Washington - The crowds that descended on the Mall Saturday for the Glenn Beck "Restoring Honor" rally were clear about several things: what they wanted to eat (sandwiches brought from home, chips), that they wanted to be in the shade and that they wanted a dry place to sit.
Beyond that, specifics - such as why they came to Washington or what they hoped would come out of the rally - were elusive. My questions about why these families had traveled from Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Jersey for a baking day in the DC sun were treated like a hostile act.
One man sniped, "You're not that bright are you? You got 10,000 people behind me." His female companion was equally enraged. Despite ranting that a news crew was "of course, interviewing the radicals," she refused to be heard. When given the opportunity to share why she was taking the time to tote a lawn chair the length of the mall, her response was swift: if I didn't know why she was there, she wasn't going to tell me because - and this is a paraphrase - I was an idiot for asking.
In theory, the participants came to Washington to support the Special Warriors Operations Foundation and, according to Beck's web site, pay "tribute to America's service personnel and other upstanding citizens who embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor."
In a phone interview, the Washington, DC Police Department said it has stopped giving out crowd estimates because it has been controversial. The National Park Service was also unavailable for an estimated head count.
Mimicking what was eventually Glenn Beck's opening gambit, a protestor trying to make his way closer to the Lincoln Memorial told friends he expected ABC to say that "more than 3,000 people" showed. (Glenn Beck opened with "I just heard from the media that over 1,000 people are here today.")
A visitor from outside Hershey, Pennsylvania, was uncertain whether locked Porta-Potties near the Washington Monument were locked for a reason or to spite the crowd.
Even those who were willing to talk didn't drill down into specifics. Darryl Postelo and Mike McKinney from southern Virginia came the closest to expressing their objectives. Both wanted greater government accountability and less government regulation.
"We're getting back to, you know, American values that make America strong," Postelo said, adding, "Keep government out of the way of free markets ... all this legislation that has to do with stealing money from people and over regulation.... America's proven to be enterprising enough."
McKinney agreed, saying "the place for government is not in everything." Both were against what Postelo called a decline in moral values. When asked a second time if this perceived slide was attributable to this administration or the previous one, McKinney clarified, "Over generations. It's not a Republican thing. It's not a Democrat thing. It's not a Bush thing. It's not an Obama thing."
So what, is it? According to Stacey Lancaster, who is originally from Queens, New York, and identified herself as a Christian, the issue was separation of church and state and concern over the New York "mosque." Lancaster said she had heard that federal money was going to the "mosque," and felt that, although church and state should be separate, such funding should go to churches rather than mosques both in the US and abroad.
Scott Villa, from Cleveland, wearing a "Don't Tread On Me" flag tied around his neck like a cape, was doing brisk business, selling Vietnam MIA/POW flags and flags with the Culpepper Militia insignia. A veteran of the DC circuit, Villa's last Washington gig was working the April 2010 Tea Party protest. Then, as now, he said his motive for making the trek from Ohio was mixed - he was there for profit and for politics.
Washington native Christine Ligon, who was selling American flags for a dollar on the perimeter of the Washington Monument, admitted her reason for braving the crowds in the softest of voices - money. Ligon said a relative called her up this morning and told her today could be a goldmine. "I just got up, jumped in the shower ... I'm almost sold out," she said. Ligon said that, come November, she plans to vote for whoever can improve the education system, and was clear that her whole family would be counted at the polls.
Despite the uproar over the overlap between Glenn Beck's speech and the 47th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, there was little acknowledgement of the timing once the rally started. Beck ignored it, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried to appropriate the moment, awkwardly tossing in King references and attempting to smooth things over with language from the Gettysburg Address, saying "Two score and seven years ago..."
Sojourners, a progressive Christian group, pitched a counterpoint presentation that folded shortly after the rally started, at 10 a.m. It featured a massive image of Martin Luther King Jr., along with a rotating set of quotes that included, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools" and, "Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere." Despite the iconic images of King, a choir and a speaker who tried to rouse visitors to embrace the spirit of King, the presentation was largely ignored.
An hour after the rally officially began, another group of dissenting voices emerged. Gathering at the spot the Sojourners had abandoned, a group of 10 to 15 teens held signs saying, "Glenn Beck is a bigot," or, in the case of Eagle Scout Eric Klein, "DC does not hate." Klein said his goal was to show that "DC does not approve of what they're doing here by desecrating this site and this date."
The day continued on, with slogans and stickers taking the place of engaged conversation and talking points, the crowd uniting behind its sense of pent-up rage. Passing a fellow protester, a visitor noted that his favorite sights so far were two t-shirts: one that said, "Don't make me come here again," and another that read, "We came unarmed. This time."