I’d planned to go to DC for the inauguration, or at least I announced that intention to friends and family as we closed down the District 60 canvassing center in south Minneapolis on election night and then proceeded to the huge DFL celebration in Saint Paul. But as time wore on, I didn’t really take action to get there.
I’d been in DC in 1969 for the Anti-War Moratorium demonstrations – the ones that John Mitchell said looked like the Russian revolution. There were a million people there. We slept one night in an old church stacked on pews and the floor underneath. The next night we skipped sleeping entirely to join a ‘march against death’. Each person in that march carried the name of an American killed in Vietnam. We marched across the bridge from Arlington cemetery to a church in DC where the names were read. It took all night and it was cold.
So the prospect of four times as many people being in the capitol – and my bones being nearly 40 years older – made the thought of attending daunting. And economic uncertainties, facing a probable layoff with only a few years until retirement, played the trump card. We stayed home.
We found a good place to watch, though, at the Riverview Theater with 700 other people, some hooting when Bush and Cheney appeared on the large screen and cheering at each sight of the new first family.
To make sure we got seats, my wife, Lu Lippold, and I lined up outside the theater shortly after 8 in the morning – later arrivers got turned away as the theater filled to capacity.
We found ourselves in line next to Dean Zimmerman, an old comrade from the anti-war movement more than 30 years ago. When I first met Dean he was a leader at the old North Country Coop in the days when food coops saw themselves as supporting and a part of a broader movement for change. He was an effective, funky organizer and already a veteran of Mississippi Freedom Summer. Both of our paths have taken strange turns, but his has been more consistently alternative than my own. He served for a time as a Green Party member of the Minneapolis City Council and then served time in prison on ‘bribery’ charges trumped up by the Bush Justice Department. On inauguration day, he was in great spirits – “I always expected to go to prison for something and now that’s done”. We stood in warm sunshine with cold feet and rejoiced with some wonder at how many people there we didn’t know from years of demonstrations and campaigns.
Inside the theater, there was a lot of commotion. Generous contributions to a food shelf were collected in popcorn buckets, and volunteers solicited for service and organizing in the community. The mood was new, or at least in transition to something different. We old timers in various movements have lived so long on anger and a kind of graveyard humor; it is difficult to transition to a new kind of seriousness and hope. Our early idealism was coupled with rejection of much of the dominant American culture. In retrospect, we were all ‘hippies’ though we made much finer distinctions at the time. As idealism faded, rejection became the dominant chord. Now there is a broader movement; we don’t own it anymore but we are called to serve. It is much more inclusive than we ever were in reality if not in aspiration; and some inclusions are difficult to accept – Rick Warren, capitalist economists, old generals, some Republicans.
A few people in the theater clapped politely at mentions of George Bush’s service; more sang ‘sha na na, hey hey, good bye’. I could only smile broadly and wonder at all we were saying good bye to.
I don’t remember much of the crowd’s reaction during President Obama’s inaugural address. I’m sure there was some, but I remember only quiet and wonder that this was happening at all. “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” We stayed in the theater long enough to see Bush take off in his helicopter.
In the lobby of the theater afterwards, I grabbed some information on volunteering and spoke briefly with state representative Jim Davnie, who’d helped organize the event. Representative Davnie sponsored a bill in the last state legislative session that would have provided a moratorium on home foreclosures; the bill passed the house and senate but was vetoed by the governor. I told him we were ready for a fight.
That night we shared some champagne with old friends. We’d grown closer as we worked on the Obama campaign. Then we headed to Common Roots café for a party. Like a lot of recent gatherings, the party was in part an exercise of the ‘n degrees of separation’ game…. ‘How do you know her….?’
Some people I hadn’t seen much of or at all for more than 30 years. We’d split apart in the last days of an older movement – especially in the conflicts now remembered dimly by some with the inappropriate name “co-op wars”. Nearing the end of the Vietnam War and the eclipse and suppression of groups like the Black Panthers and the various remnants of SDS that we’d supported in various ways, we tore each other apart with sectarian arguments and grievances that are nearly as hard to recall now as the rhetoric of so many speeches listened to and given in those days.
What I think we were looking for in those days, or at least I was, was some identity, some way of relating to our country and the world that wasn’t ordinary, wasn’t complicit in the suffering caused by our government and the systems it defended. We weren’t students any longer, though many eventually went back to school, and our role as protestors and activists was losing focus. We were getting older.
As the Berlin Wall fell and many of the organizations we were part of petered out, most of us muddled through. We found jobs, new relationships, had kids and raised families. Most, I think, maintained some sense of opposition, a desire for decency and justice, but our hopes were tamed and our sometimes fanciful sense of power diminished.
Knocking on doors during the campaign, I came across the guy who’d driven the co-op milk truck where we’d hidden and then piled out to take over Seward Coop in the name of the working class. “How’re you doing?” “All right.” “Are you interested in volunteering with the campaign?” “Already am at the Park Avenue office.” “Okay then, see you around.”
So here we were at Common Roots, exchanging phone numbers and email addresses and promising to get together to review our lives. “Did you work much on the campaign?” “Did you do anything for the Day of Service yesterday?” “How are your kids?” “Wasn’t Obama’s speech amazing?”
Earlier that day, Dean said that the day reminded him of when the Berlin Wall fell. An odd analogy I thought at first, but on reflection an interesting one. Some ideologies are discredited; some walls are down but divisions remain and we are again faced with some questions of identity.
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
Talking at Common Roots, we concluded that for every other president in our lifetimes, our decisions were to agree or disagree, reject wholly or tolerate. Listening to Obama is different. We can’t simply weigh his words on the scales of predefined attitudes. We can learn something.
Another old comrade from ‘those days’ posted some comments on Facebook. Following another commentator, he described the inaugural speech as the beginning of “the third act” of the drama of American democracy, after the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg address. A good and useful metaphor. There is certainly a sense of something new but hard won here.
Another commentator said “Today’s speech was about something different. It was about maturity.”
“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
Those aren’t my scriptures, but the challenge seems right. Another chance to grow up, but growing up means also honoring the struggles we have waged and the lives we have led.
Another friend and contemporary, posted to Facebook, under the heading “All this elation is driving me crazy”, a copy of Alan Ginsburg’s poem, “America.” Ginsburg is certainly amongst those we should wish to be here today; a poet who managed to balance irony and vision.
“America” ends with the line “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” I think we have been, and maybe still are, looking for that wheel.
Bruce Johnson lives in Minneapolis.