It was a truly gorgeous Saturday morning in Washington, D.C., and as the day wore on the sky would be veined with the rainbow collisions of clouds and light against blue. By 7 a.m., homeless men sat on the steps below the blunt-tipped, somehow incomplete statue in front of Union Station, debating the relative virtues of various hustles. By 8 a.m., a spinning zoetrope of joggers circled the National Mall, where the new Museum of African-American History loomed like a beaten ship, majestic, yet not without menace.
The joggers came in all sizes, sexes and colors, all of them practiced in endurance and discipline. Two women in their forties weighed what one could or could not tell the Speaker of the House. They were the left-behind vestiges of central D.C. power, the city typically weekend-desolate, emptied out to suburbs or home districts. They were a very recognizable America, America with a capital Type A, America whose knees will probably go bad early, who will drop dead at 55 in the ironic tradition of jogging evangelist Jim Fix.
There was a coherent subset of the early-morning joggers who did not fit this profile. The feeblest of them were all white men, from their mid-twenties to their late thirties, slightly hunched, their eyes hooded with panic, wearing the baggy shorts of adult children. They showed terrible form, flapping and shuffling and gasping as they struggled to keep up with, in many cases, a woman who was more clearly determined and visibly practiced than they.
In the Hirshhorn Museum, a series of Lego mosaics by the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei showed the faces of dozens of imprisoned dissidents worldwide. At the Museum of American History, the hulking iron John Bull Locomotive was said to have been “a power which has almost annihilated time and space” when it arrived in the U.S. in 1831. Rifles delivered by northerners to anti-slavery agitators in Kansas in the 1850s were called “Beecher’s Bibles.”
In the hours before their proper arrival, the clowns are a shadowy and uncertain presence. Perhaps that’s one, with the purple camo cargo pants. Maybe that’s another, with the chin-strap Abraham Lincoln beard.
Noon arrives, and the crowds begin to form. On the near side of the Washington Monument is something called the Mother of All Rallies. A large, brightly-lit trailer, also carrying a motorcycle, spells it out in tall white letters – TRUMP MOAR.
A man in a red tie stands on a stage in front of perhaps 100 people. “I wish Black Lives Matter would cut it out,” he jabs. “You know most black people are killed by other black people. Look it up.” The mood is desultory, defensive, a little panicked. This does not look like the Mother of Any Rallies.
The clowns are further along the Mall. From their direction strides a cadre who seem to have been putting the MOAR rally’s missing energy to work elsewhere. They stride purposefully, wearing identical black polo shirts with gold trim. They are young men, with smooth skin and full, sculptured beards. One seems to be dictating an incident report into his cell phone, mimicking a police or military officer. They wear red hats. They are all white, except for one, who is black. He is also bearded, but he is much more square-shouldered and much more handsome than the others. He is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Donald Trump Matters.”
On the other side of the great white spire, there are already hundreds of clowns. A few wear face paint, but most don’t. Far more just wear t-shirts bearing a demonic hatchet-weilding profile, and carry flags and signs:
“The FBI Listens to Nickleback”
“Faygo Not Fascism”
“We Are Not a Gang”
“Dragnets How Do They Work”
The clowns are gathering below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Old-school hip hop–Run D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash–booms from a stage set slightly back from the edge of the reflecting pool.
“In this Temple, As in the Hearts of his People, For whom he saved the Union, the Memory of Abraham Lincoln is Enshrined Forever.”
The clowns are fans of a band that has been demonized for more than twenty years. They are gathered here today because their government regards them as criminals.
And many, from the middle distance, look like they might be. They have neck tattoos, and long, ill-kempt beards. They wear gas-station sunglasses, battered ballcaps, wide-legged jeans with tattered hems and ground-in dirt. They are white, but also black, and Latino, and Native. They have bad skin, or bad taste.
The physical ailments of the clowns are, in fact, nearly biblical in their variety and pervasiveness. There are dozens of clowns in wheelchairs. Clowns with no legs. Clowns who are debilitatingly fat. Clowns who are frighteningly emaciated. Clowns with death-eating thousand yard stares. Blind clowns. Meth-toothed clowns. You can only imagine what scars, what imperfections, what injustices are less apparent.
The clowns have become, in the few short days before the march, political footballs. They may represent the worst of a torn country, hate and violence seething behind their makeup. Or perhaps they are clear-eyed, versed in love and hope.
But no one really knows the answer. The clowns are ciphers, for the same reasons that they are fat, or thin, or crippled. They are twice forgotten–ignored because they are mostly working class, and dismissed because they are, well, clowns.
“Don’t you know that’s tyranny– helping people?” one clown sneers in a random aside, sardonically lampooning both the draconian right and the horizonless center. “Free health care and education–that’s where the trouble starts!”
The clowns, it quickly becomes clear, are woke.
They have been ground equally beneath the boot of the Man and the Redneck. They do not play football, or really care about it. They play Dungeons and Dragons, and watch Star Wars and anime, because of course you do, no matter where you come from, if you look odd and are weird enough to want to dress up as a murderous clown. They spent their adolescence getting kicked in the teeth by the smooth-skinned boys of the MOAR rally, by the polo-wearing white supremacists who burn torches.
From that, they have run into each other’s arms. Again and again, they embrace as if for the first time in years. A round-faced, six-foot boy with buzz-cut red hair runs headlong from one stranger to the next, wrapping them in ferocious bear hugs. Chinese tourists descend into this down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, befuddled awe scrawled across their faces.
The clowns are here to protest a government which sees nothing to love in their flaws. There is testimony from a large stage, stories of clowns who have lost jobs, lost children–just for wanting to be clowns. As the rally gains in passion and volume, “Fuck-That-Shit” becomes the second most-repeated chant, just behind “Fa-mi-ly, Fa-mi-ly.”
One of the clowns gathers testimony from his brethren, asking them to write their profession on a piece of cardboard. There are dozens of notes, scrawled aslant one another: Dental Assistant, Paralegal, Retired, Engineer, Mason, Mold Tech, Teaching Assistant, Pizza Hut Delivery Driver.
The clown taking down these professional notes seems weatherbeaten, windswept. He is a stoneworker, and he marvels at the scale and craftsmanship of the Lincoln Memorial. He has never seen anything like it before.
He is very enthusiastic, sometimes too much so. He delivers an incredibly earnest, well-written, Christian-themed spoken word piece to two total strangers, not even fellow clowns. It is about trial, and redemption, and the hope for a righteous life. He asks them whether they can help him get exposure for his work.
“My name is Alan Prophit. P-h-r-o-p-h-i-t. Like, a combination of both.”
The intensity is uncomfortable, because the clown goes deeper than most of us allow ourselves to. So do all the clowns–they extol endless unconditional love, the undying bonds of family, and the glory of God.
They also chant, “Mass murder makes me happy.”
Outside of the Mall, Washington, D.C. is just another fairly shitty American town, perhaps not unlike the ones the clowns come from. Everything is closed on the weekend except a California Tortilla in the mall a few blocks away.
The sense of belonging felt by the clowns is perhaps the same thing sought by the Trump marchers, perhaps even the same thing sought by the elite, moist-fleshed mutants who are trying to launch an American Reich. We all miss belonging. We all hunger for reality.
“Clowns are a natural occurrence in nature,” says a girl with purple hair. Many of the clowns are attractive, lively, sharp-tongued women. Dozens of young children run to and fro, being gently but firmly parented. A few wear clown makeup.
Two D.C. robotoids, wearing jogging clothes even though they’re not jogging, look on the event with amazement. They came because of an article in The Washington Post. “It just confirms what I thought,” says the man, who is likely in Sales or Marketing. “They have a really vibrant movement here. It’s great.”
The clown’s spoken word riff is so close to what this lobbyist or insurance adjuster indulged in, long ago, in his youth–unfiltered, fearless passion. He could have easily become one of these clowns. The fragility, the critical intellect, the loneliness, the morbid predilections–they were all there, somewhere. But the man in the jogging outfit was channelled into schools, and from there into ever higher tiers of achievement and validation, constantly being told he was in the right place. The clowns were channelled mostly into manual labor and service industry jobs. They only had each other.
For a long time, the absence of the two men at the center of all this is barely noticeable. But finally, they take the stage–Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the Clowns in Insane Clown Posse. They are ebullient and profane.
“Y’all should be proud of yourselves,” Violent J huffs into the mic. “If you could bend your back like Shaggy can, you should be up in one of those porta-potties blowing yourselves.”
“Maybe the FBI said, those are the world’s most hated people, listening to the world’s most hated music. They’d make an easy target.” First they come for the clowns, and they they’ll come for the rest of us.
But Violent J knows there are bigger stakes here. He knows that, improbably, the entire nation’s eyes are on him, and his family. “People are tired of this shit,” he says. “They don’t want racism, they don’t want hate. That 1967 shit is played out.” The clowns cheer him on. “I would march for the right for gay people to marry each other.” More cheers.
Because the clowns know what it means to be different, and to be punished for it. They line up for a march around the National Mall, now numbering in the thousands, hoisting dozens of signs.
The march is brief and jubilant, making a loop that stops just short of the other, now much smaller rally. And then the day winds down, with a series of short hip hop performances from the small stage. The music is neither particularly bad, nor particularly good, but the moment is spectacular.
There may have been a time when the clowns relished the fear and contempt of others. Their grotesque image and violent fantasies were a comforting shield, pre-empting judgment as they pushed the world away. They knew they were different, that something was wrong.
But the clowns tired of walls, and came to accept their own flaws. Their violent fantasia became what it always was–a way to poke at those above them. Like clowns since the dawn of time, they profaned what was righteous, and they questioned what was given. And they learned, somewhere along the way, to build a place that was welcoming, and open, and entirely their own.