November 1, 2010
In Case You Missed It
On the National Mall on Saturday, October 30th, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a crowd whose collective desires, like those of their hosts, were to either “Restore Sanity” to American politics, or to “Keep Fear Alive” – in mocking support of political extremists in the Republican, Democratic and Tea Parties. The tone in the crowd was civil (if sarcastic) and dominated by sign-carrying progressive, Democratic and independent-minded groups and individuals. If one was unaware of the reason for throngs of such people within a mile of the National Mall — from ten in the morning until well after five in the afternoon — one might have believed President Obama was being re-inaugurated.
The President’s inauguration in January of 2009 was the last time District residents can recall such numbers filling the heart of the city. Metro service downtown was virtually discontinued for several hours, and yet Metro still reported about a half-million more passengers on Saturday than on a usualy weekend. Factoring in those who came by bike, bus, car or on foot – including those who, unable to get a bus, train or taxi, walked an hour or more from the edges of the city to attend the rally – it was an impressive turnout of those who are fed-up with the negative tone of politics in this country leading up to the November 2nd mid-term election.
Organized by the hosts Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” the intention was to remain non-partisan, to satirize, to criticize and inject humor into the bilious rancor of this election season. In the end, there was a final self-aware nod towards the bias and manipulation increasingly shown by the media. Stewart was hosting the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” while Colbert, in his persona as a far-right pundit, hosted the mock “March to Keep Fear Alive” as a counterpoint. Together, the rallies were labeled “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” The crowd was extremely diverse, but the general goal was, as Stewart put it, to “take it down a notch.” With no strong counter-rally presence (outside of Colbert’s satirical presence), the uniformity of mood and intention among so diverse a collection of attendees was notable. If one wished to label the crowd “left” or “liberal,” one would have to acknowledge that, for a group not known for unity of voice, the “liberals” on this particular Saturday were bonded in opposition to the rage and misinformation they see coming from the extreme right.
Rally members described themselves with every possible label, from “progressive” to “socialist” to “moderate” to “conservative”, but they were united against divisive politics and irrational debate from both ends of the spectrum. Most opinionated attendees parceled the blame for divisiveness off on conservatives, represented by Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement, Fox News and Glenn Beck, in particular.
Beck himself hosted the August 8th “Rally to Restore Honor” at the opposite end of the National Mall, which drew an estimated 90,000 attendees – many of whom were there to protest against the rally’s conservative message. On that occasion, disruption of Washington business as usual, in terms of Metro use and finding a seat at a downtown restaurant, was minimal beyond the area nearest the rally.
News sources have cited the Stewart/Colbert rally as having been granted a permit for a head-count of 60,000. Metro buses and trains proved incapable of handling the numbers of people pouring onto the Mall, and the flow of rally-goers at every corner of the Capitol lawn seemed endless from before the rally’s kick-off until well into the afternoon. The rally’s infrastructure – from the sound and video systems to the available portable toilets to the gated entries (which were soon done away with) – was also clearly based on grossly low attendance estimates. Making phone calls or sending text messages became nearly impossible, as most systems had become overloaded with the concentration of usage.
Many news sources have nonetheless claimed that the numbers at the October 30th rally were comparable to numbers at the Beck rally. Overhead pictures from both events seem to demonstrate the inaccuracy of that assessment. CBS News, using an independent outside company for its estimates, declared 215,000 as an initial estimate – more than twice the size of the Beck rally crowd. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20015214-503544.html) “Harry,” one of the Rally’s attendees, said he’d gone to numerous rallies in the District over the past decade, and he could only cite the Obama inauguration as an event which drew such numbers. Estimates for attendance at the Obama inauguration range between 1 million and 1.8 million. Another unidentified rally-goer mentioned the 1995 “Million Man March” — the actual attendance of which has been estimated at around 800,000 — as seeming slightly larger than the Stewart/Colbert event. Others claiming experience with rallies on the National Mall offered estimates ranging between 300,000 and one million –far more than is being reported by many news sources. However, those numbers still fall short of Jon Stewart’s joking announcement that “over ten-million people” were in attendance.
There was a foreign contingent, as well, including brits Ozzy Osborne and Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Their competing performances of “Crazy Train” and “Peace Train” ended with the two embracing and leaving the stage together as Stewart and Colbert argued. Accord was reached as American “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” members The O’Jays took the stage to perform “Love Train.”