“We as one nation must stand together, must fight the forces of evil, the conservatives in this country across the board,” bellowed Ed Schultz, emcee of the One Nation Working Together rally on the Washington Mall Saturday. "The conservative voices of America, they are holding you down. They don't believe in your freedom.... They talk about the Constitution, but they don't want to live by it. They don’t believe in your freedom…. They talk about the founding fathers, but they want discrimination.”
The stated intention of the One Nation rally was to promote an “antidote” rather than just a left-wing “alternative to the Tea Party,” according to NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. The reality fell far short of that unifying goal.
Gallery: Scenes from the One Nation Rally
Instead, the rally offered a snapshot of the fragile coalition that is the contemporary far left—a dizzying array of activist organizations and identity politics, with financial muscle provided by the labor unions who bused their members in.
Speakers like Schultz, Jesse Jackson, and Van Jones are stars in this crowd. But for all the chanting about how “the people, united, will never be divided,” this turnout was small, and suffering from an enthusiasm gap compared to the conservative populists who crowded the mall a month ago for Glenn Beck’s "Restoring Honor" Rally. Yes, the music was better and the crowd more diverse, but this rally provided plenty of evidence the Wingnuts on the loony left are alive and well.
The signs started off badly as I approached the Washington Mall. “Yes We Can… Bomb Civilians!” read the first sign I saw, held aloft by a 2008 Ralph Nader supporter from Providence, Rhode Island, named Adrian. Behind him, representatives from “The World Can’t Wait” positioned a black-hooded orange-jumpsuited effigy to protest Guantanamo next to signs that read “Stop Occupation and Torture for Empire!”
A pregame rally south of the Washington Monument featured drum circles and papier maché puppets. President Obama was called an “imperialist president” who was insensitive to the “African community” and “the 2.5 million people in concentration camps called prisons.”
“We recognize that the U.S. government is waging the same kind of war—a counterinsurgency,” warned the woman on the makeshift stage “that it is waging against the people of Afghanistan—against the people of the African community right here inside the U.S.”
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The curious migration of anti-Semitism to the left was evident in signs that read “End All U.S. Aid to the Racist State of Israel” and “Fund Jobs, Not Israel.” I cringed as these marchers crowded past a group of World War II vets from Columbus, Ohio, being wheeled to their war memorial as part of the excellent “Honor Flight” program.
The crowds mostly wore union T-shirts—tie-dyes for members of SEIU/1199—while UAW members donned straight-forward navy blue shirts that said “Mobilizing for Justice.” Justice is, of course, supposed to be impartial, but in this crowd the word had ideological overtones, as protesters marched past people handing out copies of “The Workers World” and selling The Communist Manifesto next to the collected works of Malcom X.
Signs from the group A.N.S.W.E.R.—Act Now to Stop War and End Racism—dotted the crowd more than any other. Presumably, the attendees didn’t know that this anodyne message came from the group that held an “anti-war and anti-racist rally” less than two weeks after the attacks of September 11th. This is the reflexive left, always indulging a blame America first impulse that creates a stereotype that is used to discredit mainstream Democrats.
Karen MacArthur of Orlando, Florida, held a timely hand-written poster that read “Diplomacy, Not Drones.”
“I would like to see more talking and less repetition of what Bush did,” she said. “I’m kind of sad about the turnout,” she added.
“I’d thought there’d be more people. It looks like it's mostly unions.”
As any chronicler of the Tea Party movement knows, homemade signs are good evidence of what message the attendees want to send. There were plenty of homemade anti-Tea Party signs, including “The Enemies of America” and “Kissing GOP Ass Gets You Tea-Bagged.” There recycled anti-Bush signs, some of which had been repurposed to read “Stop Obama’s Wars” (or "Mr. Obama: End These Fucking Wars Now” as the Vets for Peace would have it). Some signs were strikingly sensible (“who is America being taken back from?”) while others waded into policy (“American Jobs for American Workers: No H-1B Visas”). Others aimed for theology (asking “When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich, Pro-War and Only Pro-American”) while one simply asserted “Jesus Christ is the Almighty Liberal.”
And then there was Death. The man in the Grim Reaper outfit was holding a sign which read: “Death Thanks the GOP For Its Stance on Healthcare Reform. You Guys Sure Make My Job Easy.”
It turns out that Death lives in Maryland. His name is Wayne Castle and he’s an electrician. He’s carried dozens of posters in the guise of the Reaper since 2004. “I wish there were more people here,” Death glumly said.
While the DJ played “Everyday People” and high-school students step-danced on the stage at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, I saw a red flag waving above the crowd, crowned by a gold hammer and sickle. I tracked down the young man holding it, an 18-year-old named Adrian, a self-described Marxist-Leninist from Buffalo, who seemed to be stoned. I asked him what reaction he’d been getting to the flag. “People love it—I’m getting a very positive reaction,” he said. But was he concerned about offending people, given that communists murdered more than 60 million people in the 20th century?
“No, not really,” he said. His colleague named Dez broke in: “I feel more upset about the millions of people murdered by the American system and the claim of democracy,” he said. “No colored person has ever seen democracy,” Dez offered.
“What about President Obama?” I asked. “With Obama they put a black face on a white problem,” replied Adrian.
But not all the crowd was as crazy, or critical, of President Obama. “I love Obama. I think he’s doing a great job,” offered Gabrielle Aponte Hinkal, a former teacher from Washington D.C. “I miss intelligent conservatives. I enjoyed debating them…. Today’s Republicans would rather see the country fail than for Obama to succeed.”
The “One Nation” rally could not escape the politics of incitement that characterizes our domestic debates today. It aimed for hope but there was plenty of evidence of hate. The left-Wingnut extremes are perhaps no more representative overall than those folks who carry Obama-as-Hitler signs at Tea Party rallies. But both groups do exist. Every stereotype has a basis in reality, enabled by the hyperpartisan apologist attitude that says "they may be crazy, but they’re our crazies, so I’ll look the other way."
One sign simply asserted “Jesus Christ is the Almighty Liberal.”
Extremes are always their own side's worst enemy, in part because they end up serving as recruiting tools for the other party. The result right now is an absurdly distorted national debate where President Obama is called a communist by the far-right, while the far-left believes that he is a corporate sellout. That’s a tough spot for him to be in. And the long-term result may be a country that finds it increasingly hard to unite as one nation to meet the great challenges we face.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.