Two parts to this post. First is the summary of my experiences. Second is my thoughts about it after the fact, which I’ll post tomorrow.
My brother came up for the weekend and we biked over to the Mall a little before 11am. I was too busy navigating pedestrians to get a look at the size of the crowd from the top of Capitol Hill, but when we rolled across 3rd St SW, I had a definite “Holy Shit” moment when I realized just how crowded it was already. We locked up our bikes in front of the Air and Space Museum and worked our way into the crowd. We didn’t get all that far, because it was ridiculously crowded. But it was an exceedingly polite gathering. Bumps and jostlings and stepped on feet were followed by sorries and excuse mes. Everyone was rather gleefully looking around to read the various signs.
My brother and I found some standing space right on the inside edge of the gravel path around the main grassy areas of The Mall. We had a clear sight of one of the big screens and the speakers which were showing clips from The Daily Show and Colbert Report which had led up to the Rally. We got to chatting with some of the folks around us, discussing the crowded metro ride they had, pointing out funny signs and costumes. It made me really wish I’d followed through on my idea to dress as the Grim Reaper and attach an “I <3 Fear” sign to the scythe.
The Roots started up right at noon and they and John Legend put on a pretty nice show for about 20-30 minutes. Then the Mythbusters came out and had us do the wave a few times, front to back. Cameras followed it and showed it on the screens. The crowd was pretty solid all the way back to the Washington Monument, which is about a mile away from the stage (and there were people crowded on the museum steps flanking the Mall who occasionally chanted “Louder! Louder!” because the speakers weren’t carrying the sound out to them.) The wave took just under 2 minutes to travel that distance. They did some other silly things as well and then had us all jump simultaneously and measured the “groundswell” on a seismometer. Apparently the crowd had a total impact approximately equal to the impact of a car traveling 35 mph.
After the Mythbusters, the show proper started. Jon Stewart was the main focus, Colbert serving as the foil that his character definitely is. The general dynamic was of reasonableness vs. fear. The two clearest examples of that occurred during one of the musical acts and during a brief “debate”, the latter of which served primarily to set up Stewart’s closing speech.
The music set in question was amazing in itself. Stewart started it off by bringing out the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted and is now performing just as Yusuf. I hadn’t even known he was performing again as he left the music business following his conversion in the 70s, but Wikipedia tells me he’s been back on stage since 2006. I’ve always loved his music, and getting to hear and see him perform “Peace Train” live gave me chills. And when Colbert interrupted him and said that there was no way he was getting on that train, I turned to the folks we’d been chatting with and said, “If he brings out Ozzy for ‘Crazy Train’, I’m gonna shit myself.” (I’m a pretty big metal head, but have never seen Ozzy perform.) And a couple of moments later, my pants were metaphorically heavier and smellier. The two went back and forth for a bit before leaving the stage arms across each other’s shoulders to let Stewart and Colbert argue about which artist should be playing. And then out came the Ojays to play “Love Train”, which satisfied Colbert’s desire for fear because of the possibility of STDs.
Until the final sequence, the rest of the rally was mostly forgettable. Each comedian gave out a few awards recognizing the sane people and the people who have promoted fear who have made a mark in the public consciousness recently. A few musical guests who no one really cared about — Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow and some others — but nothing especially offensive to the ears or mind.
Then Stewart came out to give a “keynote speech”, but before he could get going, Colbert came out to turn it into a debate. Colbert used a series of video montages of news media clips promoting fear to “defeat” Stewart’s special guests who showed that generalizations didn’t apply to all people who had those labels (e.g. Kareem Abdul Jabbar to show that Muslims are normal). But Stewart was “saved” by a Daily Show correspondent dressed as Peter Pan who got the crowd to cheer their support of Stewart and sanity and in a rather transparent gimmick showed that by working together, Americans can defeat the people who are promoting fear.
That led to Jon Stewart’s actual closing speech. And boy oh boy what a speech. The Vietnam veteran, Harley-Davidson riding biker next to me turned to his wife and said, “This is the best damned speech I’ve heard in 40 years.” If you haven’t seen the speech, you should definitely watch it. Everyone wanted to know why the rally was held, and I think this speech tells you pretty clearly, as Stewart says, the reason why he wanted to hold the rally. Why we came is something else entirely, but the point Stewart makes about the quality of the American public is something I wholeheartedly believe.