Context is everything.
Normally, tens of thousands of citizens gathering in the nation’s capital would be considered a victorious display of strength. But in the wake of the recent Glenn Beck Rally and Tea Parties in Washington, the union-organized One Nation Working Together rally seemed woefully under-attended. Intended to demonstrate that the American left is still alive and kicking, the rally instead landed with a muffled thud on the national mall.
Whereas Beck attracted throngs of people impassioned by fiery rhetoric, big names, and audacious theatricality, One Nation’s response seemed merely a blip. The mall’s spacious lawns displayed their full greenery, having recovered from some serious Tea Party treading just weeks before. DC residents confronted with activists en route to the Lincoln Memorial quizzically muttered, “Rally? What Rally?”
The unions’ inability to produce the hype or headlines already surrounding the forthcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies uncomfortably belied the event. Were the obvious comparison points absent, and had the organizers not been such powerful national groups, the thousands of assembled marchers would have been impressive.
“I’m not a very big proponent of ordinary marches like this, so I’m just gonna put that right out there,” says Nadine Bloch, who works for the Washington Peace Center. Instead, Bloch believes in using creative forms of resistance, cultural work, and direct action. Towering over her, a 12-foot paper mache “Goddess of Peace and Liberation” demonstrates her views. Covered with slogans such as “Fund Jobs, Not War” and “Build Schools, Not Bombs,” the Goddess is the creation of a consortium of social justice movements called The Peace Table. “Marches are important for bringing communities together, showing strength to each other, perhaps sending a message to the White House, if you get really lucky. So we’re here just to add color and creative expression.”
Close by, dressed in a snazzy suit and smoking a pretzel cigar, Harold Gotbucks III of the Buffalo Billionaires flashes a winning smile. “The Billionaires decided we need to come down here and counteract these proletarian working people, running around and causing trouble,” he explains. “They should just shut up and stop complaining!” The satirical character is in reality Eric Gallion, a part-time engineer who bussed down with his local unions (shunning his private jet). Gallion believes that humor adds an additional dimension to political debate, a notion that, once again, will come to the fore in the Stewart/Colbert rally. “I think it makes it more fun and at the same time more real to people. It’s too easy to just kind of blank out the people with signs.”
As with all large political events, the One Nation rally attracted a variety of like-minded groups hoping to capitalize on the event. Exemplifying the plethora of causes, four women strolled through the crowd covered in bumper stickers collected from the myriad organizers. “We just went to everybody, just meeting everybody and hearing their causes.” The women, who traveled 14-hours by bus from Georgia, came to support the International Longshoreman’s Association/Local 1414 union, whose office is across the way from their restaurant Mama T’s.
For all its good causes, the One Nation rally may have ultimately been counter-productive for the unions. Given the context, they may have inadvertently proved that they are no longer the backbone of the left.