It would otherwise have been an ordinary, uneventful Saturday afternoon. If I had lived in the country or in the suburbs I could have kept the television and radio off and escaped the inauguration of George W. Bush as President. More, I could have escaped the messages sent out during the protests around the nation that followed. But hard as I tried, living in the city, I couldn’t ignore these events; uninvolved is something that’s hard to be.
I did watch the inauguration. I saw it through a television camera lens, which saw it through the raindrops that were falling on the cold and dreary Washington day. It was a sunny day in San Francisco, however, so I decided I had wasted enough time seeing the world through satellites, pixels and wires, and headed outside.
I knew from reports that there could be as many as 20,000 protesters assembled that day on the Capitol Mall in Washington. But the war that surrounded this year’s election was over and I saw little point in staying around to watch persistent soldiers go into battle.
My neighbor called shortly after the end of the ceremonies, and we left to walk her dogs in a nearby park. For a few hours I was completely removed from the political events of the day. My neighbor was further ahead than I–she wasn’t even aware thata new president had been sworn in. On the way home, however, the trend of imperviousness ended. Two more neighbors were headed to San Francisco’s United Nation’s Plaza carrying protest signs and gearing up for local demonstrations-one of many protests to occur that day outside Washington DC.
I avoided any suggestions that I join in the mayhem and instead boarded a streetcar and headed for the Museum of Modern Art. Within the first few stops, I noticed picketers walking on Market Street. “I hope they are having fun,” I thought-because there’s no chance they’re going to get anywhere with this, and for me, at least, there are better ways to spend a Saturday.
I arrived at the museum without further thoughts of politics or protest and spent three hours immersed in Jackson Pollock and Roy Litchenstein. Relaxed, I hopped on another streetcar and headed for home.
That was the point when I could no longer avoid becoming involved. The streetcar stopped.
It wasn’t just a red light-something I realized when fellow passengers began to stand up and look out the front window. “Protestors” someone said with an air of condescension. “It’s fine to protest, but not on Market Street,” someone else quipped.
Plans of action began to flow through my mind. After a quick analysis of the situation I decided to get out, walk through the crowd, get on a subway car and continue on my way. Once outside though, all the people and the activity provided me a means to get caught up in the occasion. I started taking pictures.
“John Ashcroft is a racist pig,” one sign read. “Revolution now,” “Don’t blame me, I voted with the majority,” and others waved in the air. These are the messages that wouldn’t have reached the second layer of neurons in my brain had they arrived through the television tube. But here I was, caught up in all the excitement and activity I had tried to avoid.
America is a wonderful place, I thought. Power transfers peacefully on the East Coast at noon and protesters peacefully block one of the country’s busiest city streets on the West Coast at 2. But it’s not only America that makes this possible. Amost all of the great events in our history happened in America’s cities. From town squares in Ohio and New England to Times Square in New York, the Capitol Mall in Washington and Market Street in San Francisco, the way we arrange our communities relates a great deal to how well democracy works. These are the events that can’t happen in malls, in the Wal-Mart parking lot or on the sprawling lawns of suburbia.
Immersed in a suburban easy chair, I might just as well have turned the whole thing off. But living in the city–Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, or any other–meant that I would know what was going on and hear what my fellow citizens had to say.
In his address to the nation, President Bush called on Americans to be citizens. I’m here to say it is the city that makes the act of being a citizen–an involved member if a political community–not only possible, but also unavoidable.