"We're all on the same team."
WASHINGTON - At Union Station, a scene that looks like a community search for a missing child. Hundreds of people crowd around, clutching flyers printed with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden's face.
Described by organizers as "the largest rally yet against NSA surveillance," Stop Watching Us, which received bipartisan sponsorship from groups as varied at the American Civil Liberties Union to FreedomWorks, has gathered amidst fallout from the Obama administration following reports that the NSA may have been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the predominantly male crowd, I speak to protester after protester, who after a few minutes begin to blend into one mass of slightly different variations of the same disenfranchised citizen whose sensibilities, more philosophical than political, rest at the blurry intersection of Right Wing, Libertarian and Left Wing; less anarchical than Occupy Wall Street and less systematic in their approach than the Tea Party.
I approach a young man who, for reasons unclear, is wearing yellow-lensed flying goggles. "Is your computer safe?" he asks me. He is trying to sell protesters on the idea of "Spy Squish," a program which "will help you transition away from the software (Microsoft, Mac, etc.) enabling the illegal theft of your information." He explains that Spy Squish is made by "thousands of computer geniuses around the world." Doesn't having so many people involved pose risks of infiltration? He's not worried. "We're all on the same team."
Protesters begin to march to the Capitol reflection pool, their signs flailing wildly and often getting knocked out of their hands altogether by the October wind. One protester advertising his wish to "IMPEACH" Obama tries to gain control of his sign. He fails and the sign hits him in the face.
I happen upon Nathan, who is struggling to hold up part of a very long banner as he marches. "I find it funny that Germany, with all the things that have happened in the past, is complaining to the U.S," he says.
Just then, an intoxicated protester who I had interviewed minutes before runs up. "Bro, she's NSA." He runs away.
Nathan looks at me suspiciously, but repeats his point: "I think it's funny that Germany, with the problems they've had in the past, is complaining to the U.S. about things we're doing to other countries. This is just proof of how bad it's gotten in the U.S., that Germany is even complaining to us."
At the reflection pool, protesters wander as speakers address the crowd. Next to a man wearing a giant - or, if you're a Republican, "life-sized" - Obama mask stands Alberto Dufflar, who is originally from Havana. He is holding up part of a banner in support of Edward Snowden. "He's a hero," he tells me. Alberto from Havana explains that Stop Watching us "is an extension of Occupy Wall Street," the protests that he was inadvertently a groupie of after finding himself at their camps as he traveled throughout the country. "If you take away someone's privacy, you've taken away pretty much everything they have - there's not much left," he says. The effect international NSA spying will have on foreign policy will be to "put a damper on" our standing, he continues. "[The administration] is already getting a black eye." Alberto from Havana tells me that he is not concerned about the lack of a political strategy at Stop Watching us because "a movement doesn't depend on legislation." Just like Occupy Wall Street.
After her speech, I talk to author and activist Naomi Wolf who shares her concern over the recent revelations that the NSA has spied on world leaders. "I worry that for other countries, it's now a race to the bottom - they'll emulate what we're doing, because it benefits everyone in power to surveil everyone beneath them." The wind on the gravel in front of the reflecting pool nearly succeeds in knocking us over as we make our way back towards the stage. "My worry is less that everyone will hate us, because they already do," Wolf said. "My worry is that now Germany or France will say to their own citizens, 'it's not a big deal' - I mean, that's what happened with torture…when America started to torture, Turkey said, 'well, we can torture,' and China said, 'we can torture.' But to turn it around, it is heartening for me to see that respect for privacy exists in countries other than the United States, because sometimes international pressure can shame us into following our traditions."
An organizer hands me a flyer, "Statement of Edward Snowden DC Rally Against Mass Surveillance." Snowden writes that the protest is about "whether you have a voice in our democracy, or decisions are made for you rather than with you. We're here to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators." There is only one elected official - Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) here at the rally. Present are two former officeholders, ex-New Mexico Governor and Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, and former Democratic Congressman, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).
In July, Rep. Amash introduced an amendment to limit the NSA. It failed to pass the House with a vote of 205-217. Leadership in both parties and the White House oppose minimizing the NSA, and on the day of the vote, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI.) and Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) reportedly made calls to other members to convince them to vote against the amendment. The close vote was viewed by the anti-NSA movement as a symbolic victory.
On stage at Stop Watching Us, Rep. Amash is part of yet another symbolic victory for the movement when he is handed a petition for Congress to investigate the NSA, complete with nearly 600,000 signatures.
The petition is the extent of the political goals of the protest, something Naomi Wolf tells me she is disappointed by. "What people need to do, what I wish they had here, is voter registration. Because if you can show them [elected officials]…that there's a lock - you know, 600,000 people signed this petition; if those people are registered to vote? No one can ignore that."
I come across an older man wearing a cape and holding a sign above his head, "PROTECT THE 4th AMENDMENT!" This is a man who wants to protect the 4th Amendment, I think to myself. My suspicions are confirmed when he explains that "we need to protect the Fourth Amendment!" I ask what Stop Watching Us needs to do to achieve its aims. "I don't really care who the politicians are, I just care about the Fourth Amendment," he replies.
"This isn't about politics," a signless-protester named Stephen tells me. "This is an issue that transcends politics."
A protester named Scott who is clad in blue, mirrored Oakley sunglasses and a sign hung from his neck that says "THE TEA PARTY AND OCCUPY WALL STREET AGREE," tells me "if there's enough pressure, if they have incentive, then [the lawmakers will] do it."
Leaving the rally, I watch as protesters step on the flyers of Edward Snowden's face, many of which now litter the ground.
"It can't keep going like this forever," I hear a protester tell another reporter.