If you happened to watch CNN, C-SPAN, or another cable news channel during the 2005 inauguration, you saw the official celebration: the swearing-in ceremony, the grand parade, and the infamous speech. What you didn’t see was the other side of the celebration – all of the protests and demonstrations leading up to and on the day of the inauguration. A Cold Day in D.C.: The Counter Inaugural provides a powerful corrective to the dominant media’s coverage.
Directed by David Sholle, this documentary gets onto the streets and into the headquarters of the different protest groups. A wide of variety of groups is represented: D.C. Poets against the War, National Organization for Women, Anarchist Resistance, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Ronald Reagan Home for the Criminally Insane, Puppetistas, Code Pink, Keys of Resistance, Billionaires for Bush, and even the Raging Grannies. While their missions range from satire to scathing protest, each group faces the same challenges on Inauguration Day: the unprecedented security measures and restrictions imposed on them.
The restrictions are expansive and expensive. A traveling shot reveals the rows and rows of fences and concrete barricades. A title puts the visual in another perspective: 100 blocks are closed off and 100 miles of fence keep people out. The 13,000-person security force, some dressed in full riot gear, creates an additional human fence.
These enforcements come at a cost. While most of the $40 million spent on the inauguration and its festivities comes from private funds, the almost $20 million spent on security comes out of taxpayers’ pockets.
The restrictions the protesters – and even supporters – face are extensive. According to Ryan Harvey of the Anarchist Resistance, no protestors are allowed along the parade route. There are 13 designated demonstration areas, and other areas disallow signs or buttons. Checkpoints incur one to three hour waits, and about 25,000 people are turned away. One person there admits not voting for Bush but still wishes to see the inauguration, but he is frustrated because he cannot get anywhere near it.
Despite all the restrictions, the protesters make sure their voices are heard and their messages are heard. Each group uses different methods. Before the inauguration, Code Pink stages a protest outside the Black Tie and Boots Ball, sponsored by the state of Texas. Many fur-wearing attendees file past the protestors without acknowledging them, though one does say, “Get a freaking life.”
Others, such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, hold a silent candlelight vigil; a tracking shot reveals the impact of the rows and rows of candles flickering against the cold night. D.C. Poets against the War also stages a reading of protest poetry.
The day of inauguration, the protestors continue to get their voices heard. Code Pink stages its own parade and rally on DuPont Circle. Linda Hobson of Code Pink uses her drum as her voice. The Keys of Resistance Group provides old manual typewriters complete with their stationery so people can write letters. The Billionaires for Bush hold a mock auction of social security, and the Puppetistas join the other yelling protestors while wearing their masks.
Shots of these protests are crosscut with “official” images of the inauguration, and the contrasts between them are stark. The protestors are loud and passionate, while the official ceremony is subdued. This pattern is repeated throughout the film and thus helps illustrate the film’s thesis: The mass media and the federal government attempt to create one “objective” view of the inauguration, that view being one of depoliticized celebration. The independent media, however, refuse to shy away from the politics and the other side of the story. A montage shows just how many people with still and video cameras and sound equipment capture the events happening around them.
One compelling image appears in the masses of the protestors. While citizens waiting at a gate to get in are shouting, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war,” the camera moves in to focus on one man, dressed in head-to-toe black. He wears a black ski mask on his face, and we only see his eyes staring intently as he has both hands raised in a V. He says nothing, yet this gripping image speaks volumes.
While many feel the protests necessary, others are more wary of them. One woman expresses her belief that the protestors are kids just trying to make their parents angry. Another woman expresses her anger over the protestors ruining the situation for everyone and blames them for the closed gates.
These tensions build. A shot shows two handcuffed men lying on the ground as people in the crowd yell that it was just a snowball. As the two men are led off, the camera operator tries to follow them until a police officer stops him and another police officer aims a can of pepper spray. The image then freezes and fades.
Another shot shows a woman standing next to the high fence and holding a sign, saying nothing. The police pepper spray her and as she falls, others come forward to help her. The police then spray the crowd as well.
The strengths of this documentary are many. The primary strength is it provides a wide variety of other viewpoints not often seen in the mass media. As Sarah Browning of D.C. Poets states, “We have the far right, the right, and the center, and that’s the notion of political discourse in this country. The left is just completely excluded.” So with the mass media dominance and the restrictions against protestors, how is democracy being served?
Another strength is the breadth of interviews and perspectives. Scholle and his crew talk to not only representatives of the various groups, but also talk to people on the street. Their involvement in events, particularly in moments when pepper spray becomes a threat, attests to their commitment to getting this piece made and this message out.
One point I am not so sure about. The titles mention the security at the events costing taxpayers about $20 million, yet Ryan Harvey of Anarchist Resistance mentions the costs being about $17 million. A minor point arguably as both numbers are high, but the contradiction caught my attention.
In all, A Cold Day in D.C.: The Counter Inaugural provides a strong corrective voice to events represented largely as celebratory and apolitical. It reminds us that dissent and its expression are important to democracy, and that the independent media are agents who ensure these voices are heard.