As promised, I’m writing to convey my impressions of the Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive: a public demonstration of reasonableness, organized by Comedy Central satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. My task is somewhat complicated by the fact that, while I was present for the occasion, I didn’t see or hear much of what happened on stage. I’ll get to why in a moment, but what I can relay to you about the rally, based upon what I witnessed on the way to, and at the National Mall today, the rally was an unqualified success.
Our Long, Reasonable Journey to the National Mall:
I left for the rally this morning accompanied by my sister, brother in law, and soon-to-be four year old, highly adorable niece. We traveled by car from Baltimore, where they reside, to the New Carrollton Metro station, thinking we’d get into DC in plenty of time to catch much of the pre-rally festivities. Upon our arrival at the station it became abundantly clear that our ETA was wildly optimistic.
The line to enter the New Carrollton station was incredibly long. When we took our place in the queue, it wrapped once around the parking structure, which was roughly 100 yards in length. So that’s 200 yards to go around the structure and probably another 200 to the actual station. By the time we cleared the garage; the line had grown twice that size, and was filled with a diverse mixture of couples, groups, and families, many with rally placards in hand. Despite the situation and the chilly weather, there were no outward displays of frustration.
Everyone appeared to be as excited as I was. With the premium placed on attendance for such public demonstrations, the scrutiny applied to crowd size estimations and the obligatory exaggerations which follow are what most media observers use as a barometer for measuring a rally’s success or failure. The large line gave me, and most of the others, I suspect, that the Rally for Sanity wouldn’t be judged the latter.
As we approached the train, I recall thinking that it would be physically impossible to board. We walked the length of the platform, and people were standing in the doorways of every car. But then the station’s PA informed us that departure would be delayed due to overwhelming passenger volume. ‘They were unable to get people off the trains,’ we were told. The previous train’s passengers had yet to clear the station.
There weren’t any groans from those already aboard. Quite the contrary, in fact, we were boarding as the announcement finished. During the additional time, the crowded riders somehow made room for more to board. A handful of additional riders actually managed to squeeze in at every stop.
We disembarked at Smithsonian Station, waited in line for the escalator, only to wait in another one at the top to get out of the station and into the sunlight. No complaints. As we walked past a group of stationary protesters, a man among them shouted, “Obama is not a socialist! But we are, and you should be too!” The first sign that made me laugh out loud, and there were many, read, “Fear the Amish!” It was held, of course, by a man dressed in traditional Amish garb. Fantastic!
Impressions from within the Mass of Optimistic Humanity:
Now, I must tell you that, as I’m writing, I have yet to see or hear any media reportage regarding the Rally for Sanity. I’ve avoided them purposely so I could get my thoughts down before the inevitable spin and counter-spin could taint them. I did overhear someone mention that the crowd had been estimated at 200,000. As we worked our way closer to the action, I must say that that estimate seems low. Take that for what it’s worth, though. It was my first time at a rally, and from within the crowd probably isn’t the best vantage point to make a proper assessment.
Still quite a distance from the stage, we walked toward it, stopping so my niece could ride the carousel. As she rode I took my place in yet, another, lengthy line; this time for refreshments. While in line I heard the crowd roar as Jon Stewart took the stage. Joking about upcoming disputes over attendance estimates, Stewart humorously instructed the crowd to begin counting off.
That was about the last clear phrases I heard from the stage. I clearly heard the National Anthem and could roughly make out other musical performances, but from where I was, spoken words were not quite audible. Their PA system was either malfunctioning or inadequate, which was unfortunate, but didn’t spoil the experience. It wasn’t long until I lost connectivity to my borrowed smart-phone, along with the ability to tweet my observations on Care2 Causes’ Twitter feed, which was something I had been looking forward to.
Regardless, we ate, and then sought to insert ourselves into the crowd. We never got much closer to the stage than where we waited for concessions. I wandered about a bit, taking short video clips of rally placards, which I hope to be able to edit into something watchable.
Really, the signs were a show in themselves, often complimented by those who held them. If the video doesn’t work out, I’ll definitely pull some stills. There were serious signs, like the one I saw that was dedicated to raising awareness about flood victims in Pakistan. There was a lot of social issue advocacy — “Legalize Pot” was popular, as was church/state separation, and I saw a lesbian couple walking hand in hand with a sign that read “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Reasonable.” But by and large the signage on display was taking clever swipes at the irrational fears and complaints, so prominently featured during the present election cycle. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
- “Hands Off Masturbation!”
- “Anchor Babies Don’t Scare Me… Anchormen Do.”
- “I checked out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ from the library and just realized the irony!”
Anticipating the Critics:
I had read a Slant post last week in which Timothy Noah argued that Stewart and Colbert would regret pursuing this endeavor, actually suggesting they should call it off. While he was largely complimentary of the rally organizers, it was in a high-minded sort of way (a descriptive, I usually reserve for compliments). Noah argued that the television imagery of the 18-34 demographic deriding tea-party activists and talking points would only serve as fuel for the rally’s critics in general, and that Stewart and Colbert were unfit to lead a movement.
As their critics go, I would argue, that ship sailed the moment the rally was announced. The memes were already crafted. As for leading a movement, I don’t believe Stewart or Colbert to hold themselves out as leaders of anything. Besides, a call for reasonableness in public discourse shouldn’t require leadership, should it?
Regarding his concern of the portrayal of the young and smug firing up the opponents of reasonableness, I can tell you with complete confidence that if the Rally for Sanity is portrayed in this fashion, the media outlet or personality that does so is way off base. Young, old, black, white, and brown people were all well represented along with all but one of Colbert’s fear demos — bears, were the notable exception — and anyone who tells you different wasn’t there.
I was particularly surprised by the number of families on the Mall. Their presence, more than anything, I think, added to the overwhelming sense of optimism I felt as I walked through the crowd. I suppose if I could describe the atmosphere in a sentence, I’d say the Rally to Restore Sanity should be described as an occasion completely lacking of apathy.
For me this was more than welcome. Despite the lines, long waits, and shortcomings of rally amplifiers, I was happy to have participated. It felt good to be unplugged and outside instead of browsing the frightening headlines and pervasive tales of enthusiasm gaps; which, by the way, if such a gap indeed exists you wouldn’t have known it on the National Mall, Oct. 30. So thanks for that, Jon and Stephen.
Now, go vote, dammit, the lot of you!
Image: Rally for Sanity, 30 October 2010, by Aaron Pendell.