(Washington, D.C.) &- Estimates vary, but between 150,000 and 215,00 people packed the American National Mall with their banana and teabag costumes, humorous signs and cameras for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in an event that was to represent a general rejection of the hype and over-the-top partisan politics that have coloured the American political scene.
Two months after comedian and faux newsman Jon Stewart first announced plans for the event on his Comedy Central program The Daily Show, he and his comic rival and conservative poseur Stephen Colbert came to duke it out in a show that was part live comedy show, part concert, part “nonpolitical” rally.
While Stewart has denied it, the rally was widely seen as an unofficial response to controversial conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honour last August. Beck, whose event took place on the anniversary of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, said that the date was arbitrary.
Stewart said the same for his rally, though the event preceded midterm elections by three days, and occured right before Halloween. Attendance was higher than in Beck’s event, both of which took place at the National Mall.
The event tapped into a frustration felt by any Americans. McGill student and native New Yorker Thomas Netting said: “The reason I came down? Because I’m pissed off with a lot of stuff happening in my country. I think this country is being hijacked by extremists.”
The event targeted moderates who were fed up with the drama of extremist punditry. But several political and lobby groups like Amnesty International and fringe conspiracy theorists came with their own messages, often stationing themselves around the Mall, handing out stickers and holding up signs.
Naomi Darenblum was one of those volunteers. The Obama-campaign volunteer and Latin American political studies professor at New York University, took a day during her sabbatical leave to reach out to engage potential voters. A recent naturalized citizen, she said: “My first election was voting for Barack Obama [in Nov. 2008] and whenever I have free time, I’m in the District [of Columbia] now, I give it to the DNC.”
Some accused Stewart of skirting his self-held maxim of not engaging in true political activity by holding the rally, but some viewers felt that the political message, if there was one, was muddled.
“I think there isn’t any really clear directive in this thing. I read it as a totally absurdist,” said David Henry Brown, Jr., member of a Brooklyn-based performance troupe who was working for a anti-nuclear weapon group. “It’s extra complicated, that these are mock comedians trying to do a mock political rally. I mean, if it could galvanize change in some way, that’d be great.”
Others felt that the event played out like a live version of the Daily Show, like Adam Minsky from Boston, M.A, who flew out with two friends for the day’s festivities. “I think just being here, being in this crowd, and kind of seeing the sheer numbers of people that came out to see this was really impressive.”
However, Minsky found he missed some of the content, sharing a common complaint: “But I think I’d like to get the details from what happened later on in the line. “Cause we just couldn’t hear.”
Despite not cleary hearing or seeing what was onstage, for many the best part was other attendees.
Minsky’s friend Alex Harrison said: “The signs were the best signs I’d ever seen, and I’ve been to a lot of rallies and protests, and these were by far, the most clever.” Netting noted that “the people who showed up were more interesting than the event.”
The rally drew out a diverse crowd, from the apathetic to the politically engaged, from families to university students to senior citizens.
Whether an event that will be a harbinger of true political change, or just another three-hour music and comedy extravaganza remains to be seen.
Netting’s American friend, Andrew Kovstvedt, who studies Canadian studies at McGill and plans on applying for Canadian citizenship, felt that the political impact would be minimal. “I don’t think it’s going to inspire any change at all, but I think that’s kind of the nature of the rally,” he said.
Brown, meanwhile, is optimistic that people will “process” the event afterwards. “The aftermath is more important than the event.”