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."
We make a pass at an armed services recruiting station, where Wepaste chants a spirited "Hell no / We won't go / We won't fight for Texaco." But it falls on deaf ears. Or no ears, more accurately. It's too early, and the recruiting station is closed. So we roll on through the badlands of northeast D.C. We're not in the saddle 10 minutes before Wepaste bellows out another war cry: "Hot chocolate on New York Avenue!" The Unicorns look like a marauding band of bike messengers, but it's not packages we're delivering, it's a list of demands. Foremost among them: What do we want? Hot cocoa! When do we want it? Now!
Sated from the Swiss Miss with marshmallows, we call the morning-ride quits after stopping at a Malcolm X Park protest featuring flag-draped coffins and the D.C. Labor Chorus, as pleasing to the ear as their name suggests. I meet Sketch, who's part of our crew, and whom I mistake for an anarchist, since he wears a bandanna over his face. But he's not one. He simply attends a lot of these rides and wants to maintain anonymity and not risk overexposure. He doesn't want to be known as the Lindsay Lohan of the protest movement. I offer to take Sketch and Wepaste to Starbucks, but Sketch will only drink "fair-trade coffee," preferably shade-grown, though he's not quite sure what it means. We go to Caribou instead--the trendy chain of coffee houses unfairly rumored to have terror links (First Islamic Bank of Bahrain is its majority owner).
I point out to Nani that we seem mainly to be hitting friendly spots. "Don't worry," she says. "We'll get to you guys." (Indeed, one of the protesters cheerily tells me they've scheduled a future action targeting my neocon war-mongering colleagues at The Weekly Standard. She even offers a sneak-preview of the chant: "Hey Bill Kristol you can't hide / We charge you with genocide.")
We go our separate ways for a few hours, then meet up again for an afternoon ride, this time, down to the inaugural parade route. Wepaste is still nominally in charge--though nobody's ever really in charge of Critical Mass. I've spent the afternoon reading CM theory on the Internet, so when fellow Unicorn Jack throws up his hand to halt traffic, I'm wowed. "Awesome corking, Jack. Really textbook," I say. "What's that?" he asks. I explain it's the official term for intersection-blocking maneuvers. He nods appreciatively, explaining how he puts a little sugar on top by shooting a thumbs-up to motorists afterwards. "You're like a goodwill ambassador," I suggest. "We're all ambassadors," he says, modestly.
Everything's not sweetness and light, however. As we swerve around cars and ride median strips, some cops don't seem to appreciate it. I'm a law-and-order guy ordinarily, but after suffering too many automated-camera tickets at the hands of the glorified meter-maids that staff the D.C. police, I have only one thing to say to them: Let's dance, bulls. An SUV pulls up behind me, and starts blipping his siren, causing me to cry out, "I've got a Smokey on my tail." But as we lose him in a gridlock slalom, nobody raises an eyebrow--perhaps they just don't understand the '70s CB radio argot I picked up from too many BJ and the Bear episodes.
Ride with the CM'ers long enough, and you'll inevitably get a chance to lead, since they tend to be guided only by instinct, like a herd of feral cats. My shot came toward the end of the parade route. Hanging a Louie onto 18th Street, heading down a hill toward Pennsylvania Avenue, I yell to Wepaste that there's no cops blocking the tributary feeding into the parade route. "Matt's leading us!" she yells, providing my proudest moment as a Unicorn.
But as I let off the brake and aim my bike full-tilt in the direction of some oblivious drum majors, I feel suddenly abandoned. I swivel my head, and see my teammates holding back, circling warily. "What's wrong?" I scream. "We made it--we're in!" Wepaste shakes her head as slow-to-react mounted police close the gap, and start pushing us back. "It's a trap," she says, ever the seasoned veteran.
We take off for the end of the parade route, passing a parked Texaco float, which fires everyone up again (oil is bad). A high school marching band from West Monroe, La., is so close we could touch the marchers, but instead of throwing things or hurling invectives, some CM'ers, who've now stopped their bikes, take their cameras out, and start clicking photos. Earlier, Wepaste had reprimanded me when I asked their term for the scrambling maneuver we'd executed: "You look for too much order," she says, "You have to live with the chaos. Enjoy it."
But perhaps there is something to be said for formality, ceremony, squareness. For one thing is clear as I watch my fellow Unicorns grow tame and saucer-eyed the closer they get to the inaugural spectacle: Everyone loves a parade.
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.