Inside the Crowd Outside the Supreme Court

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PHOTOS BY DAVID SAFIER
  • Photos by David Safier

Get ready for a self-indulgent, socio-political travelogue. Here we go.

Months ago, my wife and I planned a trip to the east coast which included a few days in Washington, DC. By chance, our DC stay included last Thursday and Friday, which gave us ringside seats to two history-making events.

Thursday morning, we wandered down toward the Supreme Court steps to see if anything was going on. Maybe there would be a decision on one or more of the cases yet to be announced by the court, or maybe everything would wait for Friday, or Monday. No one knew.

Something was going on all right. We arrived just before 10 a.m., so the crowd had already gathered with no room for us to squeeze into the center of things. Most of the flags flying over people's heads were pink-on-red and yellow-on-blue equal sign banners. The gay marriage issue was clearly front and center in people's minds.

We were too late to really join the crowd, so we did some star newscaster gazing. An alphabet soup of networks occupied half the area in front of the court. As a former photography teacher who has done some studio portrait work, I was fascinated by the number of umbrellas, reflectors and outdoor-balanced lights it takes to make the newscasters look "natural" standing in front of the appropriate landmark. And unless you're right there watching and waiting, you don't get a sense of the amount of time the commentators and pontificators just kind of stand around waiting for someone back in the studio to give them their few moments on air. It reminded me of  Andy Kaufman's classic "Mighty Mouse" routine. Standing, fidgeting, waiting, then, "Here I come to share the n-e-w-w-w-w-s!" Then standing around fidgeting some more and having a drink of water until their next news-sharing moment arrives.

Ten o'clock. A little more tense waiting, newscasters poised, then a half dozen young network employees came running madly down the courthouse steps, carrying piles of papers in their outstretched hands like relay runners clutching batons, ready to pass them on. The decisions! Newscasters took the pages, laid them on the stands in front of them just out of camera range, read and talked into the camera simultaneously, read and talked some more, hoping they would be the first on the air with the news, fearing they would be the last.

A cheer erupted from the crowd. Obamacare was intact! A 6-3 decision! Including Chief Justice John Roberts! Then quiet. The crowd was waiting for another decision.

Nothing. No more decisions today. People wandered away, happy because the ACA was intact, but it wasn't the gay marriage case most of them were waiting for. Not today. Maybe Friday. Maybe Monday.

Friday we arrived earlier, a little after 9 a.m., early enough to see a car pull up filled with equal sign banners, buttons and cards in the back. Pull 'em out, carry 'em over to where the crowd was beginning to gather, hand 'em out. We wandered into the gathering crowd, half way to the front, near the barriers between the crowd and the newscasters.

I looked around me as the space filled up. I didn't see any other man-woman couples. There may have been a few, but not many. And I didn't see anyone as old as my wife and I. It was mostly a youngish—mid-20s stretching to early 50s—LGBT crowd.

Someone held an ACLU flag out to me. I'm not usually a banner waver, but how often do I have a chance to be both a card carrying and flag waving member of the ACLU? I took it.

It was an upbeat, spirited crowd. Everyone knew there either would be good news—gay marriage is the law of the land—or neutral news—no change in the law—or no news—come back Monday for the decision. There couldn't be bad news. No ground could be lost. Just the fact that gay marriage was in front of the highest court in the land was good news. Who would've thought? So spirits were universally high (except for the very few anti-gay marriage protesters, of course). There were none of those anxious looks and clingy hugs that say, "You'll be here for me if something terrible happens, right?" Good news, neutral news or no news was on the way. People were enjoying themselves and enjoying each other's company.

A man wearing a judge's robe and long hair in a bun entered the crowd, carrying himself with regal bearing and a whimsical smile. "RBG" was written in sparkles on the back of his robe. The crowd parted for its own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two heads too tall and more than 40 years too young, but just right for the moment. I asked him if I could take his picture ("Turn your back, look left") and told him, "I'll make you famous in Arizona." His pic is at the top of the post, so I kept my promise as far as I'm able.

My wife and I talked enjoyably with a number of people around us. A couple of women from Minnesota (one with a mother living in Tucson) were old enough, had been around long enough to have a historical sense of how improbable and wonderful the moment was. They were quietly, hopefully joyful.

I said to them, "You know, a few years ago, being the logical and sensible guy I am, I said, 'Gay marriage just isn't gonna happen. Maybe civil unions—maybe—but the country is far, far away from accepting gay marriage.'" I smiled.  "Sometimes it's great to be proved an idiot."

They laughed. One said, "I never imagined this would happen in my lifetime. It's, it's just . . ." We all nodded and smiled.

Ten o'clock. The young network employees came running madly down the courthouse steps, piles of paper in their hands. Silence, waiting, then a huge, resounding, sustained cheer. The gay marriage decision: Yes! Someone said it was a 6-3 decision. Really? Incredible! No? 5-4. Good enough. Great enough. Gay marriage is the law of the land, in every state in the union. Hugging. Kissing. Congratulations. Looks of astonishment—"Can you believe it?"—then more hugging, more kissing, more congratulations.

Spontaneously, people began singing the Star Spangled Banner, full throated and sincere. The final lines of the song neared. "Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave . . ." A short pause, then a little slower, the words, "O'er the land of the f-r-e-e-e-e-e-e-e." The last word of the phrase sustained as long as breath held out. The final words of the anthem were sung, followed by the usual applause and cheers. Immediately after came the chant, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! " It was as patriotic a crowd as you're likely to find anywhere.

It was celebration time. There were a series of just-for-fun chants, including my favorite: "Marry me, R.B.G. Marry me, R.B.G." The old English teacher in me reveled in the double meaning. "I love you so much, R.B.G. Marry me, be mine." And, "I want you to officiate at my wedding, to marry me to my beloved." Notorious RBG was the hero of the moment.

Things were winding down, so we began to wander off. I gave away my ACLU flag to a delighted young man ("Thank you s-o-o-o much!"). As we separated from the crowd, we heard a roar behind us. Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who had carried gay rights cases for years and argued this case in front of the Supreme Court, was coming down the steps, pumping her arms triumphantly. Barney Frank once called her "our Thurgood Marshall." The cheers kept growing. She was the woman of the hour, the person whose perseverance helped make this historic moment possible.

We walked past the news gaggle and headed in the direction of the Library of Congress building. As we were about to leave the area, we saw members of the Gay Men's Chorus forming, preparing to sing. The leader raised his arms, and once again we were graced with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, this time sung with a practiced blending of voices and harmonies, with greater skill but the same sincerity as the crowd a few minutes earlier.

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