2001 counter-inaugural march
2001 counter-inaugural march Credit: Rick Reinhard

Before there was Rex Tillerson or Betsy DeVos petrifying the masses, there was T.K. Jones. The undersecretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan would have been forgotten by history were it not for his 1981 comments suggesting that the United States could survive nuclear war—and therefore might want to engage in one.

“You can make very good sheltering by taking the doors off your house, digging a trench, stacking the doors about two deep over that, covering it with plastic so that rainwater or something doesn’t screw up the glue in the door, then pile dirt over it,” he told The Los Angeles Times, adding for good measure, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”

Journalist Robert Scheer parlayed Jones’ chilling comments into a book the following year entitled—what else?—With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush & Nuclear War.

And it was that fear of nuclear war during the Reagan era—the end of The Gipper’s first term and the beginning of his second—that inspired D.C.’s grassroots punk activists. They created and nurtured a social movement blending music and politics that persists fully three decades later, and that will feature prominently this Inauguration Day. 

“At that time in particular, there was concern about nuclear war, and so a lot of protests focused around that,” says D.C.’s Mark Andersen, who co-founded that punk activist collective, Positive Force, in 1985. “What it looked like were mobile demonstrations that were intentionally provocative. You would block the streets. When police came to get you, you would get up and run, go to another place to kind of create the same sort of disruption. The basic idea was ‘no business as usual.’”

He says the same idea is relevant today. “Trump is not like previous administrations or previous presidents,” he says. “He’s extra dangerous, and to the extent that we treat him like he’s just Ronald Reagan redone or George Bush redone, I think we’re underestimating the danger.”

While Saturday’s Women’s March may well attract several hundred thousand demonstrators, impartial observers predict Inauguration Day itself won’t give rise to the numbers of protesters and kinds of clashes seen during the first real counter-inaugural events in 1969, when Richard Nixon was sworn in at the height of the Vietnam War. 

“There can’t possibly be a comparison,” says the Washington Post’s Martin Weil, who has been a reporter there since 1965 and who covered some of the three days of protests then—complete with tear gas, thrown projectiles, and the rifle-wielding 82nd Airborne Division. 

For starters, access to the parade route is much more limited than it was then, and anxiety about homegrown disorder has taken a backseat to caution and security against more sobering, and deadly, global forces.

“I think the fear is still greater of terrorism,” Weil says. “I don’t think people are so much concerned these days about domestic disturbances as they are terrified by the possibility of a terrorist act. With that concern, you’re just going to have many, many more security people around than ever before, and they’re going to have less patience with demonstrators, who they will perceive as just making their jobs more difficult.”

That’s exactly what the event known as Disrupt J20 aims to do Friday. “Our goals are to disrupt the inauguration, disrupt access to the inauguration, and to show the diversity and strength of the resistance to Trump and everything he stands for,” says Samantha Miller, one of its organizers. 

Activists familiar with its planning say it is more likely to draw arrests and take on an anarchist tenor than more mainstream demonstrations such as the competing—or complementary, depending on your point of view—Resist J20. Positive Force will have representation at Disrupt J20, but the group isn’t monolithic—its all-volunteer ranks embrace varying methods and degrees of social activism. 

For his part, Andersen will be delivering groceries to low-income D.C. seniors on Inauguration Day as part of his work for We Are Family, a nonprofit and frequent beneficiary of Positive Force benefit concerts and other efforts. “My work, in a sense, you could see as a protest,” he says. “Certainly for me, there’s also a sense that I want to make a positive statement about the America that I want. And that is an America where there is a place for everybody, where everybody matters and no one is forgotten.”

But many of his friends will be involved in repudiating Donald Trump’s agenda in more confrontational ways. “You could see them as two sides of the same coin,” Andersen explains. “The critique of Trump and then kind of the positive example of what we want. So we’re not just simply against things.”

Which would come as good news to Professor Elizabeth Sanders, a liberal academic who teaches social movements at Cornell University and is the author of the forthcoming book Presidents, War, and Reform. She finds much of the anti-Trump rhetoric counterproductive and lacking the practical grassroots policy work that helped to define the nuclear freeze movement and others that ultimately helped to change Reagan’s mind.

“Here’s what worries me: When you just say, ‘You’re horrible, you’re evil, you’re not even rich, we hate you,’ he’s just going to fight back,” Sanders says of the president-elect. “That’s not the way to get to this guy. I think he is able to compromise. I mean, God knows that he doesn’t have any fixed principles that we’ve seen.”

Citing the fact that the constitutional system has handed us Trump and Reagan’s willingness in particular to be swayed—an entire book, Beth Fischer’s The Reagan Reversal, was dedicated to this topic—Sanders argues that Democrats need a new strategy. And it must acknowledge and recognize the hopeless, downwardly mobile working class that elected Trump in the first place.

“I live in upstate New York, where NAFTA killed every bit of industry we ever had,” Sanders says. “It’s a wasteland. There are real grievances there. And at the same time you’re shutting down industry and letting in massive waves of immigrants. This is not a formula for keeping the working class happy. They’re ready to try anything that looks like it’s really different. I’m just worried that these protests will be expressing anger and contempt and not be practical enough.”  

In scope, Friday’s protests may more closely resemble the 2005 counter-inaugural events for George Bush’s second term, when demonstrators focused on the invasion of Iraq. “Bush had made a tremendous error and he had unhinged a region of the world that has enormous strategic importance,” Andersen recalls. “Again, there was a sense that things were spinning out of control and that we needed to stand up against that.”

Protesters were so thoroughly doused in tear gas that day that Andersen’s wife’s eyes watered by simply being around demonstrators later that night at the Positive Force concert at Sanctuary Theatre. “That was a sign of how embattled that day had been.”

But scope is one thing, and fear is another entirely. No one could have envisioned in 2005 that Bush would seem like such an open-minded and beloved patriot next to the 45th president in waiting 12 years later.

“Frankly, there’s no comparison,” says D.C. activist and filmmaker Robin Bell, whose film Positive Force: More than a Witness documents the activist group’s founding and work. “My neighbor is a 94-year-old woman who moved to D.C. from Southern Virginia during the riots in 1968,” he adds. “When we briefly talked about Trump, she’s seen WWII and she thinks this is as scary, if not worse. Words and thoughts create action, and unfortunately we’re up against people whose words and actions are extremely dangerous.”

Precisely how Friday’s uprising will look is beyond what anyone can predict, he says. “We don’t know. Like honestly, we don’t know. In past inaugurations, sometimes the disruption would be turning their back to the president. … We’re up against people who have no moral qualm about lying to the American public. There is a lot more on the line for a lot of people.”