Swarming to see the justices

Democrats, Republicans and protest stalwarts from the Free Republic offer a colorful sideshow to the historic proceedings inside the Supreme Court.

By Alicia Montgomery
December 12, 2000 4:54AM (UTC)
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Republicans dominated many of the crowd scenes in Florida these past few weeks, but Democrats were out in force in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday morning. The early crowd in particular was dominated by Vice President Al Gore's supporters, many toting blue "Gore/Lieberman" signs and sporting the orange ribbons that are now part of the uniform of the Democratic faithful. They even co-opted a useful sign-mutilation trick from the "Sore Loserman" crowd. Several dozen "Bush-Cheney" signs were altered to read "Bush-Cheated."

The Democrats seemed heartened by being in the street majority, and got into a steady rhythm with their chants. "Oh, no, Gore's ahead. Better call my brother Jeb," they shouted in unison. When the bulk of the Bushies did arrive, the front and center spots were already dominated by Dems, and many of the Texas governor's supporters waved their signs from the across the street. Others were pushed to the periphery of the area in front of the court, or settled on the left-most third of the sidewalk.


That was just fine for Mark Elrod, an Army veteran who stationed himself close to the corner. He wore an old uniform that was almost covered on one side with ribbons and medals and stood with a towering American flag. "I had been a passive person listening to all this," Elrod said, glancing at the other demonstrators. But Democratic attempts to discard certain military absentee ballots, Elrod claimed, were just too much to bear. "My temperature had been 98 degrees, but then it shot up to 198 degrees," he said.

Adding to the circus atmosphere was John Boyd, leader of the National Black Farmers Association, who brought an old mule from his Virginia tobacco farm to symbolize what he thought was the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida. "His name is Forty Acres," Boyd said, explaining that the name referred to the 40 acres and a mule slaves were promised after the Civil War. Boyd was disturbed by stories of black voters having problems at Florida's polls on Election Day, and felt that the Supreme Court should do something about it. "If you lose your vote, it's as good as losing your citizenship," he said.

Forty Acres didn't seem to be much of a partisan, and sat still while both Bush and Gore supporters stroked his ragged brown face. Later on, Republicans surrounded the mule and Boyd, holding their signs over Forty Acre's body. That's where the cameras were.


The cameras also found Susan Clark, a regular on the Bush side of post-election protests, as she taunted the crowd with repeated chants of "Sore Loserman" from her bullhorn. But mostly, she helped hawk "Sore Loserman" T-shirts, calling, "Help a good, capitalist businessman. Get a Sore Loserman T-shirt for just $10"

There were times when the Bush backers got the upper hand in sheer volume, with the simplicity of their chants and most of the bullhorns boosting their success. "President Bush, President Bush, President Bush," they shouted. It was a lot less of a mouthful than "Hey, hey, ho, ho, George Bush has got to go."

Conservatives from the Free Republic Web community spent as much time battling the Gore supporters as they did chanting along with their ideological brethren. Free Republic member Kathy Wood held up a picture of a Florida vote counter staring quizzically at a punch-card ballot, and shouted that Gore is power hungry, traitorous and a criminal, just like his boss. "The reason he wants to win so much is so he can pardon Clinton," chimed in another Free Republic activist, who identified himself only by the Web handle "Kristman."


That charge earned the scolding of Gore supporter David Hoffman. "You're poisoning the atmosphere," he scolded in a professorial voice. Though the exchange between Hoffman and the "Freepers" was as high-minded as any street-corner discussion about Chinese donor scandals could get, it soon attracted a group of Gore supporters with more aggressive tactics. Soon enough, the Freepers fell victim to the rhetorical equivalent of a drive-by shooting, with Gore supporters surrounding them on all sides.

"I really don't care who wins," sneered one woman. "But I don't know why you don't want to count the votes." When Wood pointed to the Gore button on the woman's jacket, she just repeated the "count the votes" mantra. Then a wall of young men gathered just a few feet in front of the Freepers, and teased that the Republicans should learn to count.


Another woman scooted behind Wood and Kristman, shouting, "Blacks and Jews in Palm Beach County didn't get their right to vote!" From there, the conversation could do nothing but descend. Kristman shot back, "The Democrats played the race card from the start! They were down there the day after the election saying that blacks were too dumb to vote!" Then he was on a roll. "The Democrats said that blacks had to use old machines because they couldn't get the good ones!"

"There aren't any blacks in Palm Beach County!" declared a disembodied voice from the crowd. "And everybody there is really rich!" yelled another.

The tone elsewhere in the crowd was more civil, especially among those waiting in line hoping to catch a glimpse of the court proceedings. Bundled up in winter coats, the people in the queue still held Bush and Gore signs, but they spoke to each other in the joking tones of new friendship, the kind of bond that could only be developed while spending a night freezing together on the sidewalk alongside the court.


Karen Mooney, a Gore supporter who traveled from Portland, Ore., had kind words for the Republicans she'd been waiting with. "I've been standing with people who are on the opposite of the spectrum, and everyone's been really polite and civil," she said. But she didn't have much faith in the fairness of the court. "It looks like its going to tip in Bush's favor," she said. "If the Supreme Court is partisan, then we're all in trouble."

Kevin Smith, a Bush supporter from Pennsylvania, agreed with Mooney that doubts about the court's impartiality were unhealthy for the country. "It may not be a crisis, but it's getting there," said Kevin Smith, Mooney's line buddy. Unlike Mooney, however, Smith thought that the partisan problem was in a Florida courtroom, not in Washington. "It seemed odd that they overruled two lower court decisions," Smith said, noting that the Florida Supreme Court's more senior judges ruled against the recount. "It certainly raised some eyebrows."

Smith believed that Bush won Florida fair and square, and he thought that a manual recount would bear that out. But, in Smith's estimation, all the delays in that process had already made the transition period dangerously short, and it was too late for a full manual recount. "I don't think that we have time to do that now," he lamented. A final Florida total, untainted by partisan suspicions, Smith believes, is impossible. "We'll never truly know."

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush Supreme Court