The Magazine

Freewheeling Protesters

From the January 31, 2005 issue: Critical Mass comes to the inauguration.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By MATT LABASH
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YOU'VE GOT TO HAND IT to our political players. Even with the onset of second-term ho-hums, everyone did his part to convey the momentousness of what some wags call the "peaceful non-transfer of power." Republicans turned out for the inauguration in cashmere-swaddled, mink-stoled finery, dutifully forcing smiles as the president they returned to office cast doubt on their good judgment by showcasing a Lawrence-Welk singer crooning the John Ashcroft-penned "Let the Eagle Soar."

Then there were those pesky protesters. During every convention or inauguration or political-pageant-of-the-day, they go at it once more, as though anyone besides their group-housemates cares. It's as if each side sits down for a quadrennial poker game, the protesters saying to the establishment parties, "I'll see your hollow ceremony, and raise you a gesture of futility."

There's a rote, Groundhog Day quality to it all. It can leave you itching for something more: "the untamed fire of freedom," in the words of our president. And to a bourgeois reporter in a buttoned-down town, there is no greater symbol of freedom than the bike messenger. What respectable citizen among us hasn't wanted to know the feeling of weaving around cars, barreling down sidewalks, wearing fingerless gloves, and shooting heroin in the park?

Happily, the inaugural protests provided a way to combine my aspirations with my obligations. I signed up with the Critical Mass bike protest team. Originating in San Francisco in the early '90s, they are a loose confederation of cyclists who commandeer city streets and generally wreak havoc with traffic. Critical Mass's founding fathers conceived this action as an environmental rebuke to the automobile. But it's become another all-purpose wrench in the grievance-group toolbox. As Nani Wepaste, my Critical-Mass rabbi, puts it, "People are so individualistic these days. Critical Mass is whatever you want it to be."

A few days before the inauguration, I meet Wepaste during Media Day at the protesters' convergence center, a decrepit warehouse where demonstrations are plotted by everyone from the anarchists to the Radical Cheerleaders to the Keys of Resistance (a group that dresses like 1940s-era secretaries and bangs out dictated letters of dissent to elected officials on antique typewriters). While protesters invariably bemoan the nefarious influence of corporate media, they tend to be media whores themselves, going so far as to throw media open houses, complete with refreshments.

The fiftysomething Wepaste looks the part of the revolutionary, with her Che beret and hemp messenger bag. But in reality, Wepaste (real name: Nancy Shia) is a lapsed Republican who spends her days poring over government-hearing transcripts for the Federal News Service. Such a gig affords her occasional proximity to the president, whom she dislikes for hijacking what was once her party, the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, the latter of whom warned against the ascent of the military-industrial complex. As a photographer, she takes full advantage of her proximity, incorporating Bush photos into her protest artwork.

As we stand in the convergence center's art space, she shows me some. "Look at this one," she says, pointing to a photo of Bush blinking with one eye at half-mast, the eyelid fluttering over a rolling pupil. "He looks like he's high on crack; took it at the National Press Club," she boasts.

Before our ride, I tell her I think we need a team name. I try out the Unicorns, the very symbol of priapic virility, which she doesn't like, then the Fuzzbusters, which she thinks is "too confrontational." She doesn't want to get arrested, as many of her cohorts did two years ago, when D.C. police, in a rare display of cunning, provided bike-protesters an escort, then herded many of them into a park, arresting several. "Let's stick with Critical Mass," she says. She's the boss. But since she had said the group was whatever I wanted it to be, I stick with the Unicorns.

So at dawn on Inauguration Day, two dozen or so Unicorns mount up at Union Station. "Let's roll," someone says, Todd Beamer-esquely. I am comfortable on my steed, having dragged my own Trek Navigator hybrid mountain bike in from the suburbs. But when we reach the first intersection, I make the foolish mistake of stopping at a red light, and am nearly plowed through by another rider. "Why'd you stop?" she says. "We're not supposed to?" I ask, so innocent. Another Unicorn yells, with Zen-master calm, "You don't stop. It's an uninterrupted flow of bodies, beautiful, unfolding, and natural."