As protests go, Monday’s anti-immigration march on the Capitol wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. Despite being cosponsored by Tea Party Community and heavily promoted by Tea Party groups, it wasn’t nearly so well attended as, say, the IRS protest last month. Tea Partier Greg Stafford, who came down from Akron, Ohio, for both gatherings, posited that maybe some people didn’t feel like making a return trip so soon. Still, Stafford expressed disappointment that his 50-seat bus had been only two-thirds full.
Elaine McIntosh and Isis Cox endured an even more disheartening ride from Buffalo. “Almost everyone who said they were coming canceled,” McIntosh told me, leaving her with only a half-dozen or so fellow travelers.
Asked about the number on her bus, Susan from Gonzalez, Texas, exclaimed, “Not enough!” and expressed dismay at the low overall turnout, which appeared to be in the neighborhood of 1,000 to perhaps 1,200.
In touting Monday’s event, leaders from the group officially hosting the march, the anti-immigration Black American Leadership Alliance (BALA), had promised to “shut down this town” and cause total “gridlock.” But the collection of protesters who drifted from downtown Freedom Plaza toward the Capitol, many clad in the cherry red “No Amnesty” T-shirts distributed by BALA, were a mere blip by D.C. standards. And the crowd that assembled at the main rally area in the Upper Senate Park barely stretched back as far as the media pen set up a few yards in front of the speakers’ stage.
Further dampening spirits was the heat. After a stretch of wet, relatively mild weather, Washington returned to its scorching, swampy self Monday and quickly took its toll on older, frailer participants. Before marchers had even left Freedom Plaza, Stafford told me, some poor woman had passed out. At Upper Senate Park, the sunny area in front of the stage was sparsely populated, as participants sought out shade along the perimeter. There, they fanned themselves furiously with paper fans, chugged water, mopped sweat from their flushed faces and bald pates, and generally tried not to melt.
The older white attendees seemed amenable to all the race talk, especially when the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson opened with the quip: “It’s so hot out here, I’m turning black.”
All that said, Tea Partiers—and anti-immigration crusaders more generally—are a feisty lot. And those who’d made the trek were determined to show their spirit. There were scads of flag-print duds, sequined hats, red-white-and-blue do-rags, and one guy in a Captain America costume brandishing a massive, 25-foot American flag that kept getting tangled in the trees and, now and again, threatened to suffocate its superhero. (Security, as you might imagine, took a particular interest in this gentleman.) Going in a different direction, a shirtless young man named Alfonso More, having ridden the Greyhound over from Los Angeles with a bunch of Freemasons, was strutting about in a golden King Tut headdress and collar. (Protesters, as you might imagine, were lining up to get their picture taken with him.)
As is common at such events, many people in the crowd were on hand to promote other causes. One of Elaine and Isis’s traveling companions was trying to drum up support for his campaign to free his wife, currently serving prison time for having kidnapped her own child. People carried signs protesting drones and the IRS and asking, “Where are the Benghazi survivors? Impeach Obama.” Ashley from Houston said she didn’t much care about immigration but had hitched a ride to the rally to hand out homemade fliers warning that “A HIGH TECH CRIME ORGANIZATION IS USING NON-LETHAL WEAPONS” and featuring photos of cloud formations that she is convinced “WERE DESIGNED WITH A LONG RANGE ENERGY WEAPON.”
Then there was Mike Kicinski of the Norwich Tea Party Patriots, who had driven down from upstate New York with seven of his 12 kids. (His wife, pregnant with No. 13, was back home with the younger tots.) While Monday’s target was immigration, Kicinski is something of a professional protester who says he and the kids have come down to Washington “dozens of times.” Immigration, the IRS, Obamacare—you name it, they’ve protested it, said Kicinski, whose stated goal is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to save this nation for the next generation.
With laudable promptness, the speechifying began, as promised, at 11. A parade of anti-immigration warriors took the stage—Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Steve King, former Rep. Allen West, members of the BALA, the head of the Tea Party Community, retired INS agent Mike Cutler—making all the Kill-the-Bill arguments you’d expect at such a gathering. There was much talk of jobs and fairness and the enduring venality of Marco Rubio. The Heritage Foundation’s (widely mocked) anti-immigration-reform study was touted, as was Sean Hannity’s recent one-hour special on “the costs of amnesty.” (The special’s producer was on the program.) The word “amnesty” was repeated so many times it lost all meaning. Ditto “aliens” and “illegals.” As speakers left the stage, they cycled directly to the media pen for interviews with Breitbart.com, which was live-streaming the show.
One interesting wrinkle: because the event was being put on by BALA, speakers talked a fair amount about the particular economic hardships faced by black Americans. The crowd too was less lily white than your average Tea Party shindig. (Though it was still pretty damn white.) No matter. The older white attendees seemed amenable to all the race talk, especially when the always colorful Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson opened with the quip: “It’s so hot out here, I’m turning black.”
As the event rolled along, the speakers tried to keep things lively. Author Kevin Jackson asked people in the crowd if they were “smart enough” to realize what immigration was doing to their wallets, then answered his own inquiry by joking: “Is a frog’s butt watertight? Are the Kennedys gun shy?”
But the heat was rough, and not even the promise of Sen. Ted Cruz—shrewdly scheduled as the rally’s closer—was enough to keep folks in their seats. Three hours in, the crowd had thinned noticeably. Many of those left behind lay sprawled motionless on blankets or slumped limply in their folding chairs. When Captain America doffed his mask and began disassembling his flag, I decided it was time to throw in the towel.
Shortly before leaving, I ask Stafford how he felt about the day. “It was worthwhile,” he said without much conviction. Then, looking troubled, he observed, “It will have an effect on the people who are here.” With a wave toward the Capitol dome, he added, “I just hope it has some effect on them.”
Maybe. Or maybe, assuming Congress remains mired in its trademark dysfunction, protesters can try for another, bigger showing come fall. Washington really is lovely that time of year.