Dispatches from the Swamp: No Justice, No Tacos

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After the first Muslim ban, I went to the protest outside the White House with a Pakistani friend. I remember being impressed that so many people had thronged Lafayette Park—ten thousand people, on virtually no notice! But my friend was bemused. “You call this protesting? I can’t believe they let you this close to the gates,” he said, pointing to the easily (and frequently) scaled iron gates encircling the White House. “In Pakistan we would be climbing over them, the police would be shooting. You people are so weird.”

That was a year and a half ago, and for all that time, the swamp has maintained a kind of murky resilience. But this month, something in the District finally snapped.

Historically, being a citizen of Washington, DC means accepting a particularly on-the-nose irony: living in the constant warm glow of governmental power means we sacrifice the ability to shine any of our own back. The District is not allowed any meaningful congressional representation, and while we do get a few electoral votes—which is more than Puerto Rico, Guam, or the US Virgin Islands can say—our budget is rigidly controlled by Congress, which can also overrule our laws (like that time we tried to legalize recreational weed). As a city, we are Tantalus in the barrel—so close to power we can almost lick it, but unable to actually taste it.

Throughout the grim trudge of the last twenty months we here have done what we could—especially those who went to work every day to try to keep our national shit together, despite the best efforts of the idiots they worked for. The reporters have been heroes, working themselves to the point of exhaustion. Lawyers watched in agony as judiciary norms were shredded, and cheered when one grotesque policy after another got smacked down in court. For bureaucrats, to leak or not to leak became an existential question: was it nobler in the mind to suffer the simpering edicts of outrageous morons, or to take encrypted messaging apps against a sea of troubles, and by opposing… probably not tell anyone anything we didn’t already know. Because, of course all the leaks, all this time, have been coming from political appointees jousting with each other; the bureaucrats, unless direly necessary, have held the line. If you worked in government, or journalism, or an NGO, or any other industry concerned with sustaining the republic, showing up to the office and doing the best job you could was an act of resistance.

Early on we marched, but that petered out. For one thing, all the best marches happened on the weekends, when the whole executive branch took off for Florida—on our dime. We joined groups, signed up for things like SwingLeft. We cheered the surge of first-time progressive candidates nationwide, but we didn’t have any of our own, at least not any that mattered. Whenever the signal went out to CALL YOUR CONGRESSPEOPLE, we understood that they didn’t mean us. It became impossible to ignore the sense of powerlessness that comes from not having any kind of representation at all. Bad people seemed to control every lever of power, and we began to feel trapped.

And then this month something changed. In the face of true, shameless evil, the Swamp realized that we weren’t trapped in here with them. They were trapped in here with us.

There has always been a détente of sorts in this city, a noblesse oblige. The Swamp was the place where powerful people who could not eat a meal in their constituencies without the rabblement breathing down their necks could go out to eat unmolested, with lobbyists or lawyers or any company they chose to keep. We treated them like New Yorkers treat famous people: we noted them, then played it cool. It was one of the things that kept the city’s gears churning. That isn’t to say that those were the halcyon days of bipartisan comity that elderly white pundits like to get misty about. It was just part of the DNA of the city. Cabinet secretaries were like Greek gods: powerful, but still available to get involved in the lives of mortals. Washington wore a patina of civility. Civility was the norm, and it was in everyone’s interest to preserve that norm.

Every so often, we would spot one or another of the goons running the government. Back in January, a friend found himself seated next to Transport Secretary Elaine Chao at the gate at BWI Airport, which sent the group text into a serious conversation about whether he should go up to her and politely let her know that he was disappointed in her and her husband Mitch McConnell’s moral cowardice. Ultimately he didn’t, because her security detail looked grim (and she wasn’t even wearing $1,500 “tactical pants”), and chances were he’d get kicked off his flight.

But then last week DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stood up at the podium in the White House Press Room and gave a passionate defense of putting children in concentration camps, and it was as if something broke where we did not know we had anything left to break. News reports suggested that her performance was, of course, met with great praise inside the White House; doubtlessly feeling buoyed, she took herself and an aide to dinner. Because this is an administration that does not understand irony, optics, or basic decency, and perhaps because she just felt like celebrating with margaritas, she chose a restaurant called MXDC, a block from the White House. A Mexican restaurant (albeit one owned by Todd English). According to Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America, someone dining in the restaurant pinged the group to let them know she was there, and by the time she was midway through the entrée, a cluster of protestors entered the restaurant, found her table, and let her have it.

Watch the entire video. The protestors don’t just chant at her, they play the ProPublica audio of children screaming for their parents. Through it all, Nielsen keeps her head down, focused on her phone, clearly waiting for it to end. It doesn’t. The protestors keep going, and other diners join in.

It takes tenacity to stand in one place and chant at someone for ten minutes, especially when the Secret Service is staring you down. But more than that, it takes numbers. When one person runs out of things to yell, another takes her place: “If you ever wondered what you’d have done during the Holocaust, you’re doing it now!” A moment ago, Kirstjen Nielsen was one of the most powerful people on earth. Now she is trapped, at the mercy of a dozen rag-tag protestors, unable to so much as take a bite of her dinner. She tries to wait them out, but the staff of MXDC (who are significantly Latinx) are notably uninterested in helping her. Ten minutes is an eternity to sit there being yelled at when you can’t respond. Finally, she flees, escorted into a black SUV.

Two nights before, Stephen Miller, the progenitor of the “zero tolerance” policy, was at a different Mexican restaurant, Espilita Mezcaleria, when a man reportedly cried, “Hey look guys, whoever thought we’d be in a restaurant with a real-life fascist begging [for] money for new cages?” It’s a solid own.

Espilita and MXDC, of course, are Mexican restaurants in the heart of DC, and DC is fed the fuck up. But then a few days later, at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA, which lies in a deep-red county, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Baghdad Bob of this White House, was politely asked to leave. The manager had asked her servers, many of whom are LGBTQ+ and immigrants, if they felt comfortable serving her. They said they did not. That was that.

The courage that this took should absolutely not be underestimated. Nor should it be lost that the owner of the Red Hen spoke politely to Sanders, comped her meal, and did not post about it on social media. She was not seeking attention. But, of course, attention found her. Sanders, never one to miss a chance to punch down, used the full power of her office as Press Secretary to call down public fury on the Red Hen (and in so doing violated Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 2635.702). Its Yelp page was mauled. Trump fans saturated their phone lines with fake reservations, and have egged the Red Hen restaurant in DC, which has no relation to the one in Lexington. And then, of course, the President himself attacked them. To her extraordinary credit, the owner of the Red Hen owned the encounter, and said she would do it again.

It was only three incidents, but they’ve shot through DC like chlamydia through a koala colony. The noblesse oblige has been abolished, and in its place, we have a new policy: they don’t get to enjoy the city they’re trying to destroy. If you see something, scream something (especially those of us—hi, fellow white people!—with the privilege to be able to use our loudest I WAS TOLD BY APPLECARE voices). Hound them like the Furies after Oedipus. No congresspeople to speak for us? Fine, we’ll speak for ourselves, and we’ll speak louder.

They don’t get to hide anymore. After an event at Georgetown this week, a handful of students confronted Mitch McConnell and—how’s this for narrative symmetry?—Elaine Chao as they entered their vehicle. McConnell scurried into the SUV, but Chao was astonished. “Why don’t you leave my husband alone?” she barked, shouting at the students as if they had tried to beat up the Senate Majority Leader on the playground. Her confusion was obvious: this isn’t supposed to happen to us.

There are plenty who bemoan the “lack of civility.” This is bogus. The reaction on the right has basically been an astonished “you made me bleed my own blood?” The editorial board of the Washington Post implored us to “let the Trump team eat in peace,” asking liberals how they would feel if “people who strongly believe abortion is murder” decided that pro-choice officials “should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” Good thing there is no history of anti-choice zealots murdering abortion providers at work or in, say, their kitchens, or that would be very embarrassing for the editorial board.

We shouldn’t really be arguing this, either. Compared to the fact that some children may never see their parents again, or that the President of the United States has called for the end of due process for asylum-seekers, whether or not Stephen Miller can get a burrito matters exactly not at all to the rest of the country. But here in DC, it does matter. Because this is not the way Americans are supposed to protest. A core promise of America is that we don’t have to protest this way. But now we’re in the civic Upside Down, and there’s no way out but through. Civility only works on the civil. Decorum is for the deserving. It is abundantly clear that these people have forfeited the right to both. And let’s be clear—refusing to serve individuals is a far cry from throwing eggs or carrying torches, and anyone equating these actions is being disingenuous.

On Twitter, the New York-based writer Ariel Dumas wrote, “Honest to God I wish I lived in the DC area so I could do more public yelling.” And I understand that desire: when the people who could do something do nothing, it’s up to the people who can’t do anything to do it all. But the level of pure glee around these stories makes me itch in my bones. Because the District doesn’t want to be doing this. We want—more than I can possibly express—for things to go back to the way they were, so that people can do the jobs that they came here to do. Whether or not you think it’s necessary, we should at least agree that it’s dragging us further away from what we wish we were as a city. But then again, we didn’t start the dragging, and they are not going to stop. The riptide of this administration is pulling us farther and farther out to sea, and the only way to fight it is to swim sideways. Hit them where they’re soft.

No justice, no fucking tacos.


Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Hazlitt, Nylon, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and many others. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic on Twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →