Obama Festivities Not Without Protest

Published: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 8:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 8:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Forbes Hill, an animator from Los Angeles, was walking past Dupont Circle on Monday morning looking for an art gallery to visit when he noticed the Raging Grannies — peace activists who set anti-war lyrics to familiar songs — warbling away at a microphone on a makeshift stage.

Then he spied a 25-foot-tall inflatable George W. Bush figure in a “Mission Accomplished” flight suit. People were chucking shoes at it.

Hill had stumbled across one of the few angry gatherings in a town bathed in good vibes in anticipation of Tuesday’s inauguration of Barack Obama. (Well, angry-ish. Everyone who threw shoes smiled and giggled in spite of themselves.)

The “shoe hurling action,” sponsored by several anti-Bush, pro-peace groups, was inspired by Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush last month during a Baghdad news conference.

Hill’s sister, Ashley Hill of Durango, Colo., picked up a pair of strappy brown leather Steve Madden sandals from one of the piles of donated shoes strewn around Dupont Circle. Hill pointed his camera phone.

“This is totally cathartic,” Hill said as he snapped a shot of Ashley launching the sandals. “How can you resist?”

The shoes bounced off Bush’s midsection, forcing a local television cameraman to duck as they sailed past his head.

On the stage nearby — behind a neat line of boots, loafers and sneakers — Gael Murphy, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, called al-Zeidi “courageous” and thanked “everyone who has stood up and spoken truth to power in their own way.”

“Hold onto your shoes,” Murphy said. “The struggle is not over.”

Barbara Cummings, a retired government worker from San Diego, solicited signatures for a petition urging attorney general-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for war crimes. She also sold posters featuring Bush and Cheney’s faces behind bars, with the slogan “I have a dream.”

“Just because we’ve elected a new president doesn’t negate that crimes were committed,” Cummings said. “Obama has said that no one is above the law. Bush and Cheney have admitted proudly they condoned torture. We will never regain our moral standing in the world if we just allow these criminals to say ‘Bye bye.’ ”

The shoe hurlers later marched to the White House, where a few tossed their ammunition over the fence.

A handful of anti-Obama protests — most centered around the abortion issue — were planned for Inauguration Day. But this year’s actions are expected to be notably mild compared, for example, with 1973’s raucous anti-Vietnam War demonstrations aimed at Richard Nixon or the angry shouts of “Hail to the thief!” in 2001 after Bush’s disputed victory over Al Gore.

The Rev. Tim Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said his group would carry anti-abortion banners near the swearing in. “We want to send a clear signal to President Obama from Day One, from the very moment you are sworn in, the pro-life community will be there.” Obama, who favors abortion rights, has muted some of the criticism by choosing evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Members of the Save Darfur Coalition plan to circulate petitions near inaugural events urging Obama to act on the crisis in war-torn Sudan.

Meanwhile, at the base of the Dupont Circle fountain, the political theater intensified as a gray-haired man in a bright orange prisoner’s jumpsuit prepared to be “waterboarded.” He was thrown to the ground (gently), his face covered by a towel (on top of a clear plastic face mask) and his “torturer” doused his head with a gallon of water.

The victim, a chemist named Steve Lane who lives in Bethesda. Md., and wrote grants for the National Institutes of Health, looked shaken when it was all over.

“It’s so horrible, this feeling of helplessness,” Lane said. “Even though it’s make-believe, it still panicked me when the water accidentally got in my mouth.”

This was the fifth or sixth time Lane had volunteered for “waterboarding” at an anti-Bush demonstration, he said.

“We were doing a leash thing like they did at Abu Graib,” he said, referring to the infamous photographs of Iraqi prisoners being mistreated by U.S. soldiers. “Then this guy I work with on this said, ‘Let’s step it up a notch.’ So that’s what we did.”

Staff writer Richard Simon and Jill Zuckman of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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