabinet appointments to ostensibly offer their expertise in solving the worsening financial crisis and faltering wars abroad, discussion began of strategically voicing dissent at the inauguration and beyond.          

(To be continued…)

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia. He is a founding collective member of Aid and Abet, a cooperative booking agency for radical activists and artists. Write him at: