The climax of Thursday's anti-Bush protest comes at 5:30 p.m. as a growing wave of chatter blossoms into a visceral tension. A flashing cavalcade of police motorcycles precedes several limos, then a gaggle of shining black SUVs. A Secret Service agent, sharp and wide-eyed with wire-rimmed glasses and a perfect Windsor knot, peers through an open window, scanning the crowd.
The group he sees spews vitriol, yelling and ringing bells to the vehement and incessant chant, "This is what democracy looks like." Another agent, donning paramilitary accoutrements, reclines strategically in the back, a sleek metallic automatic weapon perched in the crook of his arm.
Organized demonstrators were filling the grassy knoll across from the downtown San Diego Convention Center before the 4 p.m. start time. They were greeted by a daunting police presence-replete with cars, motorcycles, horses, helicopters, bikes and throngs of uniformed officers.
Members of San Diego A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War And End Racism), San Diegans Against Bush's First Illegal War and North Park's International Action Center hawk pamphlets and pins from hastily erected folding-tables. Homemade signs are distributed as demonstrators with large banners and motley get-ups filter in. Except for the heat, the weather is postcard perfect. The atmosphere is light tension cut with joviality; smiles, handshakes and the occasional "How the hell are you?" Costumes and creative signs carry the day-the county fair meets the Renaissance Festival.
A unified chant goes up: "U.S. troops are not for sale, George Bush belongs in jail."
A low-key excitement settles in by 5 p.m. as organizers anxiously run through a network of cell-phone calls, the harbinger of the day's big event-the dropping of a huge banner from a facing high-rise apartment building.
A pair of plainclothes cops steals along the rear fence and scans the diverse crowd. The unfortunate mauve-patterned Hawaiian shirt of one of them bobs discordantly in a sea of otherwise dark and tattered clothing. A healthy population of retiree-aged activists supplements a solid base of teen and Gen-X counterparts; this is an all-ages event with an assortment of colors, sizes and physical conditions (there are far more wheelchairs at the demonstration than are in attendance at the protested Bush gala).
The plain-clothed officers subtly chuckle at a Bush-faced Pinocchio-character, whose puppet strings are pulled by a Dick Cheney impersonator. Their attention is then called by the vociferous Alfred Howard, a local musician and street poet, who hands out copies of his anti-war verses while performing impressive impromptu anti-war jams.
Clutches of costumed people approach from both ends of the narrow corridor. Five Bush-masked Grand Wizards (the Ground Zero Players theater team) creep by eerily in silky white robes and pointed hats. From the other side a four-person funeral procession moves slowly by, bearing a simulated coffin emblazoned with the epigram "Death of Democracy."
The crowd launches into a new chant, "George Bush lied, thousands died."
The "Radical Fucking Cheerleaders" performance-troupe-five fresh-faced and attractive girls-steals the show wherever its members decide to throw a coordinated fit. Kate, the group's de facto leader, appears to have fallen directly out of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. "Fuck Bush" is scribed prominently on her tush. She garners scores of second-glances with enthusiastic butt-jiggling, but goes awkwardly silent when asked why she's demonstrating. After a flash of confused panic, she smiles, turns and lifts her skirt in answer.
Attorney Kate Yavenditti hangs back, standing next to uniformed police officers and looking for conflict. She heads a group of eight volunteers from the National Lawyers Guild, a nonprofit organization that sends members-lawyers and law students-to protests and other events to monitor and record. In 20 years with the organization she's testified in court several times; she seems unconcerned Thursday as relations between the mostly jovial crowd and omnipresent police are fluid.
The crowd has peaked in the range of 300 people, actively chanting and flashing signs, as 5:30 approaches and a new intensity becomes palpable. A line of motorcycle police makes a dry run and disappears down Harbor Drive. Several minutes later, the head of the motorcade appears. The procession's gleaming vehicles, starched uniforms and impeccable suits contrast the motley disarray of screaming, writhing throngs three lanes away.
Chants and the occasional angry jibe continue, but intensity ebbs in the denouement of the convoy. At 6:30, with the crowd thinning, the plain-clothes officers amble off past a man wearing a sign that says, "Re-elect Satan in '04."