It’s only a bit after 8 a.m. and Russell Mokhiber is shouting at a belly dancer in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Granted, it’s out of concern—it’s the kind of Washington, D.C., summer morning when it feels like the air is one giant dog’s tongue licking your body, and the lady in question, Angela Petry—a middle-aged sandy blonde with the abdominal muscles of an 18-year-old pageant queen—is his wife. She’s been dancing up a storm, a whirl of skin, red and blue silk scarves, and beads dripping from her bosom.
“We need to pace ourselves, we’ve got three hours,” Mokhiber says, and he’s right, because the belly dancing is quickly becoming the media darling of the protesters gathered at the steps of the Supreme Court on Thursday morning to hear the ruling by the justices on President Barack Obama’s landmark health-care legislation. Mokhiber, of Berkley Springs, West Virginia, has come as part of Single Payer Action, a group that advocates for striking down the individual-mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act; it filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court earlier this year.
“The majority of Americans want it, the majority of doctors and nurses want it—that’s what the polls show—and my sense is that the majority of belly dancers want it,” Mokhiber says of a single-payer system.
For the moment, the majority of photographers seems to just want pictures of his wife, who gamely writhes for the crowd.
William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia is perhaps the only other protester with a costume to rival those of the belly-dance act. A de facto mascot for the Tea Party since its inception, he’s outfitted, tricornered hat (resplendent with craft-store feathers) to boot, in Revolutionary War garb—though rather ironically, his green and red felt uniform is a replica of what German mercenaries wore while fighting for the British. Temple seems not to mind, slipping in and out of a Scottish brogue, part of his act imitating Button Gwinnett, one of the first signers of the Declaration of Independence.
“I’ve been protesting the federal government for 32 years,” Temple says, attributing his frustration with the system to his tenure as a Secret Service agent (he pulls out his commission book as proof). He was not impressed with what he saw as the spendthrift habits of the federal bureaucracy. “I’ve seen them change out their desks every year whether they needed to or not.”
His staunch opposition to the Affordable Care Act hits close to home: Temple is upset that his 25-year-old daughter has gone back on his insurance since the law passed. But the ill will cuts both ways: His children are, Temple reports, “embarrassed of me.”
No one on the Court steps today is ashamed of him, though. “William, we’re going to start some chants!” one of Temple’s cohorts calls out, and moments later, as the sun knifes down on the growing throng, shouts of “kill the bill” fill the air as he strides, stockinged knees and all, to the fore of the crowd.
Glenn Duval, face smeared with globs of sunscreen and sweat as he leans back on his racing bicycle after an early-morning ride, looks exactly like the kind of guy who you might picture lives in Santa Monica, California, but keeps a house in Georgetown. He’s tall, speaks in mild, even tones, and is outfitted in a cycling jersey, fingerless gloves, racing cleats, and Oakley sunglasses.
“I’m the endangered liberal Republican,“ he says, surveying the swirling masses of competing protesters. “I don’t really exist anymore.”
As the Tea Party’s Gadsden flags wave, Duval concedes that on a certain level, the fringe group’s message resonated with him because of the “responsibility element.” But he is skeptical of the influence of the religious right over the movement, along with what he calls the “histrionics” of the health-care debate.
He calls coalition-building the point of governance, remarking as the moderate Republican of Aaron Sorkin’s dreams might: “I’m not excited about paying more taxes, but at this point in time, someone’s got to pay more taxes. "
Alex Duner, a 17-year-old high-school student from Atlanta, probably didn’t expect to be yelled at when he set out on Thursday morning to “experience history,” as he put it. It’s 9 a.m. now. The masses have multiplied and sharp elbows are needed to navigate the northeastern block of First Street. Cable anchors are prepping their stand-ups, their crews maneuvering through a web of black cords that thread chaotically, like the malevolent roots of a thickening garden weed.
Spindly and well spoken, Duner is in D.C. for a summer debate camp. He says that while holding up a sign calling (rather un-pithily) for a return to civil discourse, he was verbally accosted by a middle-aged woman in a tricornered hat, red pom-poms, and a cow bell she was putting to good use.
“She said that it was easy to be a Democrat and she said that she didn’t want to pay for other peoples’ health care,” Duner said. “I just responded that I think there are very valid arguments about why the individual mandate shouldn’t be allowed and why it would overturn a lot of precedents. But I told her I don’t think it’s worth dressing up in your Paul Revere hat and your pom-poms and ringing your bell.”
Duner, before disappearing into the rapidly growing crowd with his fellow debaters, calls himself a moderate.
By the time 10 a.m. rolls around, the crowd is at fever pitch. Planned Parenthood and SEIU members are leading a circular march, blasting classic Motown and handing out water bottles. Several pastors have taken to a makeshift podium to talk about government-funded abortions. Office workers are passing by, staring at the out-of-towners; a Hill staffer, outfitted in Seersucker and a bow tie, takes a video on his phone as he strolls by; 20-somethings in the ubiquitous D.C. pencil skirt uniform sip iced coffee and remark on the sluggishness of their Twitter feeds.
There is no official announcement from the marble steps when the ruling is finally handed down. The information comes in dribs and drabs—the mandate stands—and soon a Tea Party spokeswoman is lustily shouting into a megaphone, vowing to continue the fight. The crowd mills. There are brief chants of “USA! USA!” They quickly fade into the heated air.
The sheer madness of this single city block has begun to quiet, and in a few hours, First Street Northeast will return to its sedate pace. One block over, at an intersection in full view of the Capitol Building, a utility team climbs into a hole in the sidewalk; they need to fix the steam pipes that heat and cool the Court and its august occupants.
The crew doesn’t have time to talk. They’re on the clock. And besides, they say, it would sure be a damn shame if one of those protesters fell into that hole.
Here are some more pictures of the crowd waiting outside the Supreme Court for the NFIB v. Sebilius ruling to be announced (All photos by Jaime Fuller).