Fellow filmmaker and friend Georg Koszulinski invited me to DC to help him shoot a documentary focusing on the inauguration of Donald Trump. There were massive protests scheduled on inauguration day and the day following; they would include a coalition of the willing that would make George W. Bush jealous. We ran amok with DSLR cameras trying to capture the feeling of the space and the feeling of the people (protesters and Trump supporters alike). We wanted to find a way to make sense of the madness during this shocking plot twist in American history, as a reality TV star (which already sounds like I’m making this shit up) was sworn in as President of the United States of America.
The primary goal was for Georg and me to talk to as many people as possible. Trump supporters, activists, the rich, poor, young, old, black and white. We would do the best we could between our two teams to document the diverse perspectives. Nick Sambrato w/Georg and Peter Johnson w/me, each running sound and generally assisting.
On the day of the inauguration, different protest groups were going to separate points, intending to impede or even block Trump supporters from reaching the inauguration. At 7am I followed the Communities Under Attack blockade march to their rally point. From what I saw there were few altercations to report, and part of that was because of their self-organization. They had folks in yellow armbands on the edges of the group to act as de-escalators in case Trump supporters and a protester got into it, or worse, a fight started with the cops. They also had folks with red crosses on their backpacks in case someone needed medical assistance. These weren’t people out for chaos, these were folks out to protest in an organized, prepared, deliberate fashion.
Communities Under Attack didn’t see any major conflict, aside from maybe the occasional Trump supporter’s heckling. But that wasn’t the case everywhere, based on Georg’s footage which I’d later see, as well as my own experiences later that afternoon.
After the Communities Under Attack blockade disbanded, Peter and I made our way south to get to the inauguration entrance. We weren’t going to be able to bring certain pieces of equipment in, so Peter watched the gear while I dove into the National Mall viewing area to talk to Trump supporters. I talked to a Sikh-American from Chicago who supported Trump and Obama. I talked to a white woman in a fur coat who owned a business. I talked to two young white guys who went in carrying a homemade banner calling Trump a fascist. The major takeaway was that there were a lot of people you would expect to attend Trump’s swearing in – lots of white people from lower and upper classes in suits or red hats. But there were also a lot of people you wouldn’t expect to see, shattering some of the easy narratives media outlets have been living off of since Trump’s rise to power.
Next I headed up to Franklin Square, where some of the most iconic images of J20 have been captured. I approached a crowd gathered around a teen who was standing on top of a vehicle, kicking and eventually body slamming it. The crowd ooo-d and ahhhh-d at his daring. An SUV and a limo had their windows smashed out; the SUV had been the teen’s object of destruction.
Next to the limo (spray painted in gold along the side was the phrase “We the People”) a middle age white guy in sunglasses and a bike helmet, who looked like a cop, was cajoling a kid in a mask. “If you’re a man, you’ll show your face.” I feared the kid would take the bait. But just as his hand went to the mask to pull it off, “Nah man, you just want all these cameras…” and he escaped through the crowd.
Another masked man pulled out a can of gold spray paint and tried to come up with the right message for the times as the can hissed out “WHO DO YOU SERVE” onto a covered bus stop. Three reporters/folks with cameras, who had climbed on top of it earlier to get a better shot of the limo, shouted down pleadingly to know what he had written.
Then there was smoke coming from the smashed limo. Orange flames shot out the sides like excited party goers and it was quickly engulfed. Good Samaritans among the protest crowd told people, “Get back, it could blow!” But I found myself with other cameras trying to get the shot. In between fighting to get the right framing that didn’t include other newshounds and dealing with the tech details of shooting, a thought whizzed across my mind: “Oh, so this is how people get into war journalism.” The camera, as has been noted often in film theory circles, was a filter between me and this reality. I could feel the adrenaline hit, but it was overshadowed by the technical and aesthetic work of capturing the moment. At the same time, too, you feel like an ambulance chaser, only there for the cheapest, easiest images that unto themselves feature no context, but give you the simultaneous thrill of capturing “awesome images” and witnessing riot porn in real life.
Police moved in with riot gear to clear a space for the fire department to do their work. Eventually the frontline was not made of people facing down the cops, but a line of journalists and cameras filming the cops and the fire behind them.
I drifted away from the scene, looking for Peter. I didn’t know how long we had been separated since arriving at the limo. Then three flash bang grenades were set off and mace was deployed. Though I had seen more aggressive action from different police departments at other protests, seeing the machinery of police militarization at work was appropriately intimidating. After 6 years of seeing videos of police abuse of force at different peaceful protests (Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson), I knew that non-lethal riot gear could still horribly maim a person under the right circumstances, so I kept my distance.
Thinking on it later, I realized that at least in filmmaking I could be reflective as opposed to TV news’ tendency to be all reflex. In news there’s no time to reflect and offer well rounded context for these conflicts, it has to hit the airwaves immediately to get that paycheck. And social media has only amplified this problem, even among filmmakers. You want to share that clip of you filming that limo on fire to cash in on those likes and being “first.
What was probably more important is an interview I got with a woman named Brenda earlier that day.
She was a young undocumented immigrant, but was willing to talk to me on camera to share why she was protesting Trump’s inauguration. An undocumented person willing to protest in the face of a huge police presence that could quickly deport her said more about J20 than someone lighting a car on fire. But as we’ve seen, one of those scenes will get more play than the other. The power of scopophilia is real, y’all.
The rest of the night was largely peaceful, with the occasional scuffle with Trump supporters and a few more fires. Kids on bikes were pulling 12 O’Clock Boys stunts that were mesmerizing. I talked with more people who were peacefully assembled, holding up their respective signs. There was a lot of fear in their words, worry they and their friends would be targeted by the administration. It’s the face of these concerns that I came away feeling: a few broken windows and cars set on fire is nothing compared to the fear of the people marching. People focusing on property destruction by a few protesters, when those protesters’ lives are at stake with the incoming administration, is a fucked up hierarchy of importance that should be called out regularly. People matter more than things.
Some days being a guy with a camera feels like a white collar tech job. You set up your shots for a promo piece in an air conditioned building for a government agency, have a hot lunch, and call it a day before sunset. As I hit the bed after being out for almost 24 hours, this shoot felt like true labor. Most of the shoot had been handheld, my aching body serving at the altar of the mechanical eye.
I ran solo that day on camera and audio, since Peter, Georg & Nick all had to leave early. I got to the march around 10am and by then the crowd went all the way from 3rd to 14th St. This turned out to be fortunate, as the back of the rally was where the march would begin. So at 1:15pm, while folks close to the stage full of speakers waited, blocks away, we started as scheduled. I found myself at the head of it. I acted like press and marched ahead, getting footage that I’ll likely remember for the rest of my life now that we know how large the crowd was. Lots of smiling faces, families, young, old, diverse races, and even commuters stuck in traffic due to the march who were cheering us on with honking horns. Hundreds of thousands of people marched past the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, to the front of the White House to repeat the historical motif of our ancestors – showing up to demand a change.
And as the crowd was let within hundreds of feet from the White House, with Beats for Love laying down the heartbeat for our frustration, I wondered: “Is this when we storm the castle?” You could see it and feel it as we all stood in front of this symbol of the new Presidency that had all but endorsed white supremacists organizations in its silence about their support.
But Saturday wasn’t that day. And it’s too easy to write off the march, as some are already doing. We’re really only going to see the fruits of the march in local elections, local actions, or the turnout for mid-term elections in two years. If people walked away feeling invigorated to do the work locally, it will have been a success. Because it seems to me that we need to act like a progressive militia: civically minded folks interested in equality for their neighbors and environmental justice, who are ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice when a new bathroom bill is proposed in their city. Or if a pipeline is going to be built through Yellowstone.
If Occupy did anything, it acted as the spark that caught the attention of a broader cross section of America that had been cut off from the history of protests and marches. We’ve been in the process of re-educating ourselves about that history. An army isn’t built in a day, and since 2011 people have been getting educated, getting organized, and re-connecting. As Lupe Fiasco said, “The revolution is becoming second nature.” The work didn’t start with us and it won’t end with us, but now it’s up to us to carry it forward.
Seeing that Obama didn’t single handedly fix everything like he promised, and then seeing the election of Trump, will hopefully teach us that we can’t rely on folks at the top to do the work we have to do at the bottom. We each have to chip away at the work of making our own progressive community. You can’t legislate that, you can’t just vote for that – you have to make it with your hands, with meetings, with organization.
By 7 pm I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so my day at the Woman’s March ended with me eating greasy pizza with strangers that I wound up befriending. In a fit of joy that filming was over and food was in my body, I bought a round of gelato for us as we talked about politics and our lives outside of the protest. The camera sat on the table as I charged batteries, and I wondered if I should interview them.
I put the camera away.
If this was my last day in DC, this one was for me. The film had enough of my memories.
I’m finishing this essay up two weeks after the Women’s March and the nightmare is already unfolding in one ugly Executive Order after another. My wife mentions the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) construction has been re-approved with the customary melancholy this week has demanded.
Yet: I think of someone I met in DC, a Navy veteran named Brandee, who was just at the DAPL site, fighting with other veterans to shut it down by strategically deploying their veteran status in the media to bring more attention to the DAPL protests. Tapping into this concept of the progressive militia and knowing this woman would probably be heading back to North Dakota to do the work, I was able to tell her,”We’ve got someone on it.”
In these first weeks we’ve seen Resistance with a capital “R” sweep the country in various forms. Protests at JFK and LAX over the immigrant freeze, the National Parks Service tweeting against a media lockdown, and planned marches from the scientific and LGBTQ communities. It seems only a matter of time before he alienates Republicans in Congress or even gets police officers to choose the people over Trump.
I’m not worried that the people won’t rise up, I just hope that when Trump is no longer the boogey man that unifies us all, we won’t dissolve into infighting before actually addressing the problems, not just the man campaigning for them. Many of the issues people were protesting at J20 and the Women’s March were not created by Trump, he’s just the current cheerleader for them.
Hopefully the hidden power of a protest is what keeps it going. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that a protest can be a work unto itself, with or without a specific change being made as a result of it. Shouting into the digital void on social media ignores our need as social animals. A facebook status is a knock off version of a phone conversation or a face-to-face chat with your friend about your troubles. Outside of school, work, church, or the occasional union, there are few public spaces left to commune with others. So just getting a large group of people away from the isolation of social media consumerism and immersing them in a large group of like minded people can offer a sense of community and catharsis Likes and Comments are never going to match.
If this work is going to last, it’s going to be because people found community in that work.