a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A walk to strengthen a weakening Constitution

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 14th, 2008

We the People
John Nirenberg talks with two supporters
next to a “We the People” banner signed by
impeachment supporters.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

John Nirenberg is a retired college professor from Vermont who began walking from Boston’s Faneuil Hall to Washington, D.C. on December 2 last year to demonstrate his support for the impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney. In the first entry on his web site about the march — March In My Name — he explained:

I’ve decided that being outraged isn’t enough. Bush and Cheney have so perverted our system of government, I have to do more than just be angry. What can we do as citizens? As a former Social Studies and American History teacher I remember telling my students to get involved, to vote, to speak their minds. Today, unfortunately, that’s not enough. We voted for change a year ago and nothing has happened. Congress is controlled by the Democrats but instead of holding the administration accountable for its wanton disregard of the Constitution, gets scolded by Bush for inaction and is intimidated by Cheney! Yikes, what’s a citizen to do?

I have chosen to march for the impeachment of both Bush and Cheney for their many high crimes and misdemeanors including placing themselves above the law.

I joined several dozen other impeachment supporters in accompanying him on the last leg of his journey on Saturday morning at the National Arboretum. We chose a huge and seemingly abandoned parking place for the rendezvous with John and his support crew. Not abandoned enough, though — the cars had to be reparked elsewhere, we were told by Arboretum police (or rent-a-cops, not sure which to be honest). Fine, whatever.

Around quarter to 10 the initial group — about twenty of us — started walking west down New York Avenue, which (other than the Arboretum quickly left behind) is initially a fairly bleak urban panorama — gas stations, overpasses, Washington Times printing plant, cheap motels. But as it bends southwest it begins to descend into Washington proper. I stopped briefly to take in a nice view of the city and the Capitol building in the distance. The weather was fine; blue skies and a sunny day; it must have been a great sight indeed for John after his long walk south. Along the way, we got mostly honks of support and thumbs-up reactions, though on one occasion an angry fellow yelled out of his window… what was it… oh, yes: “You guys are the greatest for sticking up for our Constitution!” At least, that’s how I remember it now.

Cheney: “I’ve got my own branch, so
go f*** yerself.”
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

We made for Union Station, where additional supporters rendezvoused with us around 11:30, among them AfterDowningStreet‘s David Swanson, with his wife and little boy (Wesley; not quite two; loves pigeons; cute as a button; smiles or wails enormously as warranted.) We were also joined by Deborah Vollmer, who is once again challenging Chris Van Hollen in the primary (February 12) for the Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Ms. Vollmer is running a decidedly low-budget, shoestring type of campaign, but I hope her advocacy for impeachment and for a tougher Democratic stance on ending the Iraq War cuts into Mr. Van Hollen’s totals a month from now.

As we waited for others to join us, security personnel again approached. We had set down our signs, and assured the security people we were just passing through. But they preferred we do so sooner rather than later; with two new participants costumed as Bush and Cheney in prison stripes, we apparently seemed like an imminent threat to make a slow Saturday more interesting than they wanted it to be.

Union Station being private property, we made a kind of slow retreat across the Liberty Bell plaza in front of the station, with “Bush”, “Cheney,” and two Code Pink “policewomen” blowing whistles at them. Cheney was very good; he found a little branch of a bush and started waving it around, declaring “I’ve got my own branch now, so go f*** yerself.” Some concern was expressed about young Wesley’s exposure to such language, but he either didn’t hear or didn’t care, and survived.

Impeachment advocate, Capitol
in background
. Note the poncho.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

Our destination was the National Archives — home to original copies the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Archives (or NARA, National Archives and Records Administration) have spared no expense to protect the physical documents from decay; in 2003, the documents were enclosed in “new airtight containers made of aluminum, titanium, and glass that will be filled with argon gas.” But we quickly learned that while the Archives may be wizards at protecting the documents themselves, they’re not so good at protecting the values those documents are supposed to represent and protect.

We gathered on the right side of the staircase — next to an inscription intoning “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” — and were quickly met by NARA rent-a-cops. “You can’t have those signs here,” they said, meaning our local green “IMPEACH THEM” signs or the Vermonter’s yellow counterparts. “This is a place of business,” one of the security people explained. “Business!?” I reacted, only to be hushed (wisely) by fellow Takoma Park impeachment activist Lisa Moscatiello, who was trying to defuse the situation and negotiate some kind of compromise. But we eventually capitulated and crossed the street to march up and down the block for a short while holding our signs.

We gathered to listen to brief remarks by Nirenberg, Swanson, and Ray McGovern — an ex-CIA agent who has been a vocal war opponent and impeachment advocate. For his part, Nirenberg said that his walk was simply “Phase One” of his efforts, which will now turn to lobbying Congressmembers to take up impeachment hearings. John will meet with Rep. Wexler, who also wants impeachment hearings, and hopes to meet with Nancy Pelosi, who still wants them off the table. I confess I didn’t take notes about Swanson’s and McGovern’s remarks — I agreed with them, and noted that Swanson also thought the “place of business” comment was a strange view of the mission of the National Archives. Like much of the march, the remarks were videotaped by Michelle Bailey, and will soon be available for viewing on her web site (“Impeach Them!“). [UPDATE: see above]

And then it was over, or so it seemed. Having walked hundreds of miles to see them, John and others wanted to go in and have a look at the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I stayed across the street with the signs and other paraphernalia of the march — bullhorn, satchels, whatnot. But inside, one last disappointing brush with our diminished United States of America was unfolding.

“To your right, the National Archives. The Archives
are charged with hermetically sealing off the
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and
the Bill of Rights from the American people and
any complaints they might have about their
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

As John’s wife Allyson reports at the March in My Name site, she was stopped and told she couldn’t enter wearing the yellow rain poncho with a protest slogan on it. The slogan — “Save the Constitution”!*

I tried to talk to the guard about my goal in being in the building – simply to see the Constitution of the United States. He wasn’t convinced and kept repeating his mantra, “Just take off the poncho and you can go in.” I asked him what was wrong with my poncho. He replied that they do not allow protests inside the building. I said that I was not protesting, that I was just an American citizen visiting the most important document of our country. […]

I asked for a copy of the policy that mandated I remove my objectionable clothing in order to see the Constitution. They would provide nothing… I asked them how the policy is practiced – that knowing how they interpret and implement the policy might help me understand the policy or law I was violating. They simply and finally said, “You will have to leave if you do not remove your garment.”

So she chose to leave.

And, as I was turning to leave, I told him he was part and parcel of the reason that I found it necessary to articulate my point of view to “Save the Constitution,” on my clothing. “You might want to read the Constitution before you leave work today to find out what this is all about.” I said as I left.

She told us outside, “I’m not going to take off a poncho with a political statement on it to go in and see the document giving me the right to keep it on.”

I’m almost as dissatisfied with myself as with the cops involved — for not being surprised or immediately outraged any more. In the scheme of things, it’s obviously not a major incident if someone doesn’t get to wear precisely what she wants to precisely where and when she wants to, and I don’t feel comfortable trying to make a cause celebre out of it compared to homelessness, the war in Iraq, or our broken, stupid health care system, to name but a few alternatives. Yet I should think someone or other in NARA ought to blush if they ever read this account or others like it. Either their rules or their personnel did a silly, stupid, bad thing on Saturday.

Viewed in retrospect, as dispassionately as I’m able to, we were repeatedly and unjustifiably put on the defensive throughout the day for peacefully, imaginatively, and determinedly doing nothing more than saying what we thought about a highly important political issue. Completely shrugging off these little slights is just conditioning for shrugging off the next bigger one. Meanwhile, I’m just waiting for someone to say “what if anyone just had whatever they wanted on their t-shirt, or baseball cap — then what?” Because my answer would be: “Then the Bill of Rights would be working as intended.”

John Nirenberg walked to the National Archives to help defend its most cherished contents: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But by the time he got there, it was just a place of business, more concerned with “defending” them from him.

* The full text of the poncho reads: Save the Constitution — Impeach Bush/Cheney — Tell Speaker Pelosi (202) 225-0100 — Pretty inflammatory stuff!

NOTES: For a few more photographs of mine, go here; for a lot more, see Michelle’s slideshow; as mentioned above, she’ll also have video soon; check this post for updates.
UPDATE, 1/15: More discussion at my post about this at American Street; see also Avedon Carol (“The Sideshow”) and
UPDATE, 1/15: David Swanson (“”) writes: “[Fellow Nirenberg marcher] Suzanne Haviland reported that a guard told her, “The reason I’m stopping you is that you are wearing something that criticizes the President. I’m a federal employee, and I’m not allowed to criticize the President.” I remember hearing about this, too, but didn’t know who to attribute it to.
UPDATE, 1/16: Libby (“The Newshoggers”): Is this freedom?
EDIT, 1/16: Allyson, not Allison.

5 Responses to “A walk to strengthen a weakening Constitution”

  1. Michelle Bailey Says:

    Hey Thomas,
    Very nicely said. love the photos!

  2. Paul Says:

    That was a good write-up. Way to go.
    However, as is my wont, I do have a criticism that has always bugged me. I’ve wondered if the people who participate in these kinds of things ever considered dropping the theatrics and wearing suits and “church clothes” (for lack of a better term) instead?

    It’s been my main criticism since day one, because when I see people dressing up and doing the theatrical stuff to illustrate their points, it doesn’t look like they’re taking it seriously, so why should I take it seriously? That is the message you’re sending out, whether you want to believe it or not.
    To me, defending the Constitution is serious business and I think the behavior and attire should reflect the seriousness and sobriety the task demands. I think it would definitely send the right message to people about how serious your intentions are. When you see people in their get-ups, it looks like the county fair or a Comic convention.
    If you want some inspiration, look at the Civil Rights movement. You never see all that clowning around and general nonsense that you see at modern protests. What you see are people dressed well and proceeding with dignity and self-respect. That’s inspiring. I would gladly join them, and that’s the point. You want people to join you, not gawk at street theater.
    Anyway, that’s not a criticism of you personally, but just some aspects of the whole thing that I find to be lacking in real merit.

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Paul. Everyone other than the Code PinkBush/Cheney/cops crew was +/- regularly dressed, except for the ponchos I suppose.
    I see your point, and I don’t take it the wrong way. I tried it for a January 07 demonstration (this one). Wound up feeling out of place — like I was saying I was ever so much more serious because of the clothes I was wearing. So I overshot that time.
    Also, with relatively little actions like this one, I’m just grateful for anyone who shows up. The Bush/Cheney Act also helped us kind of take over the little moving spot of space we were in, instead of being just a forlorn, outnumbered bunch of people with signs; people stopped to watch, instead of just passing by without a glance. (Plus they made me laugh, the branch bit cracked me up.)
    But when we met with Van Hollen, say, it was mainly suit and tie and dress clothes, so we did it right that time, anyway.

  4. Nell Says:

    Thanks for this, Thomas. Even though the crime is tiny compared with all the ongoing horrors, it stabs. “Protecting” the Constitution from people wearing the message ‘Save the Constitution’.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Nell; it’s good to get some positive feedback from you (and Paul, eRobin, Avedon, and many others) via the Internet, because it was scarce at the time — though there were approving honks and thumbs-ups from some people driving by the Archives, it doesn’t sound like there was much help with the incident inside the Archives.
    By the way, Michelle is my friend, one of the main impeachment people in Takoma Park, and very good with video work. She joined the march and made a video, as I mention in the post. Check out her “Impeach Them” blog.

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